Travel photography: taking portraits

How do the professionals manage to get such evocative and engaging portraits? Steve Davey says it’s all about getting up close and personal

8 mins

For many of us, the local people we meet on our travels are the highlight of any trip. Yet so many of us still struggle to come away with engaging portraits of them.

The problem is that people are often uncomfortable approaching the subjects of their pictures and, fearing a negative reaction, try to steal a portrait without asking. Not only does this generally result in a poor picture, it’s rude and intrusive to the subject. To get pictures with a feeling of engagement you have to engage the person whose portrait you want to take and – crucially – ask permission.

This entails more than simply grunting a question. For the viewer of the picture to connect with the subject, you as photographer have to develop a rapport with the subject. It’s the strength of your personality that will create that bond.

How you achieve this will depend on your willingness to engage. I tend to take the more direct approach: if someone has a great face, I will tell them that, and ask if I can photograph them – even if I have to use sign language. The most important thing is to smile and look someone in the eye.

Avoid fiddling with some technical aspect of your camera when you should be interacting with your subject. The key here is preparation.

Pre-visualise your shot before you approach someone. Think about the treatment and composition, and then set the exposure, making sure you have the correct lens and space on your memory card. Once you actually walk up to someone to take a picture, you will need to be ready, otherwise you will quickly lose their attention and interest. If you’ve already sorted the technical details, you can get the best shot with minimal fuss.

Steve’s handy hints

Consider the background

The background to a portrait doesn’t have to be a great travel icon. Sometimes a small, out-of-focus detail can make a picture more interesting, giving a clue as to where a shot was taken. If you change the angle then you can alter the relationship of the subject with the background.

Always be prepared

Keep your camera out if it is safe to do so. This makes you available to people who might want their photo taken. Go to places where you are likely to find interesting people, such as markets and religious places.

Take multiple photos

Once you’ve approached someone, don’t just take one picture and move on. Shoot a few, as people often blink, or look goofy – especially if they’re talking. Help them to relax by talking to them, and showing them images on the back of the camera.

Invest some time

If you want natural-looking pictures you should be prepared to spend time with your subject so that they get used to you and relax. This might take just a few minutes, or it could be a matter of hours or even days.

The Big 3: Key rules of portrait snapping

1.  If you only remember one thing… Hold onto acclaimed war photographer Robert Capa’s maxim: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’. With portrait photography, you have to engage your subject.

2. Tech tip Always focus on the eyes. If you are using a shallow depth of
field, even small movements can move the zone of focus, blurring the
eyes. Select a continuous focus mode and move the focus point so that it
falls on the eyes, and continually focuses as you take pictures.     

3. One for the kitbag A small foldout reflector, such as those made by Lastolite, can be used to reflect some light into the shadows on your subject’s face if the light is too harsh.

Steve Davey leads his own exclusive range of travel photography tours, Better Travel Photography, with land arrangements by Intrepid Travel

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