One of the biggest obstacles in travel photography is in documenting people, portraits. It’s intimidating, disruptive, and possibly expensive. It can often feel like we don’t have the right lens, filter, or strobe. Even if we have the right equipment, it’s rude to ask right? They don’t want to be bothered by a tourist with a camera. It’s because of these obstacles that many budding photographers often talk themselves out of shooting portraits and just go for the landscape. In my opinion, that’s a shame. The people are the landscape, the culture, the pride. They complete the story. Often times, we only get to visit each Country an average of one to two times so it’s important to capture as much of it as you can; tell the whole story. So how does one do that?
Our approach- follow along as we ask a few Havana residents for their portrait.
Ask, Listen, Learn, Document
There are many approaches to taking a portrait, from a slow, quiet, candid, “fly on the wall,” approach to a more upfront and stylized portrait. It’s best to try a few different methods and see what fits best for you. I primarily like to go for the upfront and stylized, getting to know my model and possibly making a new friend. We start with hello, introduce ourselves, share a compliment, which then naturally leads to asking for their portrait. I want to document them because of a specific trait and that’s the compliment. Whether they have a beautiful face, interesting character, a rare talent, or strong energy. Once we’ve established a dialogue, they are usually warm to the idea of documentation. Most importantly, be sure to listen to them! Let them talk, establish that trust immediately and ultimately it will give you clues into who they are. Those clues can later be utilized in the design of their portrait. Ask, listen, learn, document. It’s that easy. I’ve only had a few tell me no. And that’s ok! If they say no, you simply wish them a great day and move on to the next muse.
ISO 125, 2.2 aperture, 1000 shutter
Keep It Simple
Before you depart, on your photo walkabout, make sure you’ve packed all of the essentials. Know the type of lenses you want to shoot with- will it be a wide, zoom or fixed? What will the weather conditions be like? Will you be utilizing a strobe? Will someone be with you to assist? These are all good questions to start with. For this portrait session in Cuba, I stuck with my 50mm 1.2 fixed lens (my favorite fixed lens). I also chose to bring in a strobe but because we were on the go, I only brought one strobe and then rigged it to an arm that Joe extended over the model whenever needed. I also made sure to cover it with a small diffuser so that we could get that soft touch to the light but still travel easily with it. If you don’t have a flash or strobe, look for natural bounce or bring a reflector and place your subject in front of it for a nice even light over their face and reflection in the eyes.
Joe was my assistant for the day (you can catch him laughing in the vid at times). He was responsible for carrying the lighting equipment and positioning it. It’s all pretty rudimentary but that’s ok! It doesn’t have to be fancy. You want the set-up to be simple in that A. you’ll need to carry it everywhere you go and you don’t want it to be too heavy. B. nobody wants to wait too long for a photographer they just met, to set up their studio. Take too long and you’ll lose your model. Can you blame them? It’s best to keep it simple.
ISO 125, 2.2 aperture, 1000 shutter
Shoot As Much As Possible!
So can street/travel portraits feel complicated and intimidating? Absolutely but they don’t need to be. We often get in our own way and talk ourselves out of documenting portraits as we travel. Knock it off! There’s no denying that it’s intimidating but if you don’t try, you’ll never know what you can do. More importantly, you’ll never meet the people you’re inspired by. Some of the people I’ve met on the road are my most cherished relationships. When they allow me to photograph them, they are allowing me to share that relationship with my family and my readers. Due to that honor, I often go back and bring them a print or send it to them across the web, as a thank you. It’s an amazing exchange and I highly recommend it. So get out there. Ask, listen, learn and then document your socks off. Shoot as much as possible. And then share it with us! We’d love to hear all about it as well as view the stories you were able to capture.
ISO 125, 2.2 aperture, 640 shutter
If you’re curious about settings, you can find them in the captions of each portrait, our approach is documented in the video.