Experiencing cultures and getting access to people and locations are key components of successful travel photography. From assignments that have given me the opportunity to explore 95 countries on six continents, I have developed a working methodology that helps me bridge cultural gaps and maneuver through unfamiliar territory. These are my top travel photography tips gained from decades of experience.
While real estate might be all about “location, location, location,” strong travel photography should go deeper. For instance, instead of a general story on Japan, I focused on its people’s fascination with onsen (hot springs) in my book The Way of the Japanese Bath. For a magazine feature, I retraced the steps of the haiku poet Basho on the Nakasendo, one of the two ancient routes connecting Kyoto with Edo — modern day Tokyo.
For France, an obvious hook is its incredible wine regions, including Burgundy, Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhone and so on. Angles within those range from a focus on the winemakers themselves to the traditions and craftsmanship of French oak barrel coopers.
Wherever the destination, seek out stories that give both you and the viewer an inside look into a culture by focusing on a person, a ritual or a unique aspect of history. Anniversaries of historic events in particular are fertile soil for fascinating photo opportunities.
Location & Timing
Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower or a yurt in Mongolia, photographing architecture is all about the position of the sun, requiring us to be at the location at the right time of day. Typically this means when the sun or its afterglow is illuminating the front of the subject.
Using the sun as a backlight and silhouetting the structure or a unique landscape can work when they have extreme geometric shapes and your main focus is to capture its form. To create a silhouette of people crossing the world’s longest teak bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar, I hired a rowboat to get into a position where I could have the people stand out against the sky.
My assignment in the Black Hills of South Dakota was greatly assisted by knowing the best times to photograph Mt. Rushmore (in the morning with direct sunlight) and the Crazy Horse Memorial (in the afternoon and evening). A spectacular light show at the memorial capped off a great day of shooting. I also spent two days in Deadwood to photograph the local culture and folklore. I timed the visit to coincide with the historic town’s annual Wild Bill Days festivities.
Landscape photographers are constantly checking the latest weather reports and carefully timing their outings for optimal conditions. But optimal doesn’t necessarily mean blue skies. A sky full of clouds or an approaching storm can be full of drama. Look at the magnificent black and white imagery of Mitch Dobrowner to see how powerful the latter can be. I’ve found that a graduated neutral density filter is an important tool in these situations or for taming a bright sky.
I also carry polarizers and a 9-stop ND filter. While light loss is a necessary evil with polarizers, neutral density filters are used precisely for that purpose. They are vital when a long exposure in a daylight scenario is required. The beautiful painterly results created with a slow exposure of a waterfall is a classic example.
Broad landscapes and cityscapes are often used as establishing shots for a photo essay. For my Venice Grand Canal establishing shot, I waited for a gondola to pass into the frame. The phrase “good things come to those who wait” has definite photographic applications. Waiting for the right combination of elements to come together rather than running from one location to another definitely has its virtues, and it can be useful in both urban and natural environments.
Photographic history is full of examples of timeless images taken where a photographer put themselves in a position and then waited for what Henri Cartier-Bresson termed the “decisive moment,” the instant when all the elements of a potentially great image come together. If we heed this, we can avoid uttering, “This photograph would have been great if…” Wait for the “if.” French photographer Willy Ronis once told me that shooting like a mitrailleur — a machine gunner — was the best way to miss a picture.
For the Venice shot, I also envisioned how the scene would look from a higher vantage point so I could avoid having the gondolier’s head merge with the background buildings. What are the odds of achieving the perfect angle where you happen to be standing and at your exact height? It’s important to be flexible both physically and mentally to get to the right position.
While my NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f/2.8 are my usual lenses for architecture and landscape/cityscape establishing shots, telephotos can be used to compress elements such as those in my image of a street scene on a rainy day in Havana.
People & Cultures
When it comes to intimate photographs of people in a travel photography context, the “trying to sneak a picture with a long lens” approach actually creates more of a distance between the photographer and the subject, no matter how much one zooms in. Getting through the fear factor of approaching a stranger, especially one who doesn’t share a common language, can be daunting yet can yield not only stronger photos but also a deeper personal exchange and understanding between cultures. Dramatic environmental portraits (documenting a person in surroundings that relate to who they are or what they do) and the “eyes are the window to the soul” portraits are almost always the result of human interaction.
A few words in a local language can act as one of the keys to unlocking a potential photo op. I’ve found that listening to a Pimsleur foreign language CD to pick up some words before a trip to a non-English speaking country is well worth the investment of time and brainpower.
Back to photography techniques, shooting portraits in open shade can be utilized any time of day. My “eyes are the window to the soul” example of a young girl in Sapa, Vietnam, was shot at the entrance to her family’s store, just out of reach of the glaring noonday sun. The background was thrown out of focus with my 85mm lens set at f/2.8. Dramatic portraits are often achieved with very shallow depth of field and focus on the eyes.
My image of a traffic officer at work in Pyongyang, North Korea is an example of an environmental portrait. Whether it is of a sheepherder with his flock, a sommelier in a wine cellar or an artist in her atelier, these types of photographs add an important, and in many cases, a vital human element to a travel story. In terms of how much of the person to include in the frame, a three-quarters, or “cowboy” as it’s known in the movie industry (cropping below the guns), is often a good percentage of the person to include in the frame. Typically a little more depth of field and a wider lens is needed to convey the feeling of the background, but not so much that it pulls the attention away from the subject.
In most situations, I shoot in aperture priority mode because I want to constantly be aware of, and in control of, my depth of field. All the while I am keeping an eye on my shutter speed to not let it fall below the minimum that’s required for a given situation. To work expeditiously, if the exposure is either too bright or too dark, I’ll normally use exposure compensation rather than switching over to the manual exposure mode.
The “devil is in the details,” but often so is the beauty. Intimate shots are a nice change of pace from the wider establishing and environmental portrait images. Close-ups of subjects such as food, flowers, butterflies, coins and jewelry often necessitate the use of a macro lens such as my NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8. Diopters, also known as close-up filters, are a cheaper alternative.
Food in particular is an important part of any travel experience, but capturing successful images of food is not as easy as it may seem. Food photography is a specialty in the professional photography world for good reason. For food magazines and food advertising photography assignments, stylists are often brought in to help prepare the presentation for a photographer to capture. When it comes to travel photography, it’s not practical to be traveling with a food stylist, so chefs and their assistants can act in a similar capacity. I solicit their advice on the best angles to highlight their creations. I often set up the photo shoot at a restaurant in advance, usually in the later afternoon so I can take advantage of diffused angular window light. A macro lens, tripod, cable release and silver/white reflector opposite the window, with my camera in Mirror Lockup mode, work as a team to capture the shot. I never use a reflector with a warm, gold or orange side because it will create an imbalance in the color temperature of the overall scene.
Lighting On Location
My goal when using flash is to make the image still feel within the realm of a naturally lit photograph — “natural” meaning that even if it’s indoors, it will feel like it could have been taken using existing light sources. I never want my images to scream “flash!”
I try to match my lighting to the mood to get the most out of the subject, whether it is by softening shadows or creating harder ones in a realistic way. One of the reasons for fill flash is that it’s not always possible to be at the right place at the right time in terms of ideal ambient light conditions. Since “raccoon” eyes are unflattering except on those furry procyonids, flash fill is an extremely useful tool for environmental portraits when open shade or backlighting is not possible.
Since most flashes fire at a cooler (more bluish) daylight color temperature than the prevailing ambient light in many travel photography scenarios, I often have a slight warming gel — a 1/4 or a 1/2 CTO (Color Temperature Orange) — over my flash, especially in the early morning or later afternoon to create a correct color balance.
In addition, I usually hold my flash at arm’s length at a 45-degree or higher angle off the camera and trigger it wirelessly. This further helps to create a more natural and realistic scene by making the shadows drop down behind the subject. I also often put a Gary Fong Lightsphere Diffusion Dome or other light-modifying accessory over the flash head to soften the light.
Keep in mind when using color gels or setting a white balance that the goal is not always to capture what would be a “proper” color balance — a white piece of paper reproducing as white, for example — but rather the appropriate color balance for the given situation. For instance, a candlelit dinner should have a lot of warmth, while a mid-winter high arctic scene would work well with an ice cold bluish tint.
A travel photo essay is basically a story of a journey told through photographs. Like any story, there needs to be a structure. It should have a strong beginning, middle and end. Like chapters in a book, the images should relate to each other as you move through the story and come to a conclusion. If you’re documenting a journey for yourself rather than a publication, I highly recommend producing a book of the experience through companies such as Blurb.
A Final Thought
I’m sound asleep at the Hard Rock Hotel Tenerife in the Canary Islands when the alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. The last thing I want to do is get up after three flights in the last 24 hours. Maybe it’s the second-to-last thing — I definitely don’t want to miss a great photo opportunity. The rising sun won’t wait for me. We as photographers have an obligation not to be lazy. We get award-winning shots by hitting the shutter button, not the snooze button.