So you are going to be going on a trip and want to learn all about how to make sure that you capture the best portraits that you can while you are gone. First of all, congratulations – trips are a lot of fun, and secondly make sure you read over this small article and I will try and give you as many practical ideas and tips as I can in the limited space available.
If you didn’t already know it, people are one of the most challenging things that you will likely ever photograph with your camera. True they give you some of your best photos but the amount of effort needed to get there sometimes makes you wonder if it is worth the effort to get the shot.
You have to do with attitudes, the subjects often move at just the wrong time and they blink almost instinctively right as you press the shutter as if they were in sync with your finger. Then some people are so self conscious that thy end up looking very much out of place in the final shot giving you a less than stellar end result.
Now generally when you hear the word “portrait” you think of a posed shot where people look like they are being posed and the shot ends up on someone’s wall in a frame looking stiff for all eternity. However in this article we are using the term “portrait” to mean any shot of people. Close up shots, distant shots, shots where they are aware that they are being photographed and the candid ones where they don’t. It might be one person or a group of people but for this article they are all going to be covered under the heading of “portrait”.
Keep an open mind as you travel because this is where the test of your ability to see something extraordinary from something mundane will allow you to shine and the result will get you some great photos.
Every Day Tips for Travel Portrait Photography
Before you even pick up your camera, look over the area where you are going to shoot. Does it lend its self to a posed shot or an unplanned candid shot? While the posed shot might be easier for you to set up and control and get a great shot, the latter is likely going to give you the best and most realistic photograph between the two. So if you are given this conundrum as you are looking things over, go for the candid shot and see what you get, the reason I say that is because you can always go back and make them pose if it was not what you were after but if you start out with a pose, they will be weary that you are shooting and it can be impossible to get a candid picture.
Every [place where you are planning to shoot will likely have more than one place that is going to allow you to get a good shot, there may even be a couple areas in the scene where you can get some great framing and get a stellar photo. But if you settle for the first area that your eyes see, you might miss the opportunity to get a great shot. Keep your eyes and you mind open when scanning the area for the perfect setting for your shot.
One of the main reasons that people find photos of people hard to look at is simply because it is hard for non-professionals to know what to do in front of a camera. That is why models go to model school; they know what to do when a camera is pointed their way. They give the correct body language, the right pose, the smile that works and good eye contact. The average person in front of the lens likely will not do any of that correctly and you will end up with a dull and lifeless shot of people simply staring at a camera. Not the best scenario if you want a great photo. They need to be open and relaxed and look like they are having fun if the photo is going to work well.
However taking them when people are not looking usually affords you the best chance of capturing an interaction that will be interesting and give you a useable photo that you can be proud to have taken. The down side of this casual shooting is that you have little to no control over the back ground and the lighting as you would in a completely posed shot. However, I am assuming that you know your camera and know how to use it. If that is the case then you can easily overcome this obstacle and get what you are after.
If that is not an option then you can try a trick that will work most of the time. Set up your lighting and stage your shot the way that you want it to look and have everyone set and pose. The difference here is that you can either manually take several shots one after another or you can set the camera to shoot in burst mode. That way the human nature takes over. They hear the first click and assume thee shot has been taken and they relax and become themselves. The resultant added shots after the initial shot typically yield a much better image because the models are being normal and more natural.
Yes, it’s sneaky and underhanded but if it gets you the great shots that you are after, that is all that counts. After all, they did know you were going to be shooting the shot. And the bottom line here is that you want to walk away with a shot that is above the ordinary. You want to capture great photographs and not simply average snapshots.
Lighting Dos and Don’ts
This is areas that is a challenge at any type of shoot but especially when you are out of doors and have little to now way to constrain the light. If you are traveling then you likely do not have all of your lighting gear on hand so you will have to rely on your knowledge and what you have on site.
Many of the same things will apply here that you already know from your studio shooting. Just remember that the sun between 11 and 3 o’clock local time is not going to be the best and the close you get to the equator the more intense the sun and the harsher the shadows will be.
Obviously you will want to avoid direct use of flash if it is at all possible. It rarely does anything more than give you terrible contrast and washed out areas and shadows that are beyond hard to work with. You still can use you flash on low power settings as a fill in flash if you want or need to do so. But you will be able to make that decision after you see the initial shots.
So if possible choose a hazy overcast day where the lighting is more even and softer. It will be much more pleasing to the photograph than either the flash or the direct sun and if you can keep the sun to the rear and at a 90 degree angle to the subject you will get great results. You can also try bouncing some of that light by wither putting your subject close to a wall or using car windshield reflectors. They are designed to reflect the sun out of cars but they fold small and you can use them to guide the existing light where it can do you some good. It’s not ideal but it will help you get the most out of your available lighting.
Controlling the Background
This is another area that can be challenging. A bad background can be so distracting that it totally ruins an otherwise good photo. The first thing to do is to just look at the location. Will the angle you are shooting from make it look like the subject has a tree branch growing out of their head? Is the back ground plain or does it make the shot look busy and out of control? If you are looking to make the scene give a hint as to the location of the shot then is there enough information showing in the back ground to make that happen?
All of these issues can usually be corrected with a small shift in the angle of where the camera or the subject is located or the relationship of the angle between the camera and the subject. That is why it is very important that you do a semi quick visual inspection before snapping the photo.
Now while you can certainly do some of this adjustment and cropping on your computer with Photoshop. But I have always been a big fan of getting the shot as close to perfect in the camera and then doing some minor tweaking when you get it back to the computer.
Remember that it is always better to start with the best possible image in the camera before you have to start tweaking it with software. Software is a great tool but it is not the answer to a poor shooting or lighting technique.
Some Tips to Help Create Some Flattering Travel Portrait Photos
You are going to get your best and most flattering portraits using a lens in the 70 to 150 mm range. A wide angle lens will tend to make the subjects face look fatter and round and there is a good chance that the model will not care for that look. You can slow make the appearance of wrinkles seem a little less by having the soft light coming from behind the subject. It can literally pull years off of their face.
You can certainly try to get the best from the available light but don’t beat yourself up if you are unable to solve every ill spot in the scene simply by using light. Do the best that you can and live with the result.
Shooting the subject from an angle that is slightly higher than they are will partially obscure the neck and help to minimize the double chin syndrome and can be quite flattering to someone that has that. You can also ask the subject to stick out their jaw a little can help as well.
Long or large noses can add a ton of character to a portrait depending on the subject. There are a lot of times that you might want to downplay that part of the face. In the event that you want to do precisely that you should grab a longer than normal lens such as using a 3200 or longer mm lens. You should also take care that you are shooting the subject from the font and not an angle or the side which will tend to make the proboscis look larger than it might actually be.
Taking Photos of More Than One Subject
It’s a bit more of a challenge trying to shoot more than one subject in a portrait. You can take the issues that we mentioned above and multiply them by the number of people in the shot and that is about how much of a pain it can be. On top of that there are some issues that are inherent only to photographing multiple people.
Obviously if you can get the group to interact and / or touch you will end up with a much better shot. Although it is often hard to make that happen. It can be hard enough if the people know one another and have a connection but you can forget about it if they are total strangers or if they plain do not like one another or are fighting.
Another good trick is to try and get them to look at each other instead of looking at you and the camera. It brings up the level of intimacy in the shot and it just makes the entire shot look more natural that if everyone is looking at the camera. Please remember that the more people staring at the lens the more chances of the “deer in the headlight” look or the traditional “mug shot”.
Finding a Pose that Works
Lining up a group of people in a static line can be easy but it is BORING. It looks kind of like a line up at a jail and you get just about as much reaction and excitement. If you have no other options then you’ll just have to find ways to make that work. If you have a large group of people then there may be no other options but try and exhaust all of your choices first because you seldom get a good shot this way.
You need to try and get as much depth in the photo as you can. This can be done a lot of different ways. You can get people to line up with the shorter folks in front and taller ones towards the back. You could have someone sit and have folks surrounding that main subject. You really need to try and avoid having every ones eyes on the same level or plane as the others if you are looking for some change of pace and more excitement.
If you are trying to come up with ideas, think back on some of your favorite album shots from the rock or popular music groups from the past. The photographer usually put a lot of thought into the poses and they work because you rarely saw two people doing the same thing or looking the same way.
So the next time that you need some change of pace poses think back to a Beatles album or something similar and have some fun with the shot.
Photographing Children in Travel Portraits
There is no denying that children make some of the greatest things in the world to photograph. They can also be some of the hardest to capture on film because they generally bore easily and get grumpy and sometimes do not follow instructions or directions very well. The kids tend to be a little less self conscious of what they are doing and tend to instead just let things happen which can make for some great portraits.
Starting with babies, it is best to catch them shortly after the parents have filled their bellies. The little ones tend to be a lot more cooperative with a clean diaper and a full stomach. They usually settle down well for the most part and you can get some cute shots of them. Another great opportunity is to have the parents or siblings get involved in the shot by holding the youngster. It makes the shot more realistic and the child is usually more at ease around these people.
When you get into the toddler age children things can get terribly difficult because at that age they are learning how to go places and they do not want to stand or sit still for more than a few seconds. If you wait until he or she is getting tired then they get cranky and the shot won’t be terribly good anyway. If at all possible it is best to let them wander and keep up with them and shoot as they go. If you can, get down close to the ground so that you are fairly much on the same level as they are. It will make for an interesting shot and the child might find it amusing at the same time.
Younger school aged kids tend to be up for just about anything, they are not yet full of preconceived notions about photos and are more likely to help you by doing what you ask them to do from the start. That makes them usually the best subjects for shooting.
Once a child gets into pre-teen and teen age years they are very self conscious and it is hard to get them to do anything. They are afraid that the acne will show up or that they will look like a moron or something silly. The only real way to get good portraits of teenagers is to catch them when they are interacting and not paying attention. The candid shots work the best for these people.
Soft available light shots seem to always work well for children no matter what the situation so if you can get the subjects together in a nice soft light situation you will likely be getting some phenomenal shots.
Final Thoughts on Travel Portrait Shooting
Shooting portraits while traveling is not going to be easy and you really should not expect perfection. Sit back and plan the shots as best as you can and then just shoot and see what happens. Unless you are on a paid assignment to shoot portraits of people in various places there is going to be little to no real pressure on you so the net result is that you should get some good photos and have some fun at the same time.
Don’t be afraid to step outside of your normal comfort zone and shoot things a little differently than you might otherwise do. You might actually even come up with some ideas for shooting that you had not thought of that might work well back in your studio at home but regardless you are going to learn something about available light shooting that will end up making you a better photographer.
Try and keep things different and mix it up, do some posed shots and some candid ones and remember that memory is fairly cheap and easy to carry so shoot a lot of shots in burst mode so that you can maximize the possibility of getting the precise shot that you were after.