Photographing Strangers; The Art Of Travel Portraiture

Connecting with a subject is the key to a good travel portrait. That objective is achieved by projecting a genuine interest in the subject--and by making direct eye contact. The soft light in this portrait flatters the subject, who was standing under a thatched roof. Famed portrait photographer Monte Zucker was kind enough to hold a black panel behind the subject, which cut out the very distracting background of a crowded food stand. My 28-105mm zoom set to 105mm and f/4.5 isolated the subject and slighly blurred the background.
Photos © 2001, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

I'm a people person.

I enjoy meeting and sharing experiences with people--at home and around the world. As a photographer, I get the most enjoyment out of photographing faces, capturing an expression, emotion, or feeling which may be there for only a split second.

So, it was with great enthusiasm that I ventured off to Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in Southwest Florida for a photo shoot earlier this year. I, along with famed portrait photographer Monte Zucker and Shutterbug's Editorial Director George Schaub, was leading a group of 42 participants on Shutterbug's first digital photography workshop.

Big Cypress was only one of the venues, others being Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (great for birds) on Sanibel Island and other nearby locations. But for me, having the opportunity to take portraits in Big Cypress--and share my travel portrait techniques with the participants--was the "biggie" of the workshop. Our subjects included Seminoles living on the reservation who participate in activities and historical reenactments--helping to keep Seminole traditions alive.

Tips For Travel Portraits
Basically, I offered the following tips for taking what I call, "portraits of strangers."

* Establish a rapport. Whether at home or when traveling, you simply can't walk up to someone, stick a camera in his or her face, and shoot away. Rather, take some time and get to know your subject. Introduce yourself, and find out the name of the person you are photographing. After you both feel comfortable, then it's time to start your photo session.

* Don't just take a picture, make a picture. Most often, you will not find your subject standing in perfect light and in an ideal setting with a pleasing background. Before you start your shooting session, find a place to work--one that is not only photographically pleasing, but one in which both you and your subject will feel comfortable.

Check out this pair of travel portraits (above & below). One shows the subject engaged in an activity, which creates added interest in the photograph. The other is simply a nice head-and-shoulders shot. When traveling, try to take both types of portraits. As always, focus on the eyes and watch the background--which can make or break a shot. My 100-400mm zoom blurred a distracting background, which I blurred even more in Adobe Photoshop.

Light Control Accessories
Four accessories can help you control the light. Such control is often necessary for a flattering portrait.

Light diffusers (those flexible, translucent, round or oval things you see photo assistants holding over a subject) will soften direct sunlight, reducing harsh shadows on a subject's face. A diffuser also reduces the contrast range of a scene, so you don't have washed out areas of your picture. What? You say you don't have an assistant. No problem. I'm sure you can find someone to help you out in the field. I've always been able to find a willing helper.

Reflectors (those silver, white, or gold round or oval things you see photo assistants holding near a subject) bounce light onto a subject and fill in shadows. Gold reflectors are nice because they "warm up" a subject, creating the effect of a late afternoon photograph. Silver reflectors shed a hard light on a face. White simply brightens the face.

Use accessory flash. Attach a variable output flash to your camera and you can create beautiful daylight fill-in flash pictures. Because a variable output flash lets you balance the light from the flash to the daylight, your pictures will not look like harsh flash pictures. Basically, you want to reduce the flash output by about 11/2 stops (but you need to experiment to get the best result). To soften the light even more, use a flash diffuser, which attaches to a flash with touch fasteners.

Digital Darkroom
Work with a digital imaging program. That's right, programs like Adobe Photoshop let you control the light--in the digital darkroom. Photoshop Elements has a Daylight Fill-In Flash filter that lightens backlit subjects. With Adobe Photoshop, you can actually control the direction of light, as well as lighten, darken, or blur areas of the scene. I use the Dodge tool to lighten the eyes, which used to be my main reason for using daylight fill-in flash.

Lenses & Focusing
Choosing the right zoom lens or right zoom setting is easy. If you want to take an environmental portrait, that is, one in which your subject is pictured in his or her environment, go wide angle. My choice for environmental portraits is a 17-35mm zoom set around 35mm. For studio-type portraits, go telephoto. My choice for that type of portrait is a 28-105mm zoom set around 100mm.

Focus on the eyes. You may have heard the expression, "The eyes are the windows to the soul." It's true! If they are not in focus, you've missed the shot. You can see--and feel--how a person is feeling by looking in his or her eyes. What's more, when we look at a people picture, the first thing we look at are the eyes, so they must be sharp.

Use the "bow and arrow," not the "shotgun," approach. You may be wondering why I don't have a dozen or more portraits to illustrate this article. Good question. That's because I use what I call the "bow and arrow," not the "shotgun," approach to my photography. You see, I could put my camera on rapid frame advance, bracket like heck and shoot everything in sight in every direction--a technique that reminds me of a hunter using a shotgun. With that technique, I might get some nice snapshots. But by selecting only a few subjects and by carefully focusing my camera on a subject--much the way a hunter hunts with a bow and arrow--I get more meaningful and more dramatic portraits.

Rick Sammon is one of the hosts of the "Digital Photography Workshop" and the "Photography Workshop" series on the DIY cable and satellite network.