Travel with A Purpose

Have you ever sat through a friend’s vacation slideshow and dreaded every minute of it? Countless images of cluttered markets, busy landscapes and cliché snapshots blur into oblivion. You nod your head in a daze of encouragement, wanting to be polite, but after the last shot of the cute kid eating ice cream, you can’t take it anymore. If only your cell phone would ring and free you from this torture!

Don’t be this photographer. Instead, how about dazzling your friends, family and maybe a photo contest judge with stunning, creative travel images? If you want to become a master travel photographer you’ll want to learn to travel with a purpose and to master the fine art of travel photography.

Creating a strong portfolio of travel images requires a combination of solid camera craft, creative vision and prior planning. Utilizing these traits will help you produce images with impact and create a meaningful picture story from your trip. Let’s look at how to be a travel photographer, not a snapshot tourist.

WHAT’S YOUR END GOAL?

I teach a lot of travel photography workshops, and students often admit that they’re overwhelmed when they step off the plane. Foreign cultures and colorful landscapes assault the senses with so many new experiences, it’s hard to focus. Photographers are giddy with excitement and photograph everything in sight.

This isn’t a bad thing; this excitement is why I love to travel and take pictures. But if you don’t focus your shooting, you may end up with some terrific individual photos, but not a meaningful set of images.

Travel photography generally takes two approaches: You either record your experiences traveling in a new location, or you photograph the area from an outsider’s perspective. This way, the story isn’t about you; it’s about the people you meet and places you visit.

Before

Whatever approach you take, plan out your photography goals for your trip. Focusing on what you want to achieve with your images will result in better compositions and a tighter variety of interesting subject matter.

Every time I travel to a new country, I try to record all the “senses” of that trip, not just what my eyes perceive. In other words, I want viewers to see, feel, smell, hear and taste the location through my photographs. I work on capturing images that transcend my own experiences in a location and share that with the viewer back home. To really photograph the soul of a city, you need to get out and experience it. You need to photograph people, food, iconic landmarks, daily life and the countryside.

I was in southern France last summer during the lavender harvest and Bastille Day. I laid out a framework for my photography, and created a checklist of things to experience and photograph. To create a solid travel portfolio of images, I needed to photograph the people of the area, lavender fields, Bastille Day festivities, French cuisine, iconic landmarks and the famous white stallions. I had my shooting plan in place; now I needed to shoot creatively with solid camera craft.

HOW TO SHOOT CREATIVELY

This is the fun part. You get to photograph to your heart’s content and create your picture story. Since you want to avoid the dreaded “tourist snapshot,” you need to create images to catch the viewer’s eye. Here are some tips for creative shooting.

1. Photograph in good light. Photographing in good light is critical to creating strong images. Photograph during the early morning and late evening for beautiful warm light. If you’re shooting during the day, look for light that works for your subject. If I’m photographing a person on the street, I’ll try to photograph them in open shade or with the sun at their back. If I’m stuck photographing in midday light, I may use my flash to open up shadows. Photograph skylines during the “blue hour” right after the sun has gone down for beautiful purple twilight. Be aware of light and how it affects your images; good photography hinges on beautiful light. If you’re stuck shooting in harsh midday light, find ways to use that to your favor, capturing the contrast between light and shadow, or focusing on details instead of landscapes.

2. Tighten up your shots. There’s a strong tendency to photograph travel scenes with too much in the frame. Ask yourself what you’re really photographing, and crop down to the important subject matter. If you can’t explain why objects are in your shot, chances are, they shouldn’t be in your image. You want the viewer to know exactly what your subject is without distractions. I photographed a man cutting lavender, for example. The first image had white sky at the top of the shot. The bright color distracted the viewer and added nothing to the image. By cropping out the sky, the photograph became much stronger.

3. Find a fresh perspective. This is very important in producing eye-catching travel images. If you shoot everything from eye level, you’re doing the same thing most other tourists are doing. Try finding a high vantage point to photograph down on a busy market. Or how about photographing at ground level as a man walks his dog past you on a cobblestone street? I was perched on top of a truck when I photographed the white horses of the Camargue region in France. This high perspective gave more depth to the herd of horses. Instead of seeing a few horses at eye level, I could photograph the entire herd as they galloped past me.

4. Look for layers. Photographers work in a two-dimensional medium to record a three-dimensional environment. Images with more depth and dimension are more interesting. I look for elements in my scene that add dimension to the shot. Try photographing through trees, fences, gates, windows and screens. Use a shallow depth of field to blur the foreground layer, but keep your subject sharp in the background. Another trick is photographing scenes reflected in mirrors and windows. Reflected subjects have a three-dimensional quality when you show both the reflection and the actual subject.

5. Get up early. Try going out early in the morning as the locals begin their day. Streets are less crowded, and vendors are more open to being photographed. Dramatic rays of sun will illuminate gritty alleys and backlit flowers. Sometimes I walk for hours exploring a new place seeking out images. Other times I sit on a park bench and see what unfolds before me. Both approaches work well for travel photography. Time dictates how I photograph a new area. If I only have a few hours, then I move around to capture as many interesting photos as possible.

 

USE SOLID CAMERA SKILLS

Photoshop and other editing software can be a valuable part of a photographer’s workflow, but let’s not forget that photography begins with taking the picture. I see many students who barely scratch the surface of understanding all their camera functions. Knowing how your camera works, and what it’s capable of, will expand your vision of what’s possible and change how you photograph a scene. Here are a few camera techniques that are helpful for creating travel images.

1. Pan and blur. Almost every culture has a speedy means of transport; cars, trains, buses, horses and rickshaws carry people through busy streets. How do you illustrate that frenetic energy of the city? Try slowing your shutter speed down to around 1/30th of a second or slower and panning with the moving vehicle as it goes past. Look for clean, dark backgrounds and subjects with bright colors. The trick is getting just a little sharpness in the subject with blurs of motion streak
ing behind it. In France, I found an old-fashioned carousel ride with colorful horses. Instead of shooting the carousel from a distance (the snapshot), I walked up close and shot pan and blur images to create a much more interesting image.

2. Multiple exposures. Do you know if your camera has a multiple exposure mode? Many cameras have this function; all you have to do is set the number of exposures and the camera will blend them together seamlessly. On my recent trip to France, I photographed stained glass windows using multiple exposures. Instead of the standard stained glass shot, I produced a kaleidoscope of colors by using multiple exposure mode and rotating my camera slightly after each frame.

3. Long exposures. A travel photographer is bound to photograph in low light during a trip. Sometimes I shoot 30-second exposures or longer at twilight to record night scenes. This requires a cable release, a remote or use of the timer, and a solid tripod to get a sharp image. Recently, I’ve been using a 10-stop ND filter during the day. In the middle of the day, I can shoot a two-minute exposure, which renders puffy cumulus clouds silky for an ethereal look. Other times, I may photograph streets filled with people at long exposures for a blurry, abstract effect.

4. Better bokeh. Bokeh refers to the quality of the out-of-focus elements in an image. Try experimenting with wide-open apertures like ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 on your next trip. Using a shallow depth of field creates separation of subjects from the background. Let the background go slightly out of focus. The viewer will focus on what’s sharp in your image (the subject) and then explore the out-of-focus elements. I love to photograph food this way. Many markets in France have delicious pastries in glass displays along the street. I like to photograph the flaky croissants at ƒ/4 to create one small point of focus and let the rest of the image go soft. The world doesn’t always have to be in focus; engage the viewer’s curiosity about the blurry elements in the background.

Travel photography is very exciting and rewarding. I’m leaving for Iceland in a few hours, and I can almost smell the salty air and feel the cool spray from the Gullfoss waterfall. I’m ready to photograph all the “senses,” and share the images with friends when I return.

To find out more about creating memorable travel photography, no matter your subject, our guide to the Fine Art of Travel Photography will help you create memorable images, with tips on capturing different subjects, using tripods and flashes, shooting at night, creating environmental portraits and more.

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit his website at tombolphoto.com.

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