Learning how to photograph people is such a vital skill for travel photographers. People are often one of the best photography subjects, showing us a window into their world in a single image. But they’re often the most difficult subjects to capture, especially for new photographers still nurturing their craft.

When I first started traveling, I struggled to photograph people for so many reasons. I was too nervous to ask permission, so I’d stand far away with a telephoto lens. When I did ask, I was impatient and quickly took a photo that looked more tense than natural. Basically, I struggled and learned from my mistakes.

This tutorial is part technical and part process, so don’t expect a magic recipe. Instead, I hope it guides you towards purposefully capturing better travel portraits.

How to Photograph People

The simple act of photographing at the subject's eye-level always makes for an impactful improvement when learning how to photograph people

With this tutorial, I am talking about portraits and environmental portraits. These types of photos feature a person as their central subject, although they can include varying amounts of the scene surrounding the person. This isn’t a guide to including people in your landscape photographs or street photography.

With those details in mind, let’s get started!

Essential Equipment

  • dSLR or mirrorless camera
  • Fast aperture 24-70 lens or similar prime
  • Courage to ask to permission/interact with your subjects

Basic Camera Settings

Photographing people isn’t an exact formula; however, there are some basic settings that will help get you started.

  • Aperture-priority mode – When photographing people, I feel the aperture is the most important factor to consider, so I always shoot in aperture-priority mode. This makes setting the exposure simple, as I select the aperture I want, and the camera sets the shutter speed. I’ll only adjust the ISO if the shutter speed is too slow to handhold.
  • Exposure Compensation – Just like last week’s tutorial, How to Photograph Back Light, it’s important to use Because I am in aperture the exposure-compensation dial to make minor adjustments to the exposure. When photographing people, it’s important to adjust the exposure to capture detail through the subject’s face.
  • Selecting the aperture – The aperture sets the depth of an image. When photographing people, I consider the background and consider if I’d like it in focus or not. If the background distracts from my subject, I’ll shoot between f/1.4 and f/2.8 to minimize its impact. If the background adds to the overall image, I’ll shoot between f/4 and f/8 to increase my depth of field.
  • Focus – When photographing people, it is critical to focus on the person’s face. In an ideal situation, I would always focus on my subject’s eyes.

Understanding Depth of Field

Using a telephoto lens, I was able to blur the background behind this man in Cuba and make the most of a situation I could not control

Although I mentioned the importance of selecting an aperture, depth of field is a deeper subject to consider. Two major factors also contribute to the depth of an image: the camera’s proximity to the subject and the focal length. These two rules apply to all photography, so they’re worth noting:

  1. The closer the subject is to the camera, the less depth of field will fall behind the subject.
  2. Longer focal lengths create images with less depth of field than wide focal lengths.

With these two rules in mind, I think it is important to also consider one of photography’s biggest cliché statements:

“If you want to take more compelling images, take three steps closer.”

In most situations, I find my travel portraits are strongest when I am interacting with my subject. It’s hard to do that if I am using a 200mm lens from across the plaza.

Things to Consider when Photographing People

Asking Permission

Ask before you photograph a person and other essential tips when learning how to photograph people

It isn’t just important to ask permission when photographing people, it’s polite, too, so don’t be shy when capturing travel portraits. Whenever possible, I ask permission. If I don’t speak the language, I smile and point to my camera. It’s universally understood, and I am often rejected. When that happens, I thank them and move on. I don’t let it discourage me from asking my next potential subject.

When I am given permission, I say thank you and often take a quick image. That first image will, undoubtedly, be terrible, but it will immediately put my subject at ease and that’s when the best moments will happen.

Whenever photographing children, make sure to ask their parents for permission.

Paying for Photos

As a rule, I don’t pay for photos when I travel. It creates an unusual precedence and can make locals treat tourists as a source of quick cash. With that in mind, I also try not to take advantage of anyone. I treat my photography subjects with respect and take as little of their time as possible.

During workshops, when a person becomes an impromptu for our entire group, I have paid. I would also consider paying if I was granted more creative freedom and ability to create images. I wouldn’t pay for a quick snapshot of two llama-toting women in Cusco.

consider paying for images only when it makes sense for both the photographer and subject. Is it a trade or a money grab?

If you do decide to pay for images, take a few things into consideration:

  • Never pay children – In many countries, kids are sent out to earn money rather than sent to school. By paying for their images, the photographer is unknowingly supporting that behavior.
  • Pay only if its valuable – don’t pay for quick photo opportunities. Pay for quality time with a potential model or photography subject. If they’re a sheep farmer, ask to see their farm or meadow. Don’t pay and settle for a snapshot
  • Pay a fair amount – by paying, you are creating a precedent. Over pay and you might create an unfortunate circumstance for future visitors. Under pay and you might create an unfortunate situation for future visitors. Pay fairly and everyone wins
  • Pay in Advance – Always negotiate before hand. If somebody gives you permission to take their image, but asks for money when you finish, consider simply walking away and deleting the images. If you pay after the fact, it’s essentially allowing the individual to take advantage of future visitors.

Animating the Model

a tense photography subject makes for a rather boring street portrait in peru.

When I first started shooting travel portraits, I took a lot of images like the one above. It’s not interesting because the subject isn’t animated. The woman is uncomfortable. She wants me to take the photo and leave.

But by sticking around and asking her to return to work, I was able to capture a few images that spoke to the scene. This woman went above and beyond, too, as these images were captured during my Peru Photography Workshop. At least eight of us took a few minutes of her time, captured her portrait and everyone left smiling.

We also left having learnt a valuable lesson. Whether by asking directly or merely hanging around, the best images will usually be created when the subject is at ease and doing something that comes naturally.

By working with the model, I was able to capture a more dynamic image

Eye Level

Photographing at eye level always make for an impactful travel portrait

Although there are exceptions, it’s best practice to photograph people from their eye level. Shooting from eye level or below often raises the subject, which can create an empowering look in a photograph. Shooting from above eye level often creates an unfortunate result that appears to look down on the subject.

Let’s make it easy: if it’s a child, get down on your hands and knees If it’s a giant, get a step ladder.

Connect and share your images

If you continue too enjoy my ongoing photography tutorial series, consider joining my Facebook group! I run a photography-first group that shares tutorials, image critiques, and discussion with aspiring photographers from around the world.

Request to join the group here: Adventure Photo Tips, Talks, and Trips!