September 10, 2010
Following on from last week’s post, here’s Part 2 of this guide to taking better travel portraits:
Once you’ve worked out how you want your portrait to look, the next step is to do as much preparation as you can before approaching your subject. The last thing you want to do is approach them and then start fumbling with your camera, diving in a bag to change a lens or get a new memory card. Get everything worked out in advance, and you’ll be more relaxed. Make sure you have enough space on your card, the right lens, and even check your exposure before you sidle up and say hello.
This is when travel portraiture starts to get fun! You have to approach someone to ask their permission in some way. This can be tacit agreement: sometimes a smile and just raising your camera can be enough to get someone to agree to a picture. Other times you might have to speak to them and explain yourself. Try to think back to your motivation for choosing a particular style of portrait, and use this as your reason when you approach someone. If you want to shoot a head shot because someone has a great face, then tell them that. If it’s the way they’re dressed, or what they’re doing that attracts you, then tell them that. If you don’t share a language then you’ll have to do this with sign language. Some people will want to know what you’re taking the pictures for and how they’ll be used. Make sure you have an answer ready so you don’t appear shady.
Above all you have to convey empathy: that you like and respect people. If you don’t, then even if you get permission, this lack of engagement will show in your pictures.
I like to shoot up close as I find it more immediate, and somehow less intimidating than shooting people from a distance. After all, you wouldn’t try to hold an intimate conversation with someone from the other side of the street. Getting in close also allows you to maintain eye contact in your pictures, and makes it harder for anyone else to get in your way.
Don’t be afraid of directing people. You might want them to move in front of a different background or out of harsh sunlight. You also either want to have direct eye contact, with them looking directly into your camera, or have them look completely away. Avoid having them look at the photographer next to you as this will ruin your shot. All of this can be done with sign language if necessary.
Once you’ve taken a couple of pictures, quickly review the last one on the LCD screen, to check all is working. It’s a really good idea to show this to your subject. People often relax more when they see a picture, and it’s a great way of getting closer to your subject, before taking more pictures. Remember though, don’t break your link with your subject by spending more than a couple of seconds looking at your pictures.
Once you’ve invested the time and effort to approach someone and take their picture, don’t just take one – keep shooting! People often blink or look goofy in pictures, and this will make sure that you get a shot where they don’t! If you interact with people as you’re taking pictures they will often relax and get more into being photographed, so later pictures are better than the first ones. You also have the option of shooting in different styles, to get more creative pictures of your subject.
Next Week: in the final part of this series we will look at creative and candid styles of travel portraits. All photos by Steve Davey. Header image:Sadhu at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, India.
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 Travel and street portraits. More information on http://www.bettertravelphotography.com/