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Introduction Getting Started Camera Care Photographing People Landscape Photography Street Photography Documentary Light Exposure

Rajasthani camel herder wearing a turban, Pushkar camel fair, India. © Beren Patterson Beautifully illustrated guide to taking better portraits. Clear examples with lots of practicle information. Learn how to photograph people in all sorts of lighting and conditions. This is not a glamour course, but is designed for travel photographers, but will be useful to any keen photographer.

Photographing People

My only real rule of portraiture is not to offend. When travelling you are a guest of the local population and as such you should make every effort to be courteous. I find the best way to take a portrait is to make it absolutely clear to the person that you would like to take their photograph, if you speak a common language ask, smile, show that you have a camera and if they hesitate or look in anyway uncomfortable then point the camera away immediately. If they don't object, stay with them, observe them and then take the photograph. When you have finished be sure to thank them afterwards.

In some places people will expect to be paid for their photograph. If they ask for money and you take the photograph you must pay. As with any transaction, ensure the price is agreed beforehand. I don't offer money for taking photographs in general, but certainly do pay where expected.

If people don't expect to be paid and you feel you should give something, try and be a bit more creative and generous, and don't turn yourself into a tourist and them into beggars. Children calling out 'one pen' in some countries is an example of well-meaning visitors turning whole towns of youngsters into beggars. Certainly do give generously, but go to the local school and let the teachers distribute the pens, donate to a charity or do some volunteer work.


Composition is about balancing the important parts of the image against each other. Key points to remember include:

  • Fill the frame. Don't have a lot of wasted space around the subject unless it adds to the shot.
  • Photographing people in their natural environment is a great way to show more about a person than just what they look like.
  • Use the Rule of Thirds (see the Introduction if you are unsure what this is). Move around. See what different angles and lens options will do.

Look at how other photographers compose their images. What do you like? How did they do that? You don't need to copy what they do but it is a good exercise in observation. The book and Internet links section has some of my favourite photographers.

Lens Selection

Portrait lenses are normally considered to be those between 50mm and 135mm on a 35mm camera. There are a few of reasons why these focal lengths are often used. A wider lens distorts the face and separates the subject from the background, while longer lenses compress facial features, they require slower ƒ stops (and therefore more chance of camera shake) and bring the background right up on the subject.

There is a definite cultural comfort zone for personal space, and you will find that while many people may be quite happy to have their photograph taken they will not be able to relax if you're right in their face. Use a longer lens, move back and let them be comfortable.

I used a 50mm lens to get this portrait, left. 50mm is my favourite lens for portraits as it does allow me to get close and some of this intimacy sometimes shows in the end image. With my very limited Vietnamese I thanked him profusely. I met him later, with his wife in the market and he came up to me beaming and shook my hand. He was thrilled that someone would want to take his photograph. Naturally, I was delighted too.


Good use of lighting is an integral part of good portraiture. By being observant and using the light you can enhance your portraits and avoid many common mistakes.

Try and photograph early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Watch for especially harsh midday sun that can make your subject too contrasty and the colours washed out. If you want to get a soft, studio-like light effect get your subject out of direct sun but allow for controlled, directional light. A doorway, a tree or other natural shade is often ideal.

When you are in harsh sunlight consider using your flash to lift some of the shadow areas. But make sure that you consider why you're using the flash.

Common photographic terms explainedLinks to useful and interesting websites, books and DVDs

Hmong man in Sapa, North-West Vietnam. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.