Pro Photographer Shares 9 Tips for Taking Great Portraits when You Travel

Photographing travel portrait of Man playing trumpet in Havana, Cuba

Creating a great travel portrait isn’t always easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding and lead to memories that will last a lifetime. I sat down with Jennifer Spelman, known for her engaging and poignant street photography, and who led my Santa Fé Photographic Workshops tour of Havana, Cuba about her tips for making compelling portraits. From the philosophical to the practical, here’s what she had to say.  (Every wonder how to choose a good travel photography tour? Click here for advice. )

Make Your Interaction a Gift

For most people, the hardest part about portrait photography is walking up to a total stranger and asking to take a photo. Jennifer believes it’s a lot easier if you try it with this approach. “Consider the interaction as a gift to the person you’re photographing. You don’t have to feel as if you’re taking something from them. If you do it right, it can literally be the most special part of their day. You’re not out to harm anyone, you’re out to glorify them, and that’s a really positive way to look at the experience,” she says.

Photographing travel portrait of Man in Cuba

Figure Out What Makes Your Subject Special

You see someone and you want to make a portrait. But why? It’s important to think about what grabbed your attention, Jennifer says. What it is that you want to say about that person? “Are you trying to emphasize their beauty? That they’re interesting? The more you recognize what you want to convey, the more it will lead you towards simple choices that will help you be successful.”

Ask Permission

To ask or not to ask to take someone’s photograph? Some people feel that by asking permission, a subject will behave differently which can ruin the shot, but according to Jennifer, “There’s a point when you’re in somebody’s face and you owe it to them to help them understand what you’re doing.” And, in general, it’s the communication between the photographer and subject that makes a portrait more engaging. If someone doesn’t want his picture taken, don’t take it. If roles were reversed, you’d want the photographer to respect your wishes.

Photographing travel portraits of girls dancing in Havana, Cuba

Don’t Fiddle in the Moment

“From a strategy standpoint, I want my camera to be secondary so that I can focus on the person,” Jennifer says. Get your settings in order before you approach your subject. “Consider the light and composition ahead of time before you even begin your conversation.” And be sure you know how to work your camera before you head out on the road. Don’t make someone wait while you figure it out.

Reflect on the Light

The most flattering light for a portrait is open shade, rather than bright sun. If you have the option, look for some kind of overhang or awning where there the light is diffused, or try shooting early in the morning or late in the day when it’s not so harsh. And don’t be afraid to ask your subject to move a little. “Sometimes you’re only two steps away from making a really good picture or making a nasty one,” Jennifer says.

Photographing travel portraits of a woman in Cuba

Ignore the Thumbs-Up

If someone flashes a thumbs-up or a peace sign, let it go. Jennifer advises shooting right through it. “I give positive reinforcement back to them and in a minute or two, they almost always fall into something more natural.” She also suggests lowering the camera a little bit and talking to the person. “When they’re less expecting to have their picture taken, those outtake moments often end up being the best,” she adds.

Consider Your Composition

A headshot will emphasize a person’s eyes, personality or expression, while shooting at three-quarter length brings more clothing and background into play and a full-length shot includes the environment. When choosing your composition, ask yourself, is this about the person or the place? If you don’t know, try different distances. Jennifer starts by shooting farther away and then gradually moving in as her subject relaxes. Make sure to watch out for hands and feet in the frame and avoid cutting people off at the joints; otherwise, your subject could unintentionally look like an amputee.

Photographing travel portraits of an old man playing guitar in Cuba

Experiment with Different Angles

The height and direction that you shoot your subjects from makes a statement. If you photograph from above, there is a tendency for the subject to look smaller which emphasizes aloneness or sadness. Shooting from below makes a person look bolder and more iconic. For women, the most flattering angle is from slightly above, because it defines the jawline and thins the body. When photographing children, try shooting them at eye level.

Photographing travel portraits of a man in a doorway in Cuba

Stagger a Group

Group dynamics are different than approaching an individual. Take a moment to figure out who the leader is within the group and ask them if you can take a photo. If the leader is interested, typically everyone else will join in.

Compositionally, groups have a tendency to want to line up, but that doesn’t make for a layered or dynamic photograph. By pulling a few people forward – think: your classic album cover in which the artists are always staggered – that slight separation will make the image more interesting. You can also separate people by relationships to tell your story. “If it’s a whole family, maybe mom and dad are a step behind. Whoever is closest to the camera is going to dominate the frame, so think about who you want to emphasize.”

A version of this article first appeared on US. News & World Report’s Travel Blog

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