Travel photography is arguably the most difficult branch of photography because it encompasses so many different genres. One minute you might be photographing a famous landmark and the next minute you’ll be photographing a busy local market. But one of the most important elements of any destination are it’s people. They will help bring that destination to life and often can be the real uniqueness between your photos and the hundreds that have come before.
However, new photographers often struggle with photographing people. Usually the main reason for this is shyness, but follow these simple tips and you will see improvement in your travel photography portraits.
Permission Or Not?
It’s a debate that divides most photographers. Should you ask permission before you take someone’s portrait? There is no right or wrong answer as every situation will have its own correct approach and answer but if you want to capture candid and personal portraits, then you usually would need to get close to your subject. This in turn often means having to ask permission as, let’s be honest; no one likes having a camera thrust in his or her face without asking.
Asking permission doesn’t need to be a traumatic experience. Most people will be flattered to be photographed and a simple smile can do wonders. Keep in mind that in certain cultures people will not want their photos taken for cultural reasons or superstitions. So asking first will help you avoid a confrontation later. If you are refused by the person, don’t take it personally, just move on as there will be other opportunities.
Ease The Tension
Once you have permission you may find that the initial portraits don’t seem natural and your model might seem uneasy. The thing to keep in mind is that he or she will also be nervous, as they are not professional models and would often not be used to having their photo taken. The best portraits will be personal and natural so try to ease the tension if it helps the result by talking to them. Try to get to know your subject and make them feel comfortable before taking their portrait and you’ll find the results much more impressive.
In the current era people often don’t have a lot of time so once you’ve got permission and are ready to photograph your subject, work quickly. There’s nothing worse than your model starting to get annoyed because you are making them late or stopping them going about their day.
So before you even approach someone, have an idea in your head of how you intend to photograph them and get your camera set up with the correct settings and lens so that you are ready to snap away quickly and efficiently. The last thing you need, especially if you are nervous of photographing strangers, is to have to be messing around changing lenses or batteries when they are waiting.
A big part of the preparation of photographing someone will be deciding the background. Portraits should have the focus on your subject and so anything that distracts from that should be avoided. When you are taking environmental portraits you may need to include some of the background and the surroundings, but traditional head and shoulder portraits work best with a simple and clean background.
Look around and find somewhere that has a flat and uninteresting pattern and colour. Plain walls and bushes can work best as the viewers eyes won’t be distracted. If you do find that your model isn’t standing in the right place, don’t be afraid to direct them to where you want them. Often just a bit of hand gesturing will do the trick even if you don’t speak their language.
In any portrait, the most important aspect to focus on are the eyes. The eyes need to be sharp otherwise your image will look soft and simply won’t have the same impact. So take extra care when taking portraits of people to make sure that you have correctly focused on the eyes and have set a fast enough shutter speed to make sure they are sharp.
If your model is standing slightly sideways and one eye is further back in the composition, make sure you focus on the foremost eye.
The good news is that the settings for taking portraits are relatively straightforward as the person you are photographing will be standing still. You will need a fast enough shutter speed to ensure the eyes are sharp. Depending on how steady you can hold a camera, you can probably get away with anything from 1/60th sec or faster. If the light is too low, raise your ISO accordingly but keep in mind that the higher it is the more noise it will create in the image.
The other option you have is to set a large aperture and thus a shallow depth of field. Not only will this allow you to have a faster shutter speed but it will also blur the background which helps separate the main subject from the background.
Think Before Using A Flash
A direct flash is often a killer when it comes to taking portraits as it washes out the subject’s face and will make the image seem dull and uninteresting. You might not have realised it, but usually the best use of a flash is in sunlight where there are harsh shadows on your model’s face. A flash in this scenario (called fill in flash) can help brighten the shadows on their face. To get the best results when taking portraits outdoors find some shade and photograph there away from direct harsh sunlight. If you are going to use a flash when taking portraits, then try to bounce the flash off another surface such as a wall or ceiling that will help diffuse the harshness.
Photographing people is an absolute must if you want to capture the real essence of any destination. The great thing is that it isn’t difficult and with enough practice most photographers will find that it becomes second nature to them. Follow these simple tips and you’ll already be on your way to capturing better travel photography portraits.
Images by Kav Dadfar. All rights reserved. No usage without permission.