How to Take Great Travel Portrait Photos

June 30, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

Let’s talk out of focus backgrounds. With travel portraiture the background can make or break a shot; too much confusing detail will distract attention from the main subject. Generally speaking a medium telephoto is the lens of choice for portraiture, enabling a pleasing perspective from a convenient distance for a full frame head shot with the background dropped out of focus. I’ll often reach for my 70-200mm f2.8 when presented with a face that just cries out to be photographed. Let’s now just fly First Class from Laos to Peru. In the square in Pisac in the Sacred Valley of the Incas sat this wizened, distinguished lady. Fill the frame, shoot wide open, be bold with the composition and sweep your eye from corner to corner of the frame. Is there anything in shot that doesn’t deserve to be there? It’s a tried and tested approach that works everytime, and the elements that make the shot are the subjects face, the interaction between photographer and of course the lighting. The background is out of focus and devoid of irritations. Pity life’s not so simple. But sometimes a sense of place, a feel for the environment of the subject is desirable. That bustling market behind is all part of the scene; so how to use that in the shot without distracting from the foreground is the challenge.

In this case, going a bit wider will help. Still in Peru this shot of a lady in the market at Chincherro was shot with my 24-70mm at 70mm, still wide open at f2.8. The splash of colour of the out of focus lady in the background gives some sense of the setting, but my chirpy subject full of the joys of life is still dominant in the frame. Peru is such a great place for shooting travel portraiture. The people out in the countryside still wear the colourful native dress so synomonous with the Andes and like Laos there are few hassles about exposing them to pixels. In fact people often thanked me for taking their picture.

How to Take Great Travel Portrait Photos

That certainly was the case with Marina, this shepherd girl who I came across on the misty Pampasmojo at dawn. For this travel portrait her location was integral to the shot. So still with the 24-70mm but at 50mm this time I shot again wide open, but the lonely mountain side setting is a much more significant element in the frame, as is the cool sombre sky. Now when skies start intruding on portraits things start to get complicated. It’s difficult to expose for the face while holding the drama of the sky. Normally I’d use a grad to hold detail in the clouds, but in this case with the figure of Marina breaking the horizon it’s not an option. Neither are multiple exposures, as I’m working hand held here with a rapidly evolving opportunity. Luckily two factors come to my aid; the low contrast nature of the light and the exposure latitude of the RAW image. I managed to expose ensuring the highlights in the sky were retained and the balance between her face and the heavens was balanced with multiple RAW conversions of the same frame and a bit of buggering about in Photoshop with layers and the eraser tool.

So as I go wider with my focal lengths the background becomes more and more of a feature. The key consideration is how much detail I want in the background. There is a time and a place for isolating the subject from their surroundings, equally injecting a sense of place can be very effective. Back in Laos the sun is coming up and I’ve parked my Big Bike with an embarrassing basket over the front wheel by a ford near a village. It was a location I shot as a landscape the previous dawn, but the light was so hazy it didn’t really work. I did however note just what a thoroughfare it was for passing peasants, so here I am, hanging around shiftily, waiting for Something to Happen. The backdrop of mountains and river is quintessentially Lao, a perfect setting for some environmental portraits.

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