Capturing travel portraits is one of the hardest assignments you can undertake as a photographer. Traveling to a new place where you may not be that familiar with the customs, there is no way you can predict who you’ll meet, and even less chance of developing some definite expectations of what images you can make and take home. You need to be open to anything and flexible enough to change focus at a moment’s notice.
To help you maximize your chances of capturing memorable portraits that have impact, there are some things you can remember.
1. Wait for the decisive moment.
Cartier Bresson once said, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” Finding this decisive moment is one of the most exciting things you can search for in your quest for portraits. Being patient and waiting for moments can result in expressive portraits.
2. Provide context for your subject.
Using the environment can help you tell the story of your subject. Whether it is about work, play, or other themes, giving bits of the surroundings can add impact to the story because the elements around the subject add to the narrative of who they are, what they do, linking their story to the viewer’s story.
3. Document 1000 words.
That old cliché “A picture is worth a thousand words” can come true in your photography. While roaming a place, look out for moments that hold special significance to the people you are photographing. Often in travel, we find these vignettes that encapsulate universal experiences, such as wanting something we can’t have. Photos that have stories in them are often some of the most powerful ones we can make.
4. Interact with your subject.
It helps a traveler to interact with their subject. Some would argue that interacting with your subject changes the image; that by imposing yourself into their lives, the photographer changes the natural way a local person would act. But you could also argue that travel is one way to get to know other people whose lives are different from yours and make new friends, and that certainly doesn’t hurt anyone.
5. Keep your distance.
Conversely, you can keep your distance and use a long lens. Using a long lens, what I call the “sniper method” of travel portraiture, allows you to capture people in their natural state. Because you are not intruding upon their attention, you would get portraits that are more candid.
6. Try to be a little shallow.
Technically, using a very shallow depth of field such as f/4.5 would knock out a lot of detail in the background or foreground, if you’re focusing on a person. But in some cases, like shooting a dancer through a green basket, the blur gives the portrait a dreamy frame, and that could be an interesting effect.
7. Know the angle of your light source.
Generally, I like my portraits to have catchlights in the eyes. To get this, I am careful about where I am in relation to the light source. Usually, I look for people under some kind of overhead shelter: even people using umbrellas or hats qualify. If I stand in the sun and they are under the shade, chances are that their eyes will reflect the light source being bounced off of something outside of the shelter above their eyes, producing attractive catchlights.
Rule of thirds, leading lines, balance—these compositional techniques work, so they have to be part of what you use when you make travel portraits. At times, you can break the rules, maybe centering a subject for effect, or abstracting a portrait. Most of the time, though, it helps to keep these compositional basics in mind because often the basic artistic composition rules will make a good photo of something quite mundane.
9. Choose your backgrounds.
Finding a good background is often crucial to making a portrait work. Learning how to spot a background that will work for your image is a skill that’s useful. An uncluttered, simple background will make your subject pop.
10. Fill the frame.
A portrait is a study of someone. More than someone’s picture, it is a representation of their identity. Especially when the person is wearing something that already gives the photo context and story, filling the frame with their face makes a lot of sense, and adds a lot of drama.
Although by no means an exhaustive list, these tips can help you start your search for travel portraits.
By keeping these simple strategies in mind, you can vary the images you capture, and capture the variety of lives and stories you meet in your travels.