How to Take Better Travel Portraits

by Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström Dec 23, 2007

Photo by Lola Akinmade

EVER PERUSED the pages of National Geographic and wondered how those amazing personal moments were captured? From tribal chiefs in Papua New Guinea to the cutest Mongolian children: in most cases no common language is spoken between the photographer and their subjects, yet you can see and feel the connection through the portrait. Taking pictures of amazing scenery lets you share the feeling of being somewhere exotic with friends and family. But bringing back pictures of natives gives a brief insight into life in other cultures and how local people actually live their daily lives.

One of the daunting tasks travel photographers always face is how to approach someone, make them trust your momentarily, and capture a once in a lifetime shot. As I’ve gradually improved as a travel photographer, these are some of the things that have helped me along the way.


Nothing disarms someone’s protective front faster than eye contact and a warm smile that genuinely reaches the eyes. A smile and gentle nod always goes a long way and lets your subject know that you are very approachable. With the instant gratification that comes with a viewfinder on all digital cameras, you can immediately show your subject their portrait on the camera. You can delete pictures if they show you any sign of disapproval. Since you probably never carry a consent or photo release form for them to sign, you can always let them know through your disposition that you will not use their pictures unethically in any way. Remember to always seal the deal with a “thank you” in your subject’s native language.

Photo by Lola Akinmade

Focus on one person

If you happen upon a group of people who you want to photograph, you know you’re instantly going to get a busy shot. By focusing and connecting with one person in the group, their intense portrait invites you to come join the party. One of my favorite group shots was taken in a village called Krang Yaw, deep within a Cambodian province. Within the frenzy of excitement, one of the kids looked straight at me and her face said it all.

Follow your instincts

Call it the sixth sense, but people always know when they are being watched or observed, and sooner or later, they will subconsciously turn towards the source of discomfort. It is in those few seconds of realization that some of the best travel shots are taken. One of the recent winners of National Geographic Traveler Magazine’s Photo Contest, Katarzyna Sobocinska, explains in her winning shot taken of a little girl in the village of Itekun, Nigeria, “…I was waiting for the moment when she’d look at me without yet knowing what I was trying to do. I released the camera button exactly when she noticed me.”

Give people distance

In many situations, you may not be able to get up close and personal with your subjects. For example, monks in Asia, or guards patrolling presidential palaces or castles in Europe, just to name a few. In these cases you may want to invest in a longer lens that allows you to give them space, yet capture a great moment. Unless you’re a sports photographer or professional photographer on assignment in the wild, a 55-200mm lens is more than adequate.

Try color

We’ve all heard that a black and white portrait always captures the raw emotion of its subject and adds depth to their profile. While this is a known, practiced fact, you should try capturing the amazing colors and vibrancy of a native in his or her portrait as well. You can always capture the image in color and post-process into a black and white version later. Color adds a certain dimension to portraits by transporting them from caricatures back to living beings. If you can capture strong emotions in color, imagine just how intense that same portrait would be when you post-process it into a black and white image!

Know when to quit

While you may want to smile at everyone you want to capture, sensitivity to cultural norms should always take precedence. Be considerate around religious figures and activities. Avoid snapping children when their parents visibly disapprove. Always be respectful of personal boundaries.

Persistently smiling at someone who is obviously having a bad day might agitate and alienate them further.

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