Learning how to photograph people while traveling can help your photography on the road and at home. I use a few different methods to approach people whom I want to photograph while traveling, and I’ll try to explain that process below. I’m sure there are many other techniques that other photographers might use, and if you have any you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments.
I’ll start out by telling you that I’m not an outgoing person at all. I’m a shy guy. I always find it difficult to approach people. But I’ve learned that missing a good portrait because you didn’t ask hurts a lot more than getting rejected. If you’re also a little shy, you’ll need to practice being more bold and get out there and ask people if you can take their picture. I’m here to tell you that it’s not as hard as you think, and there’s even a little bit of a scientific process to doing it…
Since I just called it a “scientific process” I’ll try to write it in the chronological order of how you should think about it. I’d also like to remind you that these techniques work in your hometown and in Timbuktu, so you can go outside right now and give them a try…
You’ll need a camera: A DSLR works best. Of course you can try some of these techniques with at point-and-shoot, but it’s a lot harder without having manual controls. The best lens for portraits is usually considered to be about 90mm. I think that’s true, but I usually find myself shooting with a shorter lens, say a 24-70mm (set at 60-70mm) or often I’ll use a 50mm f1.4. Portrait opportunities often turn up at unexpected times, and the 24-70 and 50mm are my “walk around” lenses – the ones that are usually on the camera when I’m wandering the streets, so if I see a good portrait I don’t worry about changing lenses, I start to think about how I’m going to capture it.
Camera settings: If you’re wandering around, walking through different lighting conditions, your camera should be set to handle whatever you might throw at it without you having to think about it. I always walk around with my camera set to “aperture priority”, “auto ISO” and lately I’ve been using “auto white balance” as well. All that allows me to to keep my aperture at a pretty good setting for all conditions, (maybe f5.6) and if I need to, I can quickly open the aperture or close it down by only turning one dial. That works pretty well for me for most conditions, taking pictures of temples, markets, mountains, etc., but when it’s time to take a portrait, I’ll change those settings a little bit.
As I walk over to whomever I want to photograph, I’ll adjust the aperture dial to a very wide setting. If you’re shooting with a lens that has a variable maximum aperture, open it all the way up. That means to set the aperture to the smallest number, f3.5 or whatever it might be. If you have a lens with a max aperture of f2.8, set it to that. I often shoot portraits with a prime lens 50mm f1.4, but in this case I don’t usually open it all the way. I find that the depth of field is too narrow at f/1.4 and sometimes I’ll mess up a photo because it’s not in focus.
But before you change the settings, you’ll need to find someone interesting: “Interesting” people don’t have to really look interesting, although it doesn’t hurt. You can take a fantastic portrait of someone that looks normal and a terrible portrait of someone that looks interesting. My basic advice would be to take lots of portraits of lots of people, and sort them out later.
To find people to photograph, I use two different techniques. One I’ll call The Hunting Approach, and the other The Trapping Approach.
- The Hunting Approach: Pretty simply, this approach is one where you wander around and look for interesting people. It could also be call the The Stumbling Approach, because you often just stumble on interesting people without looking for them, but you get the idea…
So… You’re walking around, taking pictures of temples and flowers and clouds and stuff when you see an amazing Tibetan Monk walking down the street near you. What do you do? Quickly run over and ask to take a picture? NO!
Before you even approach him, look for something that will make a good background. It could be a plain wall, an empty field or a dark hallway. You need to find something simple that will not take the viewer’s attention away from the face of your subject.
It should also have some nice light. You don’t want to take a portrait in direct sunlight. Find some open shade or an open window. I wrote another blog talking about how to use natural light for portraits, so I’m not going to spend too much time on it here.
All that said, don’t look around for too long, your subject might wander away!
- The Trapping Approach: This approach is when you let them come to you.
First, you find a place that has really nice light and a good background. Doorways work well. So do windows that aren’t facing the sun. Again, I explained how to find this nice light in a previous post, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. What’s important is that it’s near a street or square or market that has a lot of interesting looking people walking around.
Then you simply ask people if you can take their picture and have them stand where you want them.
If I find a really good spot, I’ll stand there for an hour or two and shoot lots of different people. I’ve actually had subjects come back to me a few minutes later with family members to photograph!
The Mental Game: If you’re a really outgoing person and have no trouble approaching strangers, skip the next few paragraphs. I’m going to spend a few paragraphs on the mental side.
Like I said before, I’m a bit of a shy person. I’m not the kind of person that can walk right up and ask someone to take their picture. I always seem to have to convince myself to do it. I’ve even walked past the same person several times before getting up the nerve to ask them (Don’t even ask me about meeting girls!). But once you start doing it, it becomes a lot easier.
Things to remember:
- Most People want to be photographed. It doesn’t matter if you’re in your home town or the other side of the planet, people want to have their picture taken. The reaction is different in different cultures, but I’ve rarely been refused. Sure there are some strangely-angry people out there who don’t want their picture taken, but usually, you’re going to brighten someone’s day by doing so. Think if a photographer from a far away land asked you… would you say no?
- Even if they say “no” that’s not the end. Besides the strangely-angry people, some shy people might tell you “no”. Don’t let that be the end. Usually, these people are just a bit shy and need some convincing. I’ve gotten on my hands and knees and begged… I’ve done little dances… I’ve pretended to cry… all with the hopes of making them laugh and having them say “yes”… and it often works! (But if you think I’m condoning harassing them, I’m not. Just give them give them an opportunity to reconsider.) It also helps to lighten the mood and show them that they mean more to you than just a passing thought.
They said “yes”… Now what?
- Sit them down, or have them stand in the place you’ve found. Keep smiling because it will make them feel comfortable. Don’t ask them to smile. The photo might be better if you don’t, and you’re going to do something in 30 seconds that will make them smile.
- Spot meter on their face, on an area that’s not the brightest, not the darkest. If you don’t know what a “spot meter” is, don’t worry about it, use your matrix meter, today’s camera meters are pretty damn good.
- FOCUS ON THEIR EYES! This is probably the most important thing to any portrait. If you’re not focused on the eyes, the photo will look out of focus. Period. If you’re shooting with an aperture of 2.8 or faster, this point becomes even more important.
- Take a lot of photos. I usually take 3 to 5 frames really fast. Then I wait a second and take one or two more. Sometimes you get a nice change of expression if you do this.
- Show your subject the the photo on the back of your camera. This will almost always make them smile. You smile too, and tell them how great it looks. If they speak a different language, give them the “thumbs up”.
- Don’t let them leave!!! They are smiling a big smile because they probably never saw their picture on the back of a camera before! Take another picture! Also show any bystanders that might be hanging around. One of them might want to be your nextsubject.
- Lastly, if they ask you for a print, get their address and send them one! Nothing feels better for you and, if you’re traveling somewhere remote, they will probably only ever have one or two pictures taken of them in their whole lives! Give it to them!
Now, learn to do all of that in 30 seconds and you’ve got it! (I’m not kidding)
That might all seem a little complicated, but once you start doing it, it becomes second nature. Learning to take portraits of people while traveling will add immense depth to your travel photography and cultural learning… Have fun!