How To: Take Better Travel Portraits (Part 1)

By: steve

August 27, 2010

For many of us, the locals we meet on our travels are the highlight of any trip, yet many people struggle to come away with portraits that they’re proud of. A combination of juggling the technical and creative considerations with nervousness about approaching strangers means that many people ‘steal’ pictures from a distance without permission, then leg it before they are confronted. This leads to disappointing pictures, as well as a poor experience for both subject and photographer.

Done correctly, travel portraits are a fantastic way to meet locals. Photography provides a perfect excuse to just walk up to someone and say hello! Asking if you can take someone’s picture can be a great icebreaker, and then the process of taking pictures can provide great interactions.


'Environmental' portait by Steve Davey

Buffalo seller, Sonepur Mela, Bihar, India – example of an ‘environmental’ portrait


There is a big debate as to whether it is necessary to ask people’s permission. For me, if someone is a significant part of a picture, then the answer is generally yes. My exceptions are if someone is taking part in a public event or procession, if they are a small part of the scene or if asking would be more intrusive than not asking. There’s a place for so-called candid photography, but I believe it should never be used as a way of getting a picture of someone who you know doesn’t want to be photographed.


Head shot by Steve Davey

Head shot by Steve Davey


There’s an argument that candid shots will give more natural pictures, but so will spending some time with your subject. Sometimes even five minutes can make them more relaxed and your pictures more uninhibited.

To help you to shoot better portraits, and to have a better time when you are doing it, here are some step-by-step points to think of:



One of the most important things that you can do before taking any picture is to pre-visualise. If you have time, give some thought as to how you want your picture to look, before approaching your subject. This means that you can make many of the creative decisions when you’re not flustered and before having to deal with your subject and keep them relaxed.


One of the major decisions is to choose the style of your portrait. The easiest way to do this is simply to think about why you want to take the picture in the first place:


Head shots

Full-length portrait by Steve Davey

Full-length portrait by Steve Davey


If your subject has an interesting face, then there’s no point in photographing them from the other side of the street. You’ll need to get in close and fill the frame with their head, or their head and shoulders.


Full or ¾ length shots

If someone is dressed in an interesting way, or if their costume says something about them, then you should take a picture that shows more of their bodies and clothes.



Action portraits

Action portrait by Steve Davey

Example of an ‘action’ portrait: Tobacco Farmer in Viales, Cuba


If someone is doing something interesting then you’ll want to compose the picture in such a way as to show this action. The actual crop will depend on the action. If it’s someone smoking a pipe, then it could be a head shot, if it’s someone rowing a boat then it will be wider frame. Action portraits are really useful for getting people to relax, as they can concentrate on what they are doing, not what you’re doing.


Environmental portraits

If your subject’s surroundings say something about them, and who they are, then you should frame your picture in such a way to show this. It might be photographing a stallholder with their wares or a taxi driver in their cab. This can also include showing someone as a part of a wider landscape, such as a Masai on the plains of Africa, or a monk in a monastery.



'Environmental' portrait (2) by Steve Davey

Golden Temple, Amritsar – another example of an environmental portrait.


Look out for Part 2 of this feature next week. Steve runs a unique series of Photography Tours to some of the most exotic places in the world, and a range of London-based photography courses, including one on improving travel and street portraits. More information on

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