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How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits

more creative environmental travel portraits

Including people in your travel photos creates a stronger sense of connection for anyone who views your photos. Environmental travel portraits add depth of interest to any album, presentation or book of travel images.

Adding a person to a landscape, cultural location, or market scene will almost always add appeal to the photo. Capturing locals engrossed in what they are doing can make for a more interesting picture. Stopping to chat with them and asking if you can take their portrait means a scene takes on a whole new dynamic.

Environmental travel portraits are photos of people involved in the setting they are in. They are usually connected in some way with the location. A regular portrait will typically be cropped tighter and contain little contextual information.

Karen woman cooking for environmental travel portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 35mm f1.4, 1/160 sec., f/2.8, ISO 1600

This is an environmental portrait of a Karen woman cooking in her home. The composition contains visual information about her lifestyle and where she lives.

Here is a portrait of a Karen woman. We were in her village when I took this photo, but there’s no visual information to tell you this.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/125 sec., f/8, ISO 400

Connect with your subject for better environmental travel portraits

Don’t be a shy photographer. Connecting with people will often result in more interesting environmental travel portraits. Even if you don’t have a common language, you can still relate to people. Showing an interest in someone and what they are doing, you can build a connection. Choosing the right people to photograph provides you with a better opportunity.

I saw this guy on the streets in Bangkok selling his genuine crocodile skin wallets. He demonstrated to an interested tourist that they were real. To do this, he poured some lighter fluid on the wallet and put a flame to it. I set my camera and approached him, requesting he repeat the process. He was most obliging and played up to my camera.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 20mm, 1/125 sec., f/4, ISO 400

When candid is a better option

When encountering people who are totally engrossed in what they are doing it’s best to not to interrupt them. This is when it’s best to remain separate and capture candid, or semi-candid photos. I rarely hide my camera, instead, I prefer to have it out in the open so people can be aware that I’m taking photos. Most people will pay no attention, especially when you’re in a touristic area.

For this photo, I wanted to capture the young boy advertising their goods at the top of his voice. He and the older man (I presumed it was his grandfather he was helping) were aware of my presence and that I was taking photos. I was able to do so without disrupting the action.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D700, Lens 120mm, 1/800 sec., f/2.8, ISO 400

Framing your subject

Environmental travel portraits need to show something of your subject’s surroundings. Where you position your subject in the frame will influence how they look in their environment. As always, aim to fill your frame only with what is relevant to the photo you’re making. Compose so your subject looks connected to their surroundings.

Photographing this Akha woman picking coffee in northern Thailand, I chose to place her near the edge of the frame. I wanted to fill most of the frame with the coffee bush she was picking from. I also placed her further back from the camera and positioned myself, so there were coffee cherries closer to my lens. This helps draw your eye to the cherries and makes them more obvious.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D700, Lens 24mm, 1/60 sec., f/5, ISO 800

Choosing the best lens for environmental travel portraits

The lens you use for environmental travel portraits will depend a lot on the location you are photographing in. Often a wider lens if more effective than a longer one because you’ll capture more of the location without being too far from your subject. Remember what Robert Capa said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

I used my 35mm lens to make this photo of a young French horn player. He was performing in a band during the Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade. Getting fairly close to him, I was also able to show other band members in my composition without including too many other distracting details in the area.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 35mm, 1/5000 sec., f/1.4, ISO 400

Manage your depth of field well

A very shallow depth of field will not often show enough detail in the environment. Too much information can be excluded. Your aim is to include enough of the environment so it adds meaning to the portrait.

Too much in focus in an environmental travel portrait can mean your subject gets lost in the background. You must be aware of how sharp or how blurred your background is. Managing your depth of field well enables you to keep the person you’re photographing as the main subject. Done well, this will encompass enough background detail without it being distracting.

I made this portrait of a samlor (tricycle taxi) rider sitting in his cab. In the background is another samlor passing by. It’s blurred enough so it’s not distracting, but you can still make out what it is, so it adds to the photo.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 50mm, 1/1250 sec., f/1.4, ISO 100

Wait for the right moment

Careful timing can really make a difference. Watch and observe the person you are photographing and how they are interacting with their environment. Look for patterns of movement and repetition. This can often help you pick the right moment to make your portraits.

For this photo of my friend on National Elephant Day in Thailand, I waited for the elephant’s handler to give the command for the elephant to kiss her. The other elephants and tables with food for them set the scene.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D700, Lens 35mm f2, 1/100 sec., f/4.5, ISO 125

Always be aware of lighting

Light will add feeling to your environmental travel portraits when you use it well. Look at the type of lighting in the location where you’re making your portraits. Is it conducive to the style of the portrait you wish to make? Do you need to come back at another time of the day or night? Will adding some flash improve the portrait?

Often when you’re traveling, you can’t wait for the right light, so you must make the best use of available light. When the light at the location is not great, you need to get creative and add some using a flash or reflector.

For this night portrait of a Samlor rider, I was able to position him to make the most of the light in the street market behind him. I also used my flash to illuminate him and help catch a glimpse of the motorcycle passing behind him.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 35mm, 4 sec., f/9, ISO 100

Make use of props when you can

Be sure to look around for items that may enhance your portraits. Including appropriate props will help make more interesting environmental travel portraits.

I’d asked this man if I could photograph him sitting outside his home in a small village in northern Thailand. As he went to sit down, he put his crutches inside, thinking I did not want to include them in the photo. I asked him if it was okay to have them in the picture too.

How To Take More Creative Environmental Travel Portraits
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D700, Lens 24mm, 1/125 sec., f/4.5, ISO 800

Conclusion

Be mindful of your surroundings and think about how you can make interesting pictures that tell a story. Who is this person, and how can I make a portrait that captures relevant information about their surroundings?

Please share other tips you have for creating environmental travel portraits, or some of your pictures in the comments below.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his e-books and his website.