Lost on Planet Earth | Travel Portraits

Travel Portraits

April 02, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Taking Photos of People can be a daunting, but wholly rewarding activity, and meeting people in different cultures through the simple excuse of wanting to take their picture is surprisingly liberating.  I've become quite fond of taking travel portraits, much to my surprise...


lost in thought

First, a little nostalgia

When I first started photography around 2 years ago, like most people I took photos of things - things that wouldn't object to me sticking my clumsy oafish camera hands right in their face.  It seemed easier this way, the flower, rock or tree didn't have much of an escape route and nor did they hurl abuse at me (except for maybe the odd look) so I could sit there and torture them with my bad photography skills for hours until I learned what I needed to.  Namely that I was rubbish, and this photography thing was going to take a little longer to master learn the basics.  

It may have been the fact that I had just watched a youtube video showing how to do all sorts of fancy things with motion, blurriness and such, or it may be that I was just a little ambitious, but I started off shooting in manual within 15 minutes of unboxing my Nikon D90.  Yeah baby, I felt like a pro.  Except that all my pictures were black.  Maybe I could work that out in post?  I hadn't mastered installed or used photoshop yet, so I guess I would just have to learn what all this exposure nonsense was about.  Either way, it felt safe doing all this in my garden, with only my cats and various creepy crawlies laughing at my noobishness.  I can't imagine having done all that with a real life person, one that had eyes to see me bash my camera lens for not focusing properly, or ears to hear me cursing the menu system designed by Mensa's testing department for confusing my poor brain, or a nose to smell the scent of my defeat as yet another black image popped up on quick view.  

Portraits.  With real people.  Scary.  

But that was going to change. At least a little bit.


People from a distance Man Walking in Back Streets of Aleppo, Syria

Like most people, I eased myself into photographing people by first taking photos of family and friends - much to their despair!  But, it was hard to find someone that would do some real modelling for me, and I was just a little reluctant to go up to people in the street for a quick street portrait.  This was partly because I was still very new at all this, and taking shots with my fancy camera was a little hit and miss - occasionally the camera had a lucky hit, and the rest of the time I missed :-)  But it was also because it feels a bit awkward just going up to some random person on the street and asking if you can take their photo.  What would they think?  Creep with a Camera?  Pervy Photographer? Mugger with a Macro?  And what would they do?  hit me? spit at me? call me nasty names?  run away screaming? I shuddered to even think about it... but was that really true?  how bad could it really be?

Well, it wasn't long before I started to get bored of images that felt 'empty' and in need of a human interest, so I decided to make the effort on an upcoming photography holiday in Syria, and take some photos of people.  

Now, back in 2010, Syria was a peaceful and very welcoming country, with lovely people and a safe feeling atmosphere in the streets of the towns we visited (in particular Alleppo, Palmyra/Tadmur and Damascus), and (friendly) kids were plentiful in the back streets and souks, all keen on being the centre of attention for your camera.  There wasn't too much hassle from street vendors, and most people were genuinely friendly and open to having their photo taken, without too much expectation on the quality of the results.  Thank goodness :-)  I was also fortunate enough to have some good advice from a pro photographer, Fil Gierlinski.

Old Man and Young Boy sitting on Prayer Mat in Mosque in Damascuswaiting for god

But still, despite one or two 'portrait' style shots (which weren't very compelling) and a ton of shots with local giggling children peering into the lens, the majority of the shots I took were more of a candid style, taken from a distance - what I like to call "Sniper Shooting" for obvious reasons...  At the time it felt like an easy way to get shots of people with minimal hassle - yet, I now have more mixed feelings about this approach - is it ethical?...

Sniper Shooting Ethics

One of the key benefits of shooting candid images of people when they are unaware, is the completely natural feel to the situation - it isn't posed or forced, it is a raw capture of the situation in its most natural form.  It tells a wonderful story about the subject(s) and the mood of the situation and environment.  It feels real, because it is real.  Much of that would be lost if you were to ask them for a photo - they would become 'aware' of the camera, and that is usually not a good thing.

On the other hand, this also feels a bit like stealing - not in the literal or spiritual sense, just that the transaction is one way: I take, they give.  They never know about the image, and I never really know them.  Did I really capture the full depth of their personality in that single image?  Is there more to tell about them?  I don't know. I guess that's the problem.  But I do want to dig a bit deeper, both for the integrity of the image, but also because it feels like the right thing to do when visiting people of other cultures, to learn just a little about them, and maybe even spend a little time in their world, from their perspective.

I think it is worth the tradeoff in some situations, as I just don't think you can capture some moments and images any other way.  It would be sensible though to be a little cautious about this and try not to be obtrusive, both for the integrity of the scene, aswell as to avoid getting a slap ;-)

Shooting People from a Distance

So, I think there are a few things I like to keep in mind when shooting people from a distance:

Probably quite obvious, but the real value of these shots is capturing something as it happens without interfering with it, so keeping your long telephoto lens out of the way means more natural shots.  People tend to notice 2 foot of glass and metal being pointed at them :-)

  • Patience and Timing

People walking in front of you, standing in front of your subject, or generally not being quite where you want them - or worse, a tediously boring (or even empty) scene, can really try one's patience - but it is worth it in the end.  When you're about to walk away, sods law something interesting happens :-)

  • Isolate

Sometimes a crowd of faces can be quite interesting, and usually easier to find in busy streets, but I do find it more rewarding (and troublesome) to isolate the subject from the distractions abound.  The photo to the right is an example of picking a single interesting person out of a crowd.  This was taken in front of the busy Astronomical Clock in Prague, and to the left and right of the image are crowds of people and cars - I tracked this guy from about 50 ft down the street before getting a clear shot.

  • Backgrounds

Something I've learned more recently is about finding good backgrounds before I find the subject.  This can make a huge difference to the image - a bad background is horribly distracting and can ruin a photograph.  The image to the right is an example where, although not utterly terrible, could have done with a better background - the building framework cuts across this guys head and distracts from the feature of this image - the scruffy looking smoker with his wild hair and 'trendy' baseball cap: for me it is mostly his head that defines the purpose of the shot, yet the cutting across it limits its impact.  Should have found a better angle or position :-)

  • Long Lens

No brainer really - 200mm+ on the long end, ideally 300-400 if possible.  

  • Move around

People on the street move around a lot, and in busy towns and cities there are plenty of people, so finding different vantage points in which to put them into context with the surroundings is easy enough to do, and can discover all sorts of interesting perspectives and stories for the image.

  • Look up from the Camera

Yeh, more than once I've been so busy with my eye to the viewfinder that I miss what else might be coming into the scene or about to happen elsewhere.

  • Context

Personally, I like these candid shots to include the context of the situation, rather than be very close up and personal

But sometimes it comes down to a bit of sheer luck and all these things come together:

Boy standing in the Mekong Rivermekong boy


People Up Close

Man smoking cigarette in Can Tho Marketlife is good

Photographing people from afar is one thing, but actually interacting with them is another.  It took me quite a while to really get why this would help my portrait photography and travelling experience, but whilst on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia I had the fortunate experience of learning more about this approach (amongst many other things) from another excellent pro photographer, Nathan Horton.  In essence, interacting with the subject can make for a much more intimate portrait, that captures them in a way that you just can't otherwise - the yin to the yang of sniper shooting I guess.  And getting really close means you have to personally interact, which although daunting the first few times (well most times if I'm honest :-) it is great to share a moment, usually amidst smiles and laughter (mostly at me for wanting to take their photo), and make a connection, albeit a small and fleeting one. 

I have to admit that when I first tried this, it felt a little awkward, though mostly on my part - I felt somehow I would be intruding on this person's personal space.  After a few experiences though, it soon became apparent that the large majority (though not all) loved the attention, and it seemed to practically make their day.  I'm pretty sure this will differ from place to place, but I'd expect it's not as bad as you might think.  In fact, on a number of occasions, we were practically 

kids in Phnom Penh, Cambodiaa little bit of happiness invited into people's homes to take photographs of them and their family.  For example the image to the right was taken of a family in the back streets of Phnom Penh, where most people living in the small alleyway came out to see what the fuss was about and were pretty keen on getting in on the action.  Probably not what you would find in a back street in Manchester though :-)



Getting up close did make for some fairly posed photos... at first. When I initially approached the subject for the photo, they would be a little unsure and look a bit stiff and forced, but after the first couple of clicks of my shutter they thought it was all over and relaxed... so, bang! another shot reeled off whilst they are still relaxing from their pose.  This is usually the first shot that I will show them to get them engaged with the experience - showing them a quick view on the back of the camera is quite easy and they more often than not love to see themselves, especially if I've caught them mid laughter or something.  

man in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lankatour for a dollar old man in temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodiai am more than you think old woman at Can Tho market, Vietnamshe smiles from her eyes







After this you can usually take a few more and stretch your subject's modelling skills a bit.. ask (or show) them to look a certain way or smile, etc. Have a little fun for a few minutes, take a few strange angles and importantly, get in close.  I feel for the most part that closer is better for this, as you're really trying to show off who they are behind those eyes.

monk at temple near battambang, Cambodiatime we've lost

But it doesn't have to be really close up.  Sometimes, like in the below (left) picture, the context of the surroundings actually give the image much more depth and meaning.  In the below image of a monk in a floating village temple near Battambang and Tonle Sap Lake in  Cambodia puts him into perspective when you see where essentially he lives day to day, the things that he has around his bed and the simplicity of what he has.  Personally, I really like this image for the message it conveys and for the emotion that seems to eminate from the subject.  


thoughts of tomorrow

Shooting People Up Close

So, I think there are a few things I like to keep in mind when shooting people up close:

  • Smile

A smile goes a long way to getting you engaged with someone on a personal level where they will be happy for you to take their photograph

  • Get Close or find an interesting angle

Close and intimate describes this style most of all in my opinion, so getting in close can amplify the importance of the subject in the image, which is usually the point

  • Spend Time with them

You can't expect to just go up to someone, snap off a couple of shots and walk away - not only is that usually quite rude, but it is unlikely you'll get great shots in those first couple - consider them throw aways

A fast 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 (or f/1.2 if you're lucky enough to own one) or a standard mid range zoom (17-55mm f/2.8 on a crop sensor, or 24-70mm on a full frame).  You don't want to be standing 20 ft back just to get them in because you have a 70-200mm lens on

  • Involve them

Often they are keen to see what the photo looks like, and involving them in the experience by showing them the back of your camera as you go along seems to go a long way in building trust and making for more relaxed photos

  • Pick your subject well

Find the most interesting looking person and ask them for their photograph - it is hard to make a 'normal' looking person extra-ordinary.  Older people photograph well

  • Be polite

The best way to get what you want is to be polite and respect their wishes - if they don't want their photo taken, leave them alone

  • Did I mention Smile? :-)

Most of all though, have fun with it.  They'll enjoy it more if you do.

wisdom's mystery


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