Getting your Portrait Photography to the Next Level - Digital Photography School

Getting your Portrait Photography to the Next Level

Old man with glasses, India :: 35 mm, fstop 5, 1\\125

Know that moment when you meet a person, either in your country or while travelling, a person with an extremely interesting face, who you want to capture in an image? But then, a moment before you click the shutter, questions emerges:

How should I take pictures of a stranger, especially in foreign country?

Should I take the photo from a distance, with a Tele photo lens? Or should I get closer to the person being photographed, but risk losing the authenticity and spontaneity of the moment? Should I give him something for that? Or he might get offended.

Old lady, Uzbekistan :: 55 mm, fstop 4.5, 1\\160

Questions similar to those above are often asked by my photography students. Who usually own very good photography equipment and have good technical skills. Yet still, somehow, they are not pleased with their photographs, especially when the subject is people. If you feel the same, this article is for you.

Tip #1: Self Confidence

“There are always two people in every picture:  the photographer and the viewer.” – Ansel Adams

The fear of hurting the person being photographed makes us do all kinds of things. Like, for some of us, the best strategy is to shoot the person from a distance. Some do not shoot at all (and usually regret it later). The worst cases are those who say that they “prefer to photograph flowers and beetles”, but deep in their hearts they know that people photography interests them the most. They simply do not know what to do when the moment of action emerges.

The facts are simple. In 99% of the time, the problem or the fear to get close is within us and not with the person being photographed.

Tajik man, Tajikistan :: 85 mm. fstop 3.2, 1\\100

During the past year I took photos of hostile tribes in South East Asia, on the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, of gypsy communities in Central Asia and even in the former Soviet Union. If there is one thing that I learned from visiting those places, is that most people would actually like their picture to be taken. That is, of course, if we do it right.

Tele lens photography, meaning, photographing people from a distance, can be much more comfortable. Also, many people would argue that it does not affect the authenticity of the photograph. Since the subject is not aware of the camera. Yet, during my work I have learnt that there is no substitute for the aesthetics and intimacy that a close up image can produce. There is something in the experience of meeting and talking to new people, in a foreign country, that makes your photography much more powerful.

Girl with red cover, Tajikistan :: 35 mm, fstop 5.6, 1\\125

So, how do we obtain the intimate quality of close up together with the authenticity and spontaneity of the moment, like in photographing a person from a distance?

The secret is by “breaking the ice” with the person.  Since a person holding a camera is an intimidating sight for someone who is not used to being photographed, the first step is to simply come without the camera. Approach the person as a person and not as a subject of photography. Start with a small talk. I, for example, often show the person photos of my family and country and might even join them for a nice cup of tea if offered. I sit with the person for a few minutes; then take the camera out from my camera bag. I first let the person and their environment get used to the camera and only then, do I start working on getting the photos.

Young monk, Laos :: 35 mm, Fstop 3.2, Shutter – 1\\80

When I photographed this photo (above), of a young monk, in the picturesque town of Luang Parabang, Laos. It was after spending the whole day with him and with his friends. After getting the approval of the head of the monastery the day before, I joined their morning prays, lunch and in the afternoon, we even played football together. Just when the sun was setting, I ask the young boy: “where do you live?” He immediately ran up the stairs, stood up and pointed to the white door with pride. At that moment, as he stood there, I felt it was the right moment and shot this photo. Because of my early acquaintance with him, he was comfortable and relaxed.

This image was selected as picture of the month by the National Geographic.

Even after all this preparation, sometimes people still feel embarrassed by the camera, so they start to pose. This is exactly the opposite of what I want to achieve from them. So what do I do? I just allow them to do so. After two or three minutes, the person will finally go back to normal, and the authenticity of the situation will return.

Japanese girl, Japan :: 85 mm, fstop 2.8, 1\\250

In conclusion for this part:

This whole ordeal may sound as long process, but in my experience, 10 minutes will do.
Ten minutes of investment is all you need. Sure, during those 10 minutes you could shoot 9 more people, but that one photo, which you put your effort and love into, will be so much more powerful than the others.

Tip #2: Be Prepared

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”Ansel Adams

The thing that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional in almost every field is usually preparation.

A professional photographer will start working even before leaving home, while an amateur photographer will wait for things to happen in front of their eyes in the field.

Old man with blue eyes, China :: 85 mm, fstop 3.2, 1\\250

Here are a few tips, which in my opinion are a “Must” for every Travel or People photographer:

First, try to discover if the destination to which you are heading has any cultural prohibitions regarding photography.

When I shot the gypsy communities that live in the deserts of Central Asia, I knew, in advance, that they have many cultural taboos. Learning those cultural DOs and DON’Ts helped me on my mission.

Lady with green eyes, India :: 55mm, fstop 5.6, 1\\250

Find a photographer who has already been and took photos in the country you are heading to (you can easily do so over the Internet). This person can be consulted with regarding several issues such as:

How do people respond to the camera? Are there things that you should not shoot? (For example- did you know that photographing bridges in India is considered a criminal offense?). If you have not found a photographer who would share their experience with you, you can use online forums or contact the embassy of the destination, in order to seek that knowledge.

Woman holding a bowl on the head, India :: 17 mm, fstop 9, 1\\250

You should also check the following: Are there any interesting festivals or rituals at the time of your travel? Is there any problem entering the country with photographic equipment at the border control? Are there any areas in which you should not travel due to safety reason?

Important tip:

Try to learn some words of the local language, such as “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Can I take your photo?”

Tip #3: Give Something Back

“When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I’d like to know them. Anyone I know I photograph.” Annie Leibovitz

One of the most interesting discussions in the world of Portrait &Travel photography is dealing with the question of “Should the photographer give something back to the person he had photographed?”

During my last trip to one of the Central Asian countries, I found myself surrounded by groups of children asking for chocolate every time I took my camera out. I later discovered that photographers and tourists, who visited the place, probably felt bad for those sweet children, so they gave them chocolate.

Crying boy, Thailand :: 42 mm, fstop 4, 1\\100

These “philanthropists”, other than severely damaging those children’s teeth, in a place where dental care is very uncommon, also created a really bad case of beggary, by teaching the children that a camera = chocolate.

In conclusion: I will never give sweets, cigarettes and other harmful items.

So what do I give? When it comes to spontaneous, single image, one that required a second of the person’s attention and time, I might not give anything. But if a person gave me their time, and especially in case they invited me to their home, even if for a short while, I will definitely give them something. But what?

Sometimes I give money, but usually I prefer to give something useful, that vary according to the location and needs of the person that I photograph. For example, I once gave two sacks of rice to someone that hosted me in his house. On another event I gave some children’s books, and once I gave small toothbrushes and got a small bracelet, that I still wear on my arm, in return.

There is one more special gift you can give the people you photograph- their own photo.  I recently discovered that giving a person their photo, especially with their love ones, creates an outstanding result.

Man with photo, Uzbekistan :: 85 mm, Fstop 2.8, 1\\250

Interestingly, even in some very isolated places, one can find a place that prints photos. When I returned to this Uzbek man (above), with his photos in my hand, I was immediately invited to see his house and have a traditional meal. Other then, of course, being a great experience for a traveler, this creates more great opportunities to photograph.

Man from the Rabari tribe in his house :: India 24 mm, fstop 2.8, 1\\100

When I recently photographed the nomadic Rabari tribe people in India, I took an image of an old Rabrai man with his younger brother. When I returned with the photo that captures the two brothers, I understood that this is the first time the two are photographed together. One of them told my translator: “If you had given me money for the photo, I would probably spend it on food or alcohol. But have given me a memory for life.”

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Oded Wagenstein is a Travel photographer and writer. He is a regular contributor to the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli Edition) and he is known for his intimate portraits from around the world. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss on travel and people photography and get more amazing tips! You can check out Oded's new eBOOK - SNAPN TRAVEL- A life time of travel memories in a snap. It is all about creating better travel photographs on your next journey.

  • raghavendra
  • http://366andallthat.wordpress.com MikeC366

    What inspiring tips. I’ve recently done a portrait workshop. Here are a couple of the results from it.

    http://wp.me/p268wp-bf

    I really hope to travel soon to see more of the world. I’ll read this again for the trip.

    Thank you,
    M.

  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    I really enjoyed taking photos in Italy. Such lovely people, so friendly and love to have their photo taken.
    This guy was awake and thanked me for taking the trouble to photograph him:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Street-photography-in-Italy/G0000hUJPPSs5RRA/I0000QjXaCAgRcJ8

  • Jay

    These are all excellent tips, every travel photographer should know them! I’ve known tip#1 for a few years now, and I almost always start off with small talk before raising the camera to my eye. I’m new to practicing tip#3 though but, this very day, am having photos printed and sent to an old woman in a mountain village I visited two weeks back.

  • Andrew Gronow

    Great article. A reminder to give and not just take.

  • Slowolf

    Those were my questions too. Your use of short lenses is inspiring! I can’t wait for the sun to come up today.

  • http://www.photo-roll.com/ Sachin Verma
  • http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com Mikhail Anand
  • Mei Teng

    Beautiful portraits. It’s good to understand the local cultures where you intend to photograph. I usually make small talk and then ask for permission to photograph. I think it’s always good not to upset anyone. Unless of course where the situation permits, sometimes I do take portraits of people without them noticing.

  • Eric

    Love the tips and hands on review. Just read a line that said that, shooting pictures of bridges in India is an offense. Well, I’m from India and trust me, Its not! I click pics of them and I’m all good :)
    I guess it was just some local who tried to make some extra bucks or the cops(as usual) that would want some bribe of somewhat.

    Anyways, keep up the good work

    Cheers!

  • Adi Aprilla

    This tips is one of great tips that i ever read,,because i relly love portrait photography,,it’s not about equipment and technique, but more of that,,give me advice about exploring someone and how you can be them…

  • Ankitesh Jha

    You wrote that photographing bridges is an criminal offense in India??

    Dude,i clicked a bridge in Kolkata,India and Kolkata police was right behind me.. !! I mounted my camera on the tripod sat there for around 1-2 hrs waiting for the blue hour.. you can check my picture here…http://www.flickr.com/photos/jhaankitesh/7402293574/

  • shruti

    The old man from the very first photograph, I see him every morning on my way to office. His smile is just infectious. :)

  • Barry E Warren

    Very interesting, Don’t do much street photography. But..I do a lot of family events,I find I get some pretty good results when they don’t know I’m taking a shot of them.Here is one I took at a family Christmas Party.

  • Gwen

    Would you mind if I used your picture of the man from Tajikistan for a project? I would be using it as a reference picture.

Some older comments

  • shruti

    October 9, 2012 07:45 pm

    The old man from the very first photograph, I see him every morning on my way to office. His smile is just infectious. :)

  • Ankitesh Jha

    July 8, 2012 08:40 am

    You wrote that photographing bridges is an criminal offense in India??

    Dude,i clicked a bridge in Kolkata,India and Kolkata police was right behind me.. !! I mounted my camera on the tripod sat there for around 1-2 hrs waiting for the blue hour.. you can check my picture here...http://www.flickr.com/photos/jhaankitesh/7402293574/

  • Adi Aprilla

    July 6, 2012 11:35 am

    This tips is one of great tips that i ever read,,because i relly love portrait photography,,it's not about equipment and technique, but more of that,,give me advice about exploring someone and how you can be them...

  • Eric

    June 27, 2012 11:24 pm

    Love the tips and hands on review. Just read a line that said that, shooting pictures of bridges in India is an offense. Well, I'm from India and trust me, Its not! I click pics of them and I'm all good :)
    I guess it was just some local who tried to make some extra bucks or the cops(as usual) that would want some bribe of somewhat.

    Anyways, keep up the good work

    Cheers!

  • Mei Teng

    June 25, 2012 10:53 am

    Beautiful portraits. It's good to understand the local cultures where you intend to photograph. I usually make small talk and then ask for permission to photograph. I think it's always good not to upset anyone. Unless of course where the situation permits, sometimes I do take portraits of people without them noticing.

  • Mikhail Anand

    June 25, 2012 09:39 am

    Portraits From Bombay
    http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/dhobi-ghat/
    http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/bombay-expressions-iv/

  • Sachin Verma

    June 24, 2012 07:51 pm

    Nice shots. :)
    http://www.photo-roll.com/

  • Slowolf

    June 23, 2012 07:21 pm

    Those were my questions too. Your use of short lenses is inspiring! I can't wait for the sun to come up today.

  • Andrew Gronow

    June 23, 2012 06:37 pm

    Great article. A reminder to give and not just take.

  • Jay

    June 23, 2012 12:00 pm

    These are all excellent tips, every travel photographer should know them! I've known tip#1 for a few years now, and I almost always start off with small talk before raising the camera to my eye. I'm new to practicing tip#3 though but, this very day, am having photos printed and sent to an old woman in a mountain village I visited two weeks back.

  • Steve

    June 23, 2012 02:34 am

    I really enjoyed taking photos in Italy. Such lovely people, so friendly and love to have their photo taken.
    This guy was awake and thanked me for taking the trouble to photograph him:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Street-photography-in-Italy/G0000hUJPPSs5RRA/I0000QjXaCAgRcJ8

  • MikeC366

    June 23, 2012 02:08 am

    What inspiring tips. I've recently done a portrait workshop. Here are a couple of the results from it.

    http://wp.me/p268wp-bf

    I really hope to travel soon to see more of the world. I'll read this again for the trip.

    Thank you,
    M.

  • raghavendra

    June 23, 2012 01:56 am

    I love this tips,
    recently took a pic of next door girl

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/06/next-door-girl-goes-ride.html

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