Portraits make for some of the most beautiful photographs. Rich with human emotion and cultural significance, a good portrait suggests a story, a life, and a future all in one glimpse. For travel photographers, portraits can help to capture the essence of a place and its people.
I travel a lot, and as much as I love photographing landscape and animals (I am a nature photographer primarily), when I get the chance to take a portrait it is always a treat. Some of my favorite photographs I’ve taken are of people.
But I’ll admit, it can definitely be a challenge to take a good portrait abroad, especially if you aren’t familiar with the language and customs of your destination. It’s worth it to learn best practices, though, and you may end up learning a lot as you improve.
That said, here are a few tips on taking great portraits in foreign countries.
1. Earn your subject’s trust
I am fluent in a number of languages, including English, French, Spanish, Serbian/Croatian, and Portuguese, and have proficiency in Italian and German. Even so, many of the places I travel to have languages I don’t understand. It’s a good idea to learn a few phrases anyway, especially complimentary words that will help earn the trust of potential subjects.
Unless it’s a candid shot, asking permission is ideal for portrait photography. Know how to request this in the right language. National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow recommends learning “beautiful” and “wonderful” as encouraging terms during your photo session, which I think is a tremendous idea.
Karnow also suggests socializing over food or drinks, being culturally sensitive, taking an active interest in your subjects, and learning to overcome any personal anxiety holding you back.
2. Have the right equipment
Portraits in a studio include a lot of bulky equipment including softbox lighting, booms, tripods, monitors and more. Some of this equipment is portable, but as a travel photographer you may need to improvise. I truly think a great photographer can take a good photo with any camera, but it really helps to be prepared.
During your travels, bring multiple lenses. For portraits, prime lenses can be great, as they can create beautiful images with a shallow depth of field. Zoom lenses are handy too, as are wide-angle lenses for portraits that include your subject’s environment.
The lens and the setting you choose may also depend on the time of day, location, and amount of natural or artificial light. If it’s dark, a tripod will be helpful to capture the sharpest image possible.
3. Pursue your vision
Perhaps the most important part of taking any photograph, portraits included, is having a vision of how you want your photograph to turn out and taking the necessary steps to create that image. This may mean posing your subject a certain way, or having them act natural, telling them something to make them smile, or positioning them in a suitable environment.
You’ll want to consider your composition, as well. Do you want a close up shot, or one that includes the scenery? Do you want symmetrical photograph, or one that uses the rule of thirds? Consider the mood and texture, too. For older subjects, capturing the details of wrinkles or facial idiosyncrasies adds grit and intimacy to portraits. For younger subjects, you may want a softer approach.
When you have a vision in your mind’s eye, you’ll be able to find the right settings, equipment, and angle to achieve a beautiful shot in any location.
Marko Dimitrijevic is an accomplished photographer whose work has been published in numerous magazines including Alert Diver, American Photo, andPhotopro, among others. In addition to his creative pursuits, Marko is also a leading expert on emerging markets. An entrepreneur, investor, photographer, and public speaker, Marko is the author of Frontier Investor: How to Prosper in the Next Emerging Markets, which is available on Amazon. He resides with his family in Miami, Florida.