7 tips for approaching travel portrait photography

For photographers, both professional and amateur, traveling constantly exposes you to inspiring and exotic landscapes, architecture and people. But while environments and buildings are static and willing subjects, people are not always. Photographing portraits can be one of the most alluring parts of travel, but it also challenges you both technically and morally. Knowing your camera inside out, being able to think quick on your feet, and showing sensitivity towards your subject, make travel photography harder than it looks. Here are a few tips to prevent you from taking images your may later regret.

1. Begin by asking yourself ‘why’ you want the image

Rajasthani woman, India

Sometimes it is hard to define why a particular person catches your eye, making you grab for your camera to capture their face, their expression, their character. Perhaps it is somebody dressed traditionally or exuding indigenous beauty, perhaps they are performing an unusual or unique act, or perhaps it is their circumstances, unfortunate or otherwise, that make them stand out from the rest. But when that moment arises, sometimes you need to pause and ask yourself ‘why’ you want that particular image.

Sometimes when traveling through developing countries there is often the urge to photograph scenes of poverty, something that we naturally find confronting and a diversion from our reality, but it is important to remember that the person you may be photographing is human also. Many international aid organizations are now moving away from the use of images that portray the less fortunate as hopeless and helpless, aware of the damage that it can do to the self-esteem of countries or regions as a whole, and tourists should follow their lead. Consider why you want the image and the implications it may have for others.

2. Asking for consent is not ‘optional’

Cuban elderly man, La Habana

No matter the circumstances of the person you are photographing - whether they be royalty or living in a make-shift hut - asking consent is not just a courtesy but a necessity. Imagine if somebody pointed a camera at your face, took a photo and walked away - you would most likely react angrily. The same goes for people the world over and establishing that your subject is ok with you taking their photo is essential. In some situations, distance makes this difficult, and you will need to use your own judgement to decide whether taking the photograph is acceptable or not.

Language is no barrier to asking for consent. A simple indication towards your camera or imitating the action of taking a photo is usually enough for most people to understand what you are asking. And whether they say ‘no’ in your language, their own, or just shake their head, then you need to respect their wishes.

3. Get the background story on your portrait subject

Himba woman, Namibia

Images often project so much more when you know the background story. Establishing a connection with your subject, understanding their circumstances or asking them about their life, adds depth to the photographs you come away with. Take the time to talk to your subject - drink tea with them, share your snacks - and create an environment where you are meeting each other as equals, despite perhaps coming from wildly contrasting backgrounds. People are much more likely to warm to you and the idea of you taking their photograph if you don’t just walk over and demand it of them. Understanding your subject will also help you to convey them and their story with authenticity through your images.

4. Be technically prepared to work swiftly

Kazakh horseman, Kazakhstan

Sometimes the situation arises for a portrait and your subject consents, with only a matter of seconds to get the shot you want before they disappear to where they came from. Knowing your camera is essential for these moments when you have to act fast. Which lens is going to best capture your subject - are you looking for close-up facial features using a 50mm or an in-situ portrait with a wide-angle lens? If you need to change lenses then do it fast as people won’t always have the patience to wait while you mess around with technicalities. The same goes for ISO, aperture and shutter speed - if you are shooting manually then make rapid adjustments. Know where your light is coming from, whether it be the sun or artificial, and position yourself to take advantage of it. Aim to inconvenience your subject as little as possible, particularly if they are just an unassuming passer by.

5. Be respectful of your subject and their culture

Indigenous woman, Amazon Rainforest

The dignity of the person you are capturing should be at the forefront of your mind. Photographing them in a manner that causes offence - whether it be personal or cultural - will leave you with an image that you may later feel shameful about taking. Some indigenous groups believe that when a photograph is taken it steals the soul of the person and, even if you don’t believe the same, you should never take an image if culture dictates otherwise.

6. Take into account financial considerations

Maasai warrior, Kenya

Many travelers will have experienced asking to take a portrait photo and money being requested in return. This is a difficult, and often personal, choice you need to make. Offering money to children in exchange for photographs can encourage them to stay out of school in the hope of making a lucrative income from passing tourists and for the wider community it can lead to travel photography (a real highlight of traveling) turning into an expensive activity for future tourists to the region. If there is the opportunity to support them through an independent means, for example purchasing products from a market vendor or contributing to a local organization that is assisting the community as a whole, then this can be a good alternative. The decision comes down to you, but you need to make it respectfully - if they ask for money and you don’t want to give it, then don’t take the photograph!

7. A moment shared is a moment savoured

Hmong mother and child, Vietnam

By far the most enjoyable part of travel photography in this new digital age of LCD screens and the ability to view your images instantaneously, is sharing it with your portrait subject. The moment when people see how you have captured them (particularly in countries where cameras are rare) will endure as long as the images themselves. Often people that have been shy at the idea of having their photograph taken initially will respond with ear-to-ear smiles when they see the final result on your screen. Just remember to have a pen and paper on hand to write down addresses, as people will often ask you to email and ‘snail-mail’ the photo to them!

The challenge of travel portrait photography

Travel photography is about creating images that convey your journey - the landscapes you witnessed and the people you met - from your unique perspective. But in taking portraits you don’t want to cause offence or anger to your subject, but rather capture them in a way that tells their story with dignity and respect. Despite the challenges travel photography throws at you, if you keep a few things in mind it can also be one of the most rewarding parts of travel and you might even end up with a new pen-pal or two!