Travel Portraits: Methods for Making a Connection

2012-09-21 4

Going on a trip soon? You might find yourself wanting to take a portrait of some interesting people you meet along the way, so here are some great tips from PhotoTuts+ on how to connect with the people you want to photograph when you travel.

by Peter West Carey

If you love to travel and take photographs, you have likely come across the dilemma of what to do when photographing people. Most see it as a catch 22. If you ask permission (as I believe is proper) then the person is not being ‘natural’ as they were before you asked, doing whatever it was that caught your eye. If you snap away, you risk being seen as rude and offending your subject which, for one reason or another, you thought of highly enough to take a photo. So what to do?

I want to offer another option to these two “Black and White” choices most of us face while traveling. To me, it’s most important to remember traveling in another country does not mean you are traveling in a zoo. Many take the opposite approach, that a foreign land is so different (it often is highly different) and things so new that amazement lurks around every corner.

Being photographers, it’s natural for us to want to snap away. But when you treat humans as if they are just curiosities in a zoo, to be photographed before moving to the next exhibit of wonder, then you miss one of the best reasons to travel: connection.

Today, we hope to show you some methods to help you bring back better travel portraits.

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+


Slow down. That’s the first trick. Take the time to sit in one place for more than 10 minutes and simply observe your subject going about his/her business. For one thing, you will start to blend in and the subject won’t be as weary of you as “yet another tourist” (and face it, unless you live in the area, you are just another tourist).

Secondly, that first shot you wanted to take? It might not have been the best shot and often isn’t. 10 minutes, while not long, will give you a better idea of your subject’s personality. I realize not everyone has this amount of time, especially while being lead on a non-photography tour. But if you have the time, take it.

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+


After you have sat a while, take the time to connect. If there is a language barrier, smile while looking into the person’s eyes. It’s worked for millennium with our species, no matter which language we speak. Eye contact is vital to connection (and if you’re feeling any trepidation about it, practice in your home town before leaving.

Make eye contact with people in your town for one day. Keep looking into their eyes until they look away. From personal experience, I can tell you it becomes easier. Also, learn to say “hello” in the native language of the place you are visiting. It’s a phrase worth knowing. “I don’t understand” is another phrase to know once the speaker starts speaking faster than you can comprehend, especially if “hello” is all you know. Attempting to speak to someone in their language goes a long way to connecting.

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+


Offer a bit of yourself to the other person. Bring along photos of your family, friends, pets, city. Show them who you are. It’s another way to connect and lets them know you are not there to simply take. Also offering to purchase something from their store or available wares, if they have one, can go a long way (as long as it’s something you actually want). Take the first step and offer to make a connection before asking for something.

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+


The weather. Their family. Traffic. Business. Pick a subject and go with it. Here’s an easy one, “Is it always this hot/cold this time of year?” A canned question, but it starts a conversation and is helpful if you’re a bit shy. Again, it helps to know a bit of the language. Even if you don’t know much, another phrase to learn is “how do I say ___ in your language?” You get the benefit this time as you learn more of the language and show you are open to it. Most people like to help and this gives them a chance to do just that. It shows you are vulnerable, open and human.

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+


Now is the best time to ask, after you have made a connection and maybe chatted a little. The key here is to take two photos. One is more of the standard “say cheese!” photo you see in this tutorial. Even if the person is not smiling, as is Digboda above, the gruff gentleman in this post, it’s a testament to who they are. The second shot can be taken when you fade back or say “goodbye.” Allow them to keep doing what they were doing before you met, as is the case with the accordion player. They have relaxed and will not upset if you snap another picture.

If you truly are a photojournalist, then you can’t follow all of these rules, obviously. But most of us aren’t true photojournalists, wishing to capture ‘real life’ to report at home. Most of us are on a vacation or trip. If you take the time and expense to travel and see a new place, take the time to connect with it and that means connecting with the people you find there.

Now then, let’s move on to some practical tips on taking shots.

Lower your aperture, zoom your lens

One technique is the classic portrait crop. Chest up, zoomed in to around 70-105mm and a lower aperture number (f/2.8-f/5.6) to pull the person off of the background, but still leave it a bit in focus to anchor them in place. The background also has a story to tell, but it’s not the highlight here.

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+

Use fill flash

Even in broad daylight, a fill flash will help add a catch light (that little sparkle in a person’s eyes) as well as take away some shadow that might come from a hat or just the natural depth of eye sockets. This is when an on camera flash, normally a weaker flash, can be useful. Even if there is not a lot of fill, adding in a catch light will bring life to your subject’s eyes.

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+

Include your subject’s environment

While a straight on portrait certainly works well in most cases, when traveling it is often useful to include part of the environment around your subject. This adds context to the shot and will help relate a sense of place to viewers back home (and across the internet if you post there).

Photo by Peter West Carey via PhotoTuts+

Editor’s Note: Peter West Carey shares in detail how he took each of the photos above, so don’t forget to check out his full article on PhotoTuts+!

Phototuts+ is a source of learning on all aspects of photography. If you love photography, you will find a treasure trove of useful advice at Phototuts+. Also, keep an eye out on Phototuts+ as they will be featuring one Lomography tipster a month, yours could be the lucky one!

written by plasticpopsicle on 2012-09-21 #gear #tutorials #travel #tips #phototuts #portraits #tipster #phototuts #tutorial #lomography


  1. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    I've often been shy about asking strangers for their photographs. Thanks for the tips!

  2. chilledvondub
    chilledvondub ·

    this is a really good article and its something i've been wanting to try but never found a good approach i will definitely take this on board :)

  3. sarah-addison-dobard
    sarah-addison-dobard ·

    I'm shy but I should move out of my comfort zone. Good tips!

  4. nuo2x2
    nuo2x2 ·

    great tips, awesomely detailed!
    will try on my next travel trip

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