The Art of Travel Photography
Do you want to see the famous sights of the world and bring back great photos to remember them by? Or maybe take better pictures when you head out camping or to the beach? Are flowers and food shots your thing when you travel? Puppies and kittens and critters you meet? Selfies or portraits of your new best friend? How about a few more interesting pics to share on social media like Facebook and Instagram? This isn’t a comprehensive guide to photography by any means, but rather a few simple tips to help turn your photos into small works of art. Or at least make a few improvements…
The first thing people often ask me when they see a photo they like is, “What kind of camera do you use?!” There is good news and bad news here – the good news is that you don’t have to run out and spend lots of money on expensive new camera equipment. You can take nice shots on almost anything, from a big fancy DSLR, to a small point and shoot, to a super-cheap disposable camera. For the past 3 years, I’ve shot virtually all of my photos around the world on my iPhone!
The bad news (and it’s not really bad news) is that this puts the responsibility for good photos on you, not on your camera equipment. (You also get the credit for a great shot!) Beauty – or an interesting photo – really is in the eye of the beholder. Part of the art of taking good travel shots is to see with the eye of an artist. But how in the world do you do that?
The number one thing is to pay attention. People have a tendency to point and shoot without thinking about what they’re doing. That’s fine, if you want ordinary shots that just capture the moment. But if you want better photos, then take a few extra seconds to think about and really look at what you’re shooting. One of the biggest mistakes, and the best way to boring photos, is to include everything and focus on nothing. Take a look at the following two shots, both of parade scenes in Oaxaca. The first isn’t too bad – at least the ball on the right and man in orange on the left frame the crowd – but it isn’t great. It’s kind of boring. The second shot is much better – there is more movement, and focus on fewer people. The big swirling purple skirt in front catches your eye and keeps it dancing throughout the photo.
By moving closer or turning slightly, or raising your camera up higher or lower to get a crowd out of your way, you can focus on a subject and have a focal point. What is a focal point? It can be anything that first catches the viewer’s eye – a color, a shape, something very large or very small, something smooth in a sea of patterns or patterned in a sea of sameness. It can be a face or an animal or a single flower in a landscape. It’s a place for your eye to grab onto. If everything carries the same weight in your photo, your eye doesn’t know where to look first. Take a look at the photos below and see if you can identify the focal points…
One idea for more interesting photos is to look for repetitive patterns – for instance umbrellas on a beach, a line of tree trunks, tiles on a rooftop, or a row of boats. Patterns can create an artistic look and keep the viewer’s eye moving into your picture.
Think about what your subject is – is it a monument, like the Eiffel Tower or a red double-decker bus in London? Or is it a person, like a monk on an early morning walking meditation? Make that your focus.
Check for what’s in the background. Unless you’re trying for humor, that telephone pole or tree sticking out of somebody’s head really is a distraction. Look at the first two of the following three shots – the difference is subtle. By moving a few inches I removed the tree from my subject’s head. But if she is my subject and focal point, there is still too much else going on, plus she’s in the shade. A block or so away, I found a much better background to set her off, as well as better light.
Try taking shots both with and without people. You can take photos of the exact same scene. For instance, one where you see only the sun rising over Angkor Wat, and another showing how many hundreds of people are standing there elbow to elbow. Not every shot will come out perfect, like in this case where my phone couldn’t capture the subtitles of the contrast between sunrise and buildings. But do the best you can with what you have to work with, so you still have something to show for your visit. Some technicalities may be out of your control, but composition and subject are yours to play with.
Look for the unusual. Everyone shoots pictures of the obvious, for instance whole monuments like the Colosseum in Rome, so sure, take a few shots so you have them, but then look around for details – a crumbling piece of wall, a colorful leaf on a railing with the monument blurred in the background, a zoomed-in shot of the bright blue sky through the arches. Or a shot that includes a construction sign, contrasting the old with the new.
Find interesting juxtapositions, things that don’t normally go together.
Take some photos of iconic scenes, like the canals of Venice, but don’t forget to shoot close-up detail shots of those colorful, sparkling glass displays…
…or Venetian masks, or local color, like hanging laundry.
You can always play with filters later when you edit – moody black and white, a faded nostalgic look, or super-saturated colors.
Shoot photos of people – the nice thing about phone cameras is that everyone is using them, so it’s easier to get candid shots, which can be more interesting than posed. Remember to be polite – most people don’t appreciate having a camera or phone shoved in their face. And in some cultures and countries it’s taboo to take pictures of local people at all. In others, they’re happy to have you make use of your camera, but they’ll expect some kind of compensation. Do your homework and read up about the places you’re going, and what is proper photo etiquette. (Notice the repetition of flowers and fabrics in the following “people” shots…)
Weather has a big impact on photography. The weather is usually best during peak travel season, but that also means higher prices and bigger tourist hordes. Sometimes the most famous places, especially in high season, present the biggest photo challenges, unless you like shots full of selfie sticks and someone else’s relatives. But then it’s time to get creative – go shoot at times of the day when there are the least tourists, like first thing in the morning. This is often one of the best times in terms of light anyway. Which brings me to one of the biggest tips for getting stellar shots…
…shoot during the “golden hour.” You may have heard of the golden hour. It’s really more than an hour, depending on your location and time of the year. It refers to times of day when the light is peak for the best photography, usually early morning and late afternoon to evening (although there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a minute). The sun is lower in the sky, both right after dawn and just before dusk, lending a golden glow to the world, and much more color saturation. When the sun is high in the sky, like at noon, it tends to bleach all the color out of everything. Some of that can be added back in now with photo filters, but it’s best to get the most beautiful shot you can with natural light. Try taking shots of the same scene at different times of the day to see different effects.
Exceptions to shooting during the golden hour are things like photos of canyons and alleyways, or those narrow cobblestone streets in Europe, when you need the sun higher in the sky to penetrate the shadows. (On days when the sun isn’t out, this won’t make as much of a difference.)
Another tip is to not be afraid to experiment. That’s the beauty of digital. You can feel free to take “bad” shots, since it’s so easy (and free!) to delete them. Who knows if that misty, rainy, or cloudy day photo will look flat and dull, or come out moody and brilliant, so take a chance and give it a shot.
The same is true with nighttime – experiment! Try taking the same picture with and without flash to see what happens, especially when shooting people. Also, some say not to shoot into the sun, and more often than not this is good advice, as it tends to put things close up into shadow. But there are always exceptions. See something that might make an interesting silhouette? You may need the sun in your eyes to capture it. And for sunsets, this goes without saying.
One thing the pros do that many people don’t know, is they shoot A LOT of photos of the same thing, and out of dozens, or even hundreds of pics, there are bound to be a few good ones. That doesn’t mean they don’t pay attention – they’ve chosen the best time of day, the best location, the best angle, but they still take lots of shots, then choose the best ones.
For example, when shooting groups of people, 9 out of 10 shots might have at least one person with their eyes closed or somebody grimacing. Shoot enough so that you end up with a photo that everyone is happy with.
Action shots are another area where shooting more is better. For instance, when shooting sports, like a bike race or cliff jumping, you can end up with a nice series. Again, pay attention to where you’re standing and what’s in the background, including the position of the sun. Most cameras, and even phones now, have burst settings, which give multiple shots automatically. Then you can go back, choose the best, and delete the rest.
A little advice on food and flower photos – less is often more. It’s okay to shoot a whole table scene or an entire garden, but if you zoom in on details, you’re likely to also get some extra-mouthwatering shots. Play with the angle of your camera to form a nice composition, and watch to make sure that you’re not casting a shadow on your subject.
Most of all, be patient – photography, like any other art or skill takes practice. Beethoven didn’t learn to play the piano in a day, nor Van Gogh to paint Starry Night. Do a little homework on things like location and lighting, pay attention to what you’re shooting, try one or two of these tips, and you’ll be amazed at the improvements in your photography! Drop me a line here and let me know if you’ve seen any positive photo results!!