How to shoot portraits while traveling
It is really important to take your time with the person before asking if you can take his/her picture. It’s about building a relationship and not just pressing the trigger and running away.
I really enjoy taking portrait photos when I am traveling and doing so has actually shaped the kind of traveller I am. Interacting with the local people and spending time with them is the best part of traveling, for me. I also learn a lot more about their culture, religion and general way of life than I otherwise would. Sometimes I spend just a few minutes with someone before I photograph them and other times I spend many days; no two situations are the same. The end result however, the portrait, is always the same – a story is told and a lasting memory of time spent with the person is created.
My camera and lenses are always carried inside my camera bag, out of view, when I begin to interact with people; I never show my camera gear on the first approach. Showing an interest in what they are doing, selling, playing, etc is the best icebreaker. Even if there is a language barrier it is possible to ask them questions using body language or by making gestures. Being natural is key. Making eye contact and smiling can help create a natural atmosphere. You need to submerse yourself into their environment and demonstrate a certain level of comfort before thinking about taking your camera out.
It is really important to take your time with the person before asking if you can take his/her picture. It’s about building a relationship and not just pressing the trigger and running away. If you rush the process then your photo will not carry any story about the location or the moments you spent together. Most of the time people agree to be photographed but some are more receptive to the idea than others so you need to pay close attention to their reaction when you first ask if you can take their picture. There is no point pursuing the shot if there is reluctance or tension as it will be captured in the photo. Both you and the person you wish to photograph need to be comfortable.
Sometimes, depending on the situation and the context, you cannot interact with people but you can still ask their permission by showing your camera to them with a smile. Based on their reaction you will know if you can take the shot or no.
I think the key to a nice portrait is bringing the viewer into a new environment, a new place. The portrait should tell you something about the atmosphere and place in which it was taken. This can be achieved by including the background as part of the story. By doing so the portrait becomes a kind of visual narrative, illustrating to the viewer if it is a sunny or rainy day, if you are at the beach or in the countryside, if you are in Asia or South America.
I do sometimes take portraits without any interaction with the person when I want to capture a candid moment or a general scene. This is more of a documentary/reportage style of photography. But I prefer to interact with the people I photograph.
You can also take a group portrait, if that seems more appropriate. People often feel more comfortable posing in front of a camera as part of a group. It can be less awkward than focusing one just 1 person of the group. Kids are always happy to have their pictures taken and if they are in a group be prepared to be entertained…they can get a bit out of control when they know a camera is watching.
When taking pictures, especially portrait, I avoid using the flash as much as possible. I prefer natural light, it is the best light. Move around your subject to get the right light before asking to take a picture. It’s important that you are ready to take the picture when you ask because you don’t want to make the person feel uncomfortable by pointing the camera at them and asking them to wait so you can set the configuration of you camera. In addition to making the person uncomfortable, there is a chance the moment will be lost as well if you are not ready.
Set a nice aperture between 1.8 to 5.6 as you want your portrait to stand out of the picture with a nice depth of field. In most situations I frame the portrait on one side so that more of the background is visible. Do not neglect the background!
Most of the portraits I have taken come with a story that I remember quite well. I think it’s important for the photographer to have this memory. My portrait shots may not be the best in the world but the moments I spent with the people to get them are definitely special and unique.
You can purchase some of my travel portrait photography prints here.