Travel Portraits – Photography Basics

Travel Portraits

Part of the joy of travel is meeting new people. Sometimes they are like you and sometimes they are different. Okay, maybe more times they are different and that usually sparks our desire to photograph them. Before you grab your camera and start snapping, I have some tips and considerations for you.

Observe before shooting

You’re not on a vacation or trip to go sniping photos of people all day long, are you?  I hope not.

Instead, take time to sit and watch the world go by for a while before taking your travel portraits. The meanest looks I’ve received from subjects are when I come into someone’s space, snap my picture and leave. I’ve learned from those early mistakes.

You will get better results, and more ‘real’ results, when you take just 2 or 5 minutes to sit and observe. You can observe many people at once in a place like a market and they will become more comfortable the longer you stay.

Heck, you might even want to buy something they are selling. Even if there is a language barrier, commerce creates its own relationship. It’s less of a “taking a photo” situation then and more of an exchange.

Get to know your subject

If language is not much of a barrier, get to know your subject.

Ask all the things tourists ask to start the conversation: What’s your name? Do you live here? Do you like it here? Where’s a good place to eat?

Just start a conversation and don’t worry about the photo. Not only will the conversation break the ice, the photo will have more meaning to you when viewed 10 years from now: “Oh yeah, that was the guy who builds model trains and had over 200 of them!”

Conversations bring more meaning to travel. Photographs help you remember.

Straight portrait or environmental

Sometimes a subject’s facial features point you toward shooting a straight portrait. We have all seen people with distinct faces. Chiseled features, lines describing decades of joy or struggle, a beauty that radiates from their eyes.

For those subjects, a straight portrait is all that is needed. Bring the eyes to the top line for the Rule of Thirds, make sure you have good lighting (see below) and snap away. Keep talking to help the person feel at ease. It’s okay if they talk while you shoot; you are shooting digital and can delete the bad ones. Most people don’t like to pose and having a conversation helps them relax.

If the person is doing something, especially a trade of some kind that partially or fully defines who they are, bring that into the image. Environmental portraits are those that show the person within their environment.

You don’t have to make it a full body shot, but bring in the background or foreground as it relates to your subject. Some posing here might be needed, if the subject is okay with it, otherwise let them continue and have them look up once in a while. Here again, lighting is critical.

Lens selection

Most portraits are shot in the range of 50-120mm on a full frame sensor camera. This means about 35mm-90mm on a cropped sensor (depending on the crop).

80-110mm is the ‘classic’ range with 80mm prime lenses being a favorite of many photographers. I’ll go over settings below, just know that this range helps you separate the subject from the background.

When shooting environmental portraits, something a little wider might be needed. In this case, 20mm-50mm on a full-frame camera is better. It helps bring in the background or foreground so you can see what the subject is working on. It’s okay, with environmental portraits, to have a wider depth of field.

Some basic settings

For a classic portrait you will want to focus on the eyes. Stand about 10’/3m away from your subject and have them about 3’/1m away from anything behind them. ISO should be as low as you can go without having too slow of a shutter speed.

Aperture set to f/4 or f/6.3. Some people will go up to f/8 as well. Those are all good as long as you still get the separation you want from the background while getting their whole face in focus. Shutter speed should follow the other settings and if it’s around 1/200, that’s a good place. You just don’t want it too slow to cause blur by you or your subject.

Environmental portraits can have a wider range of settings. Top your ISO around 800 to give enough shutter speed as the subject might be moving. f/8 or f/11 should give enough depth of field while making sure you still focus on their face (not so much the eyes, as you’ll be further back).


Lighting, as I stated at the beginning of this series, is the most important aspect of great photography. How best to use it for portraits?

Natural Light

This is my lighting of choice for travel because it is the easiest to pack. 🙂

It can be the most challenging as well. You don’t want your subject looking directly at the sun so their whole face is filled with light as this will make their features garish and make them squint.

A defused light can help as well as a gradient of that light. For this, getting close to a window or around the corner from the harsh sunlight is preferred.

You also want to make sure the subject’s eyes aren’t shaded from a hat. It might be comfortable for them, but loses the main subject of the portrait (their eyes). Bringing them out of the sunlight, or lit from behind, will give a more even photo.

Fill flash

A lot of cameras have a flash and with it a fill-flash setting. This is perfect for adding just enough light to get under hats as well as add a catch light to your subject’s eyes when it might be missing. Learn how to use it. Here’s a great article on Digital Photography School to help you learn some basics.

Bounced light

Bounced light is often ignored but can be a boon for portraits. Simply set your subject against or near a reflective surface.

This can be as simple as a white wall. Note though that the color of the bounce will be cast on your subject. This can be beneficial with warm colors, like oranges, but a green cast might make your subject look sickly.

It’s also a way to fill your subject’s face with light without direct sunlight and the squint. Stand with your back to a bright surface/wall and let the reflected, dimmed light help your portrait shine.

Lit from behind

Back-lighting can bring a heavenly glow to your subject, in the right conditions. Late/early day sun is perfect for this as it is low on the horizon and warmer/more golden.

It helps if you have fill light if the backlight is so harsh it blows out all the details behind the subject. Or a reflector of some type to bring light back onto the face of your subject.

To Pay Or Not To Pay

While traveling it is not uncommon to be asked to pay to take someone’s portrait. This can be a sticky subject and has been debated elsewhere online for eons, it seems.

My personal take is to avoid paying (and not take photos) in high tourist areas. While some people make their living from being photographed by tourists (think; Time Square in New York), it feels too contrived. I don’t go on vacations or trips to essentially have a photoshoot I would setup back home.

Although, I am not above buying what my subject is selling, if they have something to offer. It’s a complicated subject, have I mentioned that?

Go with what makes you comfortable. Do some research. Don’t be pushed into paying. Be okay with walking away. That’s my main advice.

Or better yet, bring a portable printer and offer to “give a photo” instead of taking one.

That being said, if you’re shooting because you might want to sell the photo later, you should pay the subject and get their signature on a model release.

Share And Be Thankful

Be gracious. And be appreciative. Be thankful that someone shared their time with you and now you have your own memory on your camera.

And share your photographs with your subject, via the screen on your camera, when you are finished.


Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

Photo ToursIf you enjoy the series, consider learning photography first-hand on a professionally led international photo tour in Nepal or Bhutan. More information can be found at Far Horizon Photo Tours