Tips On Composition: Portrait Photography While Traveling
This “Faces of Children” photo series samples pictures of boys taken during a 9-month long travel photography trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. Portrait photography mixed with street photography has a few challenges but the variety of images and experiences at the end of each day, make this genre a rewarding one.
Creative planning is basically a waste of time, there is no way to predict the situations and circumstances during travel photography. Some attributes a travel and street photographer can benefit from: a pleasant, non-confrontational attitude, generic not flashy clothes, proper skin coverage, minimal photography gear, a quick eye and mind to make the best of often less than perfect photography environment.
Some specifics: watch your gear for theft, smile often but not in a creepy way, don’t get upset if rejected, watch for balanced compositions and uncluttered backgrounds, shoot most concepts in both horizontal and vertical format.
Travel portrait photography of Cambodian best friends laughing
A great moment captured of Cambodian best friends laughing, after they swam in the Mekong river and rolled around in the sand. There was very little time for this composition, but it is to my liking. Fortunately both hands over each other’s shoulders are included and didn’t get cropped out.
Portrait photography of Cambodian boy covered in sand
The partially dried sand (or partially wet sand) make this portrait of this Cambodian boy a unique one. I also like the eye contact and the blurred background which was created with a telephoto lens and a wide aperture.
Portrait photography of confident Cambodian boy with arms folded
A lot of confidence shines thorough the pose of a confident Cambodian boy with arms folded. It is a classic three quarter portrait with a slightly wider crop. It is always a flattering and dynamic portrait composition, because of the way the lines of the neck, chin and cheeks change with the head turned.
Portrait photography of Cambodian boy with slingshot around head
One of the side effects of travel photography is the immunity developed for snotty noses. They are just everywhere, so after awhile they become the norm and actually a clean nose gets noticed. I could not think myself of great portrait concepts like this Cambodian boy with slingshot around head. These are the kind of gifts travel photography gives on the daily bases.
Portrait photography of boy getting outdoor haircut while wrapped in Vietnamese
Perhaps one my the luckiest timings occurred as I was riding my bike back to my hotel, after a full day of travel photography and spotted, from the corner of my eye, a boy getting an outdoor haircut by his father, while wrapped in the Vietnamese national flag.
Besides the lucky timing, other elements also fell into place: the rusty door created a textured but simple backdrop, the yellow star was at an optimal place, the father had white and gray clothes which did not distract or compete with from the colorful flag and the boy.
Travel portrait photography of Cambodian boy who looks like a girl
For the first few minutes, I got completely fooled by this Cambodian boy who looked like a girl, as I was taking portraits of him, thinking I was shooting young female portraits. I love the hair in the face style, the eye-contact and the red necklace – as even the smallest amount of red will add a pop to most compositions.
Portrait photography of Cambodian boy in beautiful light
Open shade is simply beautiful light. I may have been walking down on a dusty road, with scorching sun above my head, at a time when no self respecting travel photographer would be caught outside. But this is the time when people and kids are on porches or under trees in the shade. This open shade can supply soft, diffused, bright light to create amazing portraits, like the photo of this Cambodian boy.
Portrait photography of daydreaming Cambodian boy with face in hand
Different day, different, town, different dusty road but the same scene: Cambodian boy hanging out in the cool shade of a big tree. I did not direct him to put his face in his hand, so the resulting portrait is natural and engaging. The blown out highlights in the background show, what a bright and sunny day it was but as seen here the the quality of light in open shade never disappoints.
Portrait photography of Cambodian boy with serious expression
The strong lines of the framework of a house being built perfectly compliment the strong, confident demeanor of this Cambodian boy. This is not soft, open shade type of light, but hard midday sun light. Shadows on the face are usually not a good thing – for female and beauty shots – but these shadows can work for dramatic portraits.
Becasue travel photographers – usually – don’t use reflectors, if the shadows are too dark in the face, they can be lightened up in Photoshop.
Portrait photography of daydreaming Cambodian boy in poverty
One of the many examples of spontaneous daydreaming moments that happen with certain people and children. It still surprises me how some people are just not phased by a stranger from a strange land pointing a camera in their faces.
This photo was taken in a quite poor neighborhood so it is fitting for the surroundings – although I never purposefully look for exploitative images.
Portrait photography of Cambodian boy with snotty nose and catchlight in eye
Yes, more snotty nose photos but in an open shade, therefore beautifully lit. When the sky or the surroundings are very bright, often times a huge catchlight – specular highlight in a subject’s eye, a.k.a. sparkle – is created. This adds vibrancy and extra life to the eyes and the photo.
Catchlight is so important, that studio photographers often dedicate a light just to achieve that special sparkle. If creating catchlight was not possible or forgotten, digital retouchers often place a fake catchlight using Photoshop.
Portrait photography of smiling Vietnamese boy with wet hair after a swim
Most travel photographers know how the perfect background is often times hard to come by, especially when a split second decision has to be made. So I love the woven background behind this smiling Vietnamese boy with wet hair, who just finished his swim in the Mekong river.
Portrait photography of Vietnamese boy with curious look on face
Another excellent background created by using a cheating method, by pointing the camera downwards therefore eliminating possible clutter and visual hot-mess that accompany many street portraits. I really like not only the expression on the face of this Vietnamese boy with curious look but also the red, white and blue colors of his clothes.
Portrait photography of Cambodian Cham boys wearing Muslim hats
The setting sun created a strong side lighting for the engaging portrait of a Cambodian Cham boy wearing a Muslim hat. The very lucky background was courtesy of the colorful van of a fruit and snack vendor.
A different personality portrayed by the a second Cham boy. I was glad that they both wore traditional Muslim clothes but in different colors.
Portrait photography of Karate punching Vietnamese Hmong boy
Sometimes all elements just line up, sometimes they need a little tweaking. The pose of this Karate punching Vietnamese flower Hmong boy was perfect, and all I had to was to make sure that I lined up his left eye behind his knuckle for maximum effect.
Street portrait photography of smiling Vietnamese boy
Otherwise unflattering, harsh, midday light from high above can be used for portraits with people and children with strong or well defined facial features. Such a dramatic light probably would not work with a blonde, curly haired cutie. But as this example shows, it works with this smiling Vietnamese boy.
Portrait photography of Vietnamese children in school behind safety bars
A great expression captured of a big eyed Vietnamese boy stuck behind the safety bars of his school.
Street portrait photography of angry Vietnamese boy
The otherwise all smiles boy made this angry face, as he was enthusiastically performing for the camera for 5 minutes straight. I like – for the most part – when the background lacks any vibrant colors and is almost black and white. Muted colored or monochromatic backgrounds result in the colorful main subject to be even more prominent.
Travel portrait photography of daydreaming Cambodian boy in poverty
Faces of poverty is not an easy travel photography concept to keep on shooting. Even if the travel photographer gives a dollar or two and buys a lunch or two – as I try to do – it will not make a permanent lifestyle improvement. All it can do is put a smile on a face for awhile.
Daydreaming portrait of a Cambodian boy in Kampot, who was collecting recyclables from trash – instead of being in school.
Street portrait photography of Vietnamese boy with healthy head of hair
Impromptu street portrait of a Vietnamese boy with healthy head of hair, an up-to-no-good smile wearing a neat, white and blue shirt.
Street portrait photography of Vietnamese boy with spiky hair
To emphasize the wicked, spiky hair of this Vietnamese boy, I had to photograph him from above so the cement floor of the playground would create an uncluttered background.
Portrait photography of young Vietnamese Buddhist monk in robe
Kids after a certain age – like this young Vietnamese Buddhist monk in a robe – will start to get more self conscious when photographed and may strike a somewhat contrived pose. Due to the language barrier, there is no way to tell them to relax and while it can be signaled or mimed, usually there is no improvement in subsequent photos.
The colorful wall of the Buddhist pagoda was a great backdrop – but not all street photography subjects will be completely at ease in front of a stranger’s camera – and it is alright.
Travel portrait photography of Vietnamese boy after a swimming in Mekong River
Contrasting with above young monk photo, this boy being a few years younger, completely rules this portrait.
Street portrait photography of silly Vietnamese Hmong boy
Hmong boy being silly in his school yard, in Ninh Binh, Northern Vietnam. Silliness eventually will take place during kids portrait photography but these images are not automatically throw away images. I really like the pastel color scheme of this photo and the soft, diffused light via the overcast sky.
Travel portrait photography of laughing Vietnamese boy under Communist poster
Funny, stolen moment as a Vietnamese boy is laughing for being photographed, under a Communist propaganda poster in the main square of Soc Trang. Fortunately the boy turned his head towards the setting sun and caught great light on his face.
Portrait photography of silly Vietnamese Hmong boy making a weird scary face
Another silly flower Hmong hill tribe boy, making a scary face this time. I like the authenticity of the dirty fingernails. The portrait being close-up was key, as nothing else really mattered in the background that could or should have been included to enhance the story here.