Considerations for the travel photographer

MARCH, 2016
Part 1
What is travel photography / Planning your projects

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.

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.

I’m an Image Caption ready-to-use.

Photograph by Barnaby Jaco Skinner – Xin Jiang / China

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“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.”

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.

I’m Another Standard Image Caption.
Photograph by Lorem Ipsum via Unsplash
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