I originally wrote this article for the March 2007 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the book links at the bottom of the article, you will find yourself at Wide World's site where you can purchase the books. -Terrell
Being a Great Travel Photographerówell, I can dream, canít I?
Lately Iíve been spending a lot of time working on my little travel journal website which has included spending a good bit of time in critical examination of my travel photographs and I have come to a conclusion: I am not a good photographer. On the other hand, the presence of an occasional good shot or a happy composition convinces me that I am not hopeless. I have also noticed that despite my photographic shortcomings, I really like having these photographs when I get back from a trip even if Iím a little embarrassed to show them to other people. Iíve been taking more picturesólots more picturesówith each trip. Perhaps itís time to consider what I can do to make this whole picture taking thing a more pleasant experience.
After hunting through a bunch of photography websites, both professional and amateur, and consulting a few travel photography books, Iíve come up with a short list of things that all the experts seems to agree on as important.
Prepare ahead of time. Being prepared before a trip falls into two categories. First, get your equipment together and know what you need to take with you. If youíre shooting film, the experts recommend that you take along twice as much film as you think you will need. Film in many countries can be very expensive or unavailable. Even in places where it's easy to find, you don't want to risk running out just as you're ready to shoot the perfect picture. If youíre shooting digital, make sure you have extra batteries, that your recharger works and that you have the right electrical adapters for it, and that you have enough memory cards or backup systems to get through the trip. Consider taking one of those handy little flash drives with you. If you use up all the space on your memory cards you can find an internet cafe with a friendly computer, hood up your camera and the flash drive and download your pics to the drive. Kodak's website in particular recommends that you get your camera out and shoot twelve frames or so before departure so youíll understand how the camera really works, which seems like a really good idea to me, especially if you're one of the many, many travelers I've talked to who has just switched to digital. Iíd like to add that anyone using a digital camera should learn how to turn off the automatic flash. My last trip had an unpleasant moment concerning frescoes that should not be flashed and people who were not in control of their flashing.
Preparation can also mean doing a little research about your destination. Read guide books, talk to friends, post a question on a photography message board to find out if people know where you should concentrate your photographic attention. If you know ahead of time that there is a particularly photogenic area of town, monument or view, you wonít miss getting that great shot.
The light, the light, the light. This is something Iím terrible with and according to my research, it is the make or break quality for a great photograph. Even if you get everything else right, bad lighting will kill your shot. If I get a picture thatís well lit, itís usually because of dumb luck. All the sources agree that the best times to shoot are early morning and late afternoon when the light is not directly overhead. If youíve done your research and you know thereís a spot that youíre going to want good light for, plan your trip accordingly. Sometimes that can be tricky, like if youíre traveling with a group. If you let your tour guide know that you want to get a certain shot, they may very well try to accommodate you, within reason of course. Or you can look for a photographic tour where everybody is going to want that shot.
As an early riser, I have vowed to take more advantage of the hours when Iím up before my travel companions meet for breakfast. Maybe I won't get shots of the monuments, but I can certainly get some good street scenes in a better light.
I got the light all wrong on the Straits of Juan de Fuca
Take a moment to compose. I admit that I am one of those shoot from the hip kind of girls. Every expert Iíve consulted advises that to improve my photography Iíll need to learn to take my time and actually set up the shot. Using the ďrule of two thirdsĒ, framing a shot with a wall or branch, making sure that Iím not putting in too much sky, etc, etc, etc. This is the part of the equation where I start realizing that having a book or perhaps taking a class might really help. Composition has certain rules that can be memorized and I know I can do that.
Who can describe the many things wrong with the framing of my shot of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland on the left? Compare it with my friend Vivianís beautifully framed photo of the Church Mosque in Guzelyurt in Turkey
Get closer. In picture after picture I fail dismally at this easiest of travel photography tips. Iíve always got too much foreground and the people are tiny blurs rather than the vibrant figures I see in my memory. My natural shyness (several people who know me just fell on the floor laughing as they read those words, but it's true) makes me reluctant to get too close to strangers. In actual practice, though, I've found that people don't usually mind having their picture taken from close up as long as I'm polite and ask permission first. The experts also remind you that itís a good idea to photograph details. A close-up of a decorative tile or a seashell on the beach can be a really dramatic photo.
My nephew Hayden disappears in this photo at Stirling Castle.
Mix it up. This is the one area of travel photography that I can justifiably claim to be good at. My sources recommend that you remember to take a variety of picturesóbuildings, nature, people, detail shots, signs that can provide contextóso that you come home with the full story of your trip instead of just one aspect. Even as Iím taking them, I think of my pictures as illustrations for my written journals so I always have a variety of subjects. And be sure to get some pictures with you as the star. Itís no fun to get home and realize that you donít have a single picture of yourself from your whole trip.
I know Iím never going to be a fabulous photographer but I also know that with a little study and preparation, I can bring home some beautiful memories.
If I can get two shots like this then I believe that I can be a better photographer!
For further study:
Lonely Planet does a whole series of travel photography books including:
The people who really know something about travel photography, National Geographic, publish a good general guide as well as some more specific ones.
A few websites with good tips:
http://www.fodors.com/focus/ A little heavy on film rather than digital but still good.
http://goeurope.about.com/cs/photography/l/aa_photo_101.htm A funny and to-the-point essay on good travel photos.
http://www.flickr.com/groups/travel-photography/discuss/ A place to post questions about specific places