I’m teaching a photo workshop with Photo Quest Adventures on Easter Island, and we’re spending our first day exploring. Fighting jet lag and turning on the creative genes is the challenge of the day. Our goal is simple: produce a nice travel portfolio of our trip.
"Shoot the obvious iconic landmarks," I continue to tell Richard, "but always stay aware of your intuition and the subtle moments. And look for interesting light."
Almost every photographer takes travel images. From short weekend getaways to weeks abroad in exotic locations, photographers are snapping away during their travels. When we get home, we make friends and family suffer through agonizing slideshows showing us in front of every statue, building and vista—not good. True, you’ve taken some nice snapshots and recorded some good memories. These are fun scrapbook images you’ll cherish down the road.
How about keeping your slideshow audience on the edge of their seats with graphic, punchy images? Capturing dynamic travel images takes work and planning, but in the end, you create a strong mix of shots that not only records your travels, but also keeps your friends and family engrossed. Take your travel photography to the next level by trying some of these techniques.
RESEARCH THE LOCATION
To maximize your photo opportunities, research the destination you’re visiting before you leave home. What are the iconic landmarks, and when is the best time to photograph them? Since I often travel with my family, I get up early in the morning to photograph an area. The light is better, the streets are sleepy, and I’m not disrupting a family vacation for photography.
Are there any festivals? Road races? Farmer’s markets? I research my destination to find out what notable features are in the area. Why do people visit this location? International trips add a new layer of planning and organization to capture strong travel images. Language barriers and cultural differences may present unique challenges in "getting the shot." Be respectful, and ask for permission to photograph people. A simple gesture to your camera will tell someone you want to take their picture.
USE A GUIDE
On trips close to home, you can figure out logistics and locations on your own. But if you travel internationally, using a guide is the best thing you can do for your photography. Local guides know the language, locations and customs. They’re essential in getting you photo ops you’d never get on your own.
On my recent trip to Easter Island, our local Rapa Nui guide set up locals for us to photograph and showed us locations we never would have found on our own. He also knew which Moai locations photographed well at sunrise and which locations were better at sunset. If you don’t want to hire a guide for your entire trip, hire one for a day to get you oriented to an area.
Every trip I go on, I struggle with what to bring and what to leave behind. A lot depends on the trip. If I’m driving, I’ll bring everything I think I may need. If I’m flying, I’ll narrow down my camera gear significantly. If I’m doing a lot of walking on my trip, I’ll further streamline my gear.
My basic camera gear kit is two bodies, a 24-120mm lens, a 70-200mm lens, a 1.4x converter, one speedlight and one optical transmitter. I bring a lightweight Gitzo tripod with a Really Right Stuff ballhead and some speedlight accessories, including a Lastolite TriGrip reflector and a Rogue snoot. I can easily carry this in my Lowepro Vertex 200 AW backpack. I pack the reflector in the outside back pocket of my pack.
If I’m walking in a busy market, I’ll go with one body, a 24-120mm lens and my speedlight in my pocket or a photo vest. Being inconspicuous while shooting will allow you to get more intimate images.
SHOOT SKYLINES AT TWILIGHT
Cityscapes are a classic travel image and help orient the viewer to a location. While you can capture nice images during the day, I really like to shoot skylines at dawn or dusk. I find a location that gives a good view of the city skyline, which might be a rooftop bar, hotel room, city park or pier.
Since you’re shooting at twilight, use a tripod to get sharp images. Experiment with your white balance. I like to set my white balance at incandescent to turn the twilight sky to a deep purple color. You can shoot skylines after dark, but you lose detail and color in the sky.
RAIN IS GOOD
Isn’t it a bummer when you wait all year to go on an exotic photography trip, and it rains like there’s no tomorrow? This is exactly what happened to my photo group in Chile.
After Easter Island, we traveled to northern Chile and the Atacama Desert. Supposedly one of the driest deserts in the world, the Atacama had rain everyday we were there. But this was a good thing. Reflection pools popped up all over town, dramatic clouds and rainbows filled the sky, and dry creek beds turned into desert streams. These storms created some of the best photography situations I’ve ever had on a photo workshop.
We had one stormy sunset with vibrant orange light and lightning flashing nearby, which was one of the most spectacular storms I’ve seen. I even managed to capture a nearby lightning strike without a special trigger. Rain might alter your activities for the day, but it also provides unique photography situations.
OPTIMIZE THE LIGHT
When most people travel, they have a set schedule they must follow. You spend your morning shopping in the market, midday at the old church and late afternoon hiking in a park. And the next day, you’re on the bus heading to a new location. Obviously, you won’t hit every area in optimal light for photography.
Don’t be discouraged—just optimize the light. Find interesting light in your location. Look for filtered light through windows, shafts of sun in alleys, reflected light bouncing off bright walls and beaches. My philosophy is that there’s always something that photographs well in the light you’re given.
Midday sun? Try adding a sun star in your shot. Overcast clouds? Photograph locals and get no squinting or harsh shadows under hats. And if the light isn’t what you want, use a reflector, diffusion panel or flash to create the light you need.
We photographed local Rapa Nui at sunset on Easter Island on my Chile workshop. Once the sun set, the light went flat. Rather than end this amazing portrait session, we broke out our speedlights to add some edgy light to the portraits. Create your own photographic destiny using light!
DIAL UP YOUR ISO
High-ISO performance has changed the way I shoot, and it’s the best thing to happen for travel photographers. Remember the days of trying to photograph inside a building using ISO 100 film? And reading the sign at the entrance saying no tripods allowed? With today’s cameras, just dial up your ISO and shoot away.
I use a Nikon D3, and I can easily shoot at ISO 3200 and get publishable images. High ISO constantly allows me to capture images I would have missed in the past. On Easter Island,
there were stage performances at night, and the only way to capture a sharp image was shooting at a high ISO. Use your camera’s high ISO to your advantage when traveling.
TELL A STORY
Every photographer has a certain subject he or she likes to photograph. Some shooters focus on landscapes, while others photograph people. You photograph what you like. But remember that slideshow you plan to present to your photo club when you get back? You don’t want to show the same type of image over and over, or you’ll lose your audience. Instead, tell a story with your images to fully capture the essence of your travel destination.
I tell workshop students to capture all aspects of a location—the iconic landmarks, the people, wildlife, architecture, food, culture and commerce. You may never have taken a food picture in your life, but on your next trip, give it a try.
Capturing a cross section of everyday life in your location paints a vivid picture for your audience. And remember to use your photographic skills when creating your images. Choose the proper aperture and shutter speed, and create interesting compositions.
GET WAY DOWN
No, I’m not talking about letting loose at the local disco (although this could be fun), but instead finding a fresh perspective to catch the viewer’s attention.
The downpours we had in the Atacama created pools of standing water all over the desert floor. At Laguna Cejar, we found shallow ponds reflecting puffy white cumulus clouds in the sky. At first, the group took the image standing up, but we soon realized the lower we got to the ground, the more clouds were reflected in the pools. Getting low to the ground created a much better image with a fresh perspective.
Go low, or go high, but look for fresh perspectives in your images. What angle has never been photographed at your location? How about an aerial shot?
USE A FIGURE IN THE LANDSCAPE
I love to create pristine landscape images of wild places and always seek out these shots during my travels. On my recent trip to the Atacama Desert, landscape images were abundant. After shooting dramatic storm scenes over the Valle de la Luna, I realized adding a person to the image would help the shot. The rugged landscape was so vast that it was hard to get a sense of scale without any people in the image. I took another image of the desert with a hiker watching the sunset from the canyon rim. By adding a person in the image, the massive scale of the landscape was better illustrated.
WATCH FOR EMOTION
People respond to emotion. Imagine a child’s face when they get an ice cream cone—you smile just thinking about it. Or imagine how determined a runner is during a race. Viewers empathize with subjects showing emotion, and images capturing emotion catch our attention. Capturing emotion isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the extra effort.
DON’T BE SHY
I’ll admit I sulk away from some images during my travels. I’ll see an interesting person to photograph on the street, but just convince myself they wouldn’t like their picture taken. The next moment a friendly workshop participant goes up and talks with the same person, and winds up taking some of the best images on the trip!
You may get turned down by some subjects, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask. If I have time, I like to chat with a person before I bring out my camera; everyone feels more comfortable this way. If you’re limited on time, ask or gesture to take someone’s picture, and if they say no, then just walk away. More often than not, people don’t mind having their picture taken.
LOOK FOR SIGNS
Photographing local signs accomplishes two things. First, it helps you remember details and facts about the place you’re photographing. I photographed a lot of Moai statues on Easter Island, and many sites had signs describing the significance of the location. This helped me later with my captioning and remembering which Moai site it was. Second, sign photographs help viewers learn more about the area by literally telling them with words where they are and what’s happening.
Travel photography is one of my favorite subjects. New sights, sounds and smells put your creativity into overdrive, and most photographers go wild shooting when they first arrive at a new location. Just remember to settle down, follow these tips and create a stunning portfolio of images. Get ready to knock your audience out of their seats at your next slideshow!
Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. Visit www.tombolphoto.com.