How to Take Great Travel Portrait Photos

June 30, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 12 Comments | |
How to Take Great Travel Portrait Photos Image

This month we’re going to Peru, via Laos, and back again, to talk about travel portraiture. It’s logical, trust me.

Well I started out down a dirty road at dawn, with the raw throbbing power of the Honda 50 beneath me as I trundled over the bridge in the half-light. It’s not quite Easy Rider, but I’m loving it. At the toll I fumble for the right note; 10,000 kip, about $1. I’m a millionaire here. A couple of bungees have secured my tripod behind and the Lowepro is on my back. It’s cool and fresh for now as rural Laos awakes and comes to life. Cattle are being driven along the lanes, children are cycling to school, the ubiquitous Lao tractors chug across fields and whole families of five or more cling to one moped en route to another day of scratching out a living in this sleepy south east Asian backwater. All around me the Karst mountains rise from the landscape; great lumps of forest clad hills dominating the horizon. It’s beautiful. But it’s also very hazy.  Arrggh haze; it’s a landscape photographer’s greatest curse.

I’m in the countryside around Vang Vien, in northern Laos. It has to be said mankind has not been kind to this country. Laos holds the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the world, courtesy of the US Air Force in the Vietnam War. Mines still litter the countryside. I’m trying not to think about that too much when I trudge through fields in search of locations. And just to add to this patch of earth’s woes, the locals are burning the land. Whole tracts of countryside are being put to the flame routinely; slash and burn, to stimulate new growth presumably. The net effect is a scarred landscape and terrible air quality. Smoke hangs in the atmosphere like smog, and ash drops from the sky. It’s a bloody disaster of which the only upside is I feel considerably less guilty about my own carbon footprint. From the river at Vang Vien the incomparable view of the mountains beyond is lost in the murk. Much as I love south east Asia I have to admit I’m pining for the crystal clear light of the Coromandel Peninsula or the mood of the Isle of Skye.

How to Take Great Travel Portrait Photos

So, what are my options? For landscape photography these conditions are hopeless. But the name of this game is being flexible and extracting the maximum photographically from any given situation, so I’ve just got to re-frame my objectives. If I can’t shoot landscapes I’ll shoot people, and thankfully Laos is a great place to do just that. The people are warm, friendly, relaxed and generally open to being photographed, it’s areal treat. And the hazy light is actually good for portraiture, particularly when it’s warm and soft at the beginning and end of day.

This trip I’ve an ace up my sleeve, which I’m itching to try out; a new Canon 24mm prime lens. Now I already own a 24-70mm f2.8, a 16-35mm f2.8 and a 24mm shift & tilt lens, so why on earth do I need another 24mm lens? Well, it’s a nifty f1.4 super fast optic. So what? I must admit up to now I’ve never really seen the point of such lenses. I mean the case for super fast telephotos is obvious; restricted depth of field for creative effect and big apertures to freeze action and allow hand held exposures. But wide angles generally go hand in hand with front to back depth of field, don’t they? Or do they?

Entry Tags

photos, travel, portrait, people, portraiture, david noton, great, asia, south america, laos, peru

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#1 Chris Parker

Great article. I’ve just bought a Sigma 50mm f1.4 (equivalent to 100mm on my Oly E-3) for portraits. I think I’ll take it on my next trip!

11:26 am - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

#2 Michael

Nice photography article and great intro image - love the colours on that one. I’d love to go to Peru some time and capture that interesting culture and see Machu Picchu. Will certainly take some of your tips on board.

2:50 pm - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

#3 Austin Photographer

I’m going to try to take a few portraits in the early morning fog to see what it will do.  Thank you for the tip.

3:09 pm - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

#4 k

Beautiful portrait of the girl.

11:14 pm - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

#5 Mei Teng

Both portraits are beautiful! Love the colours.

3:13 am - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

#6 Vietnam Freedom Tour

Travel to Laos is one of service that our can support. Travel to Laos by land to be very interesting. Let us do your plan!

3:59 am - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

#7 Darren Lehane

The colour portrait is sublime.  That warm side lighting illuminating the childs face is beautiful.  I got the gear I just need the money to travel now! :)

12:08 pm - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

#8 Samuel Burns Landscape Photography

Really love the first shot, beautiful warmth and there is in innocence in the girls face you have captured nicely.

9:49 am - Sunday, July 12, 2009


Great sight especial for the first picture showed :)

7:44 am - Wednesday, January 6, 2010

#10 Amit

hey nice pics..looks like you concentrate more on the rule of thirds..i love traveling and photography is my hobby..capturing people’s expression, diffrnt food, place etc is vry much exciting..while traveling i also keep in mind to capture the sign boards that direct people..its interesting mostly the sign boards are of diffrnt languages n shapes..thanx for the wonderful article..

11:16 am - Wednesday, January 13, 2010

#11 Somsamay

David, This article just make me want to go buy that new Nikon 24 f1.4, but that will have to wait. I’m going to visit my family in Laos for the next several weeks. I have 14-24mm F2.8 zoom. It will be wide enough on my D300 (1.5 crop), but I don’t thing I can get as much OF background, and my 35mm f1.4 is not wide enough. I just have to work with tool I got.

11:52 pm - Monday, October 11, 2010

#12 Renee

hey i really like this photo how youve used the bluring tecneique with a portrait!

3:56 am - Sunday, March 25, 2012