Nothing beats an international trip, and nothing beats a well rounded photographic portfolio than a couple of hard-hitting, poignant international portraits. These are National Geographic specials, the ones that seem to nail you as you turn the page. They’re a mix of style and sense of place.
"Two Boys, Siwa, Egypt" © Joel Addams
Now, how do you get’em?
1) Get the right equipment. You need a camera that takes fast pictures. Probably not a point and shoot as almost all have too much of a lag time. Portraits are fast and the photographer needs to move faster. Fast focus, fast shutter. Most of the Canon/Nikon digital SLRs will fulfill this need. Now don’t forget the lens. Good portrait lenses are usually between 85-150 mm. They flatten the features of the face, rather than offer distortion at the edges, which occurs with lenses that are less than 35 mm. A “longer” lens will also get you into the action, moving you in close and subtracting the busy and superfluous background. My “go to” lens? Canon’s 70-200 mm L series IS. Sharp and contrasty. A nice zoom and a fast lens (2.8).
"Power of the Glance, Kathmandu, Nepal" © Joel Addams
2) Get into the action. You can’t just walk out on the streets of Bombay and point that thing wherever you want. Meet people. Have conversations. Learn a little of the language. You’d be surprised at who invites you to tea, shows you their home, gets you into the temple. The longer you hang around a shop, the more the people will become comfortable with your camera and start acting normally.
3) Get the eyes in focus. Unless you taking an artistic-type photograph, generally you want the eyes razor sharp. Everything starts at the eyes. Except for some men, people will look you in the eyes as they meet you, and gauge your personality by how your eyes react. Review your images in camera and zoomed-in to eliminate the ones that do not have sharp eyes.
"The Shopkeeper, Fez, Morocco" © Joel Addams
4) Get a wide aperture. Long lens, wide aperture. This will blur some of the background and focus more on the person, the eyes, the colors, the clothes. A more simple photograph of a person is sometimes more pleasing. I personally avoid f2.8. There is a chance that the depth of field is just too narrow, and I’ve missed the eyes before. Tragic! Try 3.5 or 4.0 and you can avoid this problem, especially if you’re just starting and a bit nervous.
5) Get the good light. What does this mean? It means find good light. Sunrise and sunset light is proven, but there is also good light as it reflects between buildings and off pavement. Direct light is generally death to the portrait. The shadows cast across the face are unbearable and the direct light has a way of “washing” out the color and warmth from a portrait. Cloudy, overcast days are actually quite nice for the portrait, since they spread the light evenly over the face, especially if the person is looking skyward.
"The Hooka, Cairo, Egypt" © Joel Addams
6) Get the release (or at least the permission). Most professionals agree that you need to get a model release for any kind of marketability of a person in a photograph. You do NOT need a release if the person is unrecognizable at 100%. This means that a blurred person or the back of someone does not need to be released, but they have to be absolutely unrecognizable. Otherwise, the person or an agency could potentially sue you (and more likely the publisher) of an image if it is printed without a release. Try to adhere to the United States’ laws because they seem to be the most strict about this. A model released image becomes worth much, much more not because the photographer is avoiding a lawsuit, but because publishers will be that much more willing to publish the image.
If nothing else, get permission for the image. People should know that you are going to take an image or have already taken an image. The split second that occurs when someone sees you is a golden moment. They have not reacted to you, and a sort of pure intent can be seen in them. I photograph in this way regularly. I do, though, show them the image (thank you, digital) and let them approve of it.
"The Sadhu, Kathmandu, Nepal" © Joel Addams
Some people are accustomed to ask for money to have their portraits taken. I WILL ALWAYS PAY FOR THIS. Why? Because I always pay my models in the US, Europe, etc. Why not pay? They are providing a service for you, and they have become a professional model. They will also be more willing to sign a release (again, an exchange I make regularly with Americans). Tourists should not be able to take a portrait for free…I feel like that is exploitation, unless the image is used editorially. An editorial image does not need a release, even if Bill Gates and Tina Turner are in it. Editorial use is, for example, something you would see accompanying an newspaper article, and not used for a cologne ad (Eau de Tina), which would be considered a commercial use.
7) Have fun. Taking pictures of people is dynamic and always changing. Most of all, it is a great way to meet and laugh with people. Enjoy!
"The Teaman, Fez, Morocco" © Joel Addams
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