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How to make a perfect portrait?

Portraits are a big part of the Travel Photography. Travel is normally not just about sightseeing and enjoying the scenery, it is also about meeting new people. Same is with Travel photography. You can have a nice postcard images, amazing sceneries, cool street photographs, but portraits normally show the soul of the country you travelled in. Some of great travel photographers like Steve McCurry and Richard I'Anson actually become famous with portraits. So, how to make a remarkable portrait?

People nowadays like to take photographs. As well most of the people generally like to be photographed. But also, people generally are very shy, including the photographers. First problem, that normally appears in the head of every photographer (believe me, I went through the same thing) is, how to approach the person you want to portray. From the beginning, it is very difficult as you are in doubts if the person will accept your request and the person might get angry on you (it happens, but very rare ;) ). Instead of that, a lot of people simply decide to take candid portraits, which are OK for my taste, but not as they should be.

So, how it should go? When you see a person which can be interesting for a portrait you should get out your camera, prepare the lens you want to use and with the camera in your hand you approach to the person. Wait till the person sees you and you have her attention, than with a smile on your face, you simply ask if he or she minds if you take a picture of him/her. In case you don't speak the language, simply show your camera point your finger on it. And now, the biggest fear - what if the person says NO? You say thank you and retreat. Every person has a right to say no. And that is it. That is the worse it can happen. Big deal, you will find another, even more attractive person to photograph :) Still, never force people and if they say no, never take photographs from the corner.

Nejc photographing for Slovenian edition of Nationa Geographic
P: Leni Ozis

But as I said - generally people love to be photographed. Majority of the asked people will say yes. And sometimes they will even pose for you. As well, you can use the opportunity (this sounds a bit demanding, if you are a beginner, but we do this all the time) and you can move them in the spot and pose them as you like. Most of the time, they are willing to do it - and you got your opportunity to SHOOT!

First, you have to decide what kind of portrait do you want and what do you want to show with the photograph. Is it only a face, is it the whole body or do you want to fit it to the environment?

Through the next photographs, I will share some of the guidelines, which are nice to follow and some of the mistakes, which are nice to be skipped ;)

Close-up portrait of a Beduin in the town of Nizwa, Oman
Close-up portrait

Close up portraits are very powerful in the way to show somebody's face. Older people are just perfect for it as their faces normally carry many wrinkles and scars which make a powerful story in the image. You make close up with the central composition, focus on the eyes and you do not need to include the whole head in the image. Try to get persons eye contact with the talk when you press the shutter button. For this kind of portrait I would recommend telephoto zoom lens (image above is shot at 200mm on crop factor) with a very wide open aperture (f/4 or less) to blur the background. Be careful about the light, this beduin is photographed in the tent, which was front lited with the difuse light and was perfect for the soft light on his face. If you have a chance, you can also use bouncers for the extra light.

Portrait of the woodmaker in his workshop
Environmental portrait

An environmental portrait is a portrait of the person which is in its environment (shop, workshop, street, home) and shows the background of the persons story. This particular image above was shot during my National Geographic Slovenia assignment about woodmakers in the Southern Slovenia and shows a person, using his wood tools in his low light workshop. Again, try to get his eye contact while he is working and try to show the environment that the person works or live in. Again, I used Telephoto lens (200mm on FF) and I focused on the face, but had aperture a bit narrower (f/5.6) so his hands are also quite sharp and you can see what is all about his work. Never hurry. Take your time and pose the person as you wanted.

Teamakers in the Iranian town of Sanandaj
Environmental portrait with another person

Another environmental portrait, this time with another person. There is a general rule in photography, that it is good to have one, three, five persons/subjects in the image for the balance. But the rules have to be crushed sometimes. This teamakers posed for me, while I was their guest in the teahouse. The first teamaker is in focus while the other is a bit blurred but still recognised (f/5.6). I used a wide angle in this case (18mm on crop) to get the feeling of the tea house and also to add some details like sugar canes, tea glasses and pots of the house.

A faithful man is sitting in the Ali ibn Hamze shrine in Shiraz, Iran
Sholder portrait

Shoulder portraits are somewhere in between environmental portraits and close ups. It partly shows the body of the subject as well as the background. This image of a faithful man, sitting in the shrine of the Ali ibn Hamze in Shiraz is taken in the middle of the day, but again in the diffusive light so the shadows are not black. It has a nice background of verses from the holy Quran, which add the story to the image. But there is another rule in this photograph.

Golden ratio rule in the photograph
Golden ratio

The golden ratio rule. Described by Euclid in the ancient Greece. It basically shows the travel of the human eye when it sees the photograph. If the object would be in the centre of the image, it will attract the eye and it would not travel around. If you put the object to the golden ratio rule, your eye will travel first to the area of the focus - eye and then it will follow the ratio as you can see above to explore the image and get the full story of the image. Check some of the most famous portraits in the world and you will notice that they all follow this rule.

Another image, another rule:

Decisive moment

Never look away, even when you already shot couple of images. Decisive moment can still come. It is always nice to add additional activity to your photograph. In this case Mr. Moradi was smoking a cigarette, while his son started to scratch his head. This makes an image a special one. But, you can also see the rule in this photograph.

Mr. Moradi with his son in the village of Palangan
Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is an essential rule in photography. Not just in landscape, it is also useful with the portraits. The rule plays vital role in the balance of the photograph and in focus of the photographer. In my case, I wanted to focus on Mr. Moradi with the cigarette, which is the main object of the image. His son is in the central composition, as he is an add on to the image.

A kid in the village in the central Zanzibar
Background, contrast and spontaneous movement

Color contrast is one of the most important things in color photography. It is vital to get an outstanding portrait. In the image above I asked the kid if he can lean in the front of the muddy wall. I noticed the vivid color of his shirt and use it. If you can imagine this African kid in for example grey or black t-shirt, the image would not pop out at all. With it's color, I could get great color contrast and nice background as well, as it is not to detailed, nor flat, but also shows the environment, that this kid lives in. Another great feature of the image is the timing again - check the "decisive moment" image and text above, as I snapped this one at the end of the photoshooting, when I already made a portrait or two, but waited that the kid stopped posing and got more relaxed position and spontaneous movement. Win shot.


A Tamil lady stands on the road in central Sri Lanka
Close up with wrong lighting

Here is an example of mistake portrait of an older Tamil lady in the central Sri Lanka. Still a decent portrait with a story but with totally wrong light setting. Her face is half in the shadow and part of her mouth as well as the left eye are totally dark. I would be able to recover it in post-processing but it would give the image a HDR-kind of look which I would like to avoid. Solution: I should take the lady to the shadow (under the tree...) to get diffusive light on her whole face, or I should wait for the golden hour to get the soft, golden light and less difference between highlights and shadows.


Older man stands on the street in Sri lanka
Busy and too sharp background and dark object

Use of flash in the travel photography? In this case, definitely yes. It was taken towards the light source, which underexposed the foreground and the person. The environment is boring, too busy with all the cars, buidings and persons that are causing distraction and the aperture is to narrow (f/8) which gets the background too sharp too. It was a street portrat, so I didn't have a lot of chance to pose the man, but it's a poor one. Solution: shallower depth of field (f/4 or below), change of the background, photographing away from the source of the light or using flash.

Flash can be used in cases you need to lit the portrait from the front of side, if you have a flash with a trigger. But always ask the person if he/she can hold the flash, you never know, they might have epilepsy or similar.

Now, go out and practice!

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