Pro Photographer Shares 9 Tips for Taking Great Street 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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90 thoughts on “Pro Photographer Shares 9 Tips for Taking Great Street Portraits when You Travel

  1. Daphne Gilpin says:

    Thanks for explaining that we can improve our quality of photos by shooting early in the morning or later in the day so that the light isn’t as harsh. I’ve always been interested in photography and think it would be a fun cultural experience to travel and shoot photos. I’m glad I read your article because I never considered that the time of day might have an effect on the photos I get!

  2. whysherilyn says:

    Great tips and even greater shots! The best part of the photo is how you captured the essence… by interacting with them and feeling their emotions and learning about their behaviors, then managing to portray them so beautifully.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you feel the post is helpful. Interacting with a subject usually is the best way to get memorable results. But it can be awkward to just walk up to somebody. I still find it hard sometimes.

  3. Ansi says:

    Thank you so much for the tips and for sharing your photographs. They are so much in the moment yet each face seems to reveal a lifetime of stories at the same time.

    Your tips about engaging the subject were really what I needed. This morning on a walk to the local market, I took two portraits – one of women selling bamboo shoots, and the other of women selling green leaves and other forest produce they had collected. I was completely fascinated by the way the women were engaged in peeling the bamboo shoots. I stood for quite a while watching them while they too had given me the space to move in. There was a connect. So when I clicked the picture, it was an almost natural act, leaving both sides enriched.

    In a moment, I moved towards where the women selling the greens were seated and , almost mechanically, clicked a picture of them too. It was an awkward moment. The women stiffened up – I had made them feel as if they were an afterthought. Do wish I had read your blog before stepping out.

    However, these tips, especially about the interaction being a gift, I shall keep close to my heart. Thanks again.
    Looking forward to more great tips.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you for such thoughtful comment and kind words. I am glad you had a chance to read the blog and would love it if you would let me know how it goes now that you have these tips under your belt.

  4. nicolemcarey says:

    I love this post! Thank you so much for sharing these great tips. I love street photography but have struggled with awkwardly approaching people. Every bit of advice is helpful! Beautiful photos!

  5. noorrathore says:

    This is really good advice. I feel more comfortable taking photos of landscape. I shy away from people photography for a number of reasons, I think, this will help a great deal

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Jennifer’s tips are extremely helpful. I totally agree with her point of view. I’m glad you found the article helpful. And thank you very much for the kind words about the photos. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Aw, thanks! I couldn’t ask for more than to inspire someone to grab a camera and try it themselves. I’m so happy that you found it worthwhile. Welcome to the blog and I hope you return. 🙂

  6. Jess Carey says:

    Thank you so much for sharing – these tips are actually realistic and helpful! I really like the idea of working out exactly WHY your subject is interesting and worth shooting – never really thought about it with that much depth

  7. thehealthynerd says:

    Susan, these photos are truly some of the deepest I have seen in quite a while. More than angles, the lighting, or anything professional; you’ve captured emotion. It is like you can see a lifetime of stories for each person. Truly amazing work!

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