#574. Travel portraits in Asia

By pascaljappy | Travel Photography

Mar 24

This new guest post is from frequent comment contributor Adrian who is sharing some interesting insights on how a vision evolves in time. The underlying topics of thinking about projects and specialisation are particularly noteworthy. Thanks Adrian. Quick bio below :

I have been a keen amateur photographer for over 15 years.  My initial interest in photographing social events and holidays gradually became an interest in travel photography, though often with an emphasis on happenstance and the discovered rather than the traditional picture postcard views of travel.  I had always been interested in other photographers portraiture, and gradually my interest in travel photography led to street photography, and then to street portraits.  A chance encounter some years ago also led to me photographing physique sports competitions, from which I have started to work on a portfolio of male physique portraits.  My photography now combines travel, physique sports and portraiture, as I continue to try and understand and develop my own photographic style.  People and emotion are often at the heart of what I do, and photography continues to provide an opportunity to meet new people and see new things.



I’ve never had a great affinity for what often passes for “street photography”, perhaps because the photographs often seem to centre around odd juxtapositions of people in front of advertising hoardings or sweaty middle-aged male photographers “snapping” pretty girls from afar with long lenses. I find neither very interesting. However, a few years ago I purchased an original Fuji X100 and with it I developed an interest in photography around the night-time streets and markets of Thailand. I had never felt pre-disposed to carry my DSLR around when out at night without a specific intent of photography, but the relatively small and light X100 could easily be slipped into a bag, and produced images of a quality that had eluded most ‘compact’ cameras before.


Fuji X100 1/220s f2 ISO 1600


I became interested in capturing a glimpse of people’s night-time lives, as it was a side to tourism that rarely seemed to get photographed – the mundane and everyday things that even I as a regular visitor mostly took for granted and ignored. Night markets in busy tourist areas were favourite spots as they combined interesting snapshots of “real” life with plenty of people around to distract attention from the photographer. I still prefer to photograph from late afternoon and into the night as it feels as if many cities open their flower and give up their dirty little secrets after dusk, when the darkness can create a visual excitement that helps to convey the drama of the night.


Fuji X100 – 1/30s f2 ISO1250

Fuji X100 – 1/110s f2 ISO1600

Fuji X100 – 1/30s f2 ISO2500

Fuji X-Pro1 + X35mm f1.4 – 1/52s f2 ISO200

Fuji X100 – 1/75s f2.8 ISO800


In the following years as I continued to roam the streets of Asia, I slowly realised what it was that attracted me to some the scenes I photographed. Sometimes it was the familiar made unfamiliar by distance and culture – who knew that something as uninteresting as a petrol filling station could become interesting at night in Laos? Often it became about my growing interest in the people I passed along the way and the moments I occasionally shared with them as a visitor.


Fuji X100 – 1/56s f2 ISO800

Fuji X100 – 1/85s f2.8 ISO800

Fuji X100 – 1/30s f2 ISO1250

Fuji X100 – 1/15s f4 ISO2000


In Thailand there is often a slight novelty to my presence. I have travelled quite extensively in the north of the country, which is less visited by tourists than the beaches in the south. Over the years through friendship and some perseverance on my part I have learnt to speak basic conversational Thai. Unexpectedly speaking someone’s language can quite literally be a conversation starter, and is a wonderful way to break down barriers with people. This opened doors to situations and photographs that previously I may have passed by, and gave me the confidence to engage people when I wanted to take their picture.


Sony A850 + A17-35mm G f3.5 – 1/20s f4 ISO400

Sony A850 + A17-35mm G f3.5 – 1/80s f5.6 ISO200

Sony A850 + A85mm G f1.4 – 1/80s f2 ISO320

Fuji X100 – 1/75s f4 ISO200


Attitudes to photography in public places vary greatly by nationality and culture, and what may be acceptable in one place probably isn’t somewhere else. As a very general rule I find south-east Asian culture much more accepting of photography than in Europe, perhaps with the exception of people of Chinese descent. A Chinese Malaysian friend commented that Chinese people may feel that you are taking something from them by photographing them, and will often decline a photo. Generally I ask permission if I am photographing an individual or small group of people, unless perhaps they are part of a broader scene and would not even notice that they are in a picture. Asking politely is an important part of my photographic process, together with respecting the answer and politely saying thank you and walking away if they decline. My own view is that attitude and demeanour are an important factor in gaining someone’s confidence and trust in you, especially if you don’t speak the same language. If you are seen to be acting sneakily when trying to photograph someone, or you have an attitude of entitlement or arrogance to your “right” to photograph, it will never get the best from a subject.


Sony A850 + A50mm f1.4 – 1/60s f5.6 ISO400

Sony A850 + A85mm G f1.4 – 1/250s f2 ISO200

Sony A850 + A50mm f1.4 – 1/500s f3.5 ISO200

Sony A850 + A85mm G f1.4 – 1/160s f2 ISO1000


Gradually my photographs have changed from more general street scenes to more intimate street portraits. I generally like the subject to look at the camera, because I like the engagement that results when the viewers eyes meet the subjects. Occasionally people may prefer to pretend to ignore me through shyness or embarrassment, which can give a very natural result. Over time I have realised that what draws me to someone or a scene is a sense of quietness and peace, often in a wider scene of noise and chaos. It is this that creates the sense of a “stolen moment” shared with someone – they are granting me the privilege of capturing a moment with them forever, and allowing the viewer of the resultant photograph to share it with them vicariously. Even in big cities it’s not uncommon that I may be invited to sit and talk, or offered a coffee or a whisky. I have become drawn to these moments of stillness and their sense of intimacy, and hope my photographs can capture a little of the hopes, dreams, loves and fears of the subjects lives in the short moment we have together in their picture.


Sony A6000 + E50mm f1.8 OSS – 1/50s f2 ISO2000

Fuji X-Pro 1 + X35mm f1.4 – 1/52s f4 ISO400

Sony A850 + A85mm G f1.4 – 1/500s f2 ISO1000

Sony A850 +A85mm G f1.4 – 1/1250s f1.4 ISO200

Sony A6000 + E35mm f1.8 OSS – 1/20s f2 ISO3200

Sony A6000 + E35mm f1.8 OSS – 1/60s f2 ISO3200


In more recent years I have been using a Sony Alpha A7s camera for available light photography. Its high ISO performance has been revelatory, and l cease to worry about ISO values and have confidence that even in extremely poor light a photograph can be taken well into 5 digit ISO values and still produce a good quality result. A friend who is a professional photographer in Malaysia who shoots with older Canon full frame bodies saw one of my out-of-camera jpegs taken at ISO 12,800 and commented that it looked like ISO 400 on his cameras. The other advantage of the A7s for low light work is that it’s large pixels and weak AA filter mean it can focus using contrast detection off the main sensor down to -4EV. Expressing light in EV values can be difficult to imagine, but to give context a landscape lit by a full moon could be around -3EV. Although the A7s lacks phase detection AF, and may not be the fastest focusing of Sony’s A7 series cameras in good light, it is the one that can focus in very low light. In general it has never let me down.


Sony A7s + FE28mm f2 – 1/60s f2 ISO8000

Sony A7s + FE28mm f2 – 1/40s f2.8 ISO25600

Sony A7s + FE55mm f1.8 – 1/60s f2 ISO5000


The choice of lens will often depend on the type of street and the environment I am photographing in. On large streets with busy pavements and markets generally I choose a shorter focal length, whereas on quiet small streets I may choose a longer focal length as I can comfortably photograph across the street. “Zooming with your feet” is not always an option as there can often be obstructions, and I don’t favour standing in roads for obvious reasons. I generally use a Sony FE 55mm f1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar, or sometimes a Sony FE 35mm f1.4 ZA Carl Zeiss Distagon, or for day time work a short tele prime (either a Carl Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8 or Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro G OSS). To fill the frame when using a 35mm focal length, I find I may need to get uncomfortably close to the subject, but it can work well for more “environmental” portraits with a wider scene for some context. Longer focal lengths can be a challenge when photographing on the same side of the street, but the working distances can suit photographing across narrower streets.


Sony A7s + FE35mm f1.4 ZA – 1/80s f1.4 ISO1600

Sony A7s + FE35mm f1.4 ZA – 1/125s f4.5 ISO10000

A7s + Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8 – 1/100s f1.8 ISO2000


My preference is to photograph quickly so as not to disturb the moment too much, and since I generally use large aperture lenses, reliable auto focus is important to me. I will share a dirty secret which will undoubtedly horrify many of Dear Susan’s more delicate readers – sometimes I use face detection. Having scoffed at such electronic consumer fripperies for some time, I tried it for some more controlled portrait work, and found it a useful tool. Traditionally you would generally use the “focus and recompose” technique, putting the AF point or MF area over the subject to focus and then framing the scene how you want. At large apertures this introduces the risk of focus errors due to parallax and camera movement. Moving the focus point to where you want it isn’t as quick as it could be on the A7 series cameras, and even the smallest AF point may not quite focus exactly where you want it, for example falling on an eyebrow rather than an eye. Face detection isn’t infallible, but often gets it right, and also has the benefit that it will bias exposure for the face. The raw files gives great latitude to adjust exposure with little penalty post capture, provided the original file isn’t badly under exposed.

Many photographers often say they are too shy or afraid to ask strangers if they can take a photograph. It’s difficult for me to give any concrete advice since I often feel the same way. I can’t deny that since I prefer to photograph in south-east Asia, I have the advantage of being an outsider. My Malaysian photographer friend once looked at some of my pictures taken around Kuala Lumpur and commented that he could never take them because he was local. Subconsciously I had recognised this, and I adopt a number of styles on the street, as if this is the first time I have seen any of the wonders before me. The best advice I can give is to approach people with an open, friendly demeanour, and to always be genuine and polite. I believe that the attitude you bring to photographing people in public places, and your reasons and motivations for doing so, will have a huge impact on how you are received and the photographs you are allowed to take.

The photographs in this article were taken between 2011 and 2016 and have been processed to taste using in-camera conversion, Lightroom v4, Silkypix Pro v6-v8, Sony Image Data Converter or Capture One Pro v6-v8. I hope to follow-up this item up with some photo essays from some of the places I have visited.”


Email: subscribed: 4
  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    As our friend from Berlin, Steffen Kampreth, said in his article “#570. A beautiful rear can also endear”, taking photos in which some or all of the people have their back to the camera can be intriguing – adding interest, and drawing the viewer’s eye into the photo. I particularly like the 4th shot – with the two guys in white shirts, and the street beyond them.

    It’s interesting hearing your comments on the Sony cameras. Sony of course make most of the sensors for digital photography, and in some of their cameras, finish it off with a processor that leaves the competition at the starting line. I believe that’s where their incredible ability in low light conditions is generated – kick the ISO up that far with other cams, and you’ll get whacked in the face with digital noise. And I love available light photography, so that’s a real issue for me. Glad to hear you have a solution – I hover about 2 stops below you – I’d have to drop back to about 1/25th and open up to f/1.4 to take some of the shots in your article, I don’t really like going past about ISO 3200 on my D810.

    More generally – this is a wonderful set of photos, Adrian, and you’ve captured the atmosphere and the soul of the country beautifully. I hope you have prints of all of them, against the dark day when something else stuffs up digital storage.

    • Adrian says:

      Thanks for your kind comments.

      I deliberately included the picture of the 2 men with white shirts with their backs to the camera in ‘homage’ to the earlier article on Dear Susan. I’ve always felt that it had a kind of cinematic ambience and sense of mystery.

      You raise an interesting point that keeping the aperture open and the shutter speed lower could reduce the need for such stratospheric ISO values. However, sometimes I want a little more depth of field, and human subjects move, so often the only solution is to increase the ISO value. My Sony A7s has redefined my ability to shoot with available light and hand held. Of course there is chroma noise as ISO rises into 5 digit values, but the large sensels (pixels on the sensor) create excellent pixel level sharpness that maintains detail even when some noise reduction is applied. What makes it maintain image quality is the combination of low noise and its ability to maintain dynamic range, which stops high ISO images looking “flat” as they tend to from other cameras. The other benefit is that at more sane ISO values the images are beautifully clean and detailed, although it trades pixel count and ultimate dynamic range to achieve it (other sensors have lots more pixels and slightly better DR at low ISO).

      I tend to self publish photo books of a trip, as I like to have a book on the coffee table that I or visitors can thumb through should the mood take us. The pictures in this article are mostly taken in Thailand, with a few from Cambodia and one from Laos. Thailand is a fascinating country, if only because in spite of it being one of the worlds most popular holiday destinations, it combines a culture very different from the west with a good tourist infrastructure and locals who generally still give a friendly welcome.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Yes, Adrian – you are quite correct – you have an option that I don’t – you can EITHER crank up the ISO a bit further and give yourself a smaller F-stop and greater DOF, or lower it as I have to and lose that.

        One thing post processing for the purpose of making prints has shown me – all these smart programs, like sharpening, noise reduction, etc, come with side effects – and it’s still better to “get it right” in the camera than to rely on them. Some of those features of programs like Lightroom fix one problem and cause another.

        The idea of books of your trips is an admirable way to preserve your photos.

  • PaulB says:


    Very nice images. My 3 favorites are the older gentleman with the gray hair in front of the signs, and the two that follow. The older gentleman is my favorite. I really like the way the roundness of his facial features are rendered. Which is not something that most lenses do well.


    • Adrian says:

      That particular photograph was taken in Yangon, Myanmar (or Burma, if you prefer – many locals there still do, apparently). It was taken at a small temple in the Chinatown district of the city. I visited a friend there about 5 years ago, just after their elections. There was much curiosity to my presence as at the time many visitors were in tour groups, but the old gentlemen passing the time of day at the temple were very charming and gracious.

      The picture that follows is actually a Burmese itinerant worker in Northern Thailand, where many hill tribe people and residents of northern Burma cross the mountains to trade or to come and work. I have a young friend in the area whose parents were refugees from north Burma when their village was raised by the army, a practice that still continues to this day. Reuters have been reporting on the problem again recently, and the persecution of the indigenous minority Muslim Burmese. Burma is rapidly becoming the latest “must see” destination for photographers now that it has opened up a little, as most seem to think that having elections makes the country “Ok”, when in fact may problems of the military junta still continue, and persecution and killing is still rife.

      The third picture is actually a grounds man at a large hotel in northern Thailand, who was passing the time of day chatting to the women at the local street market as I was passing.

      @Pascal: those were taken in Phnom Penh. The last photo was of a messenger who was taking a break. The “3 kids” were actually cooking at a barbeque on the street outside a restaurant. I had been taken there by the Cambodian national bodybuilding team, and there was obviously a lot of curiosity about having a western there, so to overcome their shyness I shoved the camera lens through a hole at the back of their barbeque above the hot plate, which caused some amusement. Sleeping security guards are a regular feature of the night.

  • pascaljappy says:

    I’m with Paul here. That’s a really lovely portrait. The last one is very impressive too. Great look in the eyes, great skin texture, great creamy background. Very intimate and human. The B&W one looking up to the 3 kids is pretty special too. As are the sleeping security guard and the one below … Thanks for all these.

  • philberphoto says:

    Adrian, welcome to DearSusan, and what a fine first post! I love Asia, and Thailand in particular, so I am not unfamiliar with your subjects. What strikes me, in the best possible way, is the humility and modesty of your photography. You are not out to show what a star you are, or to produce star shots. On the contrary, they depict simple faces and scenes, and they are all the more telling and true for it. And many are ones I would have loved to shoot myself [shrugs with more than a bit of jealousy].

    • Adrian says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I have been photographing “travel” for over 10 years, and in that time my style and interests have developed, although I am often unsure of my “style” and still feel I need to find my photographic “voice”. A few years ago I had a portfolio review by a well known “national geographic” type photographer (I will not name names publicly), and felt I had been damned by feint praise with a comment about a “simple style”. Later, I realised that I disliked very processed photographs, and that much of what passes as “real” is often very staged and artificial. I’m not sure I know how to produce “star shots”, and in general I prefer honesty and integrity over false showiness, and have come to grudgingly accept that perhaps that is my “style”. Can not having a style be a style? Personally, I feel there is a danger that if you analyse your own style too much, or compare it to others, then you may lose sight of what your own work is actually about. I appreciate that many artists believe that studying others allows you to identify your own style and grow artistically, but personally I tend to believe this will just create a tendency to mimic other people, rather than to find your own. Is “simplicity” a style? I don’t have the answer, and it always feels as if being told one has a simple style is a negative, as if you have yet to evolve and define yourself. However, as I tried to convey with my words, I think that integrity and honesty are one of the things that can allow me to take the photographs I do – and if that is gone, then what is left? Most recently I have found a “peace” in doing what I like to do, not questioning it too much, and hoping that it has some honesty, integrity and therefore a “style” that is mine. Comparing yourself to others can be a destructive process, as whatever has taken to where you are will have been a completely different journey – and as they say, “it’s better to travel”.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I suspect that for some people, Adrian, it is a question of personal vanity. Not that my “opinion” matters – anyway, I have a deep seated dislike of “opinions” – but for me, it’s a question of “to thine own self, be true”. We never “succeed” by chasing around doing what somebody else has – or would. We need to find our own way. Or as you put it, develop your own style. If that doesn’t put us all on the same shelf as Cartier Bresson or Ansell Adams, c’est la vie. At least we had fun.

        And yes – over analysis is a poison, all of its own.

      • Steffen says:

        1) You have to feel comfortable with your doings. If you try to imitate others and their styles, you just end up doing things for no reason, perhaps even inappropriate. As long as you’re not a professional, you better stay true to yourself. And professionals rather have a “simple” style as image editors will process/edit them anyways.

        2) I personally find finding a consistent style very hard to impossible. If you travel a lot, you will be in places that differ so much in light, colors, and content that it’s difficult to match that under a unified visual signature style – and to me impossible. Sure, you can get images from Vietnam in line with Thailand or South-China. But what about aligning it with New York? Or Moscow? Or something in winter? Something in autumn? Or some tropical island? Or some desert in Africa? Or some rural area in central Europe? And finally: what about my creative freedom? … very difficult. Obviously a great topic for an upcoming DS article 😉

  • Brian Patterson says:

    Excellent imagery, excellent tips and technical coverage as well. This would make for a great article in a mainstream US photo magazine or photo travel magazine. I would polish it up a bit to create more orderly transitions/details/captions and submit it for consideration. This is what most of us are looking for to inspire and instruct us on the ‘fripperies’ of street work.

    Many thanks for your efforts over the years. Stay in touch…

  • Steffen says:

    Sorry, I’m late to the party here. But I have to say that I really like many of the above environmental portraits, especially the portraits of the sleeping guards and the examples of the 28mm. I’m also drawn to South-East Asia, have been there a couple of times myself. Not much to Thailand, though, but Bangkok.

    For me, Street portraiture works with two ingredients: Either showing the person’s environment and context, or finding interesting characters, faces that tell a story of a life (or moment). If one just take a 1/2 or 1/3 portrait of a random stranger and show that image to random strangers, they can’t relate. For that reason, IMO, the example images of the A850 with the 85mm and the A7S with the 35mm don’t work as well as the examples from the Fuji X100 and 28mm and 55mm. Imagine, for example, if the photo from the merchant with the red shirt would show much more of his shop. Now it’s just a dude in a red shirt, presumably a merchant on a street market. If you would have shown much more of his shop, it would be a portrait of a proud owner of a street shop, with many things in the background and him in-between … just an idea … 🙂

    Would you share where you’re from, Adrian? Maybe also some more photos? A portfolio/social media? Thank you. I really like your approach.

  • >