Travel Portraits – 31+ Days To Better Photography

Welcome to another 31+ Days To Better Photography post about Travel Portraits!

Going some place exotic? Plan to take plenty of photos? What about photos of the locals?

Let’s dive right into my take on the question that always comes up: Should I ask permission before taking people’s photos?

The Elephant In The Room

I bring this up first, even before we head into the technical aspects of on-site portrait work using available light, because you need to think about how you approach your travels and interactions with locals in your host country.

There are two minds with strong opinions on the “Should I ask…” question. One is to always ask because it is the curtious thing to do. The second opinion is to not ask, the asking instantly ruins the mood and authenticity of the photos you were trying to capture.

Breaking it down, I choose the first method most all of the time. I try to follow the Golden Rule when I can and I don’t want people coming up to me, or walking right by me, looking at me as some strange prop to be collected in their camera before they head to the next strange thing. So I try not to do that to locals when I travel.

But how to deal with the “…they aren’t authentic after you ask…” point? Depending on the location and the customs, I use a multi-stage approach and while it is not fast and easy, it does lead to better portraits, I feel, than a quick click and run approach.

First, I ask for permission to take a photo. Learning this phrase in the local language before you go is helpful but in a poiitning to your camera with a smile and inquisitive look on your face can also work. With permission obtained I take a few quick photos, moving the subject if approapriate, and show them the results.

Then comes the trick. I’ve successfully used the ‘shoe picture’ technique in more than one country in which people are very stoic for their portraits. I take pictures of their shoes.

This serves two purposes. One, it gives the viewers of my travel photos a fuller view of how people dress and get around. You can learn a lot about someone by how they dress and that includes the shoes. Second, the subject usually gets distracted and if you wanted your first photo because they were a smiley kind of person, that smile often returns more naturally at this point.

At this point I quickly pan back up and get a second portrait. This one is far more natural than the first and I often don’t show the subject if I know they prefer to show the first stoic look.


One reason I bought the Canon 7D Mark II is because it has a built-in flash. It’s not huge and I can always supplement with a larger strobe if I like, but in a pinch it gives me some fill light which helps me with lighting. And lighting truly matters on the subject.

I typically suggest not putting your subject in full day light, glaring on their face, so that they end up being a squinting mess. A bit of side light works well to give some definition to features and the right kind of shadows. Try to keep the shadows even and to not leave just one spot of light on a cheek, which can be distracting.

If you can use difussed light, go for it! Some place with indirect light bouncing to your subject will help their eyes open and give even tones. Not every portrait needs to have high contarast with light and dark. A nice even tone is fitting for subjects that give a nice, even feel. Save the hard shadows for hard characters or to exaggerate age.

In that difused light your built-in flash will add some warmth and fill to the image. It can also be used to great effect in harsh contract situations to soften the shadows and makes the eyes more noticible. Having a key light in a subject’s eye really helps draw us into the image and even in broad daylight I will use my flash to add that keylight for definition.

Creating Depth

Creating depth is key to a good portrait. It helps separate the subject from the background and helps the viewer focus.

I suggest using a shallow aperture (lower number) such as f/4 or f/5.6 if possible. But you have to watch out to make sure your entire subject, or at least their eyes, are in focus. You will want a lens zoomed to around 80-100mm on a full frame sensor. This might mean shooting a 50-80mm lens on a cropped sensor camera.

Stand back about 7-10′ (2-2.5m) or more depending on how much of the subject you want in the frame. Sometimes a full body portrait is needed and then you will need to pull back a little, as well as using a wider angle lens.

Shoot For The Eyes

The eyes are how we connect with each other. It’s the first thing we look at when we see a human form (and most animals, for that matter) and they are key to drawing in your audience. Try your best to keep eyes in focus or at least recognizable.

Using the Rule of Thirds, a subject I covered previously in this 31 Days To Better Photography series, it’s common place to put the eyes along one of the dividing lines in the rule. For instance:

This is certainly not required, but it’s a good first step to lining up your portraits. Even if the eyes aren’t along a meridian, make sure they are in focus. Your viewers will learn a lot about your subject by simply staring into those eyes.

Share The Joy

It’s not kind to take without giving something in return. Sharing portraits with the subject is a good step to take. I realize most people don’t like seeing their own photo, but it creates an interaction that may lead to better photos or a lasting friendship.

If you can print photos with a portable printer, that would be one step further toward balancing your karma. I once printed out photos from a trip to Nepal and took them with me the next time I visited. With modern cameras and their ability to capture GPS, the odds are increased that you can find previous subjects again.

Either way, share the joy of your photos with the subject while on the road.

Let Them Be Themselves

Not everyone is going to give you a grand, old smile. Especially if they aren’t used to photos or have been hard at work. Take our porter in Nepal for instance.

The intensity speaks more than a happy, smiley face would, I think.

Don’t try to force it.


Travel portraits are a vital part of any trip memories. Lighting and the eyes are the most vital aspect, I feel, when it comes to creating memorable travel portraits, as compared to flat, fake-smile photos. Create some depth and focus to your photos with a shallow aperture and you will have the masses oohing and aahing over your travel portraits in no time.

31 Days To Better Photography is a series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey on The Carey Adventures.Com. The series is designed to unravel the mysteries of photography so 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 one of Peter’s professionally lead international photo tours. Current locations include Nepal and Bhutan with Morocco, Greenland, Patagonia and Mongolia. More information can be found at Far Horizon Photo Tours’ website

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