If you think about taking your camera with you to your holiday, this article gives you a insight about how to get some breathtaking travel portraits. All what I am writing about are tips and tricks from my own experience, travelling the world with my camera. From preparations, equipment to talking with a stranger this post covers all basics what you need to get out and enjoy making your own travel portraits.
1. Take the chance – It usually won´t come back again.
Maybe you also know this painful experience I have gone through over and over again. You (because it’s your experience then perhaps use “I”-form) walk down the street and you see an interesting person or situation but hesitate to take your camera out. You might tell yourself that you could do the shot later on or tomorrow when you pass by at the same time again.
It happened to me all the time. Especially in the beginning of my travel since I felt unsecure approaching people and asking whether I could take a picture of them. But later on, or the next day, this person was either not there anymore – because guess what, they won´t sit there the whole day and wait for us – or the situation did not appear again and so I lost many awesome shots.
Try to feel comfortable with the situation and be self-confident. You are the photographer and you should know your skill as a photographer. Approach people with a smile, tell your model that you are a photographer and ask whether you can take a portrait of him or her.
I like to use the word “portrait” instead of “photo” or “picture” since it sounds more professional and signals that I am not another tourist passing by and taking a quick shot. From my experience many people feel flattered and happy to get photographed. Then take your time to make the right settings, even if the situation might make you nervous or tensed. In the end you will thank yourself that you didn’t over or underexpose your photo or even miss the focus.
Don´t worry so much about what the other person might say about the result. Even if you are not super happy with the light situation or with the expression of your model there will always be a “Wow”-Effect when showing it to your model. Especially in poorer countries like Asia – where I am currently travelling – not many people have access to such great equipment we have or even a smartphone and so they are always astonished by the result. In fact, I have actually experienced that many people asked me to print the photo directly out of the camera so they can have it. And often I needed a translator to explain that nowadays in photography you don´t get the photo out straight ahead.
2. Put yourself in the other person´s shoes – accept the other person and their culture
If you want to photograph people you should accept them as human beings and ask them about taking a photo. Don´t upset them with just holding your lens in front of their face. If they don´t want to be photographed accept it and don’t push them.
During my travel in India and Sri Lanka I realized that very often women don’t want to get photographed. Sometimes this was really disappointing since they have so many beautiful girls there and I felt really inspired by portraying them. But when I put myself in the other person´s shoes I could understand it. In India it happened many, many times that Indians came to me and wanted to take a photo from me or with me and I also did not feel comfortable with this idea. While I know my own abilities in photography and see a great result already in my mind’s eye a model never knows what will come out in the end.
In general it is very helpful to take a couple of shots and show the photos to your counterpart. It is such a nice moment when the eyes start to sparkle and a smile will appear on their face. Then you can start again and you will realize that the other person will feel much more comfortable.
Also accept that not everyone is a model who will give you the picture you have imagined. In India e.g. it is a lot of hard work to make the people smile in front of camera. When I asked people about a photo they agreed with a huge, breathtaking smile over their whole face but in the second the lens showed towards them they were serious like there would not be a tomorrow. That´s exactly how their “portrait culture” is right now. Smiling is out. Serious and strict look is in.
Especially then it is crucial to interact with your model. Try to talk with each other to get the person more comfortable and try to explain what´s the look you are searching for. It also can be really helpful to have someone with you who can talk to the person and bring him or her to laugh.
When shooting in a Third World Country I thank for the collaboration with giving the person some money as it is very helpful for them. If you can manage to print the photos this is also a really nice present.
3. Accept that there might be a language barrier
If you go to a foreign country you might not speak the local language. Quickly you will realize that there are people you can´t converse with. It is helpful to learn a few words of the local language like “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Smile”, “Beautiful” etc. When you start speaking some words of their own language it is like a key to their heart.
Otherwise it is always good to have somebody with you who can speak the particular language. Ask people around you who might speak English and translate for you. Especially the elder generation did not grow up with English and might not understand. Also don’t be shy to converse with hands and feet. Sometimes this is the only way and it shows us that communication is possible even without words.
For me it was surprising that there are people who do not even understand the word “smile”. Once I tried to explain it with my gesture but the man I was photographing thought he had something in his moustache and took a small brush out to brush his moustache and beard clean. That´s a nice example that sometimes even sign language can fail.
4. You don´t have to bring all of your equipment
Bevor I started to travel I checked out many other travel photographers and what equipment they brought to their trips and this started to drive me totally crazy. I thought that I need a portable light source with a soft box or at least a Speedlight. But I also knew that this would be way too heavy for me to carry and this fact easily frustrated me. “How can you make awesome photos when you not even have a light source plus assistant holding it for you?! And how can you say that you are a professional when you just come along with a camera?!”
Calm down, you will learn that you don´t need much when photographing a stranger. While travelling you anyway don´t have time to setup a whole light scene or you coincidently left half of your equipment in your room. All the travel portraits I have taken here are “only” with natural light and sometimes with a small reflector. And even if I used to work a lot with a reflector, since I am a beauty and fashion photographer, I barely used it for my travel photographs. Rather I learned to take the situation as it is. So can the harsh sunlight enhance characteristics of the model like wrinkles or skin structure.
If you still think you would like to bring an extra light source with you, try a LED light instead of a heavy speed light.
Also consider that all the equipment might leave you concentrated on all of the technical part and not on the subject itself. For an awesome travel portrait you don´t need the most complicated light setup but the true emotion of your counterpart.
5. Take the situation as it is
When travelling the world you will find yourself many times in the situation where you encounter an interesting face at noon time when the sun is in the zenith. Sometimes it is not possible to ask the person to move to a shaded area. But you might try to move the persons face concerning where the sun comes from. If you don´t want a harsh sunlight – which can also look really interesting – try to move the subjects face opposite the sun. Many beginners would say now “What? You can´t shoot against the sun”! But actually you can! It’s good to know the rule, but it’s better to understand how to break it. You will realize that the face can appear quite dark when turning against the sun but therefore you can use a reflector – best to use the white foreground since the silver or golden one might reflect back so much light that your subject will have problems to open their eyes. If you don´t have a reflector, don´t worry, since you can bring the highlight back in your post process. Therefore it is recommended to shoot in raw.
Of course you can try to find a nice background like leaves where the sun shines through and brings a nice bokeh or an old and nice wall as a structure but also learn to accept that sometimes you can’t create the perfect setup.
6. Find out why this person inspires you
Why did you decide to photograph this person? It is good to know the essence of your inspiration so you can bring it out better in your photograph. Is it the style of this person, or the many wrinkles all over the face? Or is it the look in the eyes which tells you a story? You will find out that the eyes are the key to a good portrait. On the travel you will find many inspiring people. It can be their true and honest smile which brings the sparkle to their eyes and leaves you smiling too. Or it can be the look in the eyes where you see that the soul is in some reason broken. Take the emotion of the person and try to catch it. Don´t force him to a smile if he looks like thinking back to a past event or trying to see a more positive future. Go for this emotion and make it to be the essence of the photo.
7. Your camera settings
While you wander through the streets I recommend you to use aperture priority. This enables you to choose the aperture and ISO you want and lets you spontaneously shoot a scene without the necessity to change every setting. However, be cautious about the shutter speed. Especially in the mornings and evenings or inside a building there can be too less light, your shutter speed too slow and your results blurry.
When shooting a portrait you can reach different results with different aperture settings. Think about what you want to show with your portrait. If you want to bring out details in the face, like wrinkles or huge sweaty pores, you might close your aperture a little bit more than for a young girl with soft skin and a soft look.
Also consider that there is something called too shallow depth of field. You can see this when the persons eyes are not in focus but the nose or the eyebrows are. Then you should choose a smaller aperture to get the right focus. Think about how close you already are to your subject and how far away the background is. If you want a blurry background or a nice bouquet which is meters away you don´t necessarily need to open your aperture to 1.4.
In order not to scare your subject away I recommend not to use a wide angle lens since you will find yourself and your camera directly in front of the nose of your subject. A wide angle lens will also distort the face unnaturally. 50 mm to 85mm lenses are especially suitable for portrait photographs since the distortion comes closest to our eyes and we receive the look as natural. Definitely try out some options by yourself and develop your own style and preferences!
I hope this article inspired you and gave you some useful tips about how to make your own great travel portraits. Feel free to comment if you have questions or further suggestions to our readers.
Take care and enjoy your travel!