When photographing people in their local context there are a number of techniques that I try to use (not all of them in every shot as some are mutually exclusive). Keep in mind the principles of treating people with respect mentioned in our last post:
Choose your Background – I’ve already talked about making shots contextual but one great way to do this is to think about what’s in the background behind the people you’re photographing. Ideally you want something that’s not too distracting but that adds to the context of the place you’re shooting in. Another technique for shooting shots of people that ignores the ‘contextual’ rule is to find a brightly lit position with a dark background. This can really help the face you’re shooting to pop out and capture the viewer’s attention.
Fill your Frame - Some of the best shots I’ve taken of people while traveling have been where I’ve tightly frames people’s faces. This means either getting in nice and close to the person or having and using a good zoom lens.
Go for natural (un-posed shots) - While sometimes the posed shots can work quite well they can also lack a certain authenticity. Photograph your subject doing something from their normal daily life. At work, in a marketplace, at home, feeding their child, crossing the street etc.
Add another subject - Most of the shots I’ve taken of people over the years while traveling have been of single subjects alone in the shot. This is partly just my style (and is a good technique in and of itself ) but is something I’ve become quite aware of in the last few months. Adding a second person into an image takes a photo into a different place. No long is the shot just about a person and their environment but it somehow becomes relational. The viewer of the photo begins to wonder about the relationship and a new layer is added to your shot.
Photograph a variety of people – Quite often it’s the shots of people dressed in national costume that tend to attract photographers when traveling. While these shots can be very effective I wonder if they are always really representative of a culture. Quite often these people have dressed up especially for a show or tourist attraction and the majority of people in that country look quite different. Mix up the types, gender and ages of people that you take photos of and you can end up with a very effective collage of faces of a country.
Arrange an extended photo shoot – This goes against the nature of most travel photography which is usually very fast and spontaneous – but on one or two occasions when I’ve traveled I’ve had opportunity to sit with a person for a longer period of time and photograph them in a more extended manner. This enables your photographs to take a on a story telling nature and can lead to some wonderful sequences of shots using different photographic techniques, lenses and situations to shoot in.
Get Candid – keep your camera to the eye for taking those spontaneous shots between the more posed ones. It’s amazing what images that you can find when the person isn’t ‘ready’ for you to shoot (or just after you’ve taken a shot). These shots often include people interacting with others or expressing true emotion. I find setting my camera to continuous shooting mode (where it will shoot burts of frames quickly) often leads to some wonderful candid shots.
Lens Choice – I’m a big believer in that virtually any lens can take a good portrait shot if you work to it’s strengths. Having said that, some lenses do tend to lend themselves to great portraits. I find that a focal length between 50mm and 135mm is a good range to work with. Going for wide angle lenses can also produce interesting shots but you will often find that they do distort your subject’s face a little (sometimes this is very effective). Choosing a longer focal length can be useful for putting your subjects a little more at ease.
Update: Get Some Amazing Travel Photography in our New Guide