Tag Archives: travel portraits

prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands

Making Expressive Portraits

Portraits have been called ‘studies.’ Taking this definition literally would mean that you, the photographer, are a student of human behavior. There’s a lot of truth in that last statement. When you make an image, you’re attempting to freeze the complex and beautiful world of human behavior. Studying and waiting for hunting seeking expressive portraits demands that you are attentive to human nature.

small monk young monk Burma grandmother

Photographers have to study people to make good portaits. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You look for moments when people express themselves so that you can capture them and tell their stories.

If you’re a portrait photographer, you really have to be in tune with yourself. You have to dig deep to find truths about why you do what you do. Because our minds isolate us from each other without language or an exchange of some kind, the closest you can ever get to knowing what someone else is experiencing is to link it to something you’ve known and experienced.

How do we tell what someone is thinking or feeling? And how do we translate those insights into images?

One of the ways is to focus on outward expressions of inner attitudes—in other words, posture, gesture and interaction.

Hands tell stories.

hands abstraction old hands Burma faceless portrait

Crossing an arm across the body is a sign of protection from a stranger. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In an old people’s home in Burma, I know my dSLR is a little scary to this old lady. She smiles at me, a little smile that coaxes me to raise the viewfinder to my eye. Then I notice her left arm, crossing over her knees, a gesture that tells me she’s still protecting herself from the stranger with the black machine made of metal and glass.

Outside, a man clutches his prayer beads, and he’s hanging on to something precious to him.

prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands

We hold on tight to what's important to us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We surround ourselves with things that are important to us. This young weaver in Rangoon hung a picture of her favorite famous person beside her loom. When she looks up, sometimes, the photo might catch the light from the window behind her and cheer her up. To her left is a mirror, for when she thinks to look, instead, at herself.

weaver Burma silk weaving black and white

We surround ourselves with objects that comfort us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

At a market, a man chooses a mirror. He looks at himself in one, unaware that he’s also reflected in all the others.

mirrors Burma Burmese man

Notice people who don't notice your camera. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

The best travel portraits are the natural ones, not posed, of people who are in their own bubbles of thought, oblivious to the photographer. These are the portraits that teach us the most how to create a picture from a canvas we can’t plan out by sketching all the elements first.

The challenge is in recognizing the moment when we finally find it.

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Going to Burma


A Changing Story

A primer on travel photography themes, for my friend Mary, who just got her first dSLR

Travel photography is like a timelapse video, except the subject is always changing. Arriving at a new place, your attention is on overload—look at that! The temptation is to snap everything in sight, gorging the memory card with content. It’s fun to be trigger happy on a trip, but it can also be overwhelming. Even if your goal is to make images for the family slideshow, there are some themes that will help you organize your travel photography so you can more fully tell the story of a trip—a story tipsy with content and composed with beautiful imagery.

Reaching a balance between being open to the unexpected and staying true to your themes can produce a travel photo collection that includes a full range of imagery, a complete account of a changing story.

Night photography

I have a friend who puts away his camera as soon as the sun is sinking. But most cameras made after 2007 have really good ‘vision,’ meaning their sensors are able to ‘see’ in the dark and record clean enough images that can spice up your travel photo montage. So don’t put away your camera just yet when you see the sun setting. You might just get some amazing shots.

1/2000 @ f/11, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


30s @ f/22, ISO 125. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


Photos of people are some of the most interesting and memorable images of a place. It may be a little intimidating, but try taking photos of strangers, and when you do, try to tell their story. It helps to include a detail or two that contextualize the portrait: What are they doing? Who are they with? The charm of a portrait is in its details.

1/200s @ f/5.0, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


1/250s @ f/5.6, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


1/200s @ f/4.5, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

Fauna and flora

Animals and flowers are great story bits. I was in Ayuddhya and visited the elephant camp there. As soon as I entered the camp, I spotted a young elephant jogging around the compound, and then caught him when he was tired, plopping down and bathing himself in early morning sun.

1/800s @ f/5.6, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

At another place in tropical Bangkok, there were these lilies all in a row, graceful and delicate in a shallow depth of field at a wide-open aperture.

1/160s @ f/3.2, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


Images that record events give a depth to travel photography. The story of work, for example, tells a lot about a place. What people value and how they interact with their environment are often revealed when we learn about how they work and live.

1/500s @ f/8.0, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

When we make travel photos, we also make our memories of that place tangible, a story captured that will withstand the passing of time.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Making Eyecandy

Like everything in photography, shooting in color is a decision. That sounds weird, right? After all, the world is in Technicolor and we can’t really turn all the color “off.”

Color has emotional content. We use it a lot in the ways we express our feelings. “Red as a beet” for both embarrassment and anger. “Blue” when we’re sad. “Green with envy.” Our perceptions of color reach far beyond just what color something is. We can add impact to a photo when we use color effectively.

Green is a soothing color.

Farmer and beautiful ricefield, Vietnam.

Some colors are cool—the blue-green part of the color spectrum. These colors are usually soothing. Photos that are mostly blue or green, such as this photo of lush forest around a beach in Krabi, Thailand, exude a sense of calm. The second photo, of a farmer walking across a rice field in Vietnam, is mostly green, and the blue shirt of the farmer gives the color palette in the photo unity. The yellow, although it should intrude on the cool color palette, instead serves to punctuate the blue and green and it also helps give the photo a three dimensional feeling, acting as a gradient running from foreground to background.

A limited color palette can work well in a photo.

The other end of the spectrum—the red-yellow part, are the warm colors. Reds, yellows, oranges are fiery, aggressive colors and we associate them with like feelings. This photo of a swami in Rajasthan, India, is full of red and yellow. The walls, the clothing of the swami, even the ground have reds in them. I think this image works because all the elements in it contain similar hues. This harmony then allows the content of the image to pop out—the humor in the pose of the swami, and the self-deprecating smile on his face, playing with the photographer and the situation.

Morning light at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap.

A sense of harmony in this shot from Siem Reap comes from the narrow color palette. The browns and yellows give the photo unity, and since everything is golden from the early morning light, even the green leaves in the photo are tinged with yellow.

But we can’t always photograph still objects, such as Angkor Wat and fallen leaves. A lot of travel photography is of people. One of the most used “tricks” of shooting travel portraits is to find a great background, wait until someone interesting walks past it, and shoot. Usually this strategy produces some gems. But after finding this wonderfully colorful wall in Saigon, Vietnam, I waited and sure enough, a girl in the traditional ao dai dress walks by. Click. Now I look at this photo and think, would it work better as a black and white photo? The clash between the purple tinge on the girl’s dress and the red, yellow and green of the wall might be distracting and does not add to the photo.

Girl in traditional dress in Saigon, Vietnam.

Another photo I think might work better in black and white is this one of a boy surrounded by his family at a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and they are all wearing striped shirts. The stripes on their shirts frames him, and I originally shot this in color but again wonder if the color does not really add to the photo at all.

A photo that might work better in black and white.

Sometimes, when the most compelling elements in a photo are lines or shapes, it works better as a black and white image.

Making a color image is a matter of decisions the photographer makes. Since the goal of capturing an image is to create order out of chaos, to somehow arrange the elements of a scene into a harmonious design, we can’t ignore the fact that there are ways to use color in achieving an image.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Beginner’s Guide to Light

At some point in their journey, people with cameras begin to photograph light instead of “look what I saw.” Light is the main ingredient in the mix of elements that make an image. Content, composition, technique will all pale if the light isn’t “right.” But is there a “right” light? Here are some common lighting situations that could help you create compelling shots. Practice looking for them, and you will see your images increase their wow factor.

Back light

Dancer with rim light, Bali.

Back light is when the light source is behind the subject. This means that it is directly in front of the camera, with the subject in between. The photo of the dancer sitting was lit with two windows behind him, lighting him like a halo around his head and body. This line of light around a subject is called “rim light,” as it creates a rim of light outlining the subject. To shoot this kind of shot, I had to use exposure compensation, overexposing to making sure I had a balance between the bright light I wanted to capture, and the man’s features.

Backlit spools of thread at a weaver's shop in Burma.

In cases of really bright light behind the subject, like in this shot of colorful spools of thread in by a window, the patterns created by the light and shadow make for an interesting picture.

Front light

When the light is right in front of the subject, it is easier photograph, but if the light is directly in front of the subject, it may result in a ‘flat’ photo. ‘Flat’ lighting is light that evenly spreads on the subject. I try to avoid this because it makes a photo look two-dimensional; it is the shadows in a photo that create a three-dimensional effect.

Dancers putting on makeup, Bali.

In the photo of the dancers putting on makeup, their light source is directly in front of their faces. I could have taken the shot with the light behind me, but I broke away from that and instead focused on the mirror one of the dancers was holding. My thinking was, the composition was more interesting with the dancers echoing each other’s postures. But most importantly, the light from the window was reflected on their faces into the mirror, and the mirror’s image was thus well lit for my camera to capture.

Top light

Light from above of course is quite common. When you travel, mostly the sun is your light source, and most of the day the sun is right above your subjects. So it’s important to know how the light from above will affect your images, and what you can do to minimize the shadows that the sun from above will invariably create in your subjects.

Early mornings and late afternoons are great because the sunlight is more orange; the angle of the light is also more from the side, especially at sunrise and sunset. But also in the hours right after sunrise and the hours just before sunset, the light is not as harsh as in midday.

Man asleep in his ox cart at midday, Burma.

Having said that, though, one of my favorite shots from Burma was taken at around 11 am. This man was sleeping in his cart while his oxen were grazing. The shadows were harsh, but it worked because the content of the photo made for a good contrast. To get this shot, I had to close my aperture to f8 and used exposure compensation to get details in the sky and the immediate subjects in front of me.

When there is harsh light, like in midday, I look for subjects who are under a sort of shelter. When there is a covering above the subject, the harsh light does not create equally harsh shadows on their faces.

Girl in pink hat, Burma.

Shan woman at a temple, Burma.

Both the photos of the woman in the turban and the little girl in the pink hat were made around midday, but both were under a kind of shelter–the temple roof for the turbaned woman and her pink hat for the little girl.

Side light

This is my all-time favorite kind of light. Side light is light coming from the left or right of the subject. It was used by the masters of painting–Rembrandt used side light in his paintings to give the picture a three dimensional effect. When the light falls on one side of the subject, the other side is in shadow. The shadows are what give the picture a 3D look.

Monk at old wooden temple, Burma.

The monk walking past old wooden doors shows how shadow and light can create the contours that make the subject seem three-dimensional.

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

In the early morning shot of a misty scene in Bhutan, the side lighting created by the sunrise gives us a sense of the overlapping hills and the thickness of the mist.

Like every skill, seeing the light–its direction and quality–takes practice. But with some basic knowledge of lighting situations, any person with a camera can practice the right skill and do what photographers do: capture the light, and make it look fantastic.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Durbar Square rickshaw driver, Kathmandu

Rock the Travel Portrait

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.