9 Travel Portrait Photography Tips

From Cuba, travel and adventure photographer Brendan van Son filmed this short video to describe nine of his most tried-and-true practices for shooting portraits abroad. If you’re an aspiring travel or portrait photographer, you’re going to want to tune in:

Brendan van Son might not be the most well known travel photographer, but he’s definitely gathered up some wisdom from his years of making photography on the road. His nine travel portrait photography tips, which we’ve summarized below, will help you to streamline your workflow (and your pack!), get you thinking about the mechanics of lighting and composition, and perhaps most importantly, provide guidance about effectively interacting with subjects.

1. Know the three types of travel portraits

In van Son’s view, there are three major types of travel portraits:

  • The Street Portrait — “The subject might not know they’re being photographed and… might actually be a small part of the image.”
  • The Headshot — “You’re going to be right up in their face and you’re cropping their head or maybe just their shoulders up.”
  • The Environmental Portrait — “It’s a portrait of a person with a scene around them.”

Before you go out to shoot, decide what your goals are for your session. Do you want to dabble in all three types of travel portraits, or would you like to practice shooting zoomed-in headshots only? Do you want to focus on creating detail-rich environmental portraits, or is obscure street photography more your style?

2. Be confident

travel portraits portraiture cuba brendan van son

Confidence is key for two major reasons. First, you’re going to need to be brave to risk rejection and ask strangers for their photograph; overcoming this fear can be difficult, but with every “yes,” your confidence will grow. Second, if you act like you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t), your subjects are going to trust you. This will make them more relaxed and natural in front of the camera, which is absolutely critical for making great portraits.

3. Take only what you need

When you head out to take street portraits, don’t weigh yourself down with a million lenses. Bring along a lightweight tripod, sure, but leave the reflectors and extra gadgets at home. If you travel light, you’ll be able to cover more ground, you won’t waste any time changing and re-situating gear, and you won’t seem so intimidating to potential portrait subjects.

“[If] you’re finding natural light [and] you’re shooting with maybe one lens… if you’re not flipping through gear [and] you’re not packing a ton of gear and reflectors and everything, you’re going to make your subject feel more comfortable,” said van Son.

4. Consider composition carefully

old woman old man doorway adventure photography photograph photo

When composing a portrait, do you just shoot what feels right or do you think through all the details to ensure that your compositional choices all serve to flatter the subject and enrich your photograph? While every photographer will go about composing images differently, van Son believes that it’s important to think critically about each portrait’s framing, focus, crop, background, and depth of field, among other details.

5. Meticulously select backgrounds

When selecting a background for a portrait, be sure to analyze your candidates’ colors, textures, and framing in relation to the subject. Backgrounds should always complement subjects and emphasize particular aspects about their faces, such as their eyes; they should never distract from subjects.

“Sometimes the background is just as important as the foreground in portrait photography,” said van Son.

6. Photograph many different types of people

young woman cigar smoke smoking dress lady

Don’t get stuck in a rut photographing the same types of people or your portfolio—and your creativity—will ultimately suffer. Instead, make it your mission to photograph a broad variety of people so that your portfolio is as diverse and interesting as possible, and so that you remain sharp creatively. Comfort is the enemy of creativity!

7. Shoot multiple compositions for each subject

One of van Son’s most highly recommended practices for travel portrait photography is photographing multiple compositions for each subject. Reviewing an image on your camera’s tiny LCD screen can provide a distorted view of how good a particular image actually is. It’s a good idea, then, to photograph each subject from multiple angles and distances so that you have plenty of variety to choose from during post-processing.

“Start from farther away… a little wider,” said van Son. “Get the whole scene and then slowly work your way into a headshot and you’ll have a variety of different images from the same subject.”

8. Find the right light

beard man male brendan van son travel photographer

Unless you’re walking the streets with assistants, chances are good that you won’t have a wide assortment of lighting equipment at your disposal as you search for interesting portrait subjects. Instead, you’ll need to be able to identify optimal natural lighting conditions in your environment based on the light’s directionality, harshness, and color temperature.

9. Be respectful

Not all successful photographers utilize the same methods and gear, but most pros do have at least one thing common. Whether they’re working abroad or in their backyard, they treat people with respect, and that gracious, approachable manner draws interesting photography subjects to them.

“Don’t just shove your camera in their face,” said van Son. “Always ask for permission… and if they don’t want you to photograph them, be nice about it. Be cool with it. Some people don’t want their photo taken. Don’t take it personally.”

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