5 mins

How to shoot a winning portfolio

Are you planning to submit a Portfolio entry to this year's Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year competition? Last year's winner, Ben McRae, offers his tips on how to stand out

The Himba women of Epupa, Namibia (Ben McRae)

The Portfolio is now a well-established category in the Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year competition. It remains one of the most challenging tasks in travel photography – how to shed new light to a subject and tell that particular story in a series of five images. You must be able to tell a story that involves the viewer giving them an insight into a world or subject they may know nothing about. You want the viewer to be captivated and hopefully transported to that moment that you had experienced and that is what a great portfolio entry will do.

My winning portfolio entry was about the daily beauty rituals of the Himba women of northern Namibia and southern Angola. They were part of a project that I had been undertaking on and off over a period of five years. This is unusual for most travel photographers as people cannot dedicate this amount of time to a certain subject or place, but I was able to learn a number of valuable lessons from this extended experience.

Taking images of people on your travels is usually a daunting task. Including them in their backgrounds and giving them a sense of place while trying to portray their personality can almost seem impossible. However, by thinking of these five pointers below, next time you are shooting on your travels, you will help you portray the world and subjects before you in a better light.

1. Build a relationship with your subject

Usually while you are on your travels you do not have too much time to build relationships with people, but this point can be as simple as saying hello or sharing a joke with the person you are trying to photograph. Any interaction breaks down imaginary barriers that exist and allows a part of that person's personality to show through. For my winning portfolio entry, I had a strong friendship with the Himba people I was photographing. This friendship opened up scenarios that I otherwise would not have been privileged to see or photograph. Having spent time with the Himba and building this relationship allowed me to move freely around them and their village so they just became accustomed to my presence and my camera, which allowed me to capture them in a natural light as they went about their daily chores.

Building a relationship does not have to be taken to the extent that I had taken it over the five years of visits to this one Himba village. It could be as simple as visiting a town square over the days of your stay with your camera in tow. You don't have to immediately take any pictures, just being there, saying hello and meeting the people around you and allowing them to see you as an interested photographer will form a relationship that will break down these barriers and allow you to get a natural feeling to your images. The locals will feel comfortable with your presence and when you do approach them they will not be shy or suspicious of you or your camera.

2. Get in close

Don't be afraid to get up close to your subject. If you want to get some emotion into your images you have to let that person know that you are photographing them, that way the emotion can shine on through. This will also allow you to get tighter crops and isolate the object or person you are trying to highlight with the image. If you have made some sort of relationship with your subject this idea will not be a hard hurdle to get over and your images will be better off for it.

Getting in closer also allows you to fill the frame and kills the dead space that may otherwise be a distraction in your images. Remember you are trying to show a focal point in your image so why not do exactly that.

3. Include the background as part of your image

This point may contradict the last point of getting in close but you really should know what you are photographing. There is no point in taking an image if it has no place. You could take an image of two lovers kissing but it would not be a travel photograph unless you have included the Eiffel Tower in the background to give the viewer a time and place.

My winning portfolio allowed the viewer to get an insight into the interiors of the Himba's huts and an idea of what lay around inside their village. My subject was clear to see as the women were either having a smoke bath or tending to their hair, but having some background context gave you an idea that you were inside a mud brick hut or outside in the dusty surrounds of the village. The women were tending to their daily beauty ritual and you could see that but having that environment around them included in the image showed you another snippet in their everyday lives.

4. Return to a location numerous times

For my Himba portfolio I had to return many times, I lived with the Himba on each visit for weeks at a time to get the right images for my portfolio entry but you do not have to take this point so seriously.

Returning to a location may just mean returning numerous times in one day as this will allow you to see that place, person, landmark in a different light each time. You will see different sides to that subject. Take Trafalgar Square as an example. Early in the morning you will see street sweepers and delivery people buzzing around the area getting ready for the day to come. Later on business people start crossing the area commuting to and from work while the middle of the day is filled with lounging locals and interested tourists. Night is then left to staggering party goers as they cross town or head home from a great night out. In the space of a few hours there have been many different views and lighting conditions of this well known landmark, it is now just up to you to think how you want to portray this landmark through your camera.

Returning a number of times will give you this idea of the lives that are lived out around this central point and will pose may different photographic opportunities. Regardless of your subject remember to visit that subject a number of times and when you have done that visit it a few more times because the more you familiarise yourself with a place, person or landmark, the more you will begin to see the finer details in that subject and that will be what really draws attention to your images.

5. Build a theme that tells a story

This is the most important part of anybody's submission. This should not just be viewed as a point for only entering this competition. Being a travelling photographer you wish to tell a story, you wish to portray the sights and experiences you have experienced outside of your normal day-to-day lives. Your images almost become bragging rights as to what you have seen and where you have been, but really what good is this if they are uninteresting and nobody wants to see them?

To build interest and keep people captivated you need to be able to tell a story through your images. Link them to one another and give your images a flow. Pick a subject, landmark, culture and try to show it for what it is, if it's a landscape focus on the finer details or having a single tree in each image so your work actually feels like it is that, a series. If you have a common subject matter the viewer will relate to the image and feel like they are getting a good idea of what it is you saw and experienced, they will get an idea of what was happening and will feel compelled to keep looking at your pictures but you must remember to vary your images.

Ben McRae is an Ocean Lifeguard based in Wollongong, just south of Sydney in Australia. Due to his work, he's able to take extended periods of time off during the winter months to travel, this travel though always sees him in Africa as he is: "constantly in awe of the wildlife, cultures and landscapes that this amazing continent holds."

Since winning Wanderlust's Travel Photo of the Year Portfolio category last year, he has published an eBook, now available on my website www.benmcraephotography.com. He says: "This eBook is a collaboration of my favourite images and experiences from the five-year project and anybody with a love of Africa, traditional cultures or photography will love this digital publication."

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