Portraits capture a broad range of human emotion; they bring cultural richness and traditional beauty to light. Photographs of humans suggest a story, a life, and a future all in one glimpse. For travel photographers, portraits capture the essence of a place and the spirit of its people.
In my work as an entrepreneur and investor, I do a lot of travelling. My primary photographic interest is nature, mostly landscapes and animals, but I am always delighted when I am given the opportunity for portraiture. Among the thousands of pictures I have taken, some of my favorites are those of people.
But taking a good portrait while travelling abroad is not easy, especially if you face language barriers and are unfamiliar with cultural norms. It is always worth doing a little bit of research about your destination, so that you can arrive equipped with the knowledge and photographic tools you need to get some great pictures. I am happy to share some of my tips for taking great portraits in foreign countries:
1. Get them to trust you
I speak six languages. And yet I have been to many places where I do not speak the language. Learn a few phrases, some basic conversation, and compliments (like “beautiful” and “wonderful”), so you can gain the trust of those you are interested in photographing.
Unless you’re going for a candid shot, it is always best to ask for permission when taking a portrait. You might even consider socializing with your subject, offering to buy them a drink or something, as a way of expressing your active interest in them.
2. Come equipped
Portraits in a studio require a lot of bulky equipment including softbox lighting, booms, tripods, monitors, and more. While you may pack some of these things with you on your travels, you must also be ready to improvise. I believe a great photographer can get a good photo with any camera but being prepared is always helpful. Have multiple lenses on hand throughout your journey. For portraits, prime lenses are ideal, as they create beautiful images with a shallow depth of field. Zoom lenses are handy too, as are wide-angle lenses for portraits that include your subject’s environment.
The lens and the setting you select may also depend on the time of day, location, and amount of natural or artificial light. If you are taking pictures in the dark, a tripod will ensure the sharpest image possible.
3. Make your vision real
The most important part of photography, including portraiture, is the photographer’s vision. Imagining how you want your photo to turn out and designing the optimal setting to capture that image. This could mean posing a subject in a particular position, asking them to act natural, joking with them to get organic smiles, or seating them in the right light.
Composition is another factor worth considering. Are you going for a close up or looking to get the background scenery as well? Is symmetry important, or do you want a picture that uses the rule of thirds? Pay attention to mood and texture, too. For older subjects, capturing the details of wrinkles or facial idiosyncrasies adds grit and intimacy to portraits. For younger subjects, a softer approach may be more appropriate.
Once your mind’s eye settles on a vision for the portrait, let that vision guide you in selecting the setting, equipment, and angle to achieve a beautiful shot in any location.