The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
12. Opening Up
About Photographing People
Anyone who isn’t blessed with boundless self-confidence and a natural gift of gab will find it difficult to take pictures of strangers at first. I am fairly shy, but I don’t think much of pictures of people taken from far away with a big telephoto lens. All too often such pictures fail to establish a connection between the viewer and the subject, a bond depending on the documented person being able to decide how much or little to reveal about him or herself.
Now what? The only way to get around this issue is stepping out of your comfort zone and, again and again, bringing yourself to ask the stranger if you may take his or her picture. Create some sort of interpersonal contact with an inquiring look, a smile, a friendly gesture towards your camera, or simply with words. It’s always helpful to learn a few phrases of the local language before traveling in a foreign country; ideally, “May I take a photo of you, please?” should be one of them. Making this effort shows that you respect the person, that you have made yourself familiar with the local culture, and that you are ready to do something for a photo. In rare cases, when circumstances demand it, you might have to take a picture first and then ask afterwards. But do respect someone’s wish if they decline to be photographed with words, a facial expression, or a gesture. Basically, the rule of thumb, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a good one to follow when taking pictures, and not only with portraits.
The Treasury Guard: A uniformed desert policeman in the rock-cut city of Petra, Jordan. Nikon D700 • 105 mm • 1/60 s • f/4.5 • ISO 250 • flash
Emotional reactions to photos: Skeptical curiosity in Jordan (above; photo by Jörg Ehrlich) and open fascination in Bhutan (below).
Double portrait at night in a small village close to the Mekong river, Laos. Nikon D700 • 26 mm • 1/100 s • f/5 • ISO 6400
Bhutanese woman in a monastery in the capital city of Thimphu. This photo was the first in a series that I took, and it turned out to be the best. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 400
The very least you should do in every case is allow some time. Time to get to know the person you’d like to photograph a bit. Time for the subject to become more comfortable with the presence of you and your camera. The time that you invest in a picture almost always pays off in the pictures you produce.
If you are traveling with a (local) guide, you can certainly ask his or her help to establish contact with others. In many cases, this method will allow you to learn more about the people you’d like to photograph than you’d be able to find out on your own. Photographers who would like to remember or be able to reproduce details from such conversations should have a pen and a notebook handy, even if it’s only to write down the names of people correctly (or have the people write down their names themselves). Showing people your picture of them on your camera display can also open doors. But don’t be surprised if you’re suddenly surrounded by a group of people and the next thing you know is that you have a long list of portraits to take...
If you have the opportunity to supply the person whose portrait you took with a small token of thanks in the form of a printout or an e-mail attachment of your (compressed) image file, you should definitely take it. In many countries, a picture that you provide may be a person’s only picture of him or herself. And if you’ve told someone that you would send a photo, then you should absolutely make good on that promise.
A young monk in Paro Dzong, Bhutan. The wide aperture isolates the subject from a colorful background, which subtly accents the photo. | Nikon D300 • 150 mm • 1/60 s • f/2.8 • ISO 1250
I met the Bhutanese woman who’s sitting half in the sun, half in the shade and holding her prayer beads, in a monastery in the capital city Thimphu. I first spotted her as I walked across the monastery courtyard, and though it cost me quite an effort, I stood waiting for a while making sure she had seen me and my camera before she finally looked directly at me. I offered a friendly greeting – a respectful nod is understood in most places – and tried to find out with a smile and a vague gesture toward my camera if she was game for a photo. She was, and I got my picture. I subsequently took a series of other photos, but none of them turned out as well as the first one. She was quite amused while reviewing the photos I’d taken, and my local guide was able to bring her a print of the best picture later.
The subject of sports works wonders when trying to spark conversation with people of all ages; it seems to be a common topic of interest the world over. In Paro Dzong in Bhutan, I spotted a young monk whom I wanted to photograph and I politely asked in English whether I might do so. He assented and wanted to know, “Where do you come from?” “Germany,” I replied. “Aaaaaaah, Germany,” said the monk, “Michael Ballack!” The ice was broken. (Michael Ballack is a famous retired German soccer player.)
Revealing laugh lines: Including your subject’s eyes in a portrait is good advice, but it isn’t a must. Here, it’s not difficult to spot out Salim’s waggishness anyway. | Nikon D700 • 190 mm • 1/250 s • f/2.8 • ISO 500
Acquainting yourself with and learning a little about the culture, traditions, and practices of your destination before you leave on your trip is not only helpful, it’s essential. Doing so will help you avoid getting into uncomfortable situations, and will also help you understand the things that you see, experience, and photograph. Furthermore, in doing this sort of preparation, you may learn about special occasions or events that will coincide with your travels, such as a festival specific to a particular region. Local holidays and festivities are wonderful opportunities for taking pictures because they enable you to interact with genuine traditions in action, as opposed to artificial displays put on for tourists. Your research may also inform you about any traditional crafts practiced in an area or how regional delicacies are prepared. Collecting this kind of background information in advance helps you pick up on details while you’re traveling, and you will likely pay closer attention to the little things that might otherwise go unnoticed by a less informed eye.
In addition, photographing people engaged in their everyday activities has other advantages. In contrast to staged photos, in which subjects often appear uncomfortable, portraits of people in action tend to be more relaxed, dynamic, and authentic. Following this path creates an entirely different kind of portrait, the environmental portrait, which shows your subject in his or her normal surroundings performing his or her usual tasks. This type of portrait reveals more about the person depicted and his or her living conditions than a traditional, close-cropped headshot.
Give multiple variations a try. If one picture is not enough, you might be able to create a little story out of two pictures. For example, the baker in Jerash, Jordan, shown on the following spread, baked flatbread for an entire restaurant outdoors underneath a wooden roof using a single oven. I had watched him working for a while, and long after all the others had disappeared to lunch, I perched myself on a little wall and began to photograph him at his artful craft. He became interested in me and my camera and started tossing the dough. In that particular moment he appeared to take as much joy in his work as I do in photographing. (By the way, it was the best flatbread of the entire trip, and I am determined to visit that baker again the next time I’m in Jordan.)
You can see that it took me several photos to arrive at the final composition, at the perfect moment with the bread dough flying high in the air (shown on page 109). My advice would be to always take several pictures, for more than one reason. Sometimes the person closes his or her eyes at the exact moment of the exposure; sometimes he or she will look away; sometimes it’s hard to capture the decisive moment of a movement with the first try; and so on. Also, many people tend to become more relaxed once the first few photos have been made, so it’s a good idea to keep on photographing when they are getting more and more at ease with you and your camera.
Open-air bakery in Jerash, Jordan. Not much time passed after the first photo before the baker started to twirl his flatbread in the air, much to the delight of the photographer. | Nikon D700 • 116 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 400
If you flip through the pictures in this chapter, you’ll notice that very few were shot in broad sunlight. Harsh light, such as what’s available for the better part of the day when it’s sunny, not only forces subjects to squint when being photographed, it also creates a large brightness contrast in photos. These can be hard to master and more often than not result in overblown highlights and crushed blacks, both of which don’t exhibit any actual visual information.
The maestro of flying bread: The photo on the opposite page is more illustrative, but the one to the left brings me to laughter regularly. It also makes me think about the attitude with which we approach our work. | Nikon D700 • 120 mm • 1/640 s • f/6.3 • ISO 400
In such cases it often helps to ask your subject to move into the shade or half shade – under a roof or a veranda, into the entrance of a house, or into the shadow of a tree with dense foliage (if the tree’s leaves aren’t dense enough, the small gaps result in an interplay between light and shadow that can produce unattractive blotchy results in a picture). If you look around, you’re likely to discover that almost every location has viable possibilities.
A classic portrait from the Orinoco delta, Venezuela. Nothing takes away from the facial expression and personality of this young Warao girl. | Nikon D700 • 60 mm • 1/200 s • f/2.8 • ISO 800
Alternatively, you can use fill flash or a reflector to reduce high contrast caused by harsh light (see the following chapter “Fill Flash”, starting on page 112), but in general it’s enough to avoid the direct light of the sun. The morning and evening hours are also an option. At these times of the day the sunlight comes from a lower angle, and the altered color temperature produces warmness as well as a flattering light that tends to benefit portraits.
Overcast skies are often well suited for portraiture because the soft light offers even and diffuse illumination. Using fill flash under overcast skies can produce an attractive, small reflection of light in your subject’s eyes and add some intensity to the foreground colors. If you do use flash, watch out for reflective surfaces as they tend to either give away the use of flash or blow out.
It is often desirable to create portraits with a smooth, even blur in the background if you don’t plan on showing much or any of your subject’s surroundings. You can achieve this effect by choosing a larger aperture or by using the longest focal length possible (or combining both, of course). In addition, the greater the distance between your subject and its background, the better.
Since people tend to stand directly against a wall when you ask them to position themselves near one, you may want to encourage your subject to take a step or two away from it if you don’t want the wall’s details to be too clear in your photo (and also to avoid a hard shadow if you’re using a flash). Or simply establish a shot from the outset that features a homogenous background that is far away. If you are working with a fast enough lens, you can use a wide enough aperture that should allow you to isolate your subject from its surroundings (make sure that the depth of field is sufficient, though). This effort is also aided by taking a few steps backward and using a longer focal length.
For most of the portraits I shoot while traveling, I use focal lengths between 70 mm and 300 mm; that said, I’m also using an f/4 500 mm lens as a portrait lens every now and then. Wide-angle portraits that show people and their surroundings are typically taken with a focal length between 17 mm and 35 mm.
One more thing that you should keep in mind when taking portraits is the fact that people move. Since I’ve been frustrated with clipped off ear lobes, locks of hair, and fingers more times than I care to think about, I try to always opt for a slightly looser crop when shooting portraits now. You can always bring the crop in tighter during post-processing.