One of the philosophical problems with photography is that it can be subdivided into various categories, depending on the subject matter and the purpose for which the photographs were taken. Often the boundaries of such divisions are specific and clear, but in other cases there is a distinct overlap and conjunction.travel photography
This is so in the case of travel photography, which can be sufficiently varied in scope to include genre such as Applied, Landscape, Portraiture, Documentary and Photojournalism. This tends to make a definition of travel photography rather difficult within that framework, so I tend to adopt a subjective definition, and suggest that travel photography is that which offers “a sense of place”. This can be expanded to suggest that successful travel pictures should inspire the viewer, and create a desire to learn more about the place, or better still, visit it.
It’s not only place, either. A set of travel pictures can represent place, as illustrated by landscape or architecture, but equally it could be showing a journey, the people who live in a particular place, or an event or activity in some particular location: or of course, a combination of any or all of those.
One also needs to qualify “place”. Travel photography doesn’t have to be “abroad”: it can take place anywhere in the world, and can start as soon as you step outside your front door. Or the door of your hotel, or your ship, canoe, tent, or cave - and now we’re getting somewhere!
This wide ranging definition now underpins the skills which are needed to be a successful travel photographer -travel photography
The true travel photographer should have a full understanding of all these skills.
There are two major facets to successful photography of any sort, and they are – in no particular order –
Key Issues - There are a number of issues which contribute to good travel photography, and here are some of them.
Where do you want to go, what do you hope to see, and what do you want to photograph? When you have answered those questions, plan your journey: read the guide books, study the maps.
If you are in control of your journey, you could make a diary schedule, listing the pictures you want from specific locations. Keep this with you, tick them off, and also make notes of other things you take, and things that you may wish to retake.
An understanding of what makes a good photograph.
The word “impact” comes to mind, which is principally concerned with subject interest, coupled with the vital ingredients of good composition and lighting, creating atmosphere.
Choice of equipment and materials.travel photography
Whilst travelling, the choice of materials is now much easier with digital than it was with film. Flash cards are insensitive to x-rays, and can, weight for weight, hold more pictures than films. Take plenty, and a small hard drive (eg Giga) to back them up.
Cameras and lenses come down to personal choice. For me, the aims are reliability and ease of use, without carrying too much weight. My current camera is a Nikon D200 with an 18 to 200mm VR lens, which covers most things. I also always take a spare D200 (if you’re going to have a spare – which is essential really – make it exactly the same as the other. It means you don’t have to think “how does this one work?”) I also take other lenses, but don’t necessarily carry them all the time – a wider angle, a micro or two, and a longer focal length for occasional use.travel photography
A tripod is essential at times, and a pain at others. For landscapes, architecture, record type close ups, it is supremely useful, but in a souk in Morocco – forget it!
Filters – especially graduated – are at times essential for controlling contrast, especially in bright skies. Consider also the sparing use of a polarizer. Beware of flare caused by extraneous light falling on the lens; use a lens hood, or shade the lens with a hand, or hat, or anything handy. travel photography
Remember to use the flash when appropriate. When is that? Not too often, in my opinion, and try to keep it off the camera, in order to give modeling light. (The Nikon SB800 can be used in wireless mode – ie controlled by the camera, but with no connecting wires – it’s great! Other system users should look out for the Canon Speedlite 580EX II and the Olympus FL-50R.)
The most beneficial use of flash is as a fill-in, especially outdoors in bright light, in order to reduce contrast and gently illuminate dark areas, particularly faces against the light; but don’t over-do it – set it to minus one or two stops.
The vital thing is to be totally familiar with all your equipment, so that you can set it and work it almost without thinking.
This can hardly be more important! There are three aspects. The first is to be prepared: if you are travelling to some specific location, you should know what to expect (why else are you going there?!), but do your homework first: find out what will be there, when, where, and make plans for this.
Secondly, be prepared for the unexpected, and ready to photograph surprises instantly.travel photography
The third aspect is of course the fine tuning of subject selection at the moments before taking the picture, and this is where this topic overlaps with the next issue, which is:
Composition, lighting and atmosphere.
Given that some subjects are static, and you can take your time over setting up, choosing your viewpoint and the consequent composition, this should be a calm, considered affair; you may even have time to wait for the right lighting – remember that the sun does go round once a day, and shines in a different direction in the afternoon from the morning! This is relevant in the case of architecture. You may have to wait longer for the atmosphere to change: but equally, when the atmosphere is dramatic, look for something to put in front of it.
Be aware that where you place the camera in relation to the subject, and where you specifically point it, controls the perspective and composition of your picture. The choice of focal length of lens then controls the field of view. The moment you move the camera, the picture changes. My preferred method of working is to decide on the subject, then the absolute position of the camera, the direction in which the camera is pointing, and the field of view, in that order.
If you don’t understand the last paragraph, try reading it again!
Then do three things: firstly, look with one eye only at the view you have chosen – just like the camera. Ask yourself, what is in direct line with what: do any parts of the subject overlap one another to such an extent that they interfere visually? Make sure all the parts of the picture that you want to express clearly are indeed clear. (This should eliminate the classic ‘he’s got a telegraph pole growing out of his head’ syndrome).travel photography
Secondly, check the background. This can be one of three types: compatible, bland, or objectionable. Make sure it is one of the first two. Compatible implies that there may be things in the background which positively contribute to the make up and content of the photograph; sometimes things can be deliberately included to give an extra meaning to the picture. Bland infers a plain non-obtrusive background which allows the subject to be seen without interference. The meaning of objectionable should be self evident, but all too often such a background remains un-noticed, until it is too late. Check before you shoot.
Finally, do a “border patrol” – look around the edges of the frame to make sure that you have got in what you want, and there is nothing in the picture that you don’t want.
If there are people “in the way”, have patience. Often when I see a good view, currently spoilt by people in front of it, I choose what I want to take, put the camera on a tripod, with a cable release, and then wait until either the people have moved completely, or gone behind a bush or column; or alternatively – and this can prove very pleasing at times – wait until they form a good shape or composition within the frame. Watch the view, and snap as and when required.
For the dynamic subjects – people, activities, events – be prepared to take lots of pictures, but remember all the time the “rules” of composition (there are none, really, but what looks good matters!) and think as you watch and photograph: how are the people about to move: are they coming towards you (good) or do you have back views (maybe not so good – but it depends what impression you are trying to create). Which were the good moves; will they do it again; beware of intrusive backgrounds; move yourself if need be; which direction is the light coming from, etc etc.
Try to fill the frame appropriately, which is controlled by your distance from the subject, and the focal length of the lens in use. In this method of working, the actual moment at which you press the shutter is also critical. Capturing a momentary glance or movement can be difficult, and the right moment is crucial.
In all cases, remember that possibly the most important element of any camera is the viewfinder, and that it is exactly that: a view finder, not a gun sight. If you fail to make a picture in your viewfinder, you will fail to have a picture in your library.
Style and Presentation.travel photography
This is entirely a personal issue; style is developed over the years; presentation is what you do with your photographs after your journey. Do show them off appropriately, rather than leaving them languishing in drawers, or on a hard disc. However, a word of warning is required: it is generally accepted in this genre, that truthfulness is paramount, and that if one is presenting pictures under the title of travel photography, they should represent reality. In other words, manipulation by digital or other means which significantly alters the truth of the situation or event is out of the question.
Disciplined Administration.travel photography
This applies to all aspects of photography, and is particularly relevant to travel photography if you wish to use your pictures for publication, or academic or scientific use. It is important to know what, when, and where they are of; diaries, maps, GPS readings, and notebooks are essential field tools. Keep good records, or the value of the pictures decreases.
Some other points, not in any particular order.
Remember that photography is a technique at which it is easy to be competent, but greatness and personal vision are difficult to achieve; use your eyes and your brain; plan, think, then act. The camera will take the photograph: you make the picture.
Make sure it is one of which you can be proud.
The pictures used to illustrate this article were all taken in one country, and have been specially chosen to show some particular characteristics - in this case, places, architecture and people. It would be very easy to chose more pictures, and show many other features of the same country.
These pictures were all taken in Morocco in the spring of 2008.
Julian has been a guiding light for the RPS Travel Group where he served on its committee for many years. More of his superb Travel Photographs can be seen in his books -
Somerset Villages: In Colour
Dorset: The County in Colour
Oxfordshire, the County in Colour
recommended reading about
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