To travel and to photograph are for many the ultimate fulfilment of desires and dreams – and in those two activities combined everything seems to come together in a higher unity. Travelling may entail far away places or just exploring one’s own place in ways not tried out before. No matter what; travelling is a way of opening our senses and minds to the new and unknown – and it’s a way of living in the very moment, the now, like we never seem to be able to in our regular lives. That is what is so compelling about travelling: the feeling of adventure and the feeling of being alive. And as contradictory as it may sound, the intensity of the now is something we want to record and capture in order to be able to teleport back again to those moments when regular life once again has engulfed our feeling of independence and vibrancy.
Once travel photography was a way of showing the world how it looks like in corners most people wouldn’t know anything about. Today travel photography is more about connectivity and capturing the variety of human spirit in the many forms and shapes it takes, in full awareness that all people, no matter where, share the same emotions, dreams and aspirations. When we travel and photograph our travels, we feel connected to the world. Or as Stephanie Dandan, photographer and travel writer, writes in her post Photographing Our Travels: Tips from Infinite Satori on The Daily Post: «When we travel, we’re reminded that everything is connected by a beautifully intricate, invisible thread. We are filled with wanderlust – exploring a foreign country or city, an exotic island, or mountains in the mist. Wherever we are, we indulge in the novelty of each moment. Each place has its own charm, energy, and ambience that will leave its trace in your soul. A travel photographer’s job is to capture this while it’s still there, available to all of your senses.»
I have been fortunate enough to have both photography and travel be part of my living. I know how alive and connected I feel to the human spirit when I am on the road. I also know how difficult it can be to capture those novel moments Stephanie Dandan talks about. Unfortunately, there are no quick steps to make better travel photographs. We are only as good photographers as we are when we do not travel. Of course the excitement of the new in itself will be an inspiration for our photography, but it may just as much be an impediment to getting those spectacular images we dream of capturing. If we are not able to see past the extraordinary and compassionately connect to the universal human experience, our images will not engage, neither ourselves nor any viewers.
Below I have listed a few points of which to be aware. They are not magic bullet points, but may help to focus on the essential when you are out travelling with a camera in your hand. As with everything creatively, the more you photograph, the better your photos will become. If you only take photos during those two weeks of holidays, it’s really not realistic to expect photos that will emulate those of National Geographic or Condé Naste Traveller. The ten points below, though, will most certainly improve the result (and as in my post 10 Indispensible Travel Accessories I have added a bonus point – just for the measure). However, just remember I do not promise you a rose garden. There are no magic bullet points here. They simply do not exist.
● Travel to photograph – or photograph to travel. An essential understand of what comes first – travel or photography – makes it easier to set your photographic aspirations right. Are you travelling with your family, photography will most likely be a way of recording your family’s experience – not a goal in itself. You will have to compromise and accept that some pictures you just won’t get. In addition I recommend to bring as little equipment as possible, possibly only a point-and-shoot camera. Instead of trying to capture The Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal in ways no one has seen before, maybe try to make a photo essay about your family’s travel with them and about them. On the other hand, if you are on assignment for a travel magazine, you bring the big load of equipment and make sure that no photo opportunity will be lost. The two ways of travelling and photographing don’t combine. Trust me; I know.
● Search for the essence of the place. Immerse yourself. I think the worst thing any travel photographer can do is just to ram out of the hotel and run around like a crazy horse on speed to capture as much and as many photos as possible. It might be a way of going after quantity instead of quality – but maybe not even that. In the end, you might find yourself with less pictures than if you had taken your time to search for the essence of the place – and then I am not even talking about the quality of the photographs. Instead sit down, do some research beforehand, maybe walk around the place the first day or so without shooting, and try to get the feeling of what the essence of the place is. Like I wrote in my post Railing through the Streets of Lisbon, the Remodelados, the trams became the identity of Lisbon for me and I ran around for days mostly photographing them. Or in Cuba it could be sensuality and rhythms. Or in Seattle it could be coffee. Or in Paris it could be love and romance. The point is really to constrain yourself as a photographer. Suddenly you will se that world will open up instead. And then; when you have gotten a feeling for the place, immerse yourself in it. Completely. Let yourself go and be open to anything that can happen. If you get invited home by someone on the street; go for it. It will be a severe experience as well as a great photo opportunity. Guaranteed.
● Bring less equipment. This is one thing I stress again and again. Less is more. Rather than not having your equipment with you all the time, because it’s too heavy and cumbersome, go for a point-and-shoot camera you will always be able to carry around. Even when I am on an assignment, some days I only hang a Fuji X-10 around my neck. That’s it. And as I wrote in the before mentioned 10 Indispensible Travel Accessories-post, I always carry a little camera on my hip. So when I go out with friends in the evening I still have a camera if something unexpectedly happens. If that doesn’t sound attractive to you, remember you will most likely always bring you cell phone. Use the built in camera then. The point is really; instead of bringing a lot of equipment, it’s more important to bring something you will actually use. One recommended accessories for those die-hard photographers: A polarizing filter is always great to intensify blue sky and emerald green waters – and bringing down reflections.
● Have your camera out. Be prepared. No matter what equipment you end up taking along, have it ready. All the time. Literally, this means taking off the lens cap and hang the camera on your neck or around your shoulder. When something happens on the street, you want to be ready. If you have to dig the camera out of the camera bag, take off the lens cap, and what not; the situation is most likely gone. Being prepared also means knowing how to use the camera. Put it on program or automatic even if you have sworn to use it manually. Again, if something suddenly happens, you just point the camera and push the trigger. Manual settings you can save for those landscape pictures where you have the whole day to fiddle with dials and buttons.
● Shoot a lot. Take your time. When you find something you want to photograph; stay with the situation. Wait for its culmination. Photograph, photograph, photograph. Don’t «save the film»; you are shooting digitally and have as good as unlimited capturing capacity. Two or three frames are not enough. Keep going; don’t be content before you have 50 – to give you an arbitrary – and low – number. Be patience and take your time in any given photo situation. This is one of the things I cannot stress enough in my workshops. The best photos come when you immerse yourself into the situation and stay with it. And if people already have let you take one photo of them, they won’t mind if you hang around a hour more and keep photographing them.
● Ask – or not ask people. More than anything travel photography means photographing people we meet on the road. If you don’t think or do so, it’s about time to change that perspective. Travel photos without people quickly get boring. We – as viewers – relate to people. We don’t care much about a rock – even if it’s Ayers Rock captured in a way that never has occurred before – not after the 101st photo of it. Make sure you capture people when you travel. Approach them on the street or in their homes and you will be surprised how easy going most people are – and not only that, but will feel honoured when you ask for a photo. Make it a habit to ask beforehand, though. And respect when people don’t want to have their photos taken. This much said; I also know there are situations you don’t want to ask in advance, because asking will destroy the moment. Candid photography is fine and is a natural part of travel photography, but don’t stick a camera in the face of someone without having the courtesy of asking beforehand.
● Look for beauty in details. Just as much as people belong in a travel story, so does the small details. To phrase Stephanie Dandan one more time: «Notice subtle beauty: hair blowing in the wind, children playing and laughing, leaves falling around a person, the golden light peeking through the silhouettes of passersby. The magic of travel photography lies in the dance of the environment. Capture small details found in the rhythm of each place.» In a photo essay from your travels, those small details will create space and connectivity as well as adding a surprising element to the story.
● Use the light. This is probably a point that shouldn’t go in here, since it relates to all photography and not only travel photography. Nevertheless maybe more than in any other kinds, light is essential for travel photography. There is no right or wrong light; it all depends on the situation, but some lights are more forgiving and easier to handle. The most beautiful light you will always find just after sunrise and before sunset when the sun is low on the horizon and modulating and pushing those warm rays sideways along the face of the Earth. Make sure you are in a place you want to photograph during these hours – and preferably extend the shoot into the blue hour, the time after the sun has set and till the sky has turned pitch black.
● Shoot wide angle and create space. If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. It’s the visionary statement of the renowned photographer Robert Capa. Instead of zooming in on people or details or whatever you try to capture when travelling; use the apostles’ horses. Put on a wide angle and get close. For those who know me, this comes as no surprise. I really do recommend using more a wide angle than a telephoto lens. By using a wide angle lens you open up the space around the subject and create a stronger relationship to the subject. For more on this; look up my post Wide Angle for People.
● Backup. When you have done you once in a lifetime travel, nothing is more tragic than losing all your pictures. Make sure it doesn’t happen. Back up all you photos every day. Bring an external hard disk, use a USB stick or download all your photos on the Cloud, but make sure you have at least two copies of every photo. Don’t wait till you get back home. Remember Murphy’s Law.
I hope I have not been too lecturing in my recommendation for travel photography. This is really the essence in ten bullet points of how I approach my own travel photography. Just as with light; there is not right or wrong. We all have to find our own way. However, maybe some of these suggestions may facilitate some improvements for you while photographing on the road. As before mentioned, though, this is not magic, more than anything is it important that you bring your own curiosity and authenticity into the process.
I promised you a bonus point in the beginning:
● Be respectful and smile. This may go without saying, but I do know that many people find it hard for instance to approach people on the street to ask for a photo. A smile can do wonders. Moreover, if you treat people with respect as well; there is no telling how far an incidental encounter can go. You may just have found a friend for lifetime. Respect also goes to sending photos to people you promise to do so. Don’t just say you will send them images you have taken, but make sure you really do so.
How do you approach your travel photography – and do you have some indispensible tips you want to share?