Tips for Taking Travel Portraits with Examples from Cuba

Like nearly every person who has ever visited Cuba, I was captivated by the people from the start.  They are just all so photogenic.  Wandering the streets of towns like Viñales, and Havana, there were just countless people that made for fantastic portrait subjects.  If I had a camera around my neck, I was constantly stopping to ask people for their photos, and only on the rarest occasion would they say no.  Thus, I got a lot of great travel portraits well on my 3 week trip to Cuba.

I think that the number one question I get from people – aside from how I make money as a travel photographer – is how I approach shooting images of people in my travels.  Thus, I thought I would put together a quick video and article with some of my tips for photographing people when travelling.

Be Confident

My first tip is maybe the most important one when it comes to taking travel portraits.  You need to be confident.  Not only do you need to be confident just to ask people for their photos, but you need to exude confidence so that the people you are photographing feel more at ease with you photographing them.  If you are charismatic, friendly, and confident, your subjects will also feel confident.
Cuba Portrait

Be Simple with your Gear

This is a personal feeling, as I know some people who carry a lot of gear when they’re shooting travel portraits and get great images.  However, I feel like I get the best images if I’m really simple in my gear.  I don’t pack a bunch of lenses, flashes, reflectors, or anything like that.  I find that the more gear you have, the most uncomfortable you make the people you are photographing feel.  For much of Cuba, when I’d go out shooting portraits I used my 50mm f/1.4 as it seemed the least intrusive to shoot with.

Cuba Portrait

Composition is Key

You can’t just snap photos of people and expect them to be good.  You need to be thinking about the whole image and framing the shot so that it is visually appealing.  For portraits, I tend to look for these following things:

  • Where is the dominant eye?
  • How tight should I crop?
  • Am I cutting anything off that I shouldn’t?
  • Are there any distracting elements?
  • How much depth of field do I want?

Cuba Portrait

The Background is Important

In portraits, it’s so easy to focus on the person’s face and forget about the rest of the image.  However, with photos of people the background in perhaps as important as the face itself.  And, yes, this goes a lot along with the composition.  You need to be looking at things like:

  • Is there an element of symmetry to the background?
  • Is the background clean?
  • Is the background distracting?
  • Do the colours of the background compliment the subject?

Cuba Portrait

Be Diverse in Your Subjects

In places like Cuba especially, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of only photographing really cliche or stereotypical subjects.  Capturing that person with the cigar hanging out of their mouth, for example.  And well, yes, you should capture that subject, you also should be photographing the more “normal” subjects.  Photograph the kids, the elderly, adults, and teenagers.  It will give your portfolio from a location a much more diverse look.

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Be Diverse in Your Compositions

It’s also easy to fall in love with a certain composition and just shoot that over and over again.  However, you should be tying to be diverse in your imagery.  Don’t shoot just head shots, test out different angles and framing your subject differently.  I tend to start shooting a subject from farther away.  I chat with them as I shoot, and make them feel more comfortable.  Then, as I shoot I work my way closer and closer until I’m at the head shot range.  It seems to be a good formula, and means that I get lots of different compositions of the same subject.

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It’s All About the Light

Photography is light, and the light is everything when shooting portraits.  Especially in travel portrait photography we really need to think about the light as we’re shooting.  Unlike in a studio, we can’t control the light the same way.  So, we need to 1) find subjects in good light, 2) guide their faces when we’re shooting them to sit in the best angle of light.  If you’re not working with the light when you’re shooting these portraits, you need to start thinking about those things.

Cuba Portrait

Be Respectful!

This isn’t so much a tip as it is a duty you have a responsible traveller and photography.  You need to be respectful.  If you’re shooting portraits, ask permission before you do so.  And, if they say no, don’t take it personally.  Some people don’t want their photo taken.  You wouldn’t like it if people got up in your face and just started firing images, so why would it be OK to do it to others?  Mind your Ps and Qs, and be respectful.  Please.

Cuba Portrait

What’s Next on the Travel Photography Blog?

Sadly, I’m now done in Cuba.  It was a great time, and I not only experienced a lot, but learned a lot as well.  My next adventure is taking me back to Canada for a month.  On the way, I made a stop in New York where I picked up a 16-stop ND filter that I tested out.  Be sure to stay tuned for that.

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. Beautiful photos Cuba is amazing place and the people their is incredible!! Cuba change the way you think and the way you look life

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  2. Brendan, incredible photos but also great tips! I’ve always struggled with the confidence to approach someone for their photo, but I need to. And lighting is super important as always and confidence will also help you to guide them to your shot as well. Great stuff man!

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  3. It’s always been a struggle for me to approach people and ask for their permission to take pictures. Probably the biggest reason as to why I miss out on a lot of photographs. I really need to develop skills on that.

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  4. Your portraits are fantastic. Thanks for the very good tips. I can use all I can get – and I will absolutely use these.

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