Viewfinder: The Traveler’s Guide to Portrait Photography
Sharing the planet’s chronicle through the eyes of its souls
On a bookshelf in my office rests a National Geographic collection dating back to the 1950s. Every spine is yellow, with the exception of one, February 1981, which was orange to highlight the then-current energy crisis.
While its carroty pigment renders it easy to pinpoint among a sea of yellow, if we fast forward to June 1985 and reveal its cover, we glimpse an image that changed the world … or at least mine: It’s Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of a nameless 12-year-old refugee who became known as the “Afghan Girl.” Her penetrating eyes, tattered scarf and dirt-smudged skin conveyed a life of struggle and pulled on the heartstrings of a generation.
Friend Pablo Rey (who’s been traveling the globe for two decades in a Mitsubishi van with his wife, Anna) observed, “There are lots of pretty mountains, lakes and beaches, but it’s the people we remember.”
How Do We Convey the Story?
As travelers and visual storytellers, how do we convey the soul of a life unknown in a single frame? How do they live and provide for their families, how do they play, and how do they love?
Before we continue, I need to state that you don’t need to travel through Africa or Afghanistan to delve into the photographic art of humanity. It’s an omnipresent force of nature that’s around us every day and can be found in a rural Nevada café or on a Utah cattle ranch.
I mentioned in a previous “Viewfinder” that it helps to get off the tourist path, duck into alleyways, meander into local market and push your adventure envelope. I also believe one needs to possess a genuine interest in the human race. It’s this compassion—transmitted through your eyes and smile—that allows your subjects to relax and accept you for who you are: a storyteller.
Tip: Great storytellers respect and care about their subjects.
Traveler’s Guide to Portrait Photography: Groundwork
I’m a fan of the late Galen Rowell’s work with a wide-angle lens, but that doesn’t negate the value of long-lens compression achieved by managing focal length and depth of field. In my early days, on Galen’s suggestion, I took test frames with each lens and camera body and recorded settings such as film ISO (in very basic terms, ISO is simply a camera setting that will brighten or darken a photo), focal length, f-stop and camera-to-subject distance, as well as subject-to-background. After analyzing the transparencies and the effect of given settings, I was able to eliminate much of the guesswork prior to pressing the shutter. It was a lengthy process, but with today’s LCD screens and instant preview, you can do this in your backyard in a matter of hours.
Depth of Field
The reason depth of field is important is that it permits you to separate the subject from its foreground or background, allowing it to “pop” from its surroundings. The quick-and-dirty rule is: The smaller the f-stop number (large aperture), the shallower the depth of field. A large f-stop (small aperture) increases depth of field but reduces the amount of light received by the sensor, which must be compensated for with longer shutter speed (tripod work) or increased ISO.
Sensor sensitivity of modern cameras is phenomenal, allowing us to crank up the ISO to maintain handheld shutter speed and usually leave the tripod in the bag. For this reason, unless I’m capturing action (in shutter priority mode), my camera is almost always set on aperture priority.
Tip: Become a disciple of your camera settings … and practice, practice, practice!
From a Distance
There are places in the world where photographing people is not particularly welcome; and sometimes, access is denied for some reason.
In this case, I was visiting a mosque in central India where photography was allowed. However, non-Muslims were not permitted inside during hours of worship. This is where telephoto lenses and “paparazzi” shots came into play. Working in aperture priority, I achieved tack-sharp focus. This on a woman in prayer—while rendering the background slightly blurry.
Tip: Use a telephoto lens to capture distant candid shots.
Wide-angle lenses are much more forgiving, but you need to feel comfortable getting in close and mingling with your subject on an intimate level. This is key for the traveler’s guide to portrait photography. For these images, I was traveling alone or had ventured away from my companions, allowing my interaction to be more personal and natural.
As travelers and visual storytellers, how do we convey the soul of a life unknown in a single frame?
I lead with a smile and small talk, making direct eye contact as I ask about their work or family. Eventually, I point to my camera for permission, press the shutter and then present the results. It usually generates laughter, which, among friends, can lift the human spirit and supersede challenging economic or political conditions.
Tip: Get up close and personal with your subject.
Traveler’s Guide to Portrait Photography: Shoot From the Hip
Part of the traveler’s guide to portrait photography, I’ve mentioned composition creativity in past columns. The following portraits were captured with what I call the “shoot-from-the-hip” technique. With a little practice, you won’t need to look through the viewfinder to know exactly what your camera’s seeing. The beauty is that your subject’s attention stays with you. This rather than the camera—which could be at your hip or to the side of a café counter.
Tip: Practice shooting wide without looking through the viewfinder.
Traveler’s Guide to Portrait Photography: Closing Thoughts
There are lots of pretty mountains, lakes and beaches, but it’s the people we remember.
While we might never capture a portrait that graces a cover of National Geographic. However, Pablo was spot-on in saying that it’s not the lakes, mountains, or beaches. It’s our interactions with people that we remember. It’s the ultimate traveler’s guide to portrait photography.
If you possess a genuine interest in those you meet, they’ll open the door of humanity. They will help you share their story—which, in part, becomes your story … through the viewfinder.
(Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in Tread May/June 2021.)