Essential Elements of Travel Portrait Photography

My comfort zone for photography is landscapes. It’s definitely where I’ve had the most success and recognition. But to be a good, well rounded photographer, I think you need to constantly challenge yourself. I tried to think of what the essential elements of travel portrait photography consists of, and how I can improve my photos by applying these.


1. Perspective

Recently I’ve been trying take more photos with people in them, which is not always the easiest thing to do when you mostly travel solo. Let’s just say that I’ve gotten pretty good at stalking people for candid shots, like the ones below.

People in landscape shots add some perspective to locations, in particular around size of things in the scene.


2. Candid Moments

I generally travel with only one lens; either a 40mm prime if I am traveling with my Nikon D810, of the 28mm prime on my Leica Q. These are great for candid photos, but not the best for portraits. I’m not the best at stopping and asking someone if I can take their photo. If I was, both of these lens would be fantastic.

I recently set myself a goal to improve candid portrait shots, where I want to capture things in real-time and not worry about the scene around, but more on capturing the moment. I’ve found that my go to lens is the Nikkor 28mm-300mm. It’s not the fastest lens, topping out at f5.6, but I’m not shooting in low light when capturing people.


Cropping & Focus

What I’ve found when capturing the moment is that it’s really hard to block out the noise. Cropping helps, but so does picking a primary subject and detail on the subject, like their eyes.




3. Emotion

Cory Richards, one of my favorite photographers, said that photographs should make you feel something. I think this is especially true for travel portraits. It’s a challenge to capture a unique, raw moment when someone’s guard is down. It’s almost impossible without a longer lens. You have to try and capture the innocence of a scene without the subject changing their demeanor because they see the camera.



What I’ve also discovered is that great emotional pictures are best when there is a longing. It’s hard to explain, but if you can capture someone who has lost something, looking into the distance, or a desire for the current situation to change. If you can incorporate longing into your picture, then it’s going to have a really powerful emotional element.

To give you an idea of what I mean, look at the two photos below of a young girl in Thimpu, Bhutan. The first one is a nice picture that I put more in the candid moments category. I focused on her eyes and the crop puts her square in the middle of the photo. It’s good, but it lacks emotion.

Now look what happens when I add longing into the picture. I changed my angle and took the photo as the girl looked at her dad just outside of the frame. There is so much more emotion with just that minor change.


4. Atmosphere

The final element of travel portraits that I try to incorporate is atmosphere. The goal is to give the viewer a sense of what it’s like in some far flung exotic corner of the world. For me, atmosphere is tricky to capture. My best  attempts have been when I can incorporate some of the environment into the picture. Things like lighting, weather, and clothing. Whilst it’s critical to start with a good picture, post production can really help with atmosphere, much more so than with perspective, candid moments, or emotion.

The first picture below gives you a sense of a rural, third world location because of the simple clothes and sparse landscape in the background. It was shot in a tiny village in Laos.


The final picture is a great example of using post production to really create a powerful atmosphere. I took this photo at a tofu factory in Indonesia. I intentionally shot it dark to capture a sense of old world labor. Then I added some grain and ambient lighting to make the photo itself feel old. I am super happy with how it turned out.


That’s about it. I am still more comfortable with landscapes. By incorporating the essential elements of travel portraits: perspective, candid moments, emotion, and atmosphere, I have seen a huge improvement in the breath of what I can capture and be satisfied with the outcome. The only way to improve is just keep taking more and more shots. That’s my plan anyway.