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6 tips for travel portraits

Portrait of a Tuk Tuk driver in Phnom Penh - A Lorenz Berna Travel Photography of Cambodia

Travel Portraits

– 6 essential tips for shooting travel portraits

[  Photos by Lorenz Berna, text by Florence Lepavec  ]

In Travel Photography as we see it, we have to master three main photographic genres :
Landscape, Street and Portrait Photography. Today, let’s get into travel portraits.

When shooting travel portraits, we have many different options to do it.
We can take posing portraits blurring the background to concentrate only on our subject. Or we can get an “environmental” portrait including the background to give information on the context.
We can play with lights and composition to get a more “scenic”, dramatic portrait. Or we can have a rather raw “documentary” approach, keeping it as much natural as possible.
And we can choose to empathize the difficulty and misery of a situation or on the contrary, enlighten the beauty of it.

It exists as many options as photographers. As many points of view as sensitivities.

But in all cases, we deal with people and this is the most beautiful yet delicate part of the job.
How we approach the person is a crucial part in getting a meaningful picture or not. And an attentive approach and attitude are therefore necessary to get the best out of our subjects and make great portraits. 

In this article, we will develop what we think to be the 6 basic but essential tips to have in mind while realizing travel portraits.

Street Portrait of a young man covered from the cold in a blanket in Old Delhi - A Lorenz Berna travel photography of India

1.Connect with our subjects

Among all the people we meet in our (photographic) trip, some of them really stand out from the crowd. We can see it right away, from their aspects, their character or from what they express.
However, meeting the perfect subject for a great portrait doesn’t mean necessarily getting it. Portraits can only be realized after a connection was made between the photographer and its subject and a sort of mutual confidence created.

So what is a great subject?
For the photographers, great portraits have two main aspects : singular features and expressive emotional depth.
Simply put, that means that good subjects have original, unique or beautiful features as well as they deeply embody strong emotions or conditions in their eyes, on their face. Love, Goodness, Courage, Pride, Illness, Sadness, Pain, Desperation… such emotions that silently speak about their untold story and touch us deeply. As photographers and as viewers. So as photographers, let us be guided by our feelings and we will always recognize such interesting persons that will give absolutely powerful and meaningful portraits.

Old thangka painter smoking at the entry of his shop, in Bhaktapur - Travel Photography of Nepal by Lorenz Berna

2.Be empathic & respectful

How we comport ourselves with the people will greatly define the pictures we will get!
Let’s remember not to be image hunters who coldly shoot, with few real interest and empathy for their subject. Let’s not just point and leave, take and go, steal…

It is essential not to consider our subjects only as interesting puppets for our portfolio, but as sensitive human beings living in a specific reality which can partly represent who they are. The interest we have for a place has also to be placed within its people. By respecting them and their living conditions, we give them full dignity as well as we establish a real human connection too, part of the reasons why we travel! 

This way, we won’t also disturb too much the traditional way of living and will surely leave a good impression of travelers and photographers for those who will come after us.

Portrait of an old lady living in the Pashupatinath Retirement Centre in Kathmandhu - A Lorenz Berna Travel Photography of Nepal

3.Create confidence & intimacy

Sometimes, we have time to know our subject, sometimes we only have a few minutes to do so. Thus, we have to quickly and simply create confidence and intimacy with the persons. A sense of understanding, goodwill and respect.
A humble attitude that will make them feel at ease and will be an essential condition for them to give us that natural look and face that make great and authentic portraits.

Indeed, we do have totally our part to play in getting them to be themselves.
Keeping an open mind, free of judgments, as well as showing a real interest for the person’s condition is something they can easily feel and will make them accept to give themselves freely to the camera.

Travel portraits of Nepali men in Kathmandu Durbar square - Nepal Travel Photography by Lorenz Bera

4.Anticipate, Be quick and focus

Getting a natural look and pose from a subject, requires the photographer to be quick and extremely focus when pointing the camera. Not everyone is relaxed with photos and it is very easy to waste the genuine attitude of our subject.
So after having established the connection with the person, we have to quickly pre-visualize what we want in our mind. It is always better to 
mentally analyze the light, composition, angle and the settings of the camera before pointing the camera at our subject. The less time we put them in front of the camera, the more they are likely to appear relaxed and natural when we do so. And this will automatically make more authentic and “fresh” portraits.

Sadhu at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.

5.Get more perspectives

So once the connection and trust have been established and that we got permission to portray our subject, we have the occasion to try different perspectives and angles. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal, subject centrally placed or not…
Getting more angles gives us more opportunities, 
more chances to get the good picture. A different angle can highlight a different aspect too. So flexibility and diversity is often a good approach.
Obviously, always remembering to be quick and sharply focused so we don’t lose the patience nor the original and natural expression of our subject.

Burmese children laughing.

6.Be grateful

Once more, we have to be grateful towards our subjects as it is never easy to pose for a stranger! They gave us their time, and accepted to lay themselves bare. Often it is rather deep and will certainly end up by being some of our best photos. So let’s indeed be grateful for what they offered us!

Sometimes, we portray poor people that might afterward, ask us for an offering in return. No offense or pride in this. They gave us something, we have the opportunity or not to help them in return. Give as much as it feels right, it doesn’t need to be that much! But being able to help a family to put some meals on the table or the kids to go to school a little longer, are beautiful and precious feelings we can easily get! Have good, do good, feel good… A win-win situation for everyone…

However, let’s avoid giving money to children.
We can offer them food or bring them to a local restaurant for a warm meal. But actually, most of the time, we often underestimate the power of time and attention. Indeed, by experience, spend some time to play and laugh with kids is something even more valuable. Attention, kindness and fun are great antidotes against misery and pity… And this is also true with adults.

That’s it for now, hope this has been helpful somehow…

Keep the spirit of travel photography alive, enjoy and be happy!