Portraiture is something I’ve increasingly aspired to as a photographer. I love a good landscape- in fact, my landscape shots are often what people seem to enjoy in my shots. Portraiture is a different skill-set though. While light changes over a landscape in such a way that you may only have a few minutes to get the shot you want, the challenge of portraiture is even greater- you may have just fractions of a second to capture the image that you have in your mind’s eye. On top of that, a really good portrait often communicates far more power and emotion to the viewer than any landscape; it’s the human element that makes it special.
The basic rules all apply, of course. You want to think about composition (the rule of thirds is a pretty reliable starting point), colour (one of the joys of travel photography are the different colour palettes you can find in both the natural and urban environments) and lighting (shooting in the tropics presents visceral challenges with regards to fierce overhead lighting, washed-out skies and high-contrast backdrops, but dust and moisture can enrich late afternoon sunlight to make it magical).
I’m sharing some specific pointers I’d like to suggest for taking a decent travel photograph. They’re not exhaustive, nor are they unique to travel portraiture, but I reckon if you can nail these, you’re well on your way to capturing the sort of image you’ll want to bring home and share with friends and family when your adventures come to a temporary halt. (I’ll leave it to you guys to decide whether these shots fit the title or not…)
Note: All these photos were taken on a 3-day field visit in rural Niger in September this year.
1. Create a Connection
This is true with any portrait. I find the most powerful portraits are those where the subject is looking straight down the camera lens. It can feel (as a viewer) as though the person is looking straight out of the photograph at you. To achieve this, you generally need some sort of relationship with the person whose picture you’re taking. It might only be a momentary one- a glance in the street- or you may have asked the person to pose for you.
In travel photography you’re often communicating across language barriers, but respect is universal, so always put it into action. Just pulling out a camera and shooting willy-nilly is a sure way to upset people. I rarely take a photo where I haven’t signalled my camera (usually pointed upwards) and waited for an inviting smile or nod, or made eye-contact with the person and waited for them to acknowledge me in some way. If I sense hesitation or hostility, I smile and move on. Even asking in a foreign language, people usually get the idea of what you’re wanting and can communicate a reply.
While in photojournalism there’s a power and pathos that comes with shots of human suffering or deep emotion, I find the photos that people go back to tend to be ones where the subject is joyful. People are naturally drawn to beauty. With that in mind, have fun. Laugh with the person you’re shooting, give them a big smile, turn it into a game. That won’t work in all cultures: for many, having a photo taken is a serious business and they want to look their formal best. Kids, on the other hand, usually love it, and in many African countries they’re overjoyed when someone points a lens at them.
Earlier I’d asked this girl if I could take her picture, to which she’d agreed, and I got a really sweet little shot of her smiling shyly while clinging to the trunk of a tree. A few minutes later she came back to me with a cheeky smirk asking me if I’d take another photo, and when I raised my camera she giggled. I speak no Hausa and she spoke no French, but as you can see, the communication worked just fine.
2. Consider your Background
When you’re taking a portrait, the person is your main point of focus, but they exist in a context. In fact this is the major difference between travel (and candid) portraiture versus studio portraiture. With the latter, you control the background ahead of time. With the former, you need to manage it on the fly- itself a challenge that can be both satisfying and heart-breaking.
Background can become a part of your visual narrative, or it can distract from it, so think about the effect you want. Environmental portraits frame people in a shot with items that contribute to telling that person’s story. A merchant in a fruit stall, for example, may be best photographed standing with all her colourful pineapples sharply in focus. For this you probably want to use a wider-angle lens (not too wide, as wide angles distort images and can stretch facial features unnaturally) and a reasonably small aperture (f/8 and higher, light-depending). Again, the joy of travel portraiture is that backgrounds are often exotic and full of interest.
On the other hand, a child on a busy street may get lost in the clutter if you don’t defocus your background. Use a mid-range telephoto lens and open the aperture wide to get a really shallow depth of field, which naturally throws the background out of focus. Just make sure your point of focus is spot-on, or you may end up with a fuzzy subject too.
If the background is unremarkable you probably want to use this technique too. In the photo at the top of this page, the background was burning white sand- totally uninteresting and threatening to wash out the photo- so blurring it into white made the most sense. This has advantages (declutter and an element of the abstract) but also disadvantages (the photo is placeless and has no context).
In this first photo, I chose to use a really shallow depth of field as the background was fairly dull, and I wanted the farmer to stand out. Using a small f-stop number (f/1.8) also means that the part of the shot that is in focus is REALLY sharp. The blurred green trees give just enough information to let you know you’re in the countryside, but don’t pull the eye away from the man’s wrinkled face.
In this next shot, the girl is standing against the wall, so both she and the wall are in focus. The wall is painted with a map of Africa. Although the girl herself doesn’t stand out quite so much from the background, the colours and textures are pleasing to the eye, and the map itself tells a story and gives the girl a context which (in my opinion) adds something unique to the photograph that might have been lost had she been against an empty or blurred background.
In this third shot, the boy is in focus while everything forward of and beyond him starts to blur out. There’s just enough detail, however, to give him a context- the cows, the harness and the water containers, as well as the rural backdrop. Because he alone is in focus he still holds the viewer’s eye, but there are other elements in the image that contribute to telling the viewer something about who he is and what he does. Note: You could argue that this photo would have benefitted from a broader depth-of-field (something around f/4) to keep the cows sharp but still blur the background, and I’d accept that criticism, although I also like how isolated the boy is from everything around him; you can see just how precise the depth is by looking at how much of the yoke, front-to-back, is actually in focus before it blurs out.
3. Be Ready for the Right Moment
Facial expressions are fleeting, as are connections. If you’re in a place where you think you might see something interesting, have your camera out and switched on, with the right lens fitted, the correct mode selected, and your eyes scanning. You might be looking for a gesture, an emotion, or a fleeting glimpse of eye-contact. People may be moving. Think about your shutter-speed- will you be able to freeze motion given the light available to you? And think too about point number one and the importance of communication and respect; even in a crowded place, have you made eye-contact with the people you’re wanting to photograph, or made sure they’re comfortable with the camera? Stand-off lenses are all very well, but as a photographer you need to be asking yourself these ethical questions.
In both of these photos, these kids made eye-contact with me for just a few seconds where they were caught in a crowd of others. The children there had been watching me for some while and I’d been looking back at them and smiling, and noting those that smiled back at me and at the camera. I already had the aperture opened up so that when my opportunity came I knew I’d be able to isolate whichever children gave me a moment to photograph, and these two did.
4. Go for the Eyes
If there’s a cardinal rule in portrait photography, it’s this one. Eyes are all about moment and connection. They communicate emotion to the viewer, and a simple glance of a couple of degrees off-lens can make the difference between a missed opportunity and a wow moment. This is particularly true of close-ups.
For eyes, think about placement; rule of thirds is usually the way forwards here, so try and get one eye onto that sweet-spot at the intersection of the thirds-lines. An eye-line straight down the barrel is usually what I go for, and almost all of the portraits I’ve loved have involved that sort of eye contact. If using shallow depth of field, ensure that the eye itself is the point of focus. It’s all too easy to accidentally focus on the forehead or the tip of the nose, and even with a really strong facial expression, you’ll lose some of the punch of the image.
These two shots were both taken at a school in Niger (one inside the classroom and one outside), and they are both among some of my favourite portraits of all time.
5. Tell a Story
This is optional, but the difference between a techncially good photo, and a photo which makes people sit up and take notice, is that with the latter, they’re experiencing something new. The beauty of travel photography is that there’s always a story to be told, something new to see, something that’s exotic to the viewer back home, so try and think of what that story might be. A facet of daily life, a curious setting, some exotic produce, or just an unusual face that communicates a sense of place or time- it can be any number of things. Put this together with capturing the right moment and working on your background, and you’ll have a photograph that will really help you remember a place.
In this photo, I managed to combine moment, background, eye-contact and connection, and the setting was such that I’ve been able to capture a little slice of existence in this rural African village. Girls in Niger, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are the ones mostly tasked with collecting water- even quite young girls like this one. Here, I love the colour, the bright light, her expression, and the pouring of the water all framed crisply against a blurred backdrop of other women and girls waiting at the well behind her (and again, contrast this with the image at the top of the page which has no background).
Travel photography- and portraiture- is a personal thing, and it’s up to you as the photographer to decide what you want to remember, and how. Really, if you take a photo, and it reminds you of something special, and you’re proud of it, that’s all that matters. I wish you all the best of luck out there, and most of all, I encourage you to have fun. If you’re not enjoying yourself with you camera, seriously, what’s the point?