Framing Classic Travel Portraits with Rule of Thirds
Portrait photography when combined with travel photography is a delicate act, especially when the photographer is visiting foreign cultures with a language barrier. Let it be the elderly, kids or adults, the photographer is in a way an ambassador, often times from a very different land.
Older people are much more respected in Southeast Asia than in the U.S.A. When approaching elderly portrait photography subjects, common courtesy a nod, a smile, pointing to the camera to ask for permission are obvious ways to try to establish trust and chemistry.
Always being prepared to receive a NO answer is a great way to condition yourself to be able to genuinely accept the rejection without anger or without a patronizing, fake smile. With experience comes realization that certain locations – i.e. tourist traps – are less optimal for genuine street portrait photography. With that said the majority of people in Southeast Asia are the kindest, most welcoming and accommodating.
Street portrait photography of friendly old Vietnamese woman
As I walk around during street photography, I always have my camera in my hand, or hanging from my neck making my business and intention clearly visible form far away. This has worked for me as seen in this street portrait of a kind old Vietnamese woman on her porch.
As I approach people, I can gauge from afar if they are willing to be photographed. Miming and smiling goes a long way and unwilling photography subjects can easily be identified and left alone in peace.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the off center positioning of the subject places her right eye on the left vertical grid line. The eye is not exactly in the cross hair of the grid but it does not always matter in portraits with landscape orientation. The composition is balanced and flowing in accordance to The Golden Ratio.
Portrait photography of elegant old Vietnamese woman with pearl necklace
Head-on portraits are risky compositions as they can look like passport pictures. They can lack three dimensional depiction of the face. Head-on portraits should not be avoided though, it is best to make them one of the compositions out of the several angles that are explored with any given portrait photography subject.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that a centered head-on portrait that cuts at mid-chest, most likely will have the eyes at the cross hairs of the grid. Therefore this composition can be a go-to move when the photographer has limited time and have to think quickly.
Three quarter portrait portrait photography of stoic old Vietnamese woman
Besides the head-on a.k.a. passport like headshot, another classic technique, that usually comes up automatically during portrait photography is the three quarter portrait. Once again cutting the subject at mid chest is a sure way to create a balanced composition. Only one more thing to watch out for: there should be more space in front of the face then behind it.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that this composition is not really lining up with the grid. Looking at the original image above, the woman’s face does look a bit too centered, which can be an early warning sign that the composition may not be as dynamic as it could.
It is not a horrible composition though, therefore the Rule Of Thirds grid is not an all mighty tool.
Street female portrait photography of smiling old Vietnamese woman
An otherwise busy street scene can be simplified and transformed into a portrait photography location, provided some things fall into place. If a person, like this smiling old Vietnamese woman can be isolated from the surrounding visual distractions, and a neutral background happens to be behind her, the results can be far better than that busy street scene initially would have suggested.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that cutting the subject a bit bellow mid-chest raised her eye level and aligned it with the grid. Even though her face is in the middle of the frame, for my taste the composition is in accordance with The Golden Ratio.
Travel photography portrait of flower Hmong old woman with basket backpack
Candid travel photography may not have the same strong emotional impact as more formal portraits, where the subject is aware of the camera and makes a direct eye contact. But candid portraits, shot with a telephoto lens will result in successful cultural and documentary portraits.
In the case of the flower Hmong hill tribe people, their camera shyness can dramatically decrease the travel photographer’s productivity. The additional distance provided by the longer focal length can make portrait photography less invasive and still respectful.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the positioning of the subject’s face is close enough to the right vertical grid, to make this a balanced composition. This proves that the eyes don’t always have to be exactly in the cross hairs.
Sitting portrait photography of elegant old Vietnamese woman in Buddhist pagoda
Open shade during hot midday hours is one of the only places where portrait photography can take place. This diffused light is soft and even, perfect for portrait photography where unattractive shadows can ruin the image. This wider angle composition allows to tell more story via the subject’s body language, posture and surroundings.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that placing he subject more to the left would have put her face in the top left cross-hairs of the grid. I still find the composition visually pleasing and according to The Golden Ratio.
Portrait photography of daydreaming elegant old woman in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Daydreaming portraits are quite remarkable when taken of a person whom the travel photographer only met seconds ago. Some people are able to shut out the camera being pointed at them and deliver a very natural portrait.
Although it was impossible to avoid not having columns of the Buddhist pagoda go through the subject’s head, I tried to arrange the strong vertical lines such a way that they would not be dominating the composition too aggressively.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the subject’s left eye is under the left grid line, and even though the eye itself is not in the cross-hairs, the composition is balanced. Therefore The Golden Ratio is really just a guide and not a ruthless dictator.
Street portrait photography of elderly Vietnamese woman in Chau Doc
A kind, non-threatening attitude displayed by the travel photographer will not turn every portrait photography attempt into a masterpiece but it is a great way to bring the best out of kind and friendly people. I am still amazed at the chemistry that can be established just after 5 seconds of non-verbal interaction. This portrait of an elderly Vietnamese woman exemplifies this approach.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see again, as we have above, that a head-on portrait with a centered subject, cropped at mid-chest will place the eyes at the grid cross-hairs. This classic and simple composition is a sure way to create portraits according to The Golden Ratio.
Travel portrait photography of old flower Hmong minority woman under umbrella
Candid travel portrait photography at the famous Bac Ha Sunday market in flower Hmong country. It is a rare chance to have a simple background in the very busy market. Arriving early is a good way to lessen the crowds also pre-composing a frame and “letting people walk into” it.
There are no distracting elements anywhere around this old flower Hmong minority woman – until one looks closer and discovers the Hmong man in the background. I actually consider that man’s head in the basket a “Where’s Waldo?” moment and find it funny.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that this is a quite well executed geometric composition. The Hmong woman’s face is right on the left vertical grid line. The handle of the umbrella enters the picture where the same left grid line touches the frame. The right vertical grid intersects the basket backpack right at its center.
There are several other key elements of the photo alongside other grid lines and at grid cross-hairs.
Casual street portrait photography of old Vietnamese woman in Ninh Binh
A simple, candid street portrait which can be photographed as often as the photographer is brave enough to ask a total stranger or fast enough to “steal a real moment”.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that non of the key elements of the subject’s face really line up well. This was a very quick shot and the automated programming did not get downloaded. Even though a compositional mistake was made, it is useful not to trash these photos immediately but to study them. These “bad photo examples” can help with training the subconscious for improved split moment decision making in the future.
Travel portrait photography of old Vietnamese woman sitting in a hammock
I like to take at least half a dozen photos even during very brief travel portrait photography sessions. Consecutive pictures often get better as editing and decision making happens while looking through the viewfinder. There can be small details that are not seen while the photography takes place, and these details can make or break photographs.
In the case of this old Vietnamese woman sitting in a hammock, the age-old question was: what to include and what to exclude.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the kind old Vietnamese woman is just too centered in the composition and none of the elements are placed according to The Golden Ratio. Perhaps a half a step to the left would have changed the vantage point for a better result.
Three quarter travel portrait photography of old Cambodian woman in poverty
Travel portrait photography in Cambodia is not a carefree adventure. Even though the Cambodian people are super nice, it can be a daunting experience to walk into a poor neighborhood with a full stomach – not to mention a few extra pounds around the waist.
But to be able to sincerely report how people live, photos like this portrait of an old Cambodian woman in poverty, need to be taken. By repeating this process, it becomes clear that smiles often follow these haunted looks and even though a visitor is not going to have lasting impact, they are still welcome.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the right eye is exactly in grid cross-hairs and the chin is resting on the bottom horizontal grid. It is a classic three quarter portrait composition which is according to The Golden Ratio.
Travel portrait photography of old Vietnamese woman looking in the distance
Not all people are the most willing travel portrait photography subjects. But if they don’t explicitly contest the process, the resulting images can be unique in their “unfriendliness” which is in stark contrast of the typical, overwhelmingly friendly reactions one usually gets in Vietnam.
Good example is this old Vietnamese woman looking in the distance, and not terribly excited about my activities.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the left vertical grid line intersect the subject’s head perfectly at the center. Although it is more common to place more space in front of a subject than behind them, it is not an unbreakable rule.
Sitting portrait of old Vietnamese woman on the grounds of Buddhist pagoda
If the photographer is not very welcome and is basically ignored, as was the case with this stoic lady, the resulting image can be a really natural one. Not looking into the camera, this old Vietnamese woman actually made this photo look like a candid shot, even though her permission was asked and the composition was carefully set up.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the subject is too close to the center of the image and none of the grid lines correspond to important elements in the composition. In the case of this image, I don’t really mind the discrepancy, the image is balanced and works for me.