How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

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I love travel portraits. Not only do they test your photography skills but also challenge you to interact with people in unfamiliar environments. The end result directly reflects your subject’s personality along with your ability to make them feel at ease, read the light, select optimal settings, and compose a great shot.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish:

A boy named Ashim and his father at Dasaswamedh Ghat – Varanasi, India.

Every photographer has a slightly different approach, which evolves with every new person you meet and country you visit. Join me as I walk you through an encounter from start to finish and share tips on how to shoot engaging travel portraits.

1 – Approach the person and get permission

As a photographer, it’s up to you to develop your own code of ethics. However, I implore you to seek permission and not just stick a camera in someone’s face. The initial approach can often be the hardest part; taking the shot is comparatively easy.

Aim for a consensual, mutually enjoyable exchange from which you can both walk away with a happy story to tell. Be open, smile, and pay people compliments.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish:

Boy monks at Rumtek Monastery – Sikkim, India. I kept my camera at my side, introduced myself, and asked their names. Their answers made me regret leaving my notebook in the car (Sikkimese names are notoriously long). They wanted to talk about soccer. When I asked for a photo, the boy on the right jumped and said “I know a good place. Follow me!” It was a fun encounter and their personalities shone through in the pictures because they’d had a chance to chat about their favorite topic.

If it’s a firm no, you can smile warmly, tell them it’s absolutely fine, and ask them if they would like to see photos you’ve taken of the local area. This way, you can both still walk away having had a pleasant experience, and sometimes, they even change their mind.

2 – Communicate for a meaningful experience

Your challenge now is to make your subject feel at ease. The best portraits come when people are relaxed and open to you. Most crucially, don’t rush the photo, say goodbye, and walk away. Show genuine interest in their lives.

Ask questions if you can speak a mutual language. If not, remember that much of your intentions and warmth can be communicated through body language, facial expressions, and gestures.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish:

Ba-An, an 81-year-old lady, in front of the Banaue rice terraces – Luzon, Philippines. I will remember Ba-An because I had the longest and most interesting conversation I’ve had with anyone before taking their portrait. “These? They’re chicken feathers,” she said when I asked about her headdress. “Sometimes I tell people it is tradition, but really, we just started doing it a few years ago!”

3 – Read the light and use it to your advantage

With permission granted and your subject warming to you, the next step is reading the light. Whether it’s day or night, look at the lighting conditions around you. Consider asking your subject to turn their body or move completely to seek the best light.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish:

While waiting for a Hindu ceremony to begin, this gentleman wobbled his head enthusiastically and motioned towards my camera – Varanasi, India. Sometimes, as in this situation, when people see you photographing others in a respectful manner, they may prompt you to take their portrait. I asked him to turn so that the light from a spotlight would be cast across his face at a less harsh angle.

4 – Select your settings

Ideally, you have a fixed focal length (prime) lens with a wide aperture attached to your camera body. However, if you’re traveling, you may have an all-purpose zoom lens attached. I like portraits that I’ve taken with both types.

With my fixed focal lens, I often shoot portraits at f/2.8 or slightly above. If you shoot any wider, the focal plane can be so thin that you risk your subject’s eyes being in focus but having their nose out of focus. For a zoom lens, I recommend selecting your widest aperture but standing further away from your subject. Zooming in on their face will accentuate the shallow depth of field effect that works so well for portraits.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

A Muslim traveler at Haji Ali Dargah, an Islamic shrine off the coast of Mumbai – India. My settings and lens for this portrait were f/2.8 | 1/1600th | ISO 160 | Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art lens. The fast shutter speed allowed by using f/2.8 picked out fine details on the man’s face. Such a fast shutter wasn’t necessary for this level of sharpness but it was an extremely bright day in Mumbai.

For engaging portraits, the most important element requiring sharp focus is the eyes. I suggest setting your camera to spot focus on the center AF point. Next, aim the center point at one of your subject’s eyes. Use the focus and recompose method or even better – the back button focus method to lock in on the eyes. This will ensure they’re in sharp focus in the finished photo.

5 – Choose a strong composition

Numerous compositions can work for portraits. The rule of thirds can work incredibly well but try not to wear it out or all your travel portraits will look the same.

Another one to try is placing one of your subject’s eyes directly in the center of the frame; a study proved that portraits composed this way appeal to viewers on a subconscious level. I promise I’m not making that up. This can be applied in portrait or landscape orientation.

A general rule exists in travel portraiture that you shouldn’t place your subject directly in the center of the frame; however, rules are made to be broken sometimes.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

As I stood taking pictures of the Banaue rice terraces, I heard a frail voice saying “Photo? Who is taking a photo?” It belonged to a 96-year-old woman named Bah Gu-An. She was completely blind. I wasn’t sure how to communicate as I normally would for a portrait so took her hands in mine to let her know I was there. Her friends translated back and forth for us. I decided on a rule of thirds composition because I felt the blue umbrella added extra visual interest and balance to the frame.

6 – Come down to their eye level

Try not to stand above your subject if they are sitting. This is intimidating and works against your goal to relax them. Positive psychological things happen when you come down to someone’s eye level. Take a look at the example below.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

A Hindu holy man on a tiny island in the Brahmaputra River – Assam, India. This is not a touristy location in India so he is the real deal. I sat down on the step to receive a blessing. Accompanied by mystical chanting, I drank some lukewarm tea of unknown provenance, had air blown all over my face, and ash spread across my forehead. We chatted after and I felt in no rush to suggest a portrait. It was a fascinating experience. What do you think when you look at his facial expression – Is the time spent together palpable?

7 – Shoot different styles of portrait

Posed versus candid portraits

Posed refers to approaching a person and asking them to sit for a portrait, whereas candid portraits refer to catching a person in an unguarded moment. This doesn’t have to mean without permission.

For the image below, I’d already gained this lady’s trust and permission but waited until she’d forgotten that I was there to continue shooting. Later, I showed her all of the photos, which she seemed happy with.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

A devotee watches the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony – Varanasi, India. This image could be called a candid environmental portrait.

Headshot versus environmental portraits

A headshot refers to filling the frame with your subject’s face. The background is not important for setting the scene, although you might consider finding one of a complementary color to your subject’s clothing, skin tone, or eye color. Environmental portraits are zoomed out to allow your subject’s surroundings into the frame to add to their story.

8 – Shoot a series with the same subject

When you have someone’s permission and have bonded with them, consider staying with them a while and shooting a series of images. This is what I did when I met one man in the Philippines recently. I directed him gently for a series of shots after telling him how interested people would be to learn about his culture. He was happy to oblige.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

I would have kicked myself if I’d walked away without getting a side profile shot of this man and his headdress that featured the real heads of a long-dead bird and monkey.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

I decided to fill the frame here to draw attention to his excellent smile, patterned clothes, and monkey headdress.

9 – Always remember aftercare

Aftercare means bringing the encounter to a close in the best possible manner. I believe an extra layer exists as to why the verb is to “take” a portrait. You are taking something from them, but what are you giving in return?

Make sure you show the person their image on the back of your camera, pay them a compliment, and thank them sincerely. So much joy can come from this simple act.

How to Shoot Engaging Travel Portraits from Start to Finish

A man named Ibrahim at the Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai. As we sat together cross-legged on the ground enthusiastically shaking hands at the side of a busy walkway, I could tell from his reaction and those of passersby that this wasn’t a common occurrence. The overall encounter lingered with me for the rest of the day, and I sincerely hope that Ibrahim remembers it fondly too.

Conclusion

I want to know your best advice for shooting travel portraits and see the images you’re most proud of. Be sure to share them in the comments section below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ben McKechnie

is a photographer, writer, and editor. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Currently to be found editing, photographing, and eating his way around beautiful Taiwan. Check out his most recent work on his Website, Facebook page, and Instagram.

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  • Great article and wonderful photos, Ben!

  • Thanks a lot, Ram! Have you taken any travel portraits recently?

  • Keith Bailey

    Great advice. Many thanks. I frequently wrestle with ethical issues surrounding street portraits. I agree that it should be a mutually beneficial encounter and really appreciate your sensitive approach. Whenever possible I try to ‘give back’ by getting a print done of the photo and returning it to its rightful owner. Not always possible when traveling, but a very rewarding experience when you can make it happen.
    Here are some examples
    https://artisansofmorocco.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/take-and-give-back-photography-ethos/
    Thanks again for your post.
    Keith

  • Thanks Keith! I’m glad the article and sensitive approach resonated with you. I can see we share similar views regarding travel portraits. I love that you have tracked down some of your subjects and returned their image to them. I have sent photos to people on my travels too. It’s a wonderful way of saying thank you.

  • Gro Wikheim Korsmoe

    Thanks for the many good advices! I find it very hard to approach strangers with my camera, but I’ve learnt a few things now that might help me 😉

  • You’re very welcome! It takes time and practice but gradually you’ll find it gets easier. Even when you don’t have your camera, striking up conversations with strangers is good for building confidence for when you are out taking photographs. The photograph is an extension of the encounter, not the only reason for it. Best of luck and feel free to get in touch for more advice.

  • Liliane Clément

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/24b4cd75a6df5c9879b7617fd6c218706cdf22a88d5aacaac7792c4d29dcb585.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/89ade0e92b487df92af6e5c85fcd6ff4e5c1a853394d2fb0ea6f4737a8305f44.jpg Excellent article, starting with ethics! How important it is, we’ll never stress enough! Like you, my sole purpose doing travel portrait is to get to know the person, at least through eye contact, smile or any other gesture. Here are some portrait shot recently in Kerala, India

  • Thanks for sharing your travel portraits! I love them both, great facial expressions. It is obvious that these men were comfortable with you taking their photo and most likely enjoyed the experience. I haven’t been to the south of India, but I intend to. Keep up the great work!

  • Liliane Clément

    Many thanks Ben! Take care!

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