The Last Word On Travel Portraits

A cultural dancer in Xian, China. Performers are used to being photographed, and they'll help you get the picture. I used my tripod-mounted F4 and an 80-200mm Nikkor lens.
Photos © 2001, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

I hadn't planned on writing about travel portraiture; after all, we've discussed it directly or peripherally a few times before. I was leaning toward some how-to, application-type things--photography at resorts and on cruise ships, or maybe how to tackle a city you've never visited before.

Then I started going through the great travel photographer Bob Krist's book, Spirit of Place. Bob is coming down here to Texas soon to speak before a local pro group. He's a good friend and will be staying with me and my family during his visit, and I was just catching up on some of his ideas. When I got to his thoughts on people photography, I couldn't help but smile. Bob and I both realize that despite all the advice we might give to others, a lot of people still find it hard to take photographs of the people they see on their travels. And not only amateur photographers--we both know of photojournalists and editorial shooters who are somewhat mystified by travel portraiture.

One of my all-time favorite shots. This Korean elder didn't speak a word of English, but was delighted to be photographed and worked with me for five minutes, and four rolls. (F4, 80-200mm Nikkor.)

Contact Sport
So, then, before I move to other subjects in the coming months, a few last words about people. Maybe it seems easy to me because I see people portraiture as part of the travel experience. We travel in order to have encounters, to see and experience new things and meet new people, and what's more natural than photographing the people we meet? What stops us is fear of rejection. Sure, the person might turn away or say no. What I do is move on to the next person. But maybe we're equally afraid of acceptance. If the person is willing to be photographed, well, now we've entered into a dialog; we have to enter their space and deal with them, and many people are intimidated by that. Perhaps it's partly cultural--we're told not to talk to strangers, not to make eye contact, and here I'm telling you to approach total strangers, make contact and not only talk to them but ask them to work with you so you can get your picture.


This Indonesian woman was relaxed enough to assume a natural pose. Sometimes a gesture and a smile will serve to suggest the pose you'd like. (F4, 80-200mm Nikkor.)

Starting Out
It doesn't have to be scary, though. The easiest way to start is to photograph people who expect to be photographed--anyone engaged in any kind of performance, for example. Someone demonstrating traditional, cultural activities is there to be seen and be photographed, and if you've got any hesitation about pointing your camera at a person, photographing a performer is a good way to get over your reluctance. And people in costume won't be timid or shy about being photographed; they'll often help you get the great shot.

I think that most people are flattered when you approach them, but it all has to do with the approach. I tend to work calmly and professionally and almost always carry the pro equipment that indicates who I am. But the equipment isn't the major factor. I may be carrying a Mamiya RZ or a few Nikon bodies, but I could also be holding a point-and-shoot camera--it's how I act and how I make the approach. I think the number one reason people bring back good people pictures is that they have genuine humility and sensitivity. People will sense those things about you and they will help you. If you're arrogant or cocky, in a rush, impolite or selfish, people are going to feel that, too. As for me, I consider the picture I'm taking of a person to be part of my travel experience, of my learning about where I am and who I'm with. People can tell I'm really interested in them because it's the truth. I am.

A pure grab shot, I made this image of the Korean child with my 80mm lens on the F4 on an overcast day and overexposed to compensate for the meter's reading of the light clothing.

Posing Tips
Here's something you can do to help your subjects. A lot of times it's intimidating for the person you're photographing to be staring at the camera, so let her know it's okay for her to be looking elsewhere or doing something other than directly posing. You may hold something in your hand that a child will want to look at, or you can direct your subject toward a nearby item of interest. Once a person knows it's okay for them to just be natural, they'll relax.

We've said this before, too, but it's really important: be on top of your game. Know your equipment and have your technique together. You don't want to be fumbling with the camera settings or frantically switching lenses. Work smoothly and professionally and people have confidence in you and they're glad to help. Besides, I found that for the most part, the best people pictures I get are captured in the first few frames. That's a great position to be in: you know you've got some winners and now you can really relax and enjoy the situation.

A young child in Indonesia. It's not always important to get your subject looking at the camera. In fact, sometimes it's a lot better if there's something more interesting than you for the subject to look at. (F4 with my favorite lens--the good old 50mm Nikkor.)

If you've got a problem with people photography, don't run away from it, deliberately assign yourself a few tasks and missions. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Finally, realize that the nature of the world is making it easier for you. Wherever you go, people are used to seeing people with cameras. They know who you are and what you're doing, and if you're polite and sincere, most are going to be willing to help you.

And that's the last word on travel portraits.