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Tips for perfect portrait photography on your travels: Tell a story, use the right lens, and talk to the person you're shooting

HONG KONG — When it comes to travel photography, it's the people within the frame that more often than not give an image its impact. Capturing great people pictures requires a lot of thought, some flexible planning, technical knowledge and the ability to communicate beyond words to break down barriers. There are several ways to go about achieving this.

Try to tell the whole story of a person and their environment in a single image.

Try to tell the whole story of a person and their environment in a single image.

HONG KONG — When it comes to travel photography, it's the people within the frame that more often than not give an image its impact. Capturing great people pictures requires a lot of thought, some flexible planning, technical knowledge and the ability to communicate beyond words to break down barriers. There are several ways to go about achieving this.

STYLES

For a portrait shot of a perfectly groomed tribal nomad, your approach will be different to that of snapping a morning market in a bustling city. Manicured, "picture perfect" portraits are usually set up and captured using advanced equipment (two to three flashes and studio softboxes), and often with the help of an assistant. Although they paint an idealistic image, they rarely reflect reality.

For most of us, a more natural style works best for people images. Standing back from a scene to shoot the broader picture, and then slowly and politely working your way closer to a subject is a good way of making sure that you capture all aspects without overstepping personal boundaries.

BETWEEN THE LINES

In certain regions, there are cultural barriers that will determine if you can openly photograph people close-up. In some Middle Eastern and more remote areas, people can have objections to you taking their picture, and in other societies, photographing women can land you in trouble. Personal preferences come into it, too; some people just don't like having pictures of them taken by a stranger.

TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY: HOW TO MAKE YOUR PICTURES POP

Research a location in advance. If you feel uncomfortable, step back and work with a wider, more distant perspective, which is generally acceptable to all — unless it captures some illegal activity.

In some Western countries (particularly the United States) photographing people up close in public can present legal issues, and taking pictures of children can spell trouble. If you are unsure of a situation, strike up a conversation with the potential (adult) subject and explain what you would like to do. Promising to follow up with an emailed picture is often a great way to overcome these barriers.

In several Southeast Asian societies the scenario is very different, and people are mostly happy to oblige by posing, or will just ignore you when you take pictures of them.

Whether to ask for permission to take a close-up picture is something that you need to determine. Asking or gesturing towards your camera — with a smile — is generally the best thing to do.

There are also scenarios in which money is asked for in return for a picture. In general, it is not a good idea to pay, as that can lead to a never-ending attack on your wallet or an ethical dilemma.

Take the time to talk or communicate in some other way with potential subjects. More often than not, they will then be far more at ease and happier to let you shoot away.

TELLING A STORY

Try to tell the whole story of a person and their environment in a single image; be selective with what you focus on and include in your frame to achieve this.

You don't always need to be close-up; shooting a distinctive silhouette or big scene with a small figure in it can transform an image into something inspirational or mysterious. Find a great street scene and favourable lighting, and then set your camera and wait for the right subject to enter the frame using burst shooting mode.

TIPS AND TECHNIQUES

Try to photograph people in soft or diffused light, such as in early morning or evenings, or in window light if it's midday (avoid harsh shadows and overhead lighting for portraits). Shooting three-quarters front on is optimum for portraits, and always focus on the eyes when close-up.

Keep your camera system simple; one mid-range zoom lens (about 24-70mm) or two small prime lenses (24mm and 50/85mm are best) are ideal. Having a fast aperture lens (f1.8-f2.8) will help to blur backgrounds for portraits and lets you use lower ISOs for better image quality in low light situations.

Using aperture priority mode (labelled AE or AP on most cameras) will allow you to focus on the shooting rather than the technicalities. When you want to isolate and focus on one person, the aperture setting f4 is ideal, whilst something like f8 will help you show the whole scene in focus (if the light is bright enough to allow this).

Anywhere in between those settings is good for outdoor pictures and groups of people.

When post-processing, try not to oversharpen or add too much contrast, as that makes for harsh and unflattering complexions. Converting a photo to black and white can also make for dramatic people pictures.

Keep your camera system simple. Photo: JESHOOTS/Unsplash

WORKING WITHIN COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS

Covid-19 restrictions mean you must shoot from a safe distance, which is best done with a longer focal length lens (85mm and upwards is best) for portrait images, and focus more on wider images of street scenes.

People are also quite tense at this time, and can be less open to having their photo taken while wearing a face mask. Masks are defining of the Covid-19 era, and although they hide people's faces and expressions, they also tell the story of this time and are important to record. SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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photography travel portrait camera

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