5 tips for taking great travel portraits

5 tips for taking great travel portraits

People make great pictures, but don't often take them. Here's some advice from a pro on snapping perfect portraits

When traveling, I take more of an interest in the local people and their culture and customs than the scenery. 

My goal when taking travel portraits is to convey a sense of place, the personality of my subject and the local culture all in one photo.

I am often asked how I can take such intimate portraits of total strangers whom I often cannot converse with -- and it all comes down to my deliberately calm demeanor and friendliness, which soothes any suspicions of ill intentions my subjects may have. 

Don’t forget that a smile is universally understood. I always make sure people can see my camera when I approach them and when I feel the comfort level is there, I will simply point to my camera to ask for permission to make a portrait.  

I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been turned down.  

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1. Don’t be afraid of people

photo adviceIt's the person you should capture, not his work.


A good travel photographer interacts with his or her subjects to create a level of comfort, which the subject will inevitably carry over into the portrait.

In rural Sichuan province, China, this worker was busy welding while I quietly watched him.

I took some nice photos of him welding with sparks flying everywhere but it was this image of him taking a smoke break that showed me his more relaxed side.


2. Tell a story

photo tipsA thousand words? Sometimes a picture can tell an entire life story.

The viewer will connect with your photos if there are stories that go with them.

In the photo above, on a random walk late one night I came upon a lone erhu player practicing on a quiet street in Chengdu, China.

Although people walked by him without admiring his talent, I stood beside him for half-an-hour as he played oblivious to his surroundings. I really appreciated his passion and wanted my photo to reflect his lonesome performance.

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3. Catch a special moment

photography adviceGreat photos come to those who wait.

It’s easy to ask someone to pose for your photo, but whenever I can I prefer to make images of candid moments, catching a unique moment, or capturing emotions and body language to create a more moving image.

In this photo, taken in Yangon, Myanmar, two sisters were giddily feeding birds as they enjoyed the last sunset of 2011.

I took a few dozen photos before I got the movement of the seagulls, the expression on the lady’s faces and their movements just the way I wanted.


4. Use the golden light

photography tipsThe golden hour was made for photographers.

The most memorable photos often have the most dramatic lighting.

The early morning (around 6 a.m.) and late afternoon "golden light" periods are the best time to go out and photograph, as the sunlight casts a glow over the land and your photos will have richer colors and more contrast.

In this photo, I caught a peaceful moment when a farmer was admiring the sunset overlooking the Indian Ocean off Lombok, Indonesia.


5. Watch the background

how to take great photosThe backdrop can say just as much as the focal point.

Your subject may look great but if your photo’s background is too busy or there are elements that distract the viewer then the photo loses its impact.

Make sure your subject does not have wires, tree branches or other strange objects coming out of his or her head. Move your feet and compose from various angles to experiment with the best composition.

I will often use the sky as my background as it is often clear and uncluttered so I have to get close and shoot from a crouched position upwards.

In this photo, taken in People’s Park, Chengdu, China, I watched elderly ladies dance to classic Communist Party songs while an old man watched their movements like a choreographer.

Immediately after I pressed the shutter, I knew this photo would be one of my favorites.

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Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, CNNGo, Huffington Post, and other Asian media outlets. He enjoys hiking from one mountain village to another, waiting for the golden light and dining on street food.

Read more about Derrick Chang