Considerations for the Travel Photographer – Part 1 of 10

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Photographers of all ages and levels can find it hard to progress and develop their travel imagery, and for those just starting out, there’s a Google-shaped minefield of information out there just waiting to confound and confuse. How do you progress past that album of random snaps? What subject matter should you shoot? What gear should you take? How do you showcase your work? Is there really any point?

The list goes on.

I get asked this a lot by my students, so to help out I’ve put together a list of simple considerations and suggestions that should help motivate budding travel photographers, holiday makers and honeymooners step-up their game when preparing and shooting abroad. The list is split into ten journal entries that will cover some of the following topics, and will be published between December 2015 and August 2016, just in time for the summer holidays. This entry is part 1, you can subscribe here to keep up with the rest by email, or alternatively subscribe to my Facebook page, where I’ll be posting links to new journal entries as I go:

  • Part 1 – What is travel photography / Planning your projects
  • Part 2 – Assembling & using your gear / Practice techniques
  • Part 3 – Before the trip – a word of warning
  • Part 4 – The trip – getting there
  • Part 5 – The shooting schedule
  • Part 6 – Candid shooting as you travel
  • Part 7 – Constructed shooting as you travel
  • Part 8 – Off the beaten track – where original travel photography is born
  • Part 9 – Organise and process your images on-the-run
  • Part 10 – The portfolio

This series will read like a how-to in some respects, offering a baseline to work from for those who need a push in the right direction. It is not an exhaustive and ‘set-in-stone’ ruleset, more so it’s a set of guidelines to help you think about what you might shoot, how you might shoot it, and finally why and how you might present the images. I’d imagine, however, you already have a fairly solid understanding of day-to-day camera use, that you’re interested in capturing more than just a random set of holiday snaps, and that you have a trip planned on the horizon and want to make the most of it photographically. If so, this series of journal entries is for you. Just remember that nothing worth doing in life is easy, especially building a strong portfolio, so you’re going to have to do a little learning and practise, practise, practise! But, it will be worth it, that I can guarantee. Please do note, this series does not discuss photographic technique in detail, as I’m assuming you can work your camera, and that you know the difference between classic landscape, portrait, reportage, macro, and so on. What I’m doing here is helping you to organise your thoughts, your planning, and your shooting, in order to construct a schedule on your trip that results in a strong portfolio.

Capturing a strong and emotive travel portfolio isn’t rocket science, but it does require careful planning, good organisational skills, and a fair amount of courage. The devil is in the detail, so read on and start planning your next adventure.

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Traveling the Karakorum highway from Kashgar to Tashkurgan. Hanging out the window of our rental car, we chased this scene for a few minutes, unable to catch up I had to shoot and hope for the best. The reflection of the driver’s face in the mirror makes all the difference to this majestic scene. Shot with a Nikon D700 & Nikkor 80-200 f2.8, traveling at about 70mph, praying to god I don’t fall out the window!

What does ‘travel photography’ generally mean to us?

In the early days of travel photography, ‘strong’ travel images in popular magazines traditionally focused on the geographic aspect of travel; landscapes, people in landscapes, animals in landscapes, and the weather shaping the landscapes all got snapped to death from, what we might now consider, pretty standard (but solid) angles. Thankfully some of the more progressive and artistic photographers ventured to supplement these standard shots by exploring deep into foreign locales, investigating and shooting social complexities, cultural contrasts, and the day-to-day life of those alien lands. Travel photography was evolving.

Today the professional travel photographer is expected to dig deep into both their photographic and ethnographic skillset to describe the very essence of a destination, to extract not just the geographic wonders, but to illustrate a reason for existence in these contrasting cultures. They endeavour to find new and interesting angles of over-shot destinations for stock footage, to seek out new locales to pitch to magazines, and to shoot events and sensitive issues as supplementary, or core, focus for articles, books and exhibitions. Truth be told, a few landscapes and portraits (albeit strong ones) will never do this justice. You don’t need to be a professional to take professional looking images, but you do need to think like one. Great travel portfolios are about telling stories, and it’s your job to find them.

Some good advice I once heard was to stop thinking that Travel equals landscape, if you continue to presume that your photos must be landscapes of the environment then you will never progress into the depths of a locale, and your portfolios will never evolve. Try following this basic rule to begin with if you’re just starting out; if you visit a city, say Beijing, where there is an obvious passion for using Segways (those two-wheeled motorised gyroscopic bikes), it’s fair to say that’s an important part of the current culture and an intrinsic character of that locale, and, therefore, could be captured as part of your travel projects. As a travel photographer, you should be committed to capturing the heart of the destination, not creating it.

Let’s move a little further south, and we stand amongst the rice terraces of southern China. Well, there are no Segways here, instead, we see endless lush green rice terraces dotted with little colourful hats, so we shoot the terraces. We also want to get up close and personal with the hats, and that can take courage. Try to understand that the first part of your job is to take home the obvious flavour of a destination, so you shoot the obvious in unique ways to keep your images fresh. Once you’ve shot the obvious, start looking for the hidden contrasts, the parts of the locale that are not so obvious to the tourist. Give the viewer something they expect, in the manner they might expect it, and then something they don’t expect, from an angle that makes them lean closer. Contrast works really well in travel photography. A word of warning here; a strong portfolio can be many things, but generally some kind of common theme helps to bind the images together, so whilst we might want to go wild and shoot like a crazed lunatic, some conservatism helps when planning your projects. More on this shortly.

In case you’re thinking ‘gah, I want to shoot like a professional, but really, I just have one camera and two lenses’, don’t worry, we’ve all been there. So what if you’re not a ‘professional’ travel photographer? Who cares!! The key is to learn, think, and shoot with a purpose, with the gear that will offer you the most choice. That’s it. To be honest, there aren’t many professionals left these days, with the rise of the internet it’s now easier than ever for magazines and newspapers to access fantastic images for articles and books straight from The Cloud. While that’s bad news for me, it’s great news for you, as it means you can follow the same paths and shoot the same subject to the same high standard as the professionals, and you might even make some money as you go. You may, however, greatly benefit from upgrading a few key pieces of gear before you head out, and we’ll cover this in the next post.

Yes, you can do it too.

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Mount Muztaghata reflecting off Lake Karakul in the early morning light. Reflections can turn something rather boring into a something rather interesting! Shot with a Nikon D4 & Nikkor 14-28 f2.8, travel tripod, 5 shots and merged with a little HDR toning using PS, Photomatix & Alien Skin.
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A Cambodian farmer with two cows grazing in the heavy summer rain. A combination of luck and experience got this one. Traveling around the outskirts of Siem Reap helped to avoid the tourists, but shooting in the monsoon season is not ideal unless you have a professional camera body and lens to help keep the moisture out. Luckily I did. We hid from the relentless rain in a hired Tuk-Tuk and ambled around the saturated green landscape looking for iconic images, or, at least, something interesting to capture. Just when I thought I couldn’t get any wetter, this composition appeared from behind torrents of water, but traveling along the pock-marked Cambodia country paths is not conducive to capturing sharp images. Your best bet here is to ramp up the ISO, open up the aperture, steady against anything vaguely solid, and shoot until your camera buffer runs out! Yes, it would have been nice to have stopped, jumped out, set up shop, composed for half and hour, and finally shot one image, and I know some of you would have done just that. But travel photography, to me, is about capturing moments, not creating them, and spending one hour shooting one image, for me, isn’t time efficient, and I’ll miss other shots in the process. So instead, sometimes I choose to use and abuse the functions of a digital camera to get the shot, no drama, it’s one of the reasons we moved to digital in the first place!
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A lone skateboarder practices in the shadow of the Karlskirche. Travel photography isn’t just about landscapes. Your job is to bring back an authentic slice of the destination for others to see, ideally from an unbiased perspective, so you’ll need to use your entire skillset to faithfully capture the portfolio. Sure, if you like shooting landscapes go for it, shoot as many as you like, but don’t ignore life in motion all around you. Travel photography is about representing factual (and often inspiring and amazing) aspects of an exotic location, capturing subject matter that represents an authentic slice of life. Invariably this means skilling-up on additional photographic genres, such as portraits and reportage, to cover the project thoroughly. No number of landscapes will do this justice, ever. Deal with it, and move on.

Planning a photographic project for your trip

Research, imagination, planning.

It’s essential to plan a few projects ahead of time, I cannot emphasize this enough.

Once you’ve chosen your destination, it’s time to read up on the culture, history, religion, core population centres, areas of interest and annual events that might be occurring as you travel. Now is the time to do your research and see what’s out there, you don’t want to miss something you’ll later regret.

So let’s say we’re heading off to Japan for a month, do we shoot randomly for a few weeks and hope we pick up some good shots? We could, and you probably have in the past, but the result will look just that; random. Instead, using the method below, we’re going to shoot three projects each containing 8 to 12 images. Okay, so it doesn’t sound much, especially for a month’s shooting in Japan, and you may shoot thousands during the trip, but the key is to whittle all of those images down until you have the strongest for each project. I guarantee you that 8 to 12 strong images look immeasurably better than 30 weak ones.

So think about the type of photographic subject matter you’re interested in; people, architecture, geography, cuisine, weather, static objects, leading lines, certain shape or colour… you get the idea. Pick three that interest you.

And now think about the photographic styles you could shoot with; landscape, portrait, black and white, macro, high dynamic range, flash-based, night-time, filtered, long-shutter, fast-shutter, panoramic, Lomography, and all the rest. Pick three that interest you.

A few hours thinking and we’ve created some projects to explore further; these will form the backbone of your photography during the trip. Maybe you’ve chosen to shoot modern panoramic urban landscapes in black and white, or to use Lomography at an annual festival focusing on performers, or, and I like this one, exploring a country for all the different types of foods being prepared and enjoyed, and you’ll shoot both wide and macro to get some really diverse images. It doesn’t matter what you choose, just choose something. There is no right or wrong here, that’s the great thing about this method, the more options you choose from, the more diverse your projects will be, and that’s a good thing.

PRO TIP: what are you interested in? I guarantee if you shoot projects you’re interested in you will find stronger images. I love shooting urban sports and motorbikes for pleasure; I understand how a skateboard works, how a BMX follows a different line to a road bike, or how a Parkour jumper will land! Because of this I get in the right place at the right time and look for angles that emphasise the action. The images are therefore interesting, well composed and capture the essence of the subject. I’m not really interested in cars or football, so I wouldn’t know how to get anything other than the standard photograph. Sure, the image might be technically sound, but it would be a carbon copy of every other stock image out there, and that’s boring.”

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A young boy sits on a motorcycle, polishing the dusty fuel tank. His parents were selling small pieces of Jade they have fished out of the White Jade River, not interested in me or my camera. Hotan is a small desert town in western China and is quite the attraction for Chinese domestic tourism. Taking a photo of the Jade stall would have been obvious, and quite boring to be honest, so we looked around a bit, and found this perfectly composed scene of life in motion. It represents the same idea of a dusty Jade stall, capturing the daily toil of local people trying to make a living in a desolate and, quite frankly, bleak part of China, but just captures it from a slightly more attractive, and unusual, angle. Great travel photography is all about looking for unusual and emotive moments that portray the raw nature of a locale, so the more you explore, the more chance you have of finding them!
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Following on from above, here we see another young boy, a little older this time, pulling his fishing boat to anchor in a small beach harbour off the Cambodian coast. Again, his parents were just off frame, standing at the end of the boat fixing fishing nets. But this particular moment wasn’t about them, it was about the effort the boy was using to pull the heavy boat with his bare hands and feet, a struggle that he deals with every day, I found out after revisiting the village over the course of a month. The angle of the image further infers that struggle and aims to pull the viewer deeper into the scene. In another shot, we might have looked to capture the contrast between the laid back parents and the stressed child.
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In a city of stark contrasts, Phnom Phen offers the travel photographer a varied set of locales to explore. We often see shots of Jungle and stone, fishing boats and monkeys, the ubiquitous robbed monk or the blatant prostitution. It all makes for solid subject matter no travel photographer would miss, but delve deeper into the undergrowth and you can start to see behind the scenes, capturing unique and emotive moments of ‘downtime’ which were never intended for tourists to see.

PRO TIP: Common themes. I like to think big and shoot photos of common themes as I travel; food, trade, interlocking shape, contrasting colours, and so on. These collections grow the more I explore. What does a street vendor look like in China compared to America? Use your long-term projects to compare and contrast the world around you. You might shoot a few images for a project on one trip and not exhibit them for another few years until you have collected more, but that’s fine, these images aren’t time specific, they are part of a project that explores contrasts, or similarities, in the subject matter.”

PRO TIP: Before your trip, decide on a file format, file size, the eventual medium for display and don’t deviate. This is immeasurably helpful when you arrive back home and start post-production, printing and social media warfare. I use RAW as a file format with no in camera anything, the largest file size my camera offers, and I always plan to use my images for print, exhibition, and online use. I don’t shoot in JPG, I don’t use in-camera cropped modes, and I don’t use less that the largest file size. For me, this keeps things simple, and I know what I’m working with.”

RECAP

In this first post of the series, we have briefly looked at what travel photography is, what we could be looking for when shooting, and why we might look for it. We have also planned at least two projects for our trip that will help to motivate us when shooting. With that in mind, next we need to make sure we have the right gear to shoot with. In my next journal entry, I’ll be talking about what gear we might need to survive as a travel photographer, and what key items I couldn’t live without. I’ll also talk about the practical techniques I use to make sure I’m getting the most out of my gear.

MORE COMING SOON – Scheduled post releases building up to your summer holidays!

  • Part 1 – What is travel photography / Planning your projects
  • Part 2 – Assembling & using your gear / Practice techniques
  • Part 3 – Before the trip – a word of warning
  • Part 4 – The trip – Getting there
  • Part 5 – The Shooting Schedule
  • Part 6 – Candid shooting as you travel
  • Part 7 – Constructed shooting as you travel
  • Part 8 – Off the beaten track – where original travel photography is born
  • Part 9 – Organise and process your images on-the-run
  • Part 10 – The Portfolio