One of the many attractions of travelling is meeting people. Mixing with fellow travellers is a great part of the experience, many of which become lifelong friends. Some of the most compelling images of our travels however are often of the local population going about their daily tasks and making a living.
There are generally two forms of street portraiture an ‘environmental’ in which the subject is taken in the context of their surroundings or in a ‘standard’ style where the subject is the whole emphasis, the background is either plain, cropped out or blurred by use of depth of field (see Understanding Your Camera) to prevent it being distracting.
The first issue that most photographers must face is whether to ask for permission to take the picture or not. The possible result is that they may refuse, in which case the photographer should immediately stop. However it is not always this simple as often this reticence towards having their picture taken is often merely because they are ‘professional‘ models to all intents and purposes. The intended subject may initially refuse but moments later in other circimstances offer to pose for some monetary compensation.
The second problem with asking for permission is that the subject of your great environmental portrait will instantly become aware and involuntarily either pose unnaturally or stiffen up uncomfortably.
The other option of course is to merely take the picture and hope there are not any objections, personally this is my preference unless within a society where photography is genuinely unwelcome. This allows for a more natural image to be captured and in the event that there is some resistance the image can always be deleted. More often though there will not be any problem and the moment has not been lost.
If using a DSLR or another camera with inter-changeable lenses it is of course possible to take the pictures from some distance away, again adding to the chance of catching a more natural image. This can also be useful if the intended subject is a performer of some kind who will undoubtedly request payment.
Travel photography books often explain in great detail how becoming immersed within the culture will result in the best images. There is not any doubt that this will make a great difference, however the vast majority of us are travellers that take photographs, not professional travel photographers. There are limits to the amount of time that can be devoted to taking photographs; we have family and friends to consider.
Commercial excursions are obviously a perfect opportunity to get some great images, however these are usually run to a tight schedule and there is little opportunity to spend any length of time becoming totally immersed in the culture we hope to capture.
Therefore to get the images we require it is necessary to be even smarter and engage with the people we intend to photograph that much quicker. Stall holders and the goods they sell, spices, fruits or colourful garments make excellent subjects as do craftsmen. My favourite method is to strike up some conversation with them regarding their goods, even better if you can find something you want to buy. This often has the desired effect and the merchant will be only too happy to allow as many photographs as required.
Even so it is not recommended to immediately start snapping away, it is unlikely the subject will be relaxed and natural. Have the camera ready, but continue chatting with them, allow them to relax once more, even better if they become distracted with something or another customer.
This will work to a lesser degree in the street; it is much harder to make that connection in a short period of time. It is not totally impossible, but often the best way is to just take the image when the opportunity arises.
Have the camera ready, switched on, the lens cap off and the general settings suitable for the style of portrait you are looking to take. The options with a point and shoot compact will be limited, but creativity of a DSLR will require greater forethought, aperture priority or shutter priority, ISO, metering and still more.
One top tip however always use the eyes as the point of focus that way unless you are working with an extremely shallow depth of field the face of the subject should remain in focus. Environmental portraits will need a greater depth of field to ensure they can be seen in the context of the surroundings.
Snap away quickly and as unobtrusively as possible in either situation this will aid in getting the natural images wanted, aim to get at least several different shots, including the surroundings and some closer crops of just the subject. It is far better to do this now than have to crop severely in post capture editing as valuable pixels will be lost. The chances are quite a few of the images will be disasters but hopefully at least one will come out just as you envisaged it.
The greater your understanding of the camera the easier it will be to have it prepared to take quality images and the quicker you will be able to react to changing circumstances. This really cannot be emphasised enough get out regularly and take pictures it is undoubtedly the best way to understand the camera.
Good luck and happy snapping!
Do you have any tips that will help others take some great portraits, feel free to share with us all.