Improve Your Travel Photography Portraits

A few years ago, when I start in photography, I travel to Mexico all across the Yucatan. I come back home with some landscape & architecture photos, but also a couple of travel photography portraits. This trip not only helps me to improve as a photographer but also to understand why I like travel photography. Before the trip, not was in my mind to take portraits of the Mayan people. Not because I didn’t find it interesting. It was because in my amateur mind was only to capture the incredible pyramids and some Caribean sea coast during sunrise.

But during the photography trip, I found some moments where I felt that I needed to capture these people with my lens. It was an impulse to take it. After come back from that trip, my brain was just thinking if I get some architecture and landscape good photos. Probably, you were in the same situation as me. Sound familiar these excuses?: “I don’t want to intrude their privacy” or “It’s just luck to capture the moment”.

mayan travel photography portrait

How do I start travel portrait photography?

Once I copy all photos on my computer, I saw how powerful and representative of my trip was these portraits. Yes, a nice pic of Chichen Itza or Tulum it’s great. But capturing Mayan portraits, it was giving me powerful images and also much better remembers from my trip. You don’t need to forget, that traveling is an experience that you get. Not only watch and photograph a landscape or a building but also talking (and photograph) the local people.

Since this moment I start to realize, that I needed to improve my travel photography portraits skills. And understand how to get more close to the local people on my next trips.

With the help of some great photographers, I started to get some tips that helped me in my next trips. One of them, its Zay Yar Lin. Another collaborator of our guided photography tours, and with whom I’m pleased to run workshops. Perfect destinations for travel photo tours, and where you will learn all our techniques and tips.

Myanmar photo tour

Join our next Myanmar Photo Tour

But don’t look only to actual photographers, find inspiration also in photographers like Sebastiao Salgado. One of my favorite photographers both in travel photography portraits and landscape photography.

10 Ways to Improve Your Travel Photography Portraits

Be ready

As we speak in our post about travel photography tips, it’s a very basic and obvious, but so important tip. While you travel, you will have a thousand of short moments that will not pass again.

Opposite than other types of Photography, when you have more time to choose your camera settings. Here you must be ready with your camera to capture these moments. Catch the everyday life of the local people, it’s not easy. But will bring to your photos a real essence of the place you are visiting.

rice farm vietnam photo tours

Learn more about it in our Vietnam Photo Tour

Get close

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is taken as doctrine by some. Do you think it’s good advice?

Robert Capa

This famous phrase, it’s a good tip for travel photographers. It probably will make you feel that you intrude in the scene. In these cases, you always can use your zoom. But, if you overcome your shyness, and interact with the scene the most of the time you will get good feedback from local people.

As close you became, the sharpness and focus of your image will increase. Also, will help you to control better the light, background, and photography composition. It will give to the spectator and easy image to focus on your subject.

Ethiopia Photo Tour

Capture this portrait in an Ethiopia Photo Tour

Approach people

I know, it’s not easy. You must learn how to approach the people if you want to take good portraits. This process can be hard for you, but you need to start to deal with people if you really want to improve your photos.

So, how do you get close? Easy, feel comfortable while your approach and have a small talk. I’m sure after you know something else about this person, he (or she) will let you take some pics when you ask them. Showing interest about their lives and culture, it’s a good start to understand if this person will let you to capture with your camera.

Its a good tip when we speak about rural areas, in the cities usually people are not open for portraits. Even here in Russia, people are extreme kind when they see a foreigner with a smile taking photos.

Other cultures as in South East Asia, is totally normal to start asking about private things. In South and Central America, people can be also extremely kind to foreigners and happy to see that you are interested in their lives.

Having a positive attitude, talk and especially smile it will help you to approach to the people. Also, don’t forget to adapt to the local culture and get to know more about their lives before your trip. With this attitude during your trip, you not only will take good photos, but also you will make friends.

portrait photo tour

A Mongolia Photo Tour is a perfect destination for travel portrait photos

Learn basic local language

It can be a point that you can be afraid when you travel abroad. But let me tell you a secret… It’s even better if you don’t speak the local language! While you not are able to have a long talk, if you go with a positive attitude, the people will be more kind. If you can learn the basic phrases and show them an interest to speak, it will help you to introduce yourself.

From my experience, there are 6 phrases or words you need to know before your trip:

  • Hello / Goodbye
  • How are you?
  • What is your name? / My name is …
  • I am from…
  • Thank you!
  • Beautiful!

The first phrases will help you to introduce yourself and have the first interaction with your subject. Also, you will break the ice and make the situation more comfortable. Finally, when you make your photo and say: beautiful! In the local language, you will put a smile on their faces.

It can also help to get a small dictionary or phrasebook, or ask your guides or at the hotel about basic phrases and pronunciations. Don’t be afraid, have mistakes is normal and will make the situation warmer to approach to your subjects. Also, will make your travel a complete experience where you will immerse yourself in the country.

ethiopia photo workshop


This is probably the main tip you can hear if you are going to photograph people during your trips. Even if you can’t say a word, be sure to smile while you are with a camera photographing people. Your mouth will tell to the local people that you not have any bad intentions. And for sure, being angry nobody will want to be close to you.

Sri Lanka photo tour tea

Learn more about portraits in our Sri Lanka Photo Tour

Take your time

As soon as you have a good vibe with the local people, you will want to run to make a picture. Wait. You already spend time to establish confidence with them, now it’s your time to choose what you want. Think about the composition, the light and the background. Remember that your photo must tell something, and your model its not professional.

Wait for the moment this person feel comfortable and come back again to behave as if there is no camera. Even if you start shooting, there is a moment the people forget about it and it’s your time to try different compositions. No rush, after few shoots your “model” will become more relaxed and you will get your perfect portrait.

yangon train street photography

Move around

As you could feel in the previous photo, the perspective can give another dimension to the photo. Once you have established a good vibe with your model, it’s a good tip to move around and found different perspectives.

Don’t be lazy, move around the scene, and try to remove everything that disturbs your photo. As in the example below, a perspective from the top eliminates all ugly and distracting elements of the factory, focusing on what really matters.

Twante pottery factory tour

50mm lens

You not need to buy an expensive f1.4, but a f1.8 will be your best friend for your portraits. The lack of light sometimes can be a problem. You will need to increase the ISO (appearing noise) or the shutter speed (you will have problems with sharpness). With a 50mm 1.8 these problems will disappear the most of the time.

Also, will help you to improve your photographer skills and to look for the best angle and perspective of your photo. The 50 mm is one of the best lenses to boost your creativity, as it also will let you play with blurry backgrounds.

travel photography portrait mongolia eagle hunter

Start with people in their daily activities

When you start taking portrait travel photographs, is normal to feel shy to approach the people. Usually, people that are in their daily activities will pay less attention to you, so it’s a good place to start. Traditional workshops could be a perfect place, as they will be focusing on their activities. It will give to you an interesting activity to capture.

According to the country you visit, photographing kids is another great start. With kids, there are two options, that they are already doing something (playing usually) or posing for you with a big smile. But be aware of the culture, in Asia will be easier while in western countries you must be careful and always ask the parents.

vietnam photography tour fisherman

Visit the real country

In normal tours, you will be visiting the most tourist places that are far from the reality of the country. Most of the time, reality is just a few minutes far from those places. In Mexico for example, the Riviera Maya is plenty of commercial points. But just 10 minutes driving to the interior you can find real Mayan villages.

Move far from those places when is time for portrait travel photography. So we can capture real local people in their daily activities. The touristic places are full of people that want to look like real local people, but they probably will be selling something.

During your trip, move far from those places. Immerse in the local culture and not only your photos will appreciate, but also your experience during your trip. We understand that sometimes you can feel unsafe, this way we suggest you ask before at your hotel or taxi driver.

Myanmar photo tour Bagan novice portrait

All these tips can help you not only to improve your travel photography portraits but also to enrich your trip experiences. Interact with people, open your mind, and get close to the local cultures, and the most important… Smile and enjoy your next trip. The goal it’s that once you come home the portraits bring you to unforgettable memories. Not a moment where you just put your camera in the face of an unknown person.

About the author

Eduardo Fuster is a Spanish landscape & travel photographer. Graduate in Art & Design, and master in Motion Graphics. More than 15 years of experience working for advertisement, tv, cinema, real estate & stock agencies.

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