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.