Beautiful landscapes and townscapes, as well as powerful environmental portraits and photo essays, can be obtained by anyone with a camera, a concept and the desire to do so. But how does one transcend the “I was here” imagery that’s often associated with travel photography and create fine-art images of places near and far?
From the dozens of workshops I’ve taught on the subject, as well as talking with—and carefully studying the work of—many of the great globetrotting lensmen and lenswomen in the field, I’ve developed a methodology that, when applied, should yield impressive and, at times, spectacular results.
I see a common failing with many beginning travel photographers. They’re so focused on the fascinating subjects before them that they forget about the basic rules of composition that make for a great photo. Look at the whole frame and use the space effectively. Ask yourself, If I were painting this scene, what would I include? What would I exclude? Treat the camera sensor you’re about to expose as your canvas. Thinking in these terms can take you to an elevated space creatively.
DEPTH OF FIELD
I often shoot in aperture-priority mode so I can be acutely aware of what I’ll have in focus. You can lead the viewer through your image by careful control of the ƒ-stop. Shooting with a minimal depth of field can be dramatic for close-up portraits, whereas a maximum depth of field can create its own unique perspectives, especially for dramatic architectural shots.
It’s important to remember that when you look through an SLR camera, you’re seeing the lens at its widest aperture, which translates as its shallowest depth of field. This lets in the maximum amount of light to provide a bright viewfinder image and allow for easy focus. But when you depress the shutter, and the lens goes to the selected ƒ-stop, those palm trees that were soft in the distance suddenly appear to be growing out of the heads of your subjects like antennas. Most cameras have depth-of-field preview buttons to see what your stopped-down lens will render in focus, but with enough practice and awareness, that knowledge will become second nature.
TIME OF DAY
Early morning and late afternoon have always been the favorite times for professional photographers to shoot. It’s not just the warm Kelvin temperatures that create an inviting mood. It’s also the experience of documenting a town coming to life or transitioning to the night. Shadows from an angle are more pleasing on the eye than the harsh light of midday.
The middle hours of the day are a great time to photograph people in open shade or to explore museums and other interior locations that may benefit from stronger midday light flooding through windows and skylights.
TO FLASH OR NOT TO FLASH
When traveling, especially in group situations, it’s not always possible to be at the right place at the right time in terms of ideal ambient light. The use of a flash can reduce or eliminate harsh shadows under the eyes, often referred to as “raccoon eyes.” I usually have a slight warming gel over my flash head in the morning or afternoon to create a correct color balance. Most flashes fire at a cooler, i.e., bluer, color temperature than the prevailing ambient light.
Also, I often hold my flash at arm’s length, off the camera, and trigger it with a cord or a remote flash system. This further helps to create a more natural and realistic scene by making the shadows drop down behind the subject. At night, this technique can be used to replicate the light created by a dangling light bulb. Additional flashes can be added and triggered remotely for all types of creative possibilities.
SHOOTING CONTRE JOUR
Rather than saying backlit, I like the French expression contre-jour, which translates as “against the day.” Shooting with the sun behind the subject eliminates harsh shadows and keeps people from squinting. In-camera meters can get thrown off by contre-jour situations and underexpose the scene, so it’s important to know how to utilize the camera’s exposure lock controls.
This technique requires a lens shade and at times a hand to help block the direct light hitting the lens. Without a shade, a lens flare can occur or, at the very least, a flattening or dulling of the colors in the scene will result. I’ve begged students for years to use this simple piece of plastic or rubber. Why take an expensive piece of glass and reduce it down to the quality of a throwaway camera?
Natural frames can create a 3-D feel in our 2-D medium. Architectural elements and flora, in particular, can be utilized in the foreground to lead the viewer into a given scene.
Creative silhouettes can be created at any time of day by finding a camera position that puts the subject against a bright background and adjusting the exposure controls. It’s vital to have a strong contrast between the background and the object or subject you’re trying to silhouette.
Portraits of people in their environment, whether it’s a sheepherder with his flock or an artist in her atelier, add an important human element to any travel story. Pros tend to use medium to wider lenses for environmental portraiture, with the goal of creating an image that transmits emotional content and engagement with their subject.
When doing this type of photograph, I direct the person to achieve the best angle (for example, move left, right, back, forward, etc.) and to make sure that the elements of his or her environment that I want to include aren’t being blocked or too out of focus to be recognizable. I talk to the person as a dentist talks to his or her patients; in other words, saying things that can be acknowledged without the need to verbally respond past a simple grunt. Engaging in an active conversation with your subject should be done before or after a photo shoot—not during—unless you want the person to be caught in all sorts of awkward mouth positions. It’s better to share a quiet human moment one on one and let the camera peer into the window of his or her soul.
The legendary LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was asked after returning from an assignment in Paris what he did in the City of Lights at night. Eisenstaedt response was “Expose longer.”
Of course, Eisenstaedt was right on w
ith the answer, photographically speaking. Many cities thrive at night and bring a completely different dimension to the travel experience. For cityscapes and architecture, use a low ISO, lock down the camera on a sturdy tripod, lock up the mirror and use a cable release. This is especially important on exposures between 1?15 of a second to one or two seconds when the mirror on an SLR hasn’t had the time to settle down and will cause camera shake.
When photographing people in low light or nighttime situations, I use either a flash or a higher ISO with “fast” lenses. All my lenses, including zooms, are able to open to at least an ƒ/2.8 aperture. This allows for shooting in low-light situations without the need to go to such a high ISO that the resulting image is full of noise.
Shooting without flash is often required when photographing shows and in museums. A lot of work often goes into the lighting of these venues, and the use of fast lenses can capture the feeling of what the person in charge of lighting was trying to create.
Detail shots using a macro lens or close-up filters can bring you up close and personal with a whole other world. A simple set of close-up filters can be carried in the camera bag. I carry a couple of setup and step-down rings so I can use one set with a variety of diopters with any lens.
THE TRAVEL PHOTO ESSAY
Creating pictures that tell a story has been the mainstay of travel magazines since their inception. Travel editors have a mantra that must be taken to heart before approaching a publication with an idea: “A location is not a story.” Look for stories that give the viewer an inside look into a culture by focusing on a person, a ritual, an aspect of history—the list is endless.
The best photo essays often are those that come from a personal interest, so search “inside” before you go outside looking for ideas. Even if you’re not pitching an article, thinking in this way will make your personal slideshows much more compelling for your viewers.
To make sure your once-in-a-lifetime travel shots are the best they can be, you’ll want to use a tripod when possible. It’s especially important for night and low-light exposures. Lightweight carbon-fiber models like the SLIK Pro 714 CF-II are a great choice for travelers. The Pro 714 CF-II folds down to just 18.1 inches long, making it easy to pack and carry. Twist-Lock leg locks are durable, comfortable to use and help make the tripod quick on the draw. Estimated Street Price: $269. Contact: THK Photo Products, www.thkphoto.com.
Your work isn’t complete until the images from the trip are put in a form that you and others can appreciate. For me, the ultimate expression is a printed book. In recent years, a number of companies have made it both feasible and affordable to produce personal photography books of high quality in a short amount of time. These books can act as a portfolio piece or just a great way to share your experiences with others.
In addition to numerous editorial and commercial assignments, Mark Edward Harris’ books include Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work, The Way of the Japanese Bath, Wanderlust, Inside North Korea and Inside Iran. The recipient of a number of awards, Harris teaches travel photography workshops at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops, the Mentor Series, Art Center School of Design and Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. For more information, visit his website at www.markedwardharris.com.