The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
1. On Traveling and Photographing
Take Your Time
At first glance, photography and traveling are a match made in heaven. What could be more perfect than capturing what you see and experience on your journey, both for yourself and for the people at home? It can be exciting and at the same time relaxing to take your favorite hobby with you to locations you’ve never visited before, where a fascination with the unknown and the magic of first encounters propels you onward. As photographers, who among us is not thrilled to use our camera to discover new worlds and energized when searching for new subjects and perspectives?
A closer look at the relationship between traveling and photography, however, reveals a potential for tension: travelers are always on the move. Taking a picture requires pausing, if only for a brief moment. A traveler generally wants to see as much as possible – a quest that’s limited by the time spent on location. A photographer, on the other hand, is interested in stopping, observing, waiting to discover and acquire a picture and the perfect moment for it. Good, creative, unique images rely to a large degree on a question of time. And time is something that you have to allow yourself. With this in mind, the first and maybe most important piece of advice for improving your images is simply to give yourself some time. Your pictures will thank you for it.
A few extra moments are enough to allow you to evaluate and improve the camera’s settings and your composition. Taking a few minutes to chat with someone before photographing him or her will better your chances of capturing a great portrait. An anonymous snapshot taken in passing leaves neither side satisfied. The subject will feel strangely targeted and reduced to a photographic object, and you’ll know (or suspect) that you would have been able to produce a better photo with a little more effort. A few extra minutes will also give you time to search for a new angle of view, peer beyond a street corner, or explore a hidden courtyard. And a couple of hours will offer you practically limitless photographic possibilities – almost everywhere in the world.
The amount of time to set aside for taking pictures will to a large degree depend on whether the primary purpose of your trip is travel or photography. Photographing while traveling is different than traveling to photograph. When traveling to photograph either on your own or as a part of an organized photo tour, the pace of your trip slows down to accommodate the photography. Organized photo tours are an effective way to receive direction or support from experienced photographers and to develop your skills, and all in exciting locales to boot! Individual photo trips are something of an ideal case, but they can be costly and time-consuming. From the photographer’s point of view, it is ideal when sufficient time for photography is worked into the itinerary and the number of stops follows the motto, “Less is more.” (This motto can also be applied to photography itself. You’ll find more on this topic in the chapter with that very name starting on page 92.)
Heading into the ice-covered waters of the White Continent on an expedition cruise in Antarctica. The unusual perspective makes the photo puzzling – at least at first sight. | Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/500 s • f/11 • ISO 400
Conversely, taking pictures while traveling is always a balancing act between busy daily activities and the momentary pause needed to take a photo – at least a good one. So where do you find the time? Temporary respites can usually be found pretty easily. If you’re traveling in a group that has a strict itinerary, it’s helpful to find others who are of the same mind as you. Four or six eyes can see more than two; taking pictures in a group can spark the imagination; and you may be able to skip out on some scheduled events in favor of taking pictures if you’re in a situation where you can’t head off on your own unless you’re in a small group. Maybe the scheduled daily activities don’t start until after sunrise, which leaves you with the first couple of hours of the day to take photographs, even if that means going without an hour or two of sleep. And who says that breaks in your agenda also need to be breaks from your photographic pursuits?
African adventure: Traveling in a canoe on the Chongwe River, Zambia. The low point of view, wide-angle lens, and inclusion of the boat’s hull in the picture allow the viewer to ride along. | Nikon D700 • 22 mm • 1/640 s • f/6.3 • ISO 1600
Perfectly in step: Monks at the morning alms round in Luang Prabang, Laos. Sometimes you only need to take a seat on the street to find an unexpected perspective. Previously, I had tried the shot with a more conventional point of view. | Nikon D300 • 230 mm • 1/80 s • f/4.5 • ISO 1000
You should start saving time for taking pictures on your trip well before departing. Putting in some preparation before your trip will pay off later when you’re able to use every spare minute for taking pictures. This sort of preparation includes not only brushing up on the conditions, customs, and practices of your destination country and learning a few key terms and phrases, but also giving some photographic thought to what’s ahead. What sorts of photographic opportunities are available where you’re headed? What environmental conditions should you expect? What type of equipment will help you meet your photographic objectives? At what time of day do you want to capture specific places? What sights could be left out in a pinch? Where might it make sense to stay a bit longer?
Polar bear on the ice in Hamiltonbukta, Spitsbergen. The animal and its reflection were photographed from a rubber dinghy, using a long focal length. | Nikon D300 • 600 mm • 1/1600 s • f/5.6 • ISO 400
Take a look at pictures that other photographers have taken of locations you’re planning to travel to. Look for subjects that grab your attention or spark your imagination. You can engage with these subjects in your own photography by trying to make your interest, fascination, and curiosity visible in your images. In other words, take pictures of what speaks to you emotionally, both in a positive and negative way. Good pictures generally arise when you have established an emotional connection to your subject. If you feel half-hearted about a particular subject or scene, or if you’re not actually sure why you’re taking a picture, viewers will detect your ambivalence in your photo.
Preparation isn’t everything, but thinking ahead can be of real value, not least because it will ratchet up your excitement for your trip. You won’t be able to plan everything, of course – once at your destination, you will encounter unexpected, fascinating moments and subjects well worth capturing. Even then, though, adequate preparation will pay off by ensuring that you’ve got what you need to handle the photographic challenges on site. In addition, it will allow you to spend as much of your time on location as possible concentrating on what matters most to passionate photographers: taking pictures.
Prepararing yourself includes choosing the appropriate equipment for the photographic tasks you plan to encounter in advance. (Chapter 20, titled “Equipment” and starting from page 174, discusses this topic in more detail.) Ambitious photographers will find themselves in a quandary here, being torn between the needs of a traveler and the needs of a photographer as mentioned before. You want your equipment to be light and portable so it doesn’t hinder your movement, but you also want to be prepared for photographing a wide variety of situations. Those who choose their equipment wisely and who know how to use it will find a good solution. Doing so requires knowledge, experience, and practice.
Like in a picture book: Overwater bungalows in Bora Bora, French Polynesia. Even somewhat documentary images like this will understandably appeal to anyone in need of a vacation. | Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 200 • polarizer
Selecting your equipment doesn’t get any easier when you consider that travel photography comprises many photography genres: landscape photography, portraiture, architectural photography, photojournalism, and so on. This might feel like a challenge, but it’s better to think of it as an inviting, infinitely large playground.
The most carefully selected and high-quality equipment won’t be of any use if you can’t reach it fast enough at the critical moment. Many photo opportunities emerge spontaneously, so the photographer who has his or her camera handy and set up appropriately – with shooting mode, focal length, shutter speed, aperture, ISO – will have the upper hand over one who needs to first retrieve their equipment from a photo bag.
Anticipate that thrilling photographic opportunities can arise at any time, and take joy in the unexpected moments of photographic serendipity. In the end, this joy is what is most important – the joy of photographing, the joy of traveling, and the joy of taking pictures while traveling.
Like in a fairy tale: Our Tuareg guide prepares tea in the traditional way over a campfire in the Libyan Sahara. A headlamp set in a plastic container provided additional light. | Nikon D700 • 1/5 s • 27 mm • f/4.5 • ISO 2500 • tripod
Opposite: An alternative view of the famous Stupa of Boudhanath (Nepal) emphasizes the prayer flags. You might not spot Buddha’s eyes at first glance. | Film photograph, exposure details unrecorded