I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.
Robert Louis Stevenson
1850-1894 Scottish Writer
0 years ago I began my love affair with travel photography. I worked in the kitchen on a merchant marine ship which travelled to London, Dublin, Copenhagen, Helskinki, and Stockholm. With my trusty Minolta 101 in hand, I began to understand and appreciate my artistic sensibilities and sensitivities. That experience hooked me. For life. Three decades later... I'm still traveling and shooting. And loving the experiences just as much.
It's hard to describe in words, what a powerful and passionate force travel photography has become in my world. I have been privileged to circle the globe on several occasions. Each time with new eyes. New vision. And a new expectation of potentially shooting the best images of my career.
Travel photography is one of those truly magical, mysterious, even mystical moments where it all comes down to your personal vision. Looking back over my career as a commercial shooter, it's that – the travel photography experiences, me and the world – that stand out the most. And have perhaps even influenced the most of who I really am as a photographer. So, in this post, let me share with you a few insider tips and tricks for helping turn those travel snapshots into memorable and remarkable photographs.
It's not about the gear
t's really easy for beginner photographers to talk about gear and the technical aspects of shooting. For the simple reason that the mechanical part of photography is more seemingly tactical and quantifiable. Perhaps even more understandable than its artistic and visionary counterpart. But make no mistake about this...cameras do not take pictures. People do.
Owning the best and most expensive DSLR gear doesn't make you a great photographer. It makes you a camera owner. Nothing more.
In travel photography, as in all genres of photography, it's about your personal, private and public vision that counts the most. And will ultimately help propel your photographs from mediocrity to masterful. From science to art. From snapshots to great shots. From hum-drum and routine to extraordinary and imaginative. When it comes right down to it, travel photography is about you. Your vision. With great vision you can learn to make even Herculean compositions with run-of-the-mill equipment. Because it comes from your heart, not from your hand.
Spring Lantern Festival which marks the end of the Chinese New Year. Hong Kong.
Shot at dusk.
hen I first began a career in travel and world photography, I naively thought that bringing more gear would result in better images. In some instances this may have been exactly what happened. But as I'm older and hopefully wiser now, I would argue that too much gear more often detracts from terrific travel photography.
I try to pack light – a belt pack, several zooms (16-35mm, 24-70mm, 24-105mm), a carbon-fiber tripod, plenty of batteries and CF cards. That's it. Simple and easy. Packing light lets you be a lot more mobile. It reserves your energy. And, most importantly, packing minimally, helps you put your focus on where it belongs – creating compelling travel photographs.
Too many choices in your camera bag is generally going to retard the creative process. Just simplify. Less is more. Pack light.
Inspiration, not imitation
The majestic Golden Gate Bridge.
Shot in early morning fog on San Francisco Bay.
efore you set foot onto any travel destination, you're very first stop should be Google. That's right, Google. Do an image search on what others have shot. Remember here, you're not trying to imitate, you are trying to be inspired by the work of others.
The first stop, on location, that I make is a good postcard rack. And again, be inspired. Just a cursory study of postcards will generally reveal best angle, best vantage point, best time of day, best lighting.
And still another time investment I make on location, after I hit the postcard rack, is to immediately buy a ticket on an open-air tourist buss. Not necessarily to shoot from (although, snap away...by all means :)) But to get a quick 1-3 hours overview of the landmarks, monuments and attractions you want to come back to. Seeing all these first, by bus, will help you manage your expectation and invest time and energy only in subjects and locations that you think will generate the greatest image yield.
Carnival of Venice. Two weeks before Ash Wednesday. Models in traditional Venetian Masks.
A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from.
1895-1976, Chinese Writer
y dad was a high-school football coach. And a great one at that. One of the lessons I remember most was the importance of putting on a 'game face'. That meant getting ready for the big game – emotionally and physically. I have my own routines and rhythms that help me put on my own 'game face' for travel photography. To help make sure I accomplish my shooting goals for the day. These naturally, organic, repeated patterns involve:
- Getting a good night sleep (even if that means getting up before sunrise)
- Always having a written shot list in my camera bag. So I know what the photo agenda is for the day. And also know, at the end of the day, whether I accomplished that agenda.
- Carrying a good city-wide walking map.
- Dressing appropriately for the weather. This usually means "layering".
- Having a charged phone, plus local currency and passport in pocket.
- Making sure, the evening before, my camera sensor is clean and dusted (I'm horribly bad about this, but it costs me hours of Photoshop work on the other end)
- Know hop on/off schedules for open-air buses trip (see 3.0)
Whole to parts
Tango Dancing. In colorful La Boca neighborhood. Buenos Aires.
don't know about everyone else but I like to work from the whole to the parts. In other words, I like to first concentrate on the big stuff – landmarks, monuments, attractions. Then move my way, throughout the day, toward the smaller stuff like details, urbex, local color, slices-of-life moments. I find that if you start with the small stuff, you sometimes get lost. And never make it to the big stuff. Big stuff first. Small stuff second.
It's not always practical, nor does it always work out, but I personally like to separate my people stuff from my non-people stuff.
To do brilliant people photography requires a different emotional mind set. It also requires different lenses and lighting. And a different speed too (much much slower. So rather than trying to seamlessly jump between te two worlds, I more often separate them. Focus on people for part of the day. And non-people shooting for another part of the day.
Spirit of place
Borobudur. 9th century Mahayana Buddhist Temple. In Central Javas.
he goal of most travel photography, whether your talking about personal or commercial, is to create a series of pictures about a destination that is more interpretive in nature. Less documentative. You want your viewers to feel, and feel deeply, what it's really like to travel to this location.
This interpretive mission means creating a wide variety of shots. With a wide variety of lenses. Under a wide variety of lighting conditions. Shooting a wide variety of subjects, concepts, themes. Overview shots. Medium shots. Close-up shots. Portrait shots. Sweeping scenics. And mouth-watering close ups of food. Architecture. Moments in time. Urbanscapes. Festivals. Wild life. Entertainment. Street life. All of it!
To create that unusual and uncommon 'spirit of place'. That also means you shoot a lot of captures. And I mean a lot. Don't get duped into a 'one and done' mentality. Shoot horizontals and verticals. Shoot brackets (different exposures). Change your lens with the same subject. Shoot as much content and context as you possibly can. So that you're images are wonderfully emotive and sensual and visceral. Make the viewer want to experience what you have experienced. Make the viewer want to travel to that location.
Be a participant, not a spectator
Beijing Opera performer. Singapore.
ravel photography is not a spectator sport. You learn by participation in both the process and product of your travel photography. It's truly amazing once you learn this critical lesson. It will revolutionize the way you see and experience a location.
Early in my career, I was more interested in the product of travel photography. And less interested in the process. And while I managed, out of sheer force of will, to get some 'award winners', my more soulful and popular images came as a result of participating in the process of travel. To some of you, this may mean doing a lot of reading before getting to a location. To others, this may mean slowing down, shooting less, talking with locals more. Still others, it may mean you spend minutes, sometimes hours, listening, learning, looking...before you can pick up that camera to shoot. I know this sounds counter productive in travel photography. Especially when you are pinched for time. But try it. Breathe. Chill. Listen to the noises around you. Smell the aromas. Feel the rhythms and vibes. Drink in the color and culture. Understand what it is you are shooting. Participate in the process. Then when you are ready...fire away!
Bring a tripod
know it is a hassle to lug around a tripod on location. Even a lightweight one. But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Especially when you're shooting in low-light situations that you can't and shouldn't handhold your camera – sunsets, sunrises, interiors, night photography, HDR. Tripods, even during the day, are worth bringing along so that you can shoot at greater depth-of-field. I've used a lot of different tripods over my career. The best tripods for travel photography are either carbon or alloy.
My current favorite is the Induro CT113 Carbon Fiber tripod
You will most likely have every excuse in the world not to bring a tripod on location. Don't wimp out. The difference between a mediocre and a skilled photography could very well be the tripod that the camera is sitting on. Really. As a side note, if you plan on shooting HDR brackets, then a solid tripod is an indispensible and necessary tool.
It's all about the light
Taj Mahal. Agra, India. Shot at dawn.
s a photographer, this principle should seem so obvious. It's all about the light! Great light helps create a context for great pictures. It's that simple. Even the most spectacular scene or subject can be further glorified and accentuated with great light. From my own personal experiences, my most prized images are either shot early in t he morning or late in the afternoon.
When the shadows are wonderfully long and dramatic. And the quality and color of the light is at its finest. Obviously, you want to have spectacular light for everything you shoot. So maximize those opportunities.
On location, I have a tendency to shoot my 'hero' or 'beauty' shots early in the morning, between 7:00-9:00am and late in the afternoon, between 4:00-7:00pm. Then, if possible, I use the not-so-optimum times of the day, when the light isn't as flattering, to shoot architecture, monuments, attractions, markets, open-shade portraits, interiors, close-up details (believe me, there is still plenty of subjects to shoot even in less-than-perfect light). So save the key shots of the day for when the light is most dramatic, flattering, favorable. And do the 'work arounds' for everything else.
When I'm on locations, I shoot like a machine – sunrise to sunset. And I shoot through 'less than ideal' or 'appalling' lighting conditions. The lesson here is to not stop. But match your lighting conditions to the subjects you shoot. I normally take a break in the heat of the day. And stop for a brief rest or meal. Usually when the sun is at its highest (12:00-2:00pm).
Lighting makes all the difference in the world. With faces, places and spaces. Use it to your travel photography advantage.
know a lot of you have already seen this 3 minute 900+ image promotional demo on World Photography. It felt right to show it again...here. Since a lot of the images in this demo reinforce what I've been sermonizing about in this post. Happy viewing!
Travel Photography reading
ere are several books that are 'must reads' if you are serious about developing your skills and attitudes as a travel photographer.
by Richard L'anson
by Peter Burian and Robert Caputo
by Life Books
by Bob Krist
by David Duchemin
by Nick Onken
Open invitation to join the Travel Photography event
ou have no earthly idea how passionate and excited i get over Travel Photography. I love it. All of it. And am equally committed to teaching others my insider tips and tricks. I started my career in travel photography. 30 years later I'm still crankin' it out with gusto and exuberance. The world has become a smaller place because of travel photography and travel photographers. Join me in celebrating our world through pictures, stories, emotions. Join this great learning event by submitting your best travel pictures in the group Travel photos with Photojack. By participating you'll also have a chance to win nice Jalbum prices!