Photography Travel

Rock the Travel Portrait

Durbar Square rickshaw driver, Kathmandu
Rickshaw driver looks through awning, Kathmandu Nepal. (c) Aloha Lavina.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal, bustles early in the morning. The market nearby causes almost all of the foot and rickshaw traffic passing through the Square. This morning, everyone it seems brought either their bicycle or opted to walk. The rickshaw drivers are lounging in their rickshaw, waiting for fares. Except for one young man, who seems nervous, his head turning to one side then another, in darting motions; his fingers tap on his knees, the rickshaw seat. His eyes are wide. When he stares at me through the slats of the rickshaw awning, I lift my camera and capture his portrait.

Taking travel portraits is a genre all its own. Portraiture, or making photos of people, can be posed studies, but travel portraiture is what Henri Cartier-Bresson began—that of the snap shot portrait. It meant that photographers no longer posed and set the stage for their portraits, but that portraits became more of a found art; you capture a moment when time and action come to a beautiful conclusion. Now thanks to digital technology and easier travel, you can take compelling travel portraits that help you tell the story.

1. Don’t be a sniper—interact!

Taking photos of people up close might be a daunting idea; we do not want to bother them as they go about their daily tasks. Some travelers might think it more polite and easier to use a long zoom lens, maybe one that zooms up to 200-300mm, to capture portraits. However, as a traveler, you want to get to know your subjects.  The richness of travel is enhanced in the details, which you may only get through interacting with others.

2. Learn some words in the local language

Vietnamese woman laughs at the photographer's strange Vietnamese accent. (c) Aloha Lavina.

To interact with the subjects of our travel portraits, we need to set them at ease. Learning a few words in the local language can go a long way in establishing a relationship to our new acquaintances. Even if accent is wrong and grammar might be a little off, learning some words like the local greeting and the words for “thank you” pay off.

3. Use the camera modes that quicken your ability to take a shot

Today’s DSLRs, or cameras with interchangeable lenses, are much more affordable than they were a decade ago. If you bring one on your trip, set it to Aperture mode when you intend to take travel portraits. Aperture is the size of the lens opening that allows light into the camera’s sensor, where the image is recorded. They come in numbers like 1.4, 3.5, 5.6, and so on. The Aperture mode allow you to change the size of the opening of the shutter when you take the shot—that means you can change fast (and change shutter speed automatically), when the light changes or when your subjects move around a lot.

4. Wait for an expressive moment

A lot of travel portraiture is about patience. Waiting for the right moment is what separates the travel snapshot from the winning shot. Travel photographers know that sooner or later, human beings will interact with each other and their environment, and they will show emotion in their faces. Wait for the moment when your subject is expressing an emotion before you take the shot. The result will be a winning photograph, expressive and able to evoke emotion in your audience.

5. Use the environment to tell the story

The general rule of thumb for portraits is “fill the frame,” which means to include in your shot only the necessary elements. When you make travel portraits,

Hmong children look longingly at balloons for sale in Sapa, Vietnam. (c) Aloha Lavina.

the people you are photographing are not posing for you; they are busy doing their own thing: making a living, mostly. In addition, the story you are telling is about their lives. Because of this, you need to include their environment. What are they doing? How are they doing it? The surroundings include this information. When you include the environment, there will be enough elements in it to help you tell a story that will stimulate the imagination of whoever looks at your shot.

Travel portraits can help you tell the story. With some simple techniques, you can transform your travel portraits from snapshots to timeless images worth a thousand words.


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