If you want to return home with a great travel portfolio, you need to break out of the tourist mentality and move beyond typical snapshots of postcard locations. Award-winning travel photographer Nevada Wier shares her top techniques to create photographs that are not only visually engaging, but reveal a more personal connection with the people and cultures you’re encountering.
1. Clap: Color, Lights, Action, Pattern
(And A Complete Gesture)
You have four possibilities to capture a good color photograph: the possibility of great light, color, action (large or small) or an intriguing pattern (or impeccable composition). It isn’t necessary to have all four of these elements in a compelling image, but you need at least two of them. The image of a boatman, made at the incomparable Inle Lake in Myanmar, is primarily about light (which can sometimes create lovely color) and a careful composition. The boatman and his reflection are placed very deliberately in the lower-right quadrant of the frame. The gesture of lifting the net and the moment when his legs separated are also important. A gesture has to be complete and recognizable.
2. Create An Image Because Of The Contrast, Not Despite It
Our eyes have remarkable dynamic range; we can see detail in highlights and also in the shadows. In photo-speak, that’s about 16 to 24 stops of light. A digital sensor is visibly impaired—they can only render about half to two-thirds of that. So, unless you’re photographing in low-contrast light, such as on a cloudy day or in the shade, you can’t photograph exactly what you see. I’ve trained myself to “see” like my sensor and the optical perspective of whatever lens I’m using.
Color is very seductive and begs to be used effectively in an image. I see a possible image as a skeleton of light with a veneer of color. When I’m in high-contrast light, I look carefully not only at the light, but also at the shadows the light is creating.
In high-contrast light, I have to make an image that works because of the contrast, not despite it. In the image of a lone girl gathering water at a well, I embraced the extreme highlights and shadows by photographing toward the sun, thus turning her into a silhouette. In addition, the light reflecting on the river water behind her was so bright that it created a halo of tiny stars of refracted light rimming her entire body. I love the way the foot is slightly lifted, how she’s looking down and the light reflecting through the yellow jugs.
3. Move And Frame—Everything In Your Frame Has To Matter
I first started working as a professional photographer in the age of transparency film. Not only did the exposure have to be spot on, but also the framing had to be impeccable. I couldn’t say to a magazine photo editor, “You have to crop here.” I wouldn’t have gotten another assignment. I learned to zoom with my feet and make everything in the frame matter.
In the world of digital photography where everything is possible in post-processing, I still keep this simple philosophy. Sometimes moving an inch can make the difference between having an image that works and one that doesn’t. I zoom with my feet.
In this image of a woman in Trinidad, Cuba, I moved close to her, photographing from a slightly low and deliberately cocked angle so that her head was framed exactly in the doorway. The last thing I did before I clicked the shutter was to move my eye around the viewfinder to ensure that her arm had a bit of space on the left side and that neither the doorway nor her head were cut off on the top. Not all viewfinders show you 100% of the frame; some may show only 90% to 95%. If you aren’t sure, check in the specifications section of your camera manual.
4. Use Slow Shutter Speeds
As a traveling photographer, I have to photograph at all times of the day, no matter the weather. The first question I always ask myself when I see a potential image is, “What’s the problem?” Often, problems lead me to a more interesting image because I have to think creatively and go beyond my first inclination.
I was at a dance at high noon in tropical India. There were a lot of problems here: The sun was harsh, the dancers were under a tree going in and out of shade, and there were numerous onlookers and bushes that cluttered the background.
I moved to the shade under a big tree in order to have a slower shutter speed of 1/15th of a second and waited for the dancers. Then I realized that I had a Singh-Ray Variable Neutral-Density filter that could stop down anywhere between 1 to 8 stops. I was able to try lots of different slow shutter speeds while panning the dancers when they passed by me.
I also used a bright f lash (probably -1 EV) in order to punch up the color and assure sharpness. If I didn’t use the f lash, the legs would ghost out at very slow shutter speeds since they were moving faster than the torsos. A 1/4 of a second shutter speed blurred out the distracting background of people, bushes and high-contrast light. The f lash illuminated the legs and torsos, and gave a burst of sharpness within the movement, as well as intensified the color. This is why mastery of your equipment is so important, and why you should practice with your gear before you embark on travel photography.
5. Inertia—There’s Always A Good Reason Not To Photograph
Trust me, I know every reason why the mind tries to trick one out of photographing. The light isn’t right. This person will want me to pay him. It’s raining. It’s cold. The clouds are coming, so there won’t be a sunset. It’s too dark. I need a tripod. On and on, the list is endless.
There’s always a seemingly good reason not to photograph. I call this inertia. It’s an insidious enemy. Personally, I hate to get up in the predawn darkness, but when I’m traveling and photographing, I do. Not only is there a possibility of lovely sunrise light, but also it’s when the world is waking up on the streets, in villages or at festivals.
I’ve been numerous times to the fascinating Pushkar Camel Fair. I love the early-morning scenes as people emerge from bedrolls on the sand to cook their breakfast. However, the light doesn’t last long, so you have to be there in the dark and work quickly as the dawn emerges.
Plus, you have to be willing to approach people. Don’t assume you know what someone is thinking. Ask them either verbally—if you can or have a translator—or nonverbally. I don’t mind if someone says no, but I’m not going to assume that they will. It’s my experience that 90% of the world doesn’t mind being photographed; it’s up to me to extend myself and create an atmosphere of respect and sincerity.
6. Choreographing An Environmental Portrait
I really like environmental portraits—where the background is equally as important as the person. When I meet someone that I find interesting and has agreed to be photographed, I immediately start looking around for a good background. I have to be an instant art director. This might mean asking if I can go in their house or scanning the surrounding area for a great location.
In Guizhou, China, at a Four Seal Miao minority village, I met a lovely young woman who was in her native dress. She agreed to be photographed, so I motioned for her to wait as I ran around the immediate village area and found this interesting front door surrounded by birdcages.
I went back and invited the young woman to follow me. When the owner of the house came out, I nonverbally asked if it was okay, and she nodded. I placed the young woman in front of the door and gestured for her to hold out her skirt. I put on a wide-angle lens and went slightly to the side so I could have her on the right side and the birdcages on the left. The chickens were a bonus that filled up the empty space on the left bottom.
7. Use Selective Focus And A Shallow Depth of Field
It’s not enough to have an interesting subject. It’s our mission as photographers to make an interesting image of an interesting subject. We can do more than just click a literal photo; we can photograph what we imagine and how we feel.
We can use a wide-angle lens to exaggerate whatever is closest to the camera or a telephoto to compress a scene. We can decide to make everything in focus if we have enough light or a tripod. Conversely, we can choose to use a shallow depth of field and concentrate on just one element of the image, letting the rest go softly out of focus.
I was in Iceland in the early spring during a massive snowstorm. I was photographing inside a huge barn where a woman was training one of her horses. She agreed to go out in the snow while I photographed comfortably from the doorway of her barn. After a minute of photographing the predictable image with the horse in focus, I decided to think differently and try a different approach. I went to an ƒ/2.8 aperture. It was easiest to use manual focus in order to focus on the snow in front of her—that way the falling snow was sharp, but she and the horse were slightly out of focus.
I always like to experiment and exercise my creative muscles. I’m interested in a snowflake image: a one-of-a-kind image. And literally, here, I was going for a snowflake snowflake image! Only one worked, but that’s enough.
8. Add Layers And Depth
There are basically two types of photographic images: simple ones and more complex ones. In a simple image, there’s usually one subject and a background. A more complex image involves layers of objects, people or activities. Each one could be a singular image, but together they create an intricate photograph. It’s definitely challenging to work with multiple subjects.
In southern India, I peeked inside a doorway and saw a group of garlic sorters. The harsh midday light streamed through the door, illuminating the windowless room. I began photographing the men sorting the garlic, making sure that I stayed out of their way. As they dragged the full bags toward the door, I moved around so I could include three layers: the foreground of the bags of garlic, the action of a man dragging one of the bags and, finally, a third layer of the other men sorting, plus the background of the room. The background doesn’t count as a layer, but it does set the stage.
I intentionally used a slightly slow shutter speed to give a sense of motion to the man pulling the heavy bag, but fast enough to stop the action of the men in the back sorting. I focused on the first layer of the bags because it was the brightest and the closest in the frame, and thus it would be the first thing one’s eye would see in the photograph. The complementary blue and yellow colors helped tie the image together.
9. Get Involved
To really have fun traveling, I learned not to stand on the sidelines and be a passive observer, but to come in close and get involved. Being an active participant and embracing a culture can lead to more intimate images. Of course, some cultures are easier to photograph than others, and I certainly don’t expect the world to sit up and say “cheese” for me just because I have a camera. I have to earn the right to photograph someone, be open to new experiences and come in close.
I was at a festival in Guizhou, China, and a group of women beckoned me to join them at their table. Of course I accepted. I put on my wide-angle lens and, between bites of the hot pot meal and sipping a strong drink, I photographed the women as they were toasting and eating. It was great fun, and made for more intimate and relaxed images.
10. Learn How To Handhold Your Camera In Low Light
I rarely walk around with a tripod unless I know I’ll absolutely need it. However, I often find myself photographing in very low light inside homes or after the sun has gone down. I’ve learned a number of techniques for holding my camera steady.
I put my shutter on Continuous High for a rapid burst of frames. Then, in addition to holding my camera steady with a hand under the camera and the lens, I tuck my upper arms and elbows firmly into my body, with my knees slightly bent. I focus very carefully, then take a deep breath, let it out and rip off at least five frames.
The first couple of frames, you might be moving the camera a bit, but the middle frame has a good chance of being steady. By the fourth or fifth, you’re probably moving the camera again by taking your finger off the shutter. I repeat the process a number of times. For this scene, I also braced against a doorway since I was at the highest ISO I was willing to use, and ƒ/1.4 was as far as I could go with my lens. I focused very carefully on the woman next to the fire and snapped a lot of frames to be sure one would be sharp.
Nevada Wier is a multiple award-winning photographer specializing in the remote corners of the globe and the cultures that inhabit them. Her journeys have taken her crisscrossing the globe in search of compelling travel experiences and images. To see more of her work or get information about her workshops and lectures, visit nevadawier.com.