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Last year I travelled all across South East Asia – a trip which not only expanded my personal horizon, but also helped to immensely improve my photography. At the beginning of my trip, my biggest struggle was taking good portraits. The problem wasn’t the lack of opportunities; I encountered incredible and the utmost photogenic scenes around almost every corner. Instead, it was that I just felt too shy or not confident enough to get close to my subject.
I had lots of excuses which might sound familiar to you: “I don’t want to disturb the moment”, “I don’t want to intrude on people’s privacy” or “It’s just a game of luck and chance anyhow”. It was frustrating and I knew that, despite all of the excuses, this was something I really had to work on. By lots or trial and error, and the help of some amazing photographers I met on the way, I gained some important insights on how to bring my people photography to a whole new level. I want to share these and hopefully help you overcome that awkward feeling and false reservation you have when photographing people.
10 Ways to Improve Your Travel Photography Portraits
This is very basic and obvious, but so important. People photography is about brief moments, a glimpse which is normally not replicable. You are not doing landscape photography which leaves you with all the time you need. So have your lens cap off, have your camera switched on, be prepared to adjust settings and BE READY.
If you are unhappy with your portraits or if they looks boring, it is probably because you are too far away. I know it feels awkward to get really close to someone you don’t know, especially in a foreign country. It seems so much easier to break out your big lens, zoom in and just click away, hoping that your subject won’t notice you. Unfortunately this won’t work.
If you want to have crisp, sharp and extraordinary images which tell a story and leave your audience in astonishment, you have to overcome your shyness and get close. This will help to add more details on your subject’s face, increase sharpness and focus on only one or two elements. The viewer will automatically understand more about your image. Moreover, getting close will put you in control of things: the lighting, the background, the composition and the depth of field. These factors are so vital for a good portrait and so much easier to adjust when you are close to your subject.
You might think “That sounds great, but how do I get close to people?” This leads us to the biggest challenge in people photography, which has nothing to do with photography itself: dealing with people. Are you comfortable walking up to strangers, making small talk, then asking, “Can I take your picture?”
If not, the good news is, it’s something you can practice just like everything else in photography. It is all about your attitude and how you approach people. Get in contact, have a positive attitude, talk, and most importantly smile. Don’t be afraid of intruding on people’s privacy. Particularly in South East Asia the concept of privacy is totally different from ours in the West. Approaching strangers and asking very personal questions is considered perfectly normal. Open yourself and people naturally respond in the same manner. In short, don’t be shy, adapt to the local culture, get to know people, make friends and you will take better pictures.
How do you approach people if you don’t speak their language? I will let you in on a secret. It’s actually even easier to approach people if you DON’T speak the same language. It’s a great place to start since it is then not so much about WHAT you speak, but HOW you speak and the energy you give off. Learning a few words and phrases in the local language will go a long way to helping you approach people, and it doesn’t take much effort to learn. From my personal experience the six most important phrases you should learn beforehand are:
The last one will put a big smile on people’s faces after you have taken that nice portrait and show it to them. Get a small phrasebook. You can look up phrases when you need them or practice on longer bus rides. Ask your receptionist, taxi driver or local travel agent how to pronounce words. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s fun and will not only help to approach people, but also make your whole travel experience so much more worthwhile.
Even if you don’t know any words or phrases, make sure to smile. A smile can go such a long way. If you are grumpy and angry because you are not getting your shots right, it will put people off and no one will want to go near you, and definitely won’t want to get their picture taken by you. When you come home from a photo walk, your mouth and cheeks should hurt from all the smiling.
Once you have made contact and established a good vibe, it is time to take your picture. Take advantage of all the “work” you have put in and take your time. It would be a shame to just hectically click away once or twice now. Be calm, think about the light, about what you want to emphasize (the eyes, the hands or the person itself) and about the background.
Since you are close to your subject now, you can control all of these things. Take a deep breath and try a couple of shots, maybe switch angles and try different things. By doing this, you will notice that your subject will also become more relaxed and get used to the camera. There is no need to rush. A rushed photo is usually never a good one.
Reality can be quiet boring. There might be things in your scene that are boring or disturbing. We already talked about taking your time. Make use of it and arrange the scene to your needs, change angles, get moving. Don’t be lazy. You can eliminate things or include things just by moving around a little bit. Don’t just rely on the zoom.
What helped me to counter my laziness and actually get moving was the purchase of a 50mm prime lens. If you don’t have one in your bag yet, buy one. It is the one piece of equipment that boosted my creativity and the quality of my images almost instantly. You will not only learn to move more but also open your eye for new perspectives.
If you feel shy but are still willing to practice approaching people and getting close, start off with photographing kids and people that are doing something. Kids are easy to photograph. They usually love getting their picture taken, posing and never get bored doing so. I found it very rewarding in Asia but would suggest taking a more cautious approach in Western societies. Please always ask the parents first.
Shoot in busy areas or settings. People that are doing nothing will surely be looking at you. People that are doing something, can’t be bothered to look at you. When they are busy with their task, they will not care about you taking pictures. Look for traditional workshops or handicraft businesses. They usually make for great picture taking opportunities.
The touristic hubs are usually far from the country’s reality. At the same, time getting off the beaten track is usually not so difficult. Sometimes it just takes 15 minutes to find yourself in a small, local village. This is where you want to be as a photographer. You will meet real people who aren’t out to sell things. You will have more chances to interact, to practice your newly acquired language skills and take more authentic photographs. At the same time it will make for a much better travel experience than sticking to the “Lonely Planet Path”.
All of this takes a little getting used to and practicing along the way. But it’s worth it. Please don’t just jam your camera in people’s faces when traveling abroad. It’s not nice and the pictures won’t be either. Take your time to interact with people, open up, get close and don’t forget to smile. This will make for great experiences, unforgettable memories and even better pictures.
Please share some of your favourite people photos with us in the comments and if you have another tips for photographing people, we’d love to hear them.