12 tips for shooting portraits of strangers!

It's summertime and that means airports, road trips, family vacations, cruises, and escapes. I love traveling in the summer, even if it's just one state over. I always feel like I discover a part of myself as I explore a new place in the world! During my trips this year, I was able to meet so many beautiful faces and capture one of my favorite things: PORTRAITS! Many of you reached out and asked how I was able to photograph people so naturally and get such good photos of complete strangers. So I decided to write out some of my best tips for shooting portraits of strangers while you travel!

Before we get started, make sure you grab my free photo gear guide to see what equipment I use + recommend to beginners!

  1. Get to know your subject first.

This is my number one tip!! Don't just go around waving your camera in people's face taking photos without even talking to them. This is exploitive and will show in the end result whether or not you really cared about or knew your subject. Obviously this does not apply to photographing festivals or other public events - although you should take the opportunity to talk to them if you can!

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One of my favorite people I've photographed: I watched this man do his job for a while and share his life and once he had a chance for a break he was all smiles when it came to getting his portrait taken. It was well worth the time I took to get to know him!

2. To get to know your subject, approach them in a non-intimidating way.

I usually keep my camera in my backpack or sling it around my side so it's not the first thing they see. Try your best to talk to them, even if there's a language barrier. If you don't have a translator around, simply smiling, showing pictures on your phone of your pets, or complimenting their clothing can be a universal way to create a comfortable environment. Some people will need more time than others: my strongest travel portraits were of those I spent the most time with.

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These kids were friendly but a bit shy when I first brought out my camera. So instead of shooting right away, we spent the next hour just playing in the ocean! We taught each other random games, ganged up on Bryant, and ran around splashing until Bryant and I needed to head home. By then the kids were totally comfortable and full of pure joy! It was so much easier to photograph them at the end - you can tell by their smiles!

3. Choose the most interesting subjects.

Not every face will make an interesting photo. Someone can be beautiful but not show up well on camera. Children and elderly are of particular interest, but pretty much anyone with interesting features, body modification, hairstyle, etc will photograph the best and make the most memorable photo!

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I chose to photograph these men in Thailand because I had never seen an Asian person with dreadlocks before! They were super hilarious (and possibly a bit drunk) and loved getting their photos taken. It was easy to pick them out of a crowd as an interesting subject.

4. Accept that some people do not want to be photographed.

When I was in Jordan, it was highly inappropriate to photograph women in the rural areas without their husband's permission. For this reason, I have just a few portraits of Jordanian women. Because this was a limitation, I focused on shooting the men and didn't get too sad about not shooting women. You have to respect their boundaries and culture!

I have noticed in general women are the most hesitant about being photographed. Children are natural super stars and men + elderly people don't seem to fret too much. I'm not sure if this is because I am also a woman, but they tend to shy away at the camera. I've learned to respect this and simply focus on those who do want to be photographed!

A Bedouin woman in Petra.

A Bedouin woman in Petra.

A Bajau woman in Borneo.

A Bajau woman in Borneo.

A young Moroccan girl.

A young Moroccan girl.

A widow in Jordan.

A widow in Jordan.

These are some of the few travel portraits I have of women.

5. Once you've gotten to know your subject, make them comfortable.

I will usually gesture to my camera and ask for a photo. If they are not already in good lighting, I simply ask if I can move them to the shade or make them backlit (lots of pointing and gesturing if we don't speak the same language!). I try to smile a lot, compliment them, and avoid making them pose in front of a lot of people. I also let them know it will take me a few clicks to get the best photo.

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You can see a huge difference between these photos of Mishael! The image on the left is when I first approached him. I could tell he felt a little uncomfortable so I put the camera down and got to know him and his wife. I listened to their whole story and after I offered to take some photos for them to keep - they were stoked - and you can see the difference on his face once he was more comfortable! The photo on the right (and all the ones I got of them together) are way better portraits in my opinion.

6. Find a balance between directing them + capturing their natural selves.

Other than improving the lighting, I rarely ask them to smile or do anything other than what comes naturally for them. You might find (as I did in Jordan) that people don't generally smile for photos. If I can get them to laugh with friends or have my translator make jokes, I can capture that authentic laugh when they aren't looking. Otherwise I learn to love their serious stare into the camera!

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Here are two examples of when I captured both a laughing moment + a more directed moment. On the left, these two men in Borneo were laughing on the boat and I snapped this shot! We had already spent two days with the crew so I felt extremely comfortable shooting them. On the right is a man I met in Morocco, I loved the pattern of his clothes against the pillow and so I asked him to pull his hat up a bit so I could include his face! Although there was some direction in this, I feel like I still captured his natural relaxed vibe.

7. Use a zoom lens if possible.

Nothing is more intimidating than having a fat lens stuck in your face. You're guaranteed to get a deer-in-the-headlights look from someone if you're inches away from their face with a 35mm. I would suggest using at least a 50mm (which btw, is much more flattering) or higher if you are photographing a stranger up close. You'll get better expressions if you're not up in their business!

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These men were not as cuddly as some of my younger subjects, so to respect their space, I zoomed in - which allowed me to still capture their beautiful faces without making them feel uncomfortable. These were both taken with my 24-70mm lens.

8. Experiment.

Sometimes the classic straight-on looks great, but some of my favorite shots have been those that incorporate the environment more (this is where you'd want to use a 35mm!) or show them from the side. Try unique angles: it could even be a close up of their hands, clothing, or side profile. Get creative! I also love grouping people together, like parents and children or couples. You can often bring out more natural emotions this way. You get to choose the story you want to tell by composing your shot different ways.

Three brothers in Petra just acting silly!

Three brothers in Petra just acting silly!

A fisherman repairing his net in the Philippines.

A fisherman repairing his net in the Philippines.

A group of crazy kids in the streets of Marrakech.

A group of crazy kids in the streets of Marrakech.

These are some examples of unconventional travel portraits I took!

9. Be a fly on the wall:

If you want to photograph someone doing something in their natural environment but worry that talking to them will make them stop, go ahead and take the photo, and make sure you get to know them after - and THEN ask if you can take their picture. If they say no, I would say it's respectful to delete the image you took before talking to them. Most of the time people say yes though!

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I took the photo on the left before I even knew the man - his green truck pulled up and I couldn't help but capture his shyness! Afterwards though, we were all about to stand around and have a good time, which is when I asked if I could take his photo. The photo on the right is of him laughing at the translator - probably commenting on the strange blonde girl taking photos in the middle east ;)

10. Send them the photos!

I remember in Jordan a man in Petra told me that no one ever sent him the photos they took of him, and it broke my heart! It takes just a moment to email or send through Whatsapp the portraits you took of someone. Everyone loves a new profile pic! So make sure you write down their information and later when you are editing, send over the photos you took. They’re guaranteed to be stoked!

A man pushing our boat in Palawan.

A man pushing our boat in Palawan.

A little boy showing off his catch in Moloka'i!

A little boy showing off his catch in Moloka'i!

I always offer to send them the photos - especially the parents of little kids! They usually love it. I take down their info in a note on my phone and the next time I have WiFi I send it.

11. Do your research.

Before you visit a place, actually take the time to learn about the people you will encounter. If you already know about their culture it will help you seek out the right people to photograph and avoid cultural faux pas. For example, in Fiji, it is considered disrespectful in traditional villages to touch the head/hair of anyone, even children. Knowing this, you can avoid touching a child's head when you try to pose them. 

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In Peru, the people were a little more on the reserved side! Some cultures people are extremely comfortable getting their photo taken and some are shy. Try to do some research beforehand and always respect personal boundaries. 

12. It's all about respect.

My last tip simply ties it all together: when it comes to photographing strangers, the most important thing to remember is RESPECT. Respect their culture, respect their boundaries, and don't be exploitative. Don't take photos to simply get Instagram likes, make it look like you are this amazing humanitarian for playing with children (I'm talking about African mission trips), or use the photos to criticize a culture you know nothing about (such as photographing women in hijabs simply to make assumptions about their rights). When you genuinely care about those you photograph, it will show through your images and you will create travel portraits that will have a lasting impact.

Thanks for reading! Which tip was your favorite? Do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear from you!

xoxo Heather

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