In this article, you’ll get tips on how to prepare for taking better photos of people you meet on your travels.
You can’t always plan ahead with travel photography because sometimes great images just happen. But you can learn about and know your camera gear and settings inside out so you will be ready when the opportunities do arise.
I truly believe that capturing the true essence of a place is not possible without including people in your images. It’s the people, their stories, and their culture that truly make that place unique.
As a travel photographer with a background in portrait photography, some of my favorite images and memories are those of people. Interactions I’ve had with interesting people, stories I’ve heard, and stories I’ve told through my images speak to me far more than scenic shots or architecture.
So, if you enjoy traveling and travel photography as much as I do, aim to incorporate some people into your images whenever possible. Let’s dig into how to plan and prepare for making great travel portraits.
I believe that photography is part luck, part preparation, and part execution.
While you can’t plan for the lucky bits, you can do a few things to help it along. If you do your planning well, you will be primed and ready for the times when you do stumble upon a great subject.
Getting ready involves some behind-the-scenes work on your part before you even head out the door. Here are the main points you’ll learn about in this article.
- The time of day that you shoot matters.
- Camera gear matters but less than you might think.
- A little research goes a long way.
- Get a local helper (a guide or a fixer) it can make a big difference.
When to get the best photos
Landscape photographers usually shoot at the edge of the light – meaning golden hour (dawn or dusk) or blue hour. At those times of day, the direction of light is coming from closer to the horizon and not from directly above. It’s also usually softened by the haze and atmospheric conditions.
Portrait and people photographers are no different. The lower sun angle creates more of a sidelight situation, which adds texture, depth, and dimension to your subjects and therefore your images as well.
Midday is the worst time to do portraits. The light is overhead and often harsh, and shadows are minimal or non-existent. If you must shoot in the middle of the day, do so wisely.
Find some shade or get your portrait subject under an overhang or in a doorway and out of the direct sunlight. You may even need to augment or overpower the natural sunlight with a flash.
Get my free PDF guide: Portrait tips for shooting in the midday sun.
But the smarter and easier way to go is to plan to start early (sometimes even before dawn), and/or keep shooting up to and even beyond sunset. Use the middle of the day to rest, eat, or scout new photography locations.
I am all about working smarter not harder, so this is my chosen path. Let’s look at a couple of examples of shooting early and late in the day.
The early bird gets the best photos
The images below were taken in Pushkar, India at their annual camel fair. Camel herders and breeders come from all over India to trade and sell their animals. But you have to get there early to see all the action.
This was a bucket list item for me and I was leading a photography tour group as well. We arrived at the fairgrounds before the sun had even appeared on the horizon (early, like 5 am!). But there was already plenty of activity.
The image below is one of my favorites from that day and the following morning when we returned again.
Notice how many times I shot this same event at the same time of day? Give it a try, you’ll likely find that you get better images the second time because you know what to expect and you’re more prepared!
PRO TIP: If you want images like the pros, you have to think like a pro and act like a pro (it doesn’t mean you need pro gear). That often means shooting the same subject more than once.
Sunset for portraits
Shadows are your friends, even when photographing people. Do not try and eliminate all shadows, but rather embrace them.
This is what will give your human subject life and shape. Shadows define the subject’s facial features, give them cheekbones (see the images above) and help to slim the face or add character.
Shadows can also be used as graphic elements in more environmental portraits like the image below. This kind of iconic shot is simply not possible at midday.
I am a big believer in not buying more gear just to constantly update your equipment. It’s you, the photographer, that matters the most. Gear is important to a point, but in a different way than you might think.
At a bare minimum, you need to have a camera body and a lens. Having a zoom lens with a good range, or a selection of prime lenses is important as well. So while pro high-end lenses are nice to have, hear me when I say, they are NOT essential.
What’s more important is that you know your equipment inside out. That you know which lenses to carry with you on what types of photoshoots. Know when to use your tripod (you need to actually HAVE one too) and when to use external lighting like a flash or LED light.
Having knowledge about which lens to use and when, lighting, camera settings, and exposure will get you a lot further ahead in the game than a fancy expensive lens that you have no clue how to use or why.
Carry both a wide and long lens or a good zoom
Take a look at the following two images, shot with a wide-angle and telephoto lens respectively.
The man in the image above (a tour guide in New Orleans) was scolding his mule for trying to nip a passerby in the behind, so he said to the mule, “give me a kiss” and this happened.
Because I was chatting with him, I was close to the scene unfolding in front of me and the wide-angle lens I had on my camera was a perfect choice here.
Conversely, the image of a man in Turkey (below) dictated a longer telephoto lens to minimize the background and focus on his face.
NOTE: I also cheated a little bit on the image above because I added more bokeh behind him to get rid of some people in the background. See how I did that here: Video Tutorial: How to Apply a Bokeh Overlay to Make Your Images Pop
Extra gear for creativity
Besides regular lenses, you might want to add a few extra things to your bag for added creativity.
For example, I converted my older Fuji XT-1 camera body to infrared (using the service at LifePixel) for something different. Back in the day, I used to shoot infrared black and white film and I love that look.
Color IR conversions are also available if you prefer.
In the two images above, you see the same subject shown in color and B&W IR. Infrared can be tricky to shoot and process, so I’d recommend leaving this one until you master color first.
Another fun thing to add to your gear kit is a Lensbaby. This is kind of like a tilt-shift lens without the hefty price tag. It allows you to angle the focal plane and add some creative blur or soft focus to your images.
They take a bit of practice before you get some good shots, but if you like this look go for it. You can also make miniature cities with this kind of lens.
The bottom line in terms of camera gear is to choose a camera you will actually use (one that’s not too heavy or too complicated for you) and study the basics of exposure. Learn what every button, switch, and menu item does and when to adjust each.
Likewise, having a camera bag or backpack that fits you well, that you can carry around comfortably all day is so important. If you end up leaving half your kit in your room, it defeats the purpose.
My travel bag of choice is the ThinkTank Shape Shifter 17 V2.0 (shown below). It’s so versatile and can be folded almost flat if you just want to carry your laptop and some books/papers. So makes a great overall bag.
It can hold up to two camera bodies, 3 lenses, a flash, accessories, a tripod on the outside, and my 16″ MacBookPro laptop. It’s comfortable for me to carry (I’m only 5’0″) because of the wide straps that sit on the hips nicely to redistribute the weight off the shoulders.
Before you head out on a trip, do some research about your destination ahead of time. Spend some time formulating a vision of the kind of shots you want to get.
Use Google images, Trip Advisor, social media (Instagram is a good place to search), and photo sharing sites like Flickr and 500px to get ideas. See what other photographers have shot in that location and make note of which ones you’re drawn to the most.
Look for iconic images that speak a thousand words and find out where and when the images were taken. Then make your plan of action. You can try and replicate an image you like or add your own spin to it. Ask yourself, “How can I photograph this differently?”.
In the image above, I wanted to do something different and special for my friends who rented kimonos for the day. The bamboo forest in Kyoto has been photographed many times, so I used a long exposure and had them stand still to create this haunting image.
For the one below, I used a long exposure again and had them light their faces with their cell phones. Then I combined two frames (one exposed for them, one for the background) using Photoshop.
Since the end of 2018, I’ve managed to check two big items off of my bucket list. I mentioned Pushkar Camel Fair already, the other was Venice Carnival. Both festivals fascinated me so researching them was not a problem.
I spent hours scouring the internet for images and reading about the actual events as well. It’s just as important to know about the events and rules or etiquette around attending and doing photography.
The shot I most wanted to get in Venice was one of the masked characters in front of the waterfront with bobbing gondolas in the background. For me, nothing said Venice and Carnival as much as that.
So, I set out early one morning to do just that (remember tip #1 above, time of day matters).
This was my first attempt (above). It’s good but not quite what I wanted. The sky was already too bright and I had to do a lot of editing just to get it like this. Note that I did not use flash on the image above.
The image below was my third attempt. The next time I used a flash and showed up earlier, see the difference that little things make?!
I did a one-second exposure and used the camera’s 2-second timer so I could press the button and run off to the side (left in this case) while holding the flash aimed at the models.
All the while about 12 other photographers were shooting the same subjects. But I was determined to get the shot I had envisioned!
I also went back three times to the same spot (see the pro tip above) before sunrise at about 5:30 am, (and I am NOT a morning person) even earlier than my first attempt. I was finally rewarded with some successful images.
Remember, the early bird gets the photo!
Another iconic shot I had in my head that I wanted to get in India was one of some kids flying kites. My friend Daniel and I were in Varanasi and had hired a fixer to help us arrange various photoshoots like this.
A fixer is someone that can make things like this happen. They can hire models, arrange transportation and locations, and act as a translator for you.
We paid two kids to bring their kites and I had them hold the strings fairly short (the kites flying really high in the sky didn’t work, couldn’t get them and the kids into the same image) and just wave the kites back and forth. Then I framed the two boys against the setting sun to backlight them and the kites for a more dramatic effect.
PRO TIP: Sometimes you need to be willing to get uncomfortable in order to get the shot! Go the extra mile, it’s worth it. I used a very low shooting position for this image. I was pretty much on my back on the ground, right in front of the nearest kite flyer.
Ask for help
When you travel to foreign lands, you don’t necessarily have to speak the local language, but it does help to know a few words or to have a local helper or guide.
Fixers are available in some places, but that can be an expensive option if you’re alone and it’s hard to find a good one you can trust in some areas. Another option is to ask people you know who’ve been to that destination if they have any local guides they’d recommend. Even just having someone that speaks the language can help.
Finally, another option is to join a specialized photography tour. Of course, it comes with a higher cost than doing it all yourself. But the advantage is that everything will be arranged and handled for you and you get to just sit back and enjoy all the photographic opportunities laid out before you.
The image below would not have been possible without the amazing guide in Morocco that we worked with on previous tours. He’s like a magician. Whatever crazy ideas we come up with and ask for, he can make happen.
It can be really tricky to photograph people in Muslim countries like Morocco. Some people don’t want their photos taken. So, having someone with you that speaks Arabic, and knows the culture and how to ask, can open a lot of doors.
Just keep in mind that if you want to do things like this, you will likely have to tip or pay the models for their time. In this case, the metalworker in the image above really got into the photoshoot. He even started suggesting poses and moving things around for our group and he had as much fun posing as we did taking his photo.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Please don’t be the photographer that makes a bad name for the rest of us though. If someone does NOT want to be photographed, please respect that and do NOT photograph them. Full stop, this one is not open for discussion.
In Havana, Cuba we photographed three ballerinas from the Cuban National Ballet company inside a mansion in Havana. Once again, our local guide arranged this. Even though I speak pretty good Spanish, I don’t have the contacts and connections he does.
It’s usually more about who you know, especially in Cuba!
My co-tour leader and friend, Daniel, and I also hired one of the ballerinas for a second private shoot with the two of us (this is where speaking the language does come in handy – Daniel is from Argentina).
Here are a couple of my favorite images from that photo session.
It’s been a while since I’ve been out on the road traveling, perhaps you can relate and this has given you some inspiration and ideas.
Even if you’re not traveling any time soon you can apply these same tips to any photography you do in your own area.
Please share some of your own favorite travel photos of people by posting them in the comment area below.