Planning on travelling soon and need some practical advice? Geoff Harris shares ten tips to help you get excellent photographs wherever you choose to go.
The beauty of travel photography is that it encompasses so many different styles and approaches – portraiture, landscapes, wildlife, architecture, even documentary photography. Most people have been on holiday with a camera, but that doesn’t make them travel photographers – so what is good travel photography? Good travel images are usually well composed, well exposed and go much further than the average snap in capturing the flavour of a place. Good travel images tell a story. They’re interesting to people beyond your immediate circle, and who’ve never even been to the places you’ve photographed. Here are ten practical tips for getting memorable shots from your travels.
Even if you book a trip at the absolute last minute, you should do a bit of research on the best places to photograph in your destination(s). With the internet, you don’t even have to buy guide books any more. Simply do a Google Image search of where you are going and you’ll be hit by a barrage of photographic inspiration. Be ambitious with your photographic itinerary, but realistic; if you’re planning a 40km taxi drive a to a temple, make sure you time it right so you don’t spend the whole morning stuck in traffic. If you have longer in a more exotic destination, it’s often worth booking a photographic guide to make things easier and find interesting subjects. Contact them directly via websites or social media or visit travel photography forums and get some recommendations.
2. Pack carefully
It’s very tempting to take everything but the kitchen sink on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but don’t overpack. At the very least, you need a compact with a decent zoom lens, or a Compact System Camera or DSLR. If you can change lenses, try to take a standard wide-to-telephoto zoom (eg 24-70mm), a 50mm or 85mm fixed-length ‘prime’ lens with a wide aperture, and, if space permits, a longer zoom, such as a 70-200mm lens. Try to include a lightweight travel tripod (carbon fibre is ideal) and a cable release for night and long-exposure shots too, and possibly a couple of filters. You may also choose to take a flashgun but this is arguably less important. The crucial thing is to try and fit everything into a comfortable shoulder bag or rucksack that you can take into a plane’s cabin, rather than taking the risk of checking it in. Spare batteries and spacious memory cards are essential too.
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3. Get acclimatised
Once you’ve arrived, spend some time just wandering around and getting your bearings. If you’re itching to take some photos, markets are a good place to start, particularly in more exotic locations such as the Far East. Stall-holders want your custom, so they are often fine about being photographed (it’s polite to buy something small in return), and you will find lots of distinctive colour, sights and smells. Remember, shooting small details of a place, or the local produce, can capture its essence as well as any shot of a famous tourist spot. Be sensitive to local customs (hopefully you did some research in advance) and respect religious sensibilities. Take a break if you get hot and thirsty at a local cafe; often you can get great images just watching the world go by.
4. Chase the light
Good light is key to all good photography, travel included. Getting up early to catch the best light is really worth it, and it can free you to work on your photos while family and friends are asleep and crowds are light. Failing that, the last hour before sunset is another great time. Use a free app such as The Photographers Ephemeris to find the exact times of sunrise and sunset, or just work out where the sun will be in relation to iconic buildings you want to photograph. The problem with shooting in the middle of the day in hot, sunny countries is that very harsh shadows can spoil your shots. Dusk and night-time are also great times to experiment with longer shutter speeds to capture traffic trails, or try creative flash effects such as rear-curtain sync.
5. Compose cleanly
All good travel photographers develop an almost Zen-like patience. Rather than racing around trying to photograph every temple in Bangkok, it’s often better to concentrate on the most interesting and photogenic ones and put in the time there, returning at quieter times if necessary. Good, clean composition is really important so be paranoid about messy backgrounds that distract from the main subject, or clutter in the foreground. Think carefully about what you have allowed into the frame before you press the shutter button, and if you have to wait five minutes for someone to get out of the way, so be it. Yes, it might cost you some time, but waiting is often much less frustrating than trying to remove unwanted elements from otherwise successful images in software.
6. Walk, walk and walk some more
Louis Montrose, a recent winner of Travel Photographer of the Year, said his best accessory was a pair of walking shoes. Even in thronged tourist hotspots you can often get interesting images just by exploring some of the nooks and crannies off the main thoroughfares. Travel photography is a process of discovery and revelation, but don’t expect great images to come right up to you. This striking image of a monk was taken at a side-temple at Angkor Wat, one of the most photographed places in Asia. It was the result of going off the beaten track and politely interacting with the subject, leading to an invite to a hidden temple that few tourists get to see. If you can get this kind of shot at a hotspot like Angkor, you can get it anywhere!
7. Think like a portrait photographer
When you look at the work of geniuses like Steve McCurry, you see that so much of great travel photography is also great portraiture. So, if somebody agrees to have their photo taken, remember the golden rules. A prime lens with a fixed wide aperture (say f/2.8), or a telephoto lens, is useful for blurring out the background while keeping your subject sharp. Focus on the eyes by moving the nearest autofocus point over them, or if that seems too complicated and fiddly, by setting face detection AF. Try to avoid poles or objects sticking out of their head and try to keep the background as clean and non-distracting as possible; again, blurring it out with a wide aperture helps here. Eye contact makes for more powerful portraits, but more ‘candid’ portraits work well too. If your subject is grinning and posing, just be patient and stick around; eventually they’ll forget you are there.
Into portraiture? Click here to learn how to shoot better portraits
8. Think about your settings in advance
The time to practice a more technically challenging creative technique – say panning, motion blur or capturing very fast action – is before you arrive at your location, rather than fumbling with your camera settings as something amazing is happening in front of you. Panning, where you freeze a vehicle while blurring out the background to give a sense of speed, is a great way to get memorable traffic shots, particularly with colourful tuk-tuks or rickshaws. Practicing panning at the side of your local roads will massively boost your success rate when you’re on holiday. Another good tip is to write down key settings for creative techniques on a piece of card and carry it in your wallet or camera bag. Don’t get flustered and race around; it’s better to come away with ten really great shots from one location than 50 mediocre ones from different places.
9. Don’t hide behind zoom lenses
To get interesting photos, put yourself in front of interesting things. The beauty of using short prime lenses that they force you to get closer to your subjects, and often the resulting interaction makes for much more interesting images. Prime lenses often have superior optical quality and wider fixed apertures, too. Yes, you might feel shy, but the worst that usually happens is that you get shooed away. Usually, though, if you are polite and respectful, people will agree to be photographed, and often really enjoy seeing the resulting images on your camera screen. Even seasoned travel photographers admit to feeling shy on the street, but their desire to get a good picture overrides their nerves. This is the state of mind to emulate, without ever being pushy or aggressive.
10. Go beyond the obvious
Again, using the Angkor Wat example, the obvious place from which to photograph is right in front of the temple towers on the main path. By all means have a go, but trying to keep other people out of the scene will be nigh on impossible. Even if you do get a clear shot, it’s a composition that’s been done to death. Why not be a bit more creative and wander around to find more interesting angles and perspectives? Maybe take a portrait shot of a local character with the temple in the background. It doesn’t matter is it’s Angkor, Big Ben or the Pyramids of Giza; there’s always a fresh perspective on an iconic building if you think creatively. Focusing on side temples and smaller details can often yield good shots too, as with this shot of the deity Vishnu at Angkor. Experiment with creative effects and black and white too.
About the Author
Geoff is a highly experienced photography journalist, and recently stepped down as editor of Digital Camera, the UK’s best-selling photography magazine. He now writes for a range of publications. Geoff is a keen travel and portrait photographer, and a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society.