How To Take Professional Portrait Photographs On Your Trek

It’s not difficult to click pictures of people, but making the picture interesting is where the difficulty lies. Saurabh Chatterjee, a travel photographer, hands out a few important tips to keep in mind while shooting portraits of people.

Tell a story

A picture speaks a thousand words. A story-telling picture is one that conveys emotions or tells a story. Most people (including me) just take tight portraits. Some other people don’t just capture the face but the whole environment and tell a story. If you see the works of Raghu Rai, you will find the strong messages that his pictures convey. For story-telling pictures, make sure you have enough of the background at a good depth to convey your message.

Kedar Kantha Trek, Uttarakhand, India
In this picture, shot at Kedarkanta base camp, the shepherd had just cut the wool from sheep. He is making them into threads. He will later give it to a shop in the nearest town to make a coat out of it (like the one he is wearing).

He lives in the open, where night temperatures often reaches sub-zeroes. This is all he has – some water, a blanket, a pressure cooker. His dinner is being prepared. You can  see the pressure cooker rattling with steam.

Think different

Most times, we just click what we have learnt from others’ pictures and don’t try something with a fresh mind. We take the same kind of pictures over and over again. For example, we see the same pictures of the Taj Mahal again and again, but then, at times, we also see some picture of the same monument from a totally new perspective.

We need to be creative and think beyond the obvious. We need to unlearn. This will make our pictures stand out from others. The following picture is an example. Instead of capturing the person, I have captured just the hand with the prayer beads but it tells a lot about the personality of the person

PrayersFromLadakh
Prayers from Ladakh

Travel during festivals

LehFestival_a055
A young woman in traditional attire

The waves of the western culture have barely left any place on the earth untouched. Hence, it is difficult to find people in their traditional attire nowadays. If you want to capture people in their best costumes, plan your visit during festivals. You will see people in their best costumes. Places like Ladakh and Bhutan have amazing landscapes, but your visit during a festival will definitely add another dimension to your photographic endeavour. One word of caution – try to wear something that complements the situation. Wearing dirty or torn jeans around people wearing their best will make you look out of place. It is also advisable to ask before you click and not use the flash where its prohibited. For example, flash photography is not allowed during the mask dances in Bhutan.

Know your camera well

It is absolutely imperative to be aware of the different features in your camera and know how to use them to your advantage. For example, you can change the exposure compensation in situations where your camera’s light meter is getting fooled or use a high ISO in low light conditions. You should also be aware of the menu items in your camera so that you don’t have to waste time searching for a particular control. You might miss the magic moment.

Bawta Village, Himachal Pradesh
Shot on the Rupin Pass trek. Since light was very low in this case, I used the widest aperture, coupled with high ISO to take this shot

Take some time to study your camera manual carefully. If you are not very comfortable with the intricacies of your camera while going out on a trip, a reference card is highly recommended. This gives a good overview of the features of the camera in a way that’s easy to follow. Some cameras have a few spare buttons that you can program and assign your favourite menu items.

Choose the best lens

The choice of a lens is critical on a trek and it depends on the kind of pictures you wish to shoot. Most people ask me – What is the best lens for taking people pictures in the hills? Well, finding the best lens is like finding a perfect husband (or a perfect wife)! It all depends on what you want. A lens can be good in one aspect but might be useless in others.

For portraits, a prime lens is a good choice. They are typically fast lenses with unmatched picture quality, when compared to the zoom lenses. A fast lens is any lens that allows you to shoot at a faster shutter speed even in low light conditions. Lenses with maximum apertures (minimum aperture values) of f/2.8 or less are called fast lens. For example the Canon / Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 is a great lens at an affordable price.

Photography 5
Shot at Ladakh

However, if you want tightly cropped portraits with good expressions, such as the one above, using this lens might not be a good idea. This is because you need to move very close to the subject, which might make him/her uncomfortable. Using a lens with a longer focal length (like a 70 mm – 200 mm, f/2.8) is recommended in such cases. A wide angle lens is good for story-telling pictures. These have wider angles of vision and also provide good depth to your picture.

Choose a pleasing background

Rupin Pass Trek, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh
This picture has been taken at an aperture of f/5.6 and a focal length of 90 mm to blur the background.

The background of a picture is as important as the subject itself. All great pictures have a pleasing background to complement the subject. Always ensure that the background is seamless and uncluttered. Distracting backgrounds like trees growing out of peoples’ heads seldom look impressive. If you feel that the background is not great, try shooting from a different angle. If that is not possible try using a smaller aperture or a longer focal length. This will blur the background and make the picture look more pleasing.

Don’t use flash

Generally, we follow a rule blindly – when it’s dark – use the flash and when there’s light, switch it off. Well, actually it’s the reverse most of the times. Let me explain. If you are taking portraits in the sun, you will find the picture to have lot of contrast – the dark areas and the bright areas. Take a look at the picture on the right, where light is distributed so unevenly on the man’s face.

Disaster
A picture with too much contrast

To create a balance in these situations, try using the fill flash. As the name suggests, a fill-flash will fill-in the darks areas of a picture. Using a fill flash has another advantage; it removes the shadows cast by facial features like nose, chin, etc. If you think that the other areas are getting over-exposed, try reducing the flash power. Most DSLRs have an option of increasing or decreasing the flash output by ½ stops. Adjusting this will enable you to get just the right amount of light that is required.

See what difference it makes to your pictures.

BawtaVillage_11
This picture was taken in during the Rupin pass trek in a room with less light

Using the small built-in on-camera flash to shoot portraits in less light is not a good idea. Increasing the ISO is a better option. The built-in flash emits hard light and makes the face look flat. The contours of the face are lost. Hence, it’s advisable to put the flash off when shooting portraits to get better pictures.

Which camera mode to use?

Many people think that using the M (Manual mode) will make you a great photographer. This is actually a myth. Most professional portrait photographers use Aperture priority (AV in Canon or A in Nikon) most of the time. Since this mode is semi-automatic, you instruct the camera what you want and leave the rest to its brain to figure out. This way, you will be able to concentrate more on the artistic aspects of the picture like composition and will never miss the moment. I have learnt this from my experience. I have missed several shots because of using the Manual mode and was too concerned about the settings.

Think before you click

With the advent of digital cameras, we think less and click more. We take the pressing of the shutter release button for granted and just keep on clicking. This results in lots of pictures but of mediocre quality. I remember the time when I had a film camera. Since, there was a cost involved with each exposure, I was forced to think before I pressed the shutter release button every time. I tried to get the best out of every single shot. Of course, it’s good to try different compositions, experiment with different settings and take lots of pictures, but always ask yourself a question – “Is this my best?”

Rupin Pass Trek, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh
Shot on the Rupin Pass trek

Shoot silhouettes

Silhouettes in the hills can make very interesting pictures. For taking these kind of pictures, your subject should be between you (the photographer) and the light source. The best times for shooting portraits are in the morning and evening when the sky is dramatic. Set your exposure for the sky. This will automatically make your subject dark, since there is no light source from your side. Make sure your lens focuses on the subject.

Photography 6
Shot at Hampi against a dramatic skyline

It you have focusing issues, try the technique of locking the focus after keeping the subject in the middle of the frame and recomposing the frame. The best practice to make sure that your subject has critical focus is to zoom into the picture on your LCD and check. Many pictures look good on the LCD but turn out to be out of focus when seen on the computer. You can also try using adjusting the exposure compensation for the correct exposure.

Establish a comfort level and ask for permission

People in the hills do not have much contact with the outside world. Hence, they can be shy in front of the camera. At times, they might also get offended if you take pictures, especially women. It is always advisable to break the ice by engaging your subject in a conversation before taking a picture. This will make them comfortable and will help you to capture a great expression. Even better if you can learn how they say, “Can I take your picture please?” in their native language. It really does wonders.

Rupin Pass Trek, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh
This picture has been taken in a small village on the way to Rupin pass. I could make her smile this way only after a long conversation with her.

Focus on the eyes

Photography 1
Shot en route Valley of Flowers. This Sikh had wonderful eyes.

When you are shooting tight portraits, make sure your camera is focusing at the right place – the eyes. If the eyes of your subject are lacking critical focus, the picture will not look quite impressive. If you are shooting from up close, you will find that the camera focuses on the nose most of the times. To overcome this problem, try the technique of locking the focus on the eyes and then recomposing your frame.

To lock the focus on the eyes, keep them in the middle of the frame, press the shutter halfway and recompose the picture. When you are using this technique, make sure you change the angle but not the distance. Doing so might render your main focusing spot to be out of focus. You can also choose a manual focal selection point on your camera.

Keep your promise

I’m sure you must have faced a situation where you take a picture and the person wants them printed. Do not promise to send them the pictures if you cannot. And if you have promised, please keep your promise. If you do not, they might develop a negative attitude for all photographers that visit the place after you. I have faced this situation several times, where people are not very enthusiastic about taking their pictures because someone took their picture but never sent them back despite promising. Let’s try to make shooting easier for all of us.

To learn more from Saurabh, visit this Facebook page, SIA Photography Hyderabad. On his website, you’ll also find a schedule of his workshops.


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Saurabh Chatterjee

Saurabh Chatterjee

Saurabh has two missions in his life – to see INDIA and to make every camera owner a great photographer. He has travelled far and wide across the country capturing the flavour of the place he visits.

3 thoughts on “How To Take Professional Portrait Photographs On Your Trek

  1. Very well explained. The writer is well aware about the confusions surrounding a new photographer when faced with hundred options on his camera, along with ‘how best to capture a good image…or about using discretion’ when we come across a scene or rustic people. I face the maximum difficulty in this area…its not always possible to be in the right place at the right timing. What angle will make a picture look stunning..or how to approach people to take close ups and candid shots…I feel guilty when I do that in order to get my shots.

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