Capture travel portraits full of character

Nothing sums up travel photography like a great portrait that captures the personality of your surroundings.

But getting a good one isn’t always easy. In addition to confident camera skills, you’ll need good people skills. When I walked down city streets in Asia I would often see characters that I instantly thought would make a great photo. I’d assume their English wasn’t fantastic (although almost definitely better than my Thai and Vietnamese), so if I wanted to take their portrait I’d walk up to them, smile and gesture at my camera – they’d be a little embarrassed but you’d get a clear yes or no as to whether you could take the shot.

If they said no I’d move on, but if they said yes I’d move around until I had a clean background. Then I would frame up, focus on the nearest eye to make sure it was sharp and take the shot. A good tip is to set your camera up with the right settings beforehand, such as aperture-priority mode, f/1.8, ISO 200. This way I wouldn’t be fiddling around with the camera for ages before I took the shot – this would have given them time to potentially reconsider their kind offer!

Buying goods is a great way of breaking the ice and most of the shopkeepers I met were happy to have their picture taken when I’d bought a few items or gifts. For some of the tribes I met in Vietnam it was expected that you purchase some of their wares in exchange for taking photos. In a single day I ended up with five handmade wallets, a couple of rings and a bracelet! They made fantastic gifts for friends and family back home, and buying the items put a smile on their faces which makes for a better shot.

Which lens is best for portraits?
The ideal focal length for portraits is 50mm on an APS-C sensor, and 85mm on a full-frame camera. These focal lengths are slightly telephoto and are generally low in barrel and pincushion distortion, so facial features won’t go askew. To get a frame-filling portrait you’ll probably be a metre or two away from your subject – this is an ideal working distance as you won’t be right in your subjects’ face which might be uncomfortable for them. 50mm and 85mm lenses usually have maximum apertures of f/1.8 or even wider on some optics.

If you don’t have a 50mm (APS-C) or 85mm (full-frame), use a lens with the closest focal length to this and dial in your widest aperture. On a full frame 24-70mm f/2.8 travel zoom lens this would be set to 70mm with an aperture of f/2.8 – you’ll still be able to get a good amount of background blur.

With the right lens and a wide aperture you need to compose and place the active AF point over the nearest eye to make this the focal point. Take a shot and inspect it on your camera’s screen to make sure you’re happy with it. If you’re not happy, it’s now or never to get the shot you’re after. Don’t be afraid to ask your model to move a little, or get closer or further away from them to adjust the composition. The calmer you appear, the more relaxed and natural your subject will feel.

Remember that rules are made to be broken, so although these tips show you how to create a shallow depth-of-field effect you may want to try different focal lengths and apertures to suit your own photographic style. Adding props to posed portraits is a great way of telling a story too, so you can ask your model to hold or interact with objects around their surroundings for more contextual shots.

Dan Mold is a professional travel and wildlife photographer and a regular contributor to Practical Photography and Digital Photo. He has recently returned from an epic adventure around Asia and Australia. See more of his work here.