I shot this incredible sunrise behind a church near Ljubliana, Slovenia.
Not long ago, I visited a friend who was ecstatic about his recent trip to Europe. Brimming with excitement, he grabbed his iPad and started quickly flipping through images. Now, I do want to point out that my friend isn’t a professional photographer. He’s just really enthusiastic about taking photographs. But as I curiously watched the first few images whiz past—busy street scenes slightly out of focus; a distant midday shot of boats in harbor; and an over-exposed moon in dark sky—I knew at some point I’d need to say something.
However, I decided not to be rude. I simply offered a little guidance on what images to take and how to create a stunning travel portfolio. And because I have photographed many editorial travel stories during my career, I have gotten sound advice from editors. So I’ve decided to pass along this travel photography guide to both my friend…and to you.
Before I begin, I’ll prove the No. 1 rule: Engage the viewer! Your viewers may never visit your location. So, a travel photographer must convey a sense of place, mood, emotion, taste and smell through captivating images.
In other words, snapshots just don’t cut it.
Now, below you’ll find my outline of subjects and techniques to help you photograph your next travel story…and engage the viewer! From simple family vacations to travel books, try these tips to creatively photograph your travel adventures.
Broaden Your Skill Set
One aspect I love about travel photography is the diversity of techniques needed to create a well-rounded image set.
On one assignment, I might be photographing snowshoeing, lodge interiors, blueberry cobbler and portraits in the same day. Not to mention spa treatments, horseback riding and stargazing. Travel photography is exciting and gives you a chance to explore new subject matter and photography styles.
Start With The Establishing Shot
The world is a small place, and we know a lot about other countries without having been there. For example, when I say “Paris,” most people think of the Eiffel Tower. Or, if I mention “China,” the Great Wall of China comes to mind.
Photographing iconic structures and characteristics of a location establishes where you are and gives the viewer a starting point. Often these subjects are clichés, at least in the sense that they have been photographed thousands of times.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the shot. But remember, cliché subjects require fresh perspectives, interesting light or different angles to show the viewer an iconic landmark in a new way. Make it your mission to photograph the Eiffel Tower unlike it ever has been photographed before.
People Are Important
A well-rounded travel portfolio needs portraits. That’s because people relate to people, and photographing different faces, customs, emotions, interactions, clothes and jewelry is powerful in conveying a sense of place.
But, of course, portraits can be a challenge for many photographers. Getting close to people and taking their photograph can be uncomfortable. Remember: Capturing that moment of trust and vulnerability between subject and photographer can turn into the cover shot for a travel book.
Approach people photography two ways:
- One approach is documentary style, where you are not interacting with your subject or changing their behavior. Photographing everyday people doing their normal routine can tell a lot about a culture.
- The other portrait style is interacting with your subject, even posing them for an image. These travel portraits are more intimate and reflect the subject/photographer connection.
Here’s a useful tip: Doorways are terrific spots to photograph locals. Often the interior is dark, so your subject will separate nicely from the background. Also, remember locals are “normal people,” not supermodels, so you need to help them relax for a portrait.
Covered shade (under an awning or tree) creates soft diffused light for beautiful portraits, and your subject doesn’t have to squint into the sun. I always bring a small white reflector to add fill light for portraits.
Yes. That’s what I said: Go shopping! But be sure to shoot photographs while shopping.
Open markets are a great location for photography. You can almost feel the energy and vibrancy of a city when you visit an early-morning market.
Local foods and crafts paint the picture of the culture, and you can almost taste the fresh olives in those quaint Tuscan markets.
Try some of the local flare, and photograph some street vendors. Think about what makes the market special. If you want to convey the frenetic pace, then try to slow shutter speeds to add some blur to the people walking in the alleys.
Experiment with depth of field and photograph baskets of food up close. I like to shoot wide open and have soft blurry backgrounds, which helps reduce clutter. Consider having a vendor hold some produce or a craft item for a portrait. Also, look for interesting beams of early-morning light filtering through the scene. If I find dramatic lighting, I might wait nearby until an interesting person walks through it.
Dine By The Window
Have you noticed how important food is to travelers? In fact, the quality of the food and dining is almost as important as your accommodations. And food can make or break a trip for many people. Yet, despite how important food is during a trip, many photographers never take photographs of food during their travels.
Here’s a quick tip: Sit near a window with diffused light and let the chef do all the difficult food styling. Plus, you can use the simple diffused light coming in through a window to compose compelling food images. The real challenge is styling the food, which is best left to the chef when photographing while dining.
Remember that although food photography is very detail-orientated, try to keep it simple. Here’s a quick checklist of other things to think about when shooting food images on the road:
- When the food arrives, take a few simple images.
- Experiment with three basic angles: straight down, 45 degrees and table level.
- When shooting straight down, have everything in focus.
- When shooting at an angle, try photographing around F2.8 or F4, and focus on one part of the dish. Table items like wine glasses, cups and silverware all can be arranged in the out-of-focus background.
- Photograph colorful dishes and work fast, since food changes appearance quickly.
- Desserts are easier to photograph than main courses.
- Pay close attention to highlights, shadows and styling of the dish.
Study The Architecture
Many countries and cultures are defined by their architecture, whether it’s a mud hut or stunning mosque. Research the area you’ll be visiting, and visit important historical and religious sites. In Portugal, for example, one of the most interesting photographs I took was colored light patterns on columns in a cathedral.
Here’s another food photography tip: I often use a small, white reflector to bounce light back into the picture to reduce shadows. Also, be discreet and don’t cause a scene with other diners. I often tell the waiter or waitress I’d like to take a few quick images of the dishes just to let them know ahead of time.
Know ahead of time where you want to go and when it is open. This will help you be more efficient when you’re on a tight travel schedule.
One challenge of photographing architecture is maintaining correct perspective. If you point your camera up at a building, the edges of the building will be curved, which creates a keystone effect. To keep your building straight and level, position your camera lens so that it’s “flat” to the side of the building—in other words, the plane of the camera lens is parallel to the side of the building you’re shooting.
Interiors are especially challenging, and some locations won’t allow tripods. Use super-wide-angle lenses, which are very helpful to capture more of a scene. I use my 14-24mm lens and dial up my ISO for hand-held shooting in low-light interiors. Image stabilization is also very helpful.
Architecture isn’t all about big buildings or churches. You might try photographing a cobblestone alley or an old library interior with volumes of books.
I like to photograph city skylines. Try to find a scenic spot and photograph the sunset into twilight. The “blue hour,” about 30 minutes after sunset, is the perfect time to blend city lights with purple hues in the sky.
Lastly, keep an eye on the weather. Rainy days are great for city shooting. Puddles will offer endless reflection possibilities. Or look for neon reflected on wet streets. And pedestrians will pop out their colorful umbrellas, giving a new look to drab city streets. Find a high angle to shoot down on the umbrellas in the street.
Take A Country Drive
If you’ve photographed the cities, towns, people, food and markets…don’t forget about the countryside, landscape and wildlife. They can be a major draw for travelers and photographers.
Landscapes are often best photographed in early morning light. So plan on getting up early, even on rainy mornings, and look for fresh perspectives and interesting light.
If it’s rainy, remember stormy weather can result in very dramatic images and provide a fresh look to an iconic scene.
I recently traveled to Wall, South Dakota, which is best known for the drugstore Wall Drug and being the gateway to Badlands National Park. One evening the weather forecast predicted heavy thunderstorms, perfect conditions for creating fresh images in Badlands National Park.
The weather that night produced some of the most dramatic skies I’ve ever seen, and the photography was incredible. So bad weather can produce dramatic images for photographers!
Wildlife can also be an important part of a travel portfolio. I just returned a few days ago from Australia and Tasmania. Who doesn’t think about koalas and kangaroos when you mention Australia? We scheduled special excursions just to photograph these iconic animals. Decide if wildlife defines your location, and photograph the species that identify the area.
As you can see, you have an almost limitless array of subject matter when it comes to travel photography. But remember what’s important as a travel photographer: Your job is to capture the essence of the destination through creative, stunning photographs of diverse subject matter. And when you host the dinner party back home, rest assured your images won’t put your guests to sleep.
See more of Tom Bol’s work at tombolphoto.com.