A beautiful portrait speaks to the essential nature of a place and the experiential nature of travel itself. Humans can be the most evocative creatures on Earth, especially when captured at the right moment and in far-flung territory.
Still, pointing your camera at a stranger can also be intimidating; you don’t always know how someone is going to react, and you may not be confident in your ability to quickly capture the image you want.
Hundreds of people have said no to me when I’ve asked to take their photo, but I don’t sweat it; I say, thanks, and I move on. I’ve also taken plenty of lousy photos over the years. But I don’t worry about the shot I didn’t make—I keep practicing, working on my technique and my craft, and meeting new people on the road. Here’s how you can do the same.
1. Let the Personality Shine
I'm always on the lookout for a photo that tells the story of an individual; whether in a candid moment or a posed portrait. For candid moments, I try not to surprise people with my camera. I look for eye contact with my photography subjects, and key in on subtle hints and body language that suggests they’re fine being photographed. I also know what I want my image to look like before I’ve pressed the shutter—I have an idea of how the depth of field should look, where my focus is going to land, and what my background is going to contain. This confidence comes from knowing my Nikon inside and out, and understanding the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. For portraits, I like to capture people in their element. While in Bora Bora, I met Timi, a drum maestro, ukelele impresario, spear fisherman, and shark whisperer who made an incredible subject. I shot him in his favorite environment, by the ocean, and with his drum. And I used the Nikon D7500’s spot metering to expose perfectly in midday sun conditions.
Who says your subject must always be looking at the camera? Certainly not me; a portrait is whatever you want to make it. I shot this image after I had spent about an hour wandering a very popular umbrella market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The kind gentleman here had already posed for numerous photographs for me, but it wasn’t until he was back to work painting umbrellas that I found an image I was truly happy with. Sometimes, patience is more important than speed. Waiting for your intended subject to relax around you and continue with their work or play can yield tremendous results.
Photographers “know” they’re not supposed to center their subjects in their frame. They “know” they’re supposed to respect the Rule of Thirds. They “know” that direct eye contact can be distracting. But you know, and I know, that rules were made to be broken. I love centering my subjects when shooting travel portraits; I feel like this helps tell an intimate story of the person I’m shooting. I use wide apertures to soften my backgrounds, focus on the eyes of my subject, and get as close and person as I can (without making things too awkward for either of us). I made many portraits this way while traveling across Papua New Guinea.
I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself; I want to experience scenes differently from how I’ve experienced them before, and I want to photograph people in ways they may never have been photographed previously. Here are two examples of that process in action: In the first, I’m shooting a Huli Wigman in Papua New Guinea while he prepares for a Sing Sing performance. It’s in focus and features an eye-catching subject, but it’s not altogether captivating.
Tips for More Advanced Shooters:
5. Use a Shallow Depth of Field
I rely on NIKKOR lenses with wide apertures (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8, etc.) to help blur distracting backgrounds, render silky-smooth portraits, and lead my viewer through an image the way I intend them to see it. In this example, while photographing an elderly lady on the Philippine island of Malapascua, I wanted to separate my subject from the background; I did that by selecting a longer lens (85mm) and a wide aperture (f/1.4), and focusing on her eyes. Remember that the longer your lens and the wider your aperture, the greater this separation effect will become.
I’ve been incorporating flashes in my travel photography for years. Generally, I like to use flash off-camera, usually shot through a softbox or bounced against an umbrella. But in a pinch, I’ll use my Nikon Speedlight on camera to capture scenes I would otherwise be unable to. I would not have been able to capture this image of a nighttime event in Turks & Caicos without a Nikon Speedlight. I knew I wanted to focus my viewer’s attention on the man at the head of the pack, so I got a little technical in planning. I knew that the light from my Speedlight would hit my main subject, but not the people around him; that’s why he’s rendered sharply, but the folks around him are soft, thanks to a shutter speed of 1/20 sec.