The secrets to snapping a great travel portrait
- words and pictures by Richard I’Anson
Capturing strong, well lit, well composed close-ups of people in the brief encounter that typifies travel photography is a challenging proposition. It’s a challenge well worth taking as there is no doubt that if done successfully, a series of frame-filling head-and-shoulder portraits of a variety of individuals will add a great deal of depth, interest and personal satisfaction to your travel pictures.
Avoid backgrounds that are too busy or have very light or very dark patches of colour. Your eyes should not be distracted from the subject’s face. Always focus on the eyes. It doesn’t matter if other features are out of focus: if the eyes aren’t sharp the image will fail. Expose for your subject’s face: it’s the most important part of the composition. The ideal focal-length lens for shooting portraits is between 80mm and 105mm.
Lenses in this range are often called portrait lenses because of the flattering perspective they give to the face. They also allow you to fill the frame with a head-and-shoulder composition while working at a comfortable distance from your subject. If using a zoom lens on a DSLR or compact camera, preset it to 100mm, then position yourself to suit – this will guarantee a pleasing perspective.
Set your shutter speed to at least 1/125 to prevent movement resulting in a blurry photo. A wide aperture (f2–f5.6) will ensure that the background is out of focus and minimise distracting elements. Compose the photo vertically to minimise empty, distracting space around your subject. In low-light situations increase the sensor’s ISO rating rather than use the flash.
If you’re using a compact camera remember not to get closer than the minimum focusing distance (usually around 1m).
Overcast weather is ideal for portraits. It provides even, soft light that eliminates heavy shadows and is usually flattering to the subject. It allows you to take pictures of people in all locations and use automatic
metering modes to shoot quickly.
Shooting with respect
I don’t see why people with cameras think they can sidestep the basic rules of courtesy when photographing people. It’s particularly prevalent in developing countries and tribal areas. Lack of language is not an excuse. Sticking cameras in people’s faces without first getting permission is rude and offensive. Would you do this to people in your own neighbourhood? And just because the person doesn’t object doesn’t make it right. They are probably just being considerably more polite than the person with the camera. I know this sounds like I’m taking the moral high ground, but I see it all the time. Treat people how you expect to be treated and photographing them can be a mutually enjoyable experience.
The monk was sitting like this as I approached him but changed his pose to speak to me. He happily obliged when I asked him to put his chin back in his hands. If you’re clear how you want your subject to look you’ll be much more confident in asking and directing when necessary.
This is my least preferred light for photographing portraits. Harsh front lighting makes it hard for people to look straight into my lens. Shadows under the nose and chin are too strong. However, you can’t assume that the person will still be standing there when you come back later, and for travellers there very often isn’t a later. To reduce the impact of the harsh light I composed a mid-length portrait to place as much emphasis on the woman’s clothing as on her face.
Generally I like my portrait subjects to make eye contact with the viewer by looking straight into the lens. However, this man kept glancing at his friend with a mischievous glint in his eyes, enlivening his face compared to the straight serious look he was adopting for me.
The soft and even but bright light illuminating this woman’s face is perfect portrait light, bringing out the texture in her face and hair without causing unsightly shadows. When I first asked to take her photo she refused, instead beckoning me to follow her into the monastery which is where she assumed I wanted to go. I was more interested in taking some photos around the village before the sun set. However, it turned out that the time spent attentively looking at various things she pointed out in the monastery was well spent as she didn’t hesitate to be photographed the second time I asked. Sometimes you have to invest time to create a photo opportunity.
A guide of gear to take on the road
Light and how to capture it
Filters and which ones you can’t live without
Want more great tips? Lonely Planet’s guide to Travel Photography book is available now from the Lonely Planet online shop.
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