Street and Travel Portraits

In recent years many photographers discovered the exciting field of street and travel portraits. Street and travel portraits are associated with the genre of portrait photography and not street photography, as one might expect. For that reason, the rules for street and travel portraits are more connected to general portrait photography. As opposed to street photography, the people are aware that they are being photographed and have given their consent for the portrait. The ambition is to work out the character and the expression of the person. Street photography, on the other hand, always focuses on images at a decisive or poignant moment. Both genres combine the possibility to create a study of a particular milieu or environment. For this particular purpose the surrounding should be a major part of the composition of a street or travel portrait.

Madagascar, happy girl with fi...

Best practices

In order to create expressive and fascinating street portraits it is always helpful to know a few basic best practices. However, it is less about the composition which always depends on the creativity of the photographer. It is more about common tips and tricks to achieve natural and authentic portraits.

Search for interesting faces

The first step to get successful street and travel portraits is always the search for expressive and interesting faces. But also the selection of introverted or reserved persons can lead to extraordinary and authentic portraits. Another important step is to obtain the consent for the portrait. This strongly depends on the cultural milieu. Often a smile and showing the camera is enough. However, sometimes it is required to explicitly ask for the permission and briefly explain why you want to photograph the particular person.


Relation to the spectator

It is important to establish a relation between the person in the photograph and the spectator of the final picture. It is the responsibility of the photographer to create this relationship while shooting the portrait. Sometimes it takes only 2 or 3 minutes, but it can happen that it is required to invest a lot more time to gain the trust of the person. What always helps: avoid long focal lengths and approach the person as close as possible.

Background first

A proven approach is the rule: "background first". The aim is to photograph the person in their familiar surroundings wherever it is possible. Ideally, the shot will take place exactly where the photographer met the person. The background may not always be perfect, but often a slight change in the camera position and point of view can lead to a good result. In order to avoid a tedious search it is advisable to have already an alternative location in mind in case the existing background is not suitable at all.


Lighting conditions

The next step after choosing the background is to inspect the existing lighting conditions. The optimal portrait lighting can be achieved by slightly changing the camera position. The best light for portraits is the soft morning and evening light, diffused shadow or backlight. When shooting indoors the available light is always a challenge for good portraits. If possible flashlight or artificial reflectors should be avoided. On the other hand, especially in shadow and backlit shots, natural reflectors like a sunlit wall or sunlit ground can achieve an interesting image effect. The inclusion of the reflected light in the composition requires experience, but it can lead to wonderful results especially for the eye area of the portrait.

Natural and authentic portraits

The purpose of the described approach is to minimize the time for the camera settings while shooting a street portrait. A brief period of time for the settings often decides whether a street portrait works naturally and authentically. There is nothing wrong to take more time for the portrait depending on the situation. However, this time should be used meaningfully to communicate with the person and observe their behavior: does the person feel comfortable in front of the camera, is the person introverted or extroverted, and does the person have patience? And yet: it is important to try to get a great portrait within the first two or three shots. It is typical for street portraits that the available time to nail a shot is often unpredictable. At any time, friends or passers-by can interfere and unsettle the person. Or the person soon loses patience with the photographer and the shooting. And sometimes it can be the worried mother who tries to arrange her child's hairstyle or collar, and in the worst case, inadvertently destroys the candid character of the situation.

The mentioned approaches, rules and tips are of course not carved in stone. Every photographer should have the courage to leave the beaten track, and sometimes they get their best shots in these situations. On the other hand, photographers who try to shoot natural and expressive street portraits without any preparation or experience will quickly realize that great results are often succeeded only by chance.

Article originally published on Spyderblog, Datacolor