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Photographers often struggle to make portraits of strangers while they’re traveling. They’ll have wonderful photos of all the picture postcard views and landmarks, but none of their pictures will have faces. We often encounter this with people who join our photography workshops.
One of the keys to returning home with a good selection of people pictures is being able to pick the best people to photograph. If you learn to observe people you can often judge who’ll enjoy having their portrait made. These are the best people to photograph.
Not everyone likes having their photo taken. Photographers often fall into this group. If you’re like this then your perception, based on your own feelings and experiences, can be negative. You presume others don’t like being photographed because you don’t enjoy the experience.
How do I know this? Because I used to think the same way.
Take your camera to your next social gathering and photograph your friends. You’ll soon learn who enjoys the experience because they’ll probably tell you if they don’t.
If you’re not used to photographing people, making portraits for your friends is a great way to ease into the experience. It’s easier to communicate with someone you already know. And make a point of reading their body language. It’s an important skill to have when you’re visiting a place where you can’t speak the language.
People of a different culture won’t necessarily respond the same way you would. Here in Thailand, people often laugh if they are uncomfortable or embarrassed. Sometimes they’ll even laugh when something terrible happens, which is a lot different to where I grew up.
Other cultures may become a bit hostile at having a snapshot of them taken in the streets.
Look for talkative people who are engaging with others – they’re often happy to be photographed. Quiet and sullen people are less likely to respond positively to your request to photograph them.
When I’m in the street or at a market, I look for a place where I can stand back and observe the people and my surroundings. I look for people who:
These are the types of people I find it easiest to make engaging portraits of.
I always get permission before taking photos of children. Most parents will love the face you want a picture of – they are likely the delight of their life.
Be ready to be confronted by a forced toothy (or toothless) grin. These generally don’t make great portraits, but it’s worth taking a few photos and then working towards a more natural expression. Show them the photos and thank them. They’ll probably go right back to what they were doing. Stay close by, and move back to photograph them again. Hopefully, this time they’ll ignore your camera, thinking you’ve already taken their picture. (This method works equally well with adults.)
Getting down to the child’s level also helps. Look them in the eye and smile. You can get a better response than if you were towering over them with a huge camera.
Some kids enjoy getting their picture taken more than others. Malu lives in an ethnic minority village we often visit on our photography workshops. From the moment we first encountered her we knew she’d be wonderful to photograph. Not only is she super cute, but she also loves being photographed and interacts with us. We’ve built a relationship with her and others in this village that works to our advantage. When we visit with our workshops, our participants can make more intimate portraits than if they were on their own.
Local knowledge and relationships can be extremely helpful and valuable. People who’ve developed relationships with locals and have a rapport with them can help you. Make the most of their relationships so you can connect more easily with your subjects.
Guides and teachers can also help you by translating questions you may have. Being able to ask questions and show an interest in the person you’re photographing can lead into a more open portrait.
It’s unlikely that the bellhop at your hotel or the receptionist will refuse a photo. Even the cleaning staff will most likely pose for a portrait. Taxi drivers and boatmen can be great to photograph.
If you’re in one location for a few days, keep buying your coffee of fruit juice from the same vendor. Once they’ve seen you a few times, ask if you can make a picture of them. Anyone you’re giving money to will usually oblige.
People often reflect the feeling you express. They read your body language. If you’re smiling, open and confident, they’ll more than likely be the same. But if you’re nervous, fiddling around with your camera and not making eye contact, their response may not be so positive.
Learn to say “Hello” and “May I take your photo?” in the local language. This will bring a smile to most people’s faces as they appreciate the fact you’re making an effort to connect with them.
Avoid the temptation to use your longest lens. The photos you take will appear distant and removed. Use either a 50mm or wider lens on a full-frame sensor or a lens around 35mm on a crop sensor. I prefer a 35mm on a full-frame camera for travel portraits. A wider lens means you need to be close, which lets you interact more easily.
If your subject seems a little uneasy, start with a few photos from further back. Show them the picture on your camera monitor. They’ll usually smile. If you’re quick, you can squeeze a few more frames of them. But if you have a longer lens you’ll need to be further back.
That’s how I managed to make this portrait of Malu just after her neck ring was removed. She was quiet and a bit self-conscious that morning, so I crouched next to her and asked if I could take her photo. She nodded, and I took a few frames using my 35mm f1.4 lens. I showed her the photos, and suddenly realized she hadn’t seen herself without her traditional neck ring.
She reached behind her neck and pulled her hair back so I could make another photo and see her neck more clearly. If I’d had an 85mm or other longer portrait lens I would have missed this photo because I would have been too close.
A wider lens also means a more intimate portrait. You need to instill confidence in the person you want to photograph. Observe carefully, and ask people who look as if they’ll enjoy the experience.
By following these tips, I’m sure you’ll find great people to photograph, and create some wonderful travel portraits.
Have you taken some great travel portraits, or have some other photography tips? We’d love you to share them in the comments below.