Monwabisi Sobitschi at Langa Township, Cape Town, South Africa.

Twelve Months of my Favourite Portraits from the Grand Tour

We met some extraordinary people on our grand tour, and Lara reflected about some of those people here. As a photographer, I saw it as my job to capture their personalities as well as I could and communicate what made them special.

I had known from the start of our grand tour that I’d be taking a lot of portraits during our twelve months on the move. Shooting portraits comprised a large part of my income as a photographer in the year leading up to the trip, so I looked at the twelve months away as an opportunity to make good portraits that didn’t rely on props, over-the-top studio lighting, racks of clothes, and hair and make-up assistants. It was a challenge I was ready to take on.

I thought I’d reflect here on my favourite portraits of the year. For the photographers among you, I’ve provided some technical details. I recommend you click on the images to see them at full size. I’d love to hear what you think.

1. Portrait of a Place: Monwabisi Sobitschi at Langa Township, Cape Town
“Shall I take my beanie off?” asked the charismatic Monwabisi Sobitschi when I asked if I could make his portrait. “NO!” I cried, perhaps a little too loudly. Being an actor, Monwabisi had no problem giving me lots of different ‘looks’ in our short portrait session, but I liked this one, which I took after he stopped goofing around.
Shot details: Shot with the horrid lights that were on in the studio space where Monwabisi had just performed a scene from a play for us. You can see in his eyes that I used a reflector, right, bounced up into the lights in the ceiling.
Technical details: Nikon D700 @ ISO1600, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F3.5 & 1/800th of a second exposure.

2. Playlist: Fanfan & Marco’s Paris Chanson Playlist
I love the romanticism of this image, how it captures – for me – a slice of Paris of the Chanson period. When we went out that evening I had no idea this shoot would take place – it’s a perfect example of why a photographer should always carry a camera, and a camera that is capable of producing a useable shot. There are almost no conditions these days where you can’t get a shot.
Shot details: Shot at ISO3200 once again! It’s amazing how good this camera is in low-light. I didn’t use any other lights, other than what was on in the room.
Technical details: Nikon D700 @ ISO3200, 35mm 2.0 lens @ F2.0 & 1/40th of a second exposure.

3. Playlist: Camilo Lara
We had seen Camilo perform with his band Mexican Institute of Sound in New York and loved his energy. I think these images captures his personality, which is all at once kooky/quirky/cool. He was also the head of EMI Mexico at the time, so I decided to use a more thoughtful shot of him along with the zany shot to represent his serious side. For the ‘cartoon’ look that I wanted I needed to break out some real lights to make sure I had plenty of light on Camilo. Finding room in his cluttered studio was a challenge. There were keyboards everywhere! Love the Moog keyboard, so it had to be in shot.
Shot details: One Nikon SB800 in a shoot-through umbrella, right of frame, plus a reflector, low from the right, to soften any shadows thrown by the SB800. Lots of post-production on this in Photoshop.
Technical details: Wide shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 35mm 2.0 lens @ F4.0 & 1/60th of a second exposure. Close-up: Nikon D700 @ ISO200, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F3.5 & 1/160th of a second exposure.

4. The Boys from Barcelona: Sergio and Julio
These guys may not be male models, but they have what really counts to me as a photographer – personal style. Both Julio and Sergio have it in spades. I photographed both of them in the shade a couple of doors down from the apartment block where they live in Barcelona. I used the painted shutter doors as a backdrop just to add a little texture to the background. It was a simple, straightforward shoot, but with results I’m really happy with.
Shot details: mid-afternoon, plenty of light around, but even so it’s always better to shoot in the shade and create a little bit of lighting ratio, i.e. one side of the face brighter than the other. I did this by using a reflector and the light coming from across the road.
Technical details: Sergio: Wide shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO200, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F4 & 1/125th of a second exposure. Close-up: Nikon D700 @ ISO200, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F1.8 & 1/320th of a second exposure.
Julio: Wide shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2 & 1/1000th of a second exposure. Close-up: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F1.8 & 1/500th of a second exposure.

5. Kaska from Krakow. In the snow…
We had noticed Kaska the first night we were in Krakow. She worked at our favourite bar, Dym, in the old town, which we hit soon after arriving in town. We liked her style. The fact that she appeared to spend a lot of time checking out the gig guide in a local paper also meant she was switched on to what was happening in town. When she turned out to be our guide on our Communist Tour with Crazy Guides, I knew I had to photograph her. But here’s the thing: it was -10˚C, and although she’s naturally beautiful, she had no makeup on. Many women I’ve photographed would have said no for that reason alone.
Fortunately she had no ego. Right up until I took the photo she had a hot water bottle tucked into her snowboard jacket! Those aren’t digital artifacts in the photo on the left either. That’s snow falling.
Shot details: Damn freezing. Lots of cloud around, but the sun was trying to break through. I simply had Lara use a reflector to light up Kaska’s eyes a little.
Technical details: Wide shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.2 & 1/250th of a second exposure. Close-up: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F1.4 & 1/640th of a second exposure.

6. Yuto in Tokyo @ midnight. In the rain.
It wasn’t just snow that gave us trouble this year! We took this portrait of Tokyo designer Yuto on our last night in the city, just hours before we had to catch our flight. Yuto suggested we meet at midnight (okay…), at a club in Shiubya (no way…). Shooting in clubs is awful. Unfortunately I know this from experience. Shooting a portrait in a club is asking for trouble. Although it was raining out, I preferred to battle the elements instead, and shoot a wide shot of Yuto in the rain holding his umbrella. Sheltering in a nearby street, I shot a closer photo of him. It could have been a disaster, but it turned out pretty well in the end. However, the drinks that followed took their toll the next morning. Will we ever learn not to stay out late before a travelling day? I hope so.
Shot details: Midnight! In the rain! While I may have been getting soaked, so was Lara who was holding a Nikon SB800 flash in a small lightbox off to the left in the wide shot. In the closer shot Lara is holding the flash off to the right of frame, but bouncing it off a shop window. I love the ‘bokeh’ (the out of focus areas) of the lights.
Technical details: Wide shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO800, 50mm 1.8 lens @ F2.2 & 1/100th of a second exposure. Close-up: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.2 & 1/160th of a second exposure.

7. Local Knowledge: Vesna from Kotor
When I studied cinematography and direction for film, we were always taught to shoot a wide (or establishing) shot, a mid shot, and a close-up. The same rule applies when doing environmental portraits. I think these shots of the lovely Vesna show just how effective the three types of shots can be when used together as a triptych, which refers to the multi-panelled paintings dating back to the Medieval period. Even recent artists such as Francis Bacon have used the triptych to convey a story through art.
Shot details: In the shot on the left I used a bounced flash to overcome the bright daylight. In the close-up I used a reflector underneath her face – a technique that is often used in ‘beauty shots’, but in this case I used it to throw some light up under her cap. The wide shot just has a reflector just out of frame at the right.
Technical details: Wide shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.2 & 1/160th of a second exposure. Mid-Shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO200, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F3.2 & 1/200th of a second exposure. Close-up: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.0 & 1/1250th of a second exposure.

8. Local Knowledge: Sabelo from Cape Town
Sabelo Maku was our guide for a couple of tours we did with niche company Andulela in Cape Town. Sometimes you meet people and they just have something that makes you really want to take their photograph. The shoot, done outside with only one reflector for lighting, lasted around 15 minutes, with the series of close-ups taken at the end. By the end of the shoot Sabelo was showing me the man who I had come to know over a couple of days. Capturing the essence of that person is my pleasure as well as my ‘job’.
Shot details: In the wide shot there is a reflector on the right just out of frame. In the close-up you can see the reflector reflected in his eyes, virtually directly below his jacket. This was to soften shadows from the afternoon light.
Technical details: Wide shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.8 & 1/1000th of a second exposure. Close-up: Nikon D700 @ ISO400, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.8 & 1/500th of a second exposure.

9. Mariachi, Plaza Garibaldi, Mexico City
This drummer was rather wistfully looking off into the crowd as he waited for the rest of his band to turn up, while other bands were entertaining the increasingly inebriated crowd. It’s already well into the night, meaning that the musicians’ ability to make some good money is fast disappearing, which I think partly explains his expression. I’ve mainly included it because I wanted to put in a ‘street candid’ portrait, as they’re called, and I love the lights in the background.
Shot details: Shot at ISO3200 – which a few years ago would have been almost impossible – and shot to make sure that he is exposed correctly – those lights can really throw a light reading off.
Technical details: Nikon D700 @ ISO3200, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F1.6 & 1/60th of a second exposure.

10. Local Knowledge: Marino from Buenos Aires
I think every photographer is nervous photographing another photographer. But Porteño fashion photographer, Marino Balbuena, put me at ease because he said he liked the shallow focus style of portraits I was going for that he’d seen on our site. Flattery works! Given my ‘no props’ stance this year, my challenge was how to convey that he was a photographer. Everything we tried, such as Marino holding a flash and a photographic umbrella, looked cheesy. Instead, I chose to focus on the image itself, and the act of creating expressions for images, and I made a triptych of those. At left, that’s Marino meditating (he loves meditation), in the middle he is happy and relaxed, and at right he is focussed on a pose of the kind he probably encourages lots of subjects to make when he’s working as a photographer.
Shot details: There is a Nikon SB800 flash behind me in a tiny softbox reflecting off a white wall. I wanted an even ratio of light.
Technical details: Left shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO800, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.8 & 1/125th of a second exposure. Middle Shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO800, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.8 & 1/125th of a second exposure. Right Shot: Nikon D700 @ ISO800, 85mm 1.4 lens @ F2.8 & 1/160th of a second exposure.

To show you how much time and care a photographer can put into his work, here’s another version I worked on that I thought about using. I like this one as well, but I think the triptych has more impact and better reflects the fact that he’s a photographer.

I’d love to hear what you think and if you have any creative or technical questions, leave them in the Comments below. I’m happy to answer them.


There are 19 comments

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  1. Camels & Chocolate

    The top one is my absolute favorite. I love taking portraits while traveling; I just need to get more bold in reaching out and asking more people if they don’t mind me taking their picture!

  2. Terence Carter

    Hi, many of these portrait sessions were pre-arranged, but the first one wasn’t. The secret is knowing that you can make a decent portrait no matter what the lighting conditions – and the only way to do this is practice and always have the right gear. *Then* it’s easier to be bolder – because you’re confident you can do people justice. Thanks for your comment – as always!

  3. Risamay

    What do I think? Wonderful! Your portraits are wonderful. I don’t know these people, but it seems to me – at a glance – that you’ve captured something honest of their essence. My favorite is Yutu on the rainy night in Tokyo. And I really appreciate that you’ve shared the shot and technical details of each shoot. That’s awesome. I need to go back later and take a closer look at this info, as I’d love to improve my skills where portraits are concerned. I love taking travel snaps – see my website! – but am shy about portrait work. If I ever overcome this hurdle, learning from the work of others will be key to developing my own style and skill set.

  4. Kirsten Alana

    I’ve truly fallen in love with taking portraits of my fellow travelers. I love providing head shots to my friends in the “industry” when we meet up in cities all over the world. There’s something about taking a portrait of someone when they are relaxed and in their element that simply brings out their best.

    Great post.

  5. Terence Carter

    Hi Marisa, thanks for your words!
    You have great style in your photography and a good eye, work on those portraits. I’m generally pretty shy too, but now I just snap into ‘portrait photographer’ mode when I need to. I’m way better at giving direction and not stopping until I think I’ve really nailed someone’s personality – or at least an aspect of it that I think they’d like to share.

  6. The Dropout

    They’re all so good I can’t choose a favourite. They’re all my favourite, if that’s possible.
    I love taking photos, when I’m traveling and not traveling. I just don’t have the experience or equipment to make them look very good. Maybe one day… sigh.

  7. Risamay

    Thank you for your kind words. I *really* need to work on giving direction. It’s so easy with architectural or other shots – I just direct myself! Move here. Move there. Try a different aperture, lens, etc. Hopefully I’ll find my own ‘portrait photographer mode’ that I can snap in and out of as needed, too – one day.

  8. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Fiona (on behalf of Terence, who somehow overlooked this one) – yep, agree, we find it never hurts to ask. What do you have to lose? Thanks for dropping by!

  9. Nellie

    Love love love your portrait shots. I’m a huge fan of portrait images, and I’ve done a few of my own, esp in India, but I’m not well-trained in photography. Perhaps it’s time to work on my photography skills now.. Your images have gotten me hooked. Thanks guys!

  10. Terence Carter

    Thanks Nellie. One thing about portrait shooting – you never stop learning. Another thing I’ve noticed in the past few weeks getting back to work with ‘formal’ portraits I’ve been commissioned for is that I boss the subject around a lot more than I do when just asking someone on the street!

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