Portrait Photography Ideas and Examples [from Africa]

I've been in many countries to shoot portraits but Africa is different and it's difficult to explain why. During my travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo I met by far the nicest and most interesting people to photograph. It's a tough country and the people are too but my fear of it being a very difficult country for portrait photography was immediately swept away in the first few days.

In a city like Kinshasa it's difficult to work for a photographer and certainly if you want to photograph people. Everybody acts a bit suspiciously towards a foreigner with a camera and what they see above all is European guy with a lot of money. In most parts of the city it's just too dangerous to walk around because of that.

 Portrait photography ideas, tips and examples.

But then, once out of the city it's a whole other world. People are friendlier and more interested in what you're doing in their country. They want to know why a European guy comes all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo to take photos.

A few examples of my portrait photography from congo

One of the things I noticed while shooting portraits in Congo was that the people didn't have any problems with being natural in front of the camera. For example, in Europe or America it seems more difficult for people to stand in front of a camera. They feel awkward and self conscious which makes it slightly more difficult to make a good portrait but those concepts didn't seem to exist in Congo.

portrait-pregant-woman.jpg

I met this woman when she was on her way to the hospital to deliver her baby. She was already in labor but gladly let me take this portrait of her. What you don't see in this picture is that as soon as it was taken, she cringed again from the pain. 


 

Want to learn more? Check out my portrait photography guide here.

 

I'm pretty sure it's because there's no culture of selfies, instagram and facebook that they keep their natural face in front of the camera without thinking about it. It certainly made it easier for me as a photographer. Here's another one to give you an idea. 

portrait-girls-in-the-hills.jpg

We met these girls somewhere along the road and they agreed that I could take a picture of them. It only took 30 seconds to prepare them for this shot and it turned out great. Can you imagine how it would be to to take a portrait of a group of girls of the same age in Europe...

When people asked me to take their portrait

This is something that almost never happens. Random people asking me to take their picture. The I was in Congo it happened more than once. 

When I stayed in a hospital for a few weeks I noticed right away that the doctors were very keen on having their portrait taken. Of course, they have an important function in society but over there they act like it too. Sometimes a little bit too much and it felt like they were acting like a movie star. Most of the pictures where they asked for it themselves didn't turn out very well because of that so I had to take them off-guard.

 A doctor in his office.

A doctor in his office.

This picture especially turned out pretty good. All the details, his expression and gesture. I knew I was going to like this picture the second I shot it.

Portrait photography ideas and advice

1. Always be aware of the light

I always prefer natural light for portrait photography and if there's one tip I can give you it's this one. (Check out this post if you really want to know what kind of light I love.) You should always ask your subject to move if the light turns out to be better somewhere else. For this picture I used the light of a window as a backlight. Pretty similar to the light conditions in the doctor's office by the way. I love backlights for indoor portraits in case you wonder...  

 A nurse working at Mosango hospital.

A nurse working at Mosango hospital.

2. Try to take your subject off-guard

If you've read some of my other posts then you'll probably know that I like staged portrait where I direct the person and tell them whether or not to look into the lens but sometimes the moment that they don't realize you're taking a picture is even more intriguing. Take a look at this shot.

 Man in charge of electricity supply.

Man in charge of electricity supply.

I just love how it turned out. The expression on his face combined with his posture. For me, it reveals a part of his soul.

3. Ask NOT to smile

I don't know why people always ask to smile when taking a picture. It often looks forced and to me, it puts a mask on the face of a person. As I said before, I want to look beyond the eyes and I feel it doesn't work when you ask someone to smile. Check all the pictures again. No smiles. I love it ;-)

portrait-pregnant-woman.jpg
 

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