• Ruth Towell

5 tips for taking great travel portraits.

Updated: Oct 12, 2018

"A picture can express a universal humanism, or simply reveal a delicate and poignant truth by exposing a slice of life that might otherwise pass unnoticed." - Steve McCurry

I'm one of those people who has to have a camera in hand when travelling to new places. I specifically love photographing people when I travel; through a simple well-taken portrait you can tell a whole story about the place where it was taken and the person in the image. After a trip, the photos which I am happiest with are often the portraits - so I thought I would share with you a few things I have learnt about taking great travel portraits...

1) Smile!

The first thing I do whenever I meet someone I want to photograph is to smile! Often when travelling you either don't know the language or know very little, so in my opinion, the best way to overcome the language barrier is by having positive and open body language. It is also good to learn the basic phrase of 'Can I take your photo?', and between attempting to say that, smiling and pointing to your camera you'll most likely find that the person is more than happy to be photographed. Even basic communication like this will help the person feel more relaxed and it's a lot more honouring to the individual to build a basic relationship with them, rather than just going up to them and pointing a camera in their face!

2) Consider the context.

If you want to take a portrait which tells a story, the context can be very important. Ask yourself these questions:

- What compelled me to take this person's portrait?

- Are there any details in this person's surroundings which share a little bit about who they are?

- Is there anything I can include in the shot to help someone on the other side of the world understand this person's story?

Sometimes including context in the portrait will mean stepping back; on other occasions, you may feel happy that you can tell a story about the individual just through capturing their personal features and what they are wearing. Decide what framing works best and go with it.

3) Look at the light.

While I have seen many amazing travel portraits taken with artificial lighting, most of the time you have to work with natural lighting, as travel portraits are often taken quickly and in the moment. I believe it is important to consider how the light is falling on the person you are photographing, bad lighting can ruin a good portrait.

If it's a sunny day, watch out for unwanted shadows and blown out backgrounds, also consider the person you are photographing - you don't want them to be squinting because the sun is in their eyes. If the background works, I will sometimes stand someone in the shade, so that I can get an even light across their face.

It's also sometimes worth carrying a little reflector with you - although this won't always be practical to use, but it can save the day when the lighting is too harsh or when you feel like you might lose details in their eyes because of shadow.

My absolute favourite times of day for portraits are just after sunrise and just before sunset, you get beautiful light in these 'golden hours'. It's always worth making the effort to go out and shoot at these times, as the light will always give you beautiful soft golden portraits!

4) Know your camera.

This point might sound obvious, but it is so important. Firstly, if you don't know how to use your camera outside of Auto - learn how to! (If this is something you struggle with there is an amazing tool where you can get to grips with the manual settings on a camera here: http://www.canonoutsideofauto.ca/play/).

When you know your camera you know exactly how to get the photo that's in your head; you can control how much of the background you want to include, if you want to capture any movement, and you can quickly adapt to any lighting changes.

I'd also recommend spending some time calibrating your lenses to your camera bodies, every lens reacts differently when put on a camera body which can cause focus issues. One of the worst feelings is returning from a shoot and having a photo which you were expecting to be amazing turn out totally out of focus!

5) Decide on the story you want to tell.

While this point isn't about the process of taking the photograph, it's something which is a big part of why I take these photos and share them with the world. Whether it's uploading a photo to Instagram or displaying it in an exhibition, I like to create a caption which tells the story of what I was feeling in the moment I decided to take the photo.

Maybe the story is one which highlights a social or global issue, maybe it's one of hope, or it could be a reflection which shares the story of how and why you ended up taking this portrait.

So it's time to go out with a camera in hand, ready to capture the wonderful range of people that fill the world that surrounds us!

If you've been inspired by this post, I'd love to hear from you and see any travel portraits you've taken - you can connect with me on Instagram here: instagram.com/ruth.towell


Stay up to date with my blog:


© 2020 Ruth Towell