Travel and photography are natural partners. Forget the postcards: We all want our own images of the world’s great sights. But often what gives our travel photos true personality are the people we include, whether they are our travel companions or the locals who cross our paths.
How can we bring back compelling pictures of those people in the midst of the rush of travel? No doubt, most travel photography is taken on the go and requires the ability to make split-second decisions. For pictures of people, one of the keys decisions is whether or not to pose your subject.
In this article, we’ll focus on travel situations when you either can’t pose your subject or prefer not to. In Part 2, we’ll look at the advantages of posing and how to go about it, wherever your travels may take you.
Not to pose
Nothing captures the spirit of a trip like captivating candid shots. Think of the decisive moment when your wife is modeling a hat or outfit she wants to buy. Or your kid is leaping over the dunes at the beach. Or your friend is getting on or off a boat. Or the local pilgrims perform their morning religious rituals. Or the neighborhood folks are hanging out at a café. Or a customer is making a purchase in a colorful market.
No doubt you have to keep your eyes open and be alert to such photographic opportunities. However, in many cases you can foresee and anticipate situations that are ripe for candid photography. Think of your photos as a narrative telling the story of your trip. The more you can think ahead and plan for the kinds of spontaneous shots you want, the better the odds that you will come back with some fabulous candids.
Here are some suggestions to help you plan ahead and be ready for every candid travel photo op.
Know your subjects. For shots of your travel companions, think about the kinds of things they are likely to do on your trip or their typical facial expressions. To portray the locals, anticipate the kinds of places you’re likely to find people: in markets, parks and cafes; along the waterfront; at performances and parades. Such planning will keep you alert to situations before they occur so you are there and ready to release your shutter when something happens.
Take the right gear. Today’s sophisticated and lightweight point-and-shoot cameras and digital SLRs, with their automatic features, make travel candids a snap. But you’ll have to have your camera with you, be willing to take a few moments to take the shot and be ready with a zoom lens for quick framing. Read Adorama’s Buying Guide: 12 Great Travel Cameras. It helps to have a camera with no lag time so you can take a series of shots in quick succession since it’s hard to tell with candids which one will capture the moment best.
Portray the experience. Think beyond “We were here” to “This is how we felt.” It’s the emotions of the moment you will treasure, especially with your travel companions. A look of delight or disgust will be more interesting and memorable than a staged shot any day. Even for the locals, look for that unforgettable character or someone typical of the foreign land you’re in so the flavor of the trip comes across.
Another approach is to think of the mood of your travel experience. For example, include people to capture the sense of watching that beautiful mountaintop sunset or sailing into a glorious harbor. Even if you don’t show their faces, you’ll be inviting the viewer into your travels.
Shoot environmental portraits. Think carefully about the balance you want between the people and the environment so you show the relationship between the two. For example, putting people in a shot of a great monument or vast natural environment can provide a sense of scale. Or, if you are on a river float in a national park, showing a companion or crew member on the dingy puts the magnificent setting in a more personal context.
Even having some of the staff in your shot of a grand hotel lobby or restaurant adds a special touch, especially if they are wearing local outfits. The people in your travel pictures don’t always have to fill the frame. In fact, they can sometimes be colorful or telling details in an image of the larger setting.
Some extra tips:
1) Use your wide angle lens if you want to come in fairly close to the people and still show the setting.
2) Choose your setting (background) first; then wait for the right person to come along.
3) Be willing to move a bit to the left or right to get a composition that combines people with the setting.
4) Add fill flash to make sure the people are not lost in the shadows.
Capture the typical. We often travel to find what’s unusual or unique about distant places. But what is strange to us is often ordinary to those who live there. The same is true of people in foreign lands: You are most likely to find good subjects when you look for activities that are typical of the region in outdoor or public places that are accessible to visitors.
Depending on where you are traveling, look for people at work, such as farmers and fishermen, shopkeepers and merchants, taxi drivers and conductors. Or find people relaxing in the park, playing at the beach, enjoying a break at a café, or just walking on the street. For candids like these, you’ll get the best results shooting at a fair distance with your lens at 100-200mm. If time permits and you can move in closer, by all means do and take the shot again, working your way down to a moderate wide angle.
Understand the local culture. Do you have to ask permission before taking pictures of strangers? It depends. Unless you are shooting for commercial purposes, you certainly don’t need a release or formal permission to take pictures. Still, in some cultures photographs may still be considered taboo – or, in some cases, a way to ask for money. My approach, which has worked in locations all over the world, is to be friendly and unthreatening but to go ahead with photographing unless someone objects, in which case I respect their request and move on to another subject.
For the most part, I have been able to take pictures without any problems by using a three-step approach: 1) begin by shooting from a distance with a 100mm lens setting to get as many candid shots as possible; 2) make eye contact with the subject and show a friendly demeanor, then move closer, continuing to frame the subject as I move in; 3) take additional candid shots at closer range with a wide-angle setting while establishing rapport with the subject.
At this point, I am ready to work on posing my subject, which will be the topic of our next article.
Allen Rokach and Anne Millman are co-authors of “Focus on Travel: Creating Memorable Photographs of Journeys to New Places” by Abbeville Press. Rokach, a longtime magazine and assignment photographer, now teaches at Workshops@Adorama and other venues. His website is www.allenrokach.com.