Story and photos by Chris Collard

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.

The ladies of a small village, near Lake Kariba, Zambia, have dark skin and wear brightly colored clothing as they carry mud bricks on their head.

The ladies of a small village near Lake Kariba, Zambia, were absorbed in song as they carried heavy mud bricks to the building site of their new place of worship. (Image data: Canon 40d, 18-200 lens, 134mm focal length, ISO 400, f/7.1)

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.

A woman in a black covering with dark pink shirt prays outside the Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi, India.

Females, who are not permitted in the worship halls of the Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi, India, must pray on an exterior veranda. (Image data: Canon 7d Mark II, 18-270mm lens, 270mm focal length, ISO 250, f/6.3)

Slides of animals, man, and trees lay next to a photographer's analysis of shots.

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.

A rural Indian woman, wrapped in colorful clothing forms dung cakes from elephant droppings.

A woman in rural India forms elephant droppings into “dung cakes,” which are then used for cooking fuel in areas where the cutting of wood is prohibited. (Image data: Canon 7d, 18-270mm lens, 270mm focal length, ISO 500, f/6.3)

A Kenyan child in pink short and shorts plays soccer with plastic and twine ball.

In an impoverished village near Kenya’s Meru National Park, industrious children bind black agricultural plastic with twine for use as soccer balls. (Image data: Canon 7d, 18-270mm lens, 119mm focal length, ISO 640, f/5.6)

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.

Dark-skinned children playing water can drums and guitars crafted from scrap lumber and corn oil jugs.

Children of the world are resilient and creative. Near Maletsunyane Falls, Lesotho, these boys had started a rock band with water can drums and guitars crafted from scrap lumber. They used lengths of monofilament and used corn oil jugs. (Image data: Canon 40d, 10-22mm lens, 10mm focal length, ISO 500, f/8.0)

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.

Close Contact

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?

Soviet Republic of Georgia smiling food vendor with gray hat, blue quilted jacket, and peppers around his neck.

Souqs and bazaars are ideal for capturing people at work. The author met this produce vendor while meandering through a farmer’s market in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. He is so excited about his first portrait he lit up with laughter. He summoned his friends to take a look. (Image data: Canon 7d Mark II, 10-22mm lens, 16mm focal length, ISO 500, f/9.0)

Inuit boy swinging on swing set wearing clue jacket and colorful boots smirking at camera.

This Inuit boy shows a perpetual sour-apple grin. This was from the piece of green apple-flavored hard candy the author handed him with his swing at eye level. His ancestors migrated to Ittoqqortoormilt, on the remote eastern coast of Greenland, with Dutch settlers in 1925. (Image data: Canon 20d, 10-22mm lens, 10mm focal length, ISO 100, f/5.6)

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

Multiple cowboys, one standing and others on horses round up cattle.

While following a web of 1850s emigrant trails from Wyoming to California, the author came across an “Old West”-style cattle drive. The family had originally settled in the region in the 1800s. This gentleman—a grandfather with generations seven and eight in tow—was heading to summer pastures. He had a small herd of cattle. (Image data: Canon 7d, 10-22mm lens, 11mm focal length, ISO 200, f/3.5

A group of brothers, rodeo riders, sit on fence with beers in hand, one pointing to the action.

Local rodeos are idyllic venues for capturing life in the country’s “slow lane.” They make their way into town to compete once a month or follow the circuit year-round. Rodeo riders are as salt-of-the-Earth as they come. This group of brothers from a multi-generation ranching family sipped coldies as they watched the fifth brother mount a bronc. This was at the annual 4th of July Pro Rodeo in Folsom, California. (Image data: Canon 20d, 10-22mm lens, 10mm focal length, ISO 1600, f/3.5)

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

The proprietor, a woman wearing red flannel shirt, standing in front of Midas Bighorn Saloon, Midas, Nevada

The Midas Bighorn Saloon, in Midas, Nevada (population about 40, depending on the mines). It serves the best hamburger west of Waco. Terri Watford, the proprietor, escaped the big-city blues to find tranquility inside the wood-planked threshold of the Bighorn. (Image data: Canon 7d, 10-22mm lens, 14mm focal length, ISO 100, f/8.0)

The café in Lone, with proprietor and daughter, eating french fries sitting on stools in wood-paneled interior with ceiling fans.

While driving down Route 50, “America’s Loneliest Road,” the author visited the ghost town of Lone (population 12). There he stopped into the café for a cuppa joe. He joined Kathy, the proprietor and her joy-filled daughter for the “blue plate special.” America’s heart beats strongly in these forgotten corners of the West. (Image data: Canon 20d, 10-22mm lens, 10mm focal length, ISO 1600, f/8.0)

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.)

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