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I’ve always marvelled at the wonderful travel portraits that photographers bring back from their travels. Whether it be family and friends showing me their photos from holiday, or a shot on the cover of a travel magazine, there’s always a certain charm that makes a great travel portrait.
On a recent trip to India, with G Adventures, I set out to get a variety of travel photography and to hunt down the secret to getting a great travel portrait. Below are 9 top tips to getting incredible shots!
1. Plan your trip
I know this may seem like an obvious and essential thing to do, but do you know where you are going? What and who do you expect to see?
I did some research before my tour of Rajasthan and realised that we would be visiting a lot of religious sites and ancient buildings, as well as urban and rural communities. Observing cultural etiquette is an absolute must if you want people to engage with you and have their photo taken.
Planning your trip can help you plan your shots. Researching each town or stop on your adventure can give you plenty of inspiration. Good research also means you won’t miss out on essential sites or off the beaten track treasures! Resources like guidebooks, magazines, even turning on photos on Google maps, all are great ways to scout out where you are going.
2. Take the right camera and lenses
For travelling you want a small and light camera. Preferably get a camera with weather sealing so if you get caught out in the rain or on a dusty road you won’t have to worry. For portraits in particular, I suggest taking a camera that looks cool. If you have a cool camera then people get interested in it. They want their photo taken with THAT camera!
In India I used an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, which has great weather sealing, is small and weighs only 417g. And it looks super cool! People were asking me about it all the time and loved having their photos taken with it.
The same applies for lenses. Take small and light lenses appropriate for your photos. A small, fast prime, such as the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45mm F1.8, is great for background blur, with smooth and creamy bokeh, to set your subject from the scene. A compact super-zoom, such as the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 14‑150mm F4‑5.6 II, is also worth taking for getting wide angle environmental portraits or for getting telephoto shots of subjects far away.
3. Travel light – don’t forget the essentials.
So you’ve picked you camera and lenses, but what other gear are you going to take? I’ve found from many years of travelling, the less stuff you have to carry, the more enjoyable your trip is. The more fun you have and the happier you are, the happier and more relaxed your subject will be.
When it comes to camera gear, there’s not much else you need besides your camera, lenses, batteries and charger. Extra batteries and a couple of spare memory cards are probably the only extras you’ll need. No one is going to wait around while you set up an off camera flash or light reflector, or if they do, they will have the expression of sheer boredom on their face by the time you are done getting ready. The best photos are taken in the moment.
Take a small camera bag to go in your main luggage, just to protect your gear while in transit. When out and about, leave the camera bag at home and just put your camera around your neck and an extra lens in your pocket along with a spare battery. A camera bag is just something to worry about and it weighs you down. A lot of religious sites won’t let you take bags in and you have to pay to have it stored. If photography is prohibited, just put the lens cap on so people can see you aren’t taking photos. Most places then let you keep your camera on you.
4. Always ask permission
Now you’re on the road and it’s time to take some portraits, but where do you start? Well a perfect start point is ask permission before you start taking photos of someone. It’s kind and respectful, but the rewards of asking permission are also bountiful. A shot taken sneakily with a telephoto lens through a crowded street isn’t going to get the glint in your subject’s eye. By asking permission, the person will engage with you in your shot, which means when someone looks at the photo, they will engage with the subject too, giving the viewer a sense that they are there. You’re also probably going to get a pleasant smile from your subject by asking permission, rather than a stern glare.
Sometimes verbal consent isn’t always obtainable, due to language barriers or your subject being far away. In these instances, holding up your camera to one side and pointing at it, then the person, soon gets the message across that you want to take their photo. Most of the time, you are then greeted with a smile or thumbs up and a pose, giving you time to take a good clear shot. If someone says no, be respectful, smile and say thank you anyway.
5. Don’t rush – get to know people
The best travel memories we have, the ones that stick with us forever, usually involve an interaction with someone, either a local or another tourist. A travel portrait holds so much more value when there is a story behind the photo.
Getting to know someone means that when you take their photo, there smile isn’t so much part of a pose, but an expression of their relationship with you and reflection of their experience with you. The better the interaction, the richer the photograph.
Sometimes, the situation doesn’t allow us to get to know a person. There can be either physical or linguistic barriers that stop us getting past asking for permission to take a photo.
While on a scenic train journey in Rajasthan, I built up a great relationship with a man without exchanging a single word. Neither of us spoke the same language, but after a series of gestures and photos throughout the journey, by the time we got to the station platform, the man approached me and insisted I take a series of photos of him doing different poses. We had a great laugh and the combined photos from the train and platform make a great story.
6. Headshot or environmental portrait?
When you get around to taking the portrait, you need to think hard, and sometimes fast, on how you want the shot to look. This will depend greatly on the story you want to tell through the photograph, whether is be the expression on their face, the face itself, what the person is doing or what their story is.
In Rajasthan, we met a huge variety of people, from different backgrounds, with different stories. Sometimes a head shot could quite easily tell you a lot about the person by what they are wearing and their expression. But sometimes an environmental portrait including either the person’s surroundings, or what they are doing at the time is needed to add the right details to tell their story. For example, rather than just “this is a man” it would be better to tell “this is a man making some shoes”.
7. Remove clutter
When taking a travel portrait there may not be a lot of time to plan and organise the shot. When we eventually get home we often kick ourselves reviewing photos when we spot that plastic water bottle right in the foreground, or an ill placed pair of sunglasses on someones head or around their neck.
Take a moment to compose your photo before taking the shot. Ask yourself, is there anything out of place? Are there any distracting elements such as garbage or street signs? Is there anything in the photo that doesn’t belong in the story we are trying to tell?
When it comes to backgrounds, the same questions apply. Is the background appropriate? If the background is blurred, do the colors complement the photo as a whole? If the background is sharper, does it help tell the story? Are there any distractions?
It’s perfectly fine to ask someone to put something like a water bottle down or give it to someone else. They will feel like they are getting a good photo and this will be reflected in the image. Consider changing the position you take the photo from if the background doesn’t add up, or ask the person to move slightly. These things should only take a couple of seconds, but don’t let the moment pass.
8. Camera settings
If you’re new to photography and find it all a bit overwhelming, you’ll be glad to hear you don’t have to worry so much about the camera settings. There are many auto settings and portrait settings on cameras these days to help you not worry about specific settings, and focus more on the composition of the photograph. On Olympus Cameras there are Portrait, e-portrait and night portrait modes in the SCN menu on the selection dial. At the end of the day, all that we really want from our photos is for them to be sharp and well exposed, so using these modes is absolutely fine.
For those who want a bit more control over their portrait I recommend keeping the shutter speed above 1/200sec to keep the image sharp as people are always moving slightly. Use face and eye autofocus if available.
For F-stop, start with the lowest available but check to make sure all the facial features you want in focus are in focus. For example, if you are very close to someone with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45mm F1.8, you may want to step up to f2.2 or f2.8. For an environmental portait with a wider angle lens you may want to step up further to ensure all the elements of the story are in focus, or at least recognisable.
For file format, shoot in RAW + Large JPG. That way you can instantly enjoy and share your photos through the OI.Share app using the JPG, and also do extensive post-processing when you use the RAW file at home if you need to.
9. Enjoy your trip
You may be lucky enough to be paid to go and take travel photos, but for most of us, we are on our own adventure. Take plenty of photos but don’t forget to sit back and enjoy your experience with your own eyes. Don’t worry too much about getting perfect lighting or there being too many people at a spot to get a clean shot. This is your experience and you should just enjoy it.
I’ve been to many countries around the world, and more and more I see people experiencing the trip through their phone or camera screen, and not just looking with their own eyes and taking it in.
Most photos won’t be “perfect”. Just try your best, move on and enjoy the interaction with your subject. The interaction is what is reflected in the finished product, not the fact the photo is slightly underexposed or there’s a dog in the background. Most shortcomings in a photo can be changed in post-processing when you get home, so just relax and enjoy the trip!
I grew up in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park near Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Surrounded by natural outdoor beauty, I have always been a very outdoors person. I love travelling and seeing different landscapes and cultures around the world. While most of my career has been purely scientific, I use photography as a creative outlet.