Travel photography: Photographing people (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on travel portraiture. You can see part one, from last week, here.
When taking portraits I almost always use a wide-angle lens. This allows me to get in close so that the subject is the predominant part of the image while still showing enough of the background and foreground environment to give the photo a sense of place.
During the film era I used a Nikkor 20mm f2.8 and 35mm f1.8 lens until purchasing a 20-35mm f2.8, which was almost glued to my F4. My first digital wide angle was Tokina’s 12-24mm f4, which I used on a Nikon D200 then on a D300, but now mostly use a Nikkor 24-120mm f4 or the Nikkor 20mm f1.8 lens on a D800.
However, a couple of years ago, wanting to travel light, I purchased a Fujifilm X-T10 with an 18-135mm lens, which is seldom zoomed beyond 50mm when it comes to portraits. With the X-T10’s small body and retro styling, I looked more like a tourist than professional photographer, which suited me fine as I think that relaxes the subject more than having a big Nikon D800 and fat lens pointed at them.
The art of posing
Finding photo-worthy subjects is one thing; deciding how they should pose is another. Again, some pre-clicking conversation may help you notice when a person looks more comfortable. Once that’s been decided I prefer the subject looking into the camera as I think seeing a person’s eyes helps attract and engage the photo’s viewer with the image.
Normally, I ask someone to go on doing whatever it is they’re doing, or chatting with whomever they may be with, then quickly throw me a glance, which is when I click the shutter. If the person seems happy, I’ll tell them it’s okay to smile. There are times when a beaming smile makes a photo so much better.
Another factor to consider with environmental portraits is depth of field. While the person is the centre of focus, some detail in the surrounding environment – be it a landscape or streetscape or interior space – is also important so that anyone looking at the photo has some idea of location. Otherwise, it’s just a portrait that could have been taken in downtown Brisbane. However, you’ll need to balance this as you don’t want too much depth of field taking attention away from the subject or what they may be doing.
Wide-angle lenses having a greater depth of field means an aperture of around f5.6 is often sufficient, but that depends upon how close you are to the subject. Backgrounds and foregrounds filled with familiar objects such as a kitchen interior or house façade don’t need to be in sharp focus, so f4 should be sufficient. And if the person being photographed is truly striking, then a wider aperture is better suited.
Trying to capture both environment and subject means I seldom take close-ups, although occasionally a face full of character demands one, such as that of farming brothers Chester and Benny Kulisa in front of their barn in rural Massachusetts.
Sometimes asking permission to take a photo simply interrupts a scene where everything is laid out ready to be shot. I’m not sure if such photos are more street photography than portraiture but human presence often adds interest to a postcard-like image.
In Washington D.C the early morning sunshine bathes the Lincoln Memorial in glorious golden light. On its own this makes for a pretty fine travel pic, but if you’re lucky enough to be there when a cleaner is mopping the steps, the photo of a small figure dwarfed by the statue looks far more impressive. Similarly, photos of a vintage stall at the St Neots fair in Cambridgeshire, a cobblestoned street in Kuldiga, Latvia, a washing line in Rome, and the Charles Bridge in Prague are all made more interesting by having people in them.
If the success of reality TV has taught us anything, it’s that we relate to ordinary people. So photographs featuring the local populace of countries you’ve travelled to will add some real life and likely resonate more when you show friends and family a slide show or photo album when you return home. ❂
About the author: Ian Kenins has been a professional photographer for over 30 years whose work has been published in a wide variety of books, newspapers and magazines. His favourite photographic subject is people, particularly those from rural areas. And, as this article shows, he’s someone not to travel with. See more at www.iankenins.com.