Photo tip of the Week: Take better travel images (Part 1)
Travel photography is arguably the most competitive of photographic genres thanks to the fact that the subject matter, namely people, places & wildlife, is the preferred subject matter of nearly everyone with a camera, especially when they are on holiday.
There is no question that digital technology, both cameras and post-capture software, has increased the chances of technically decent pictures being captured, (and rescued when necessary). However, one of the thoughts I repeat often is that travelling to take photographs is very different from taking pictures while travelling.
Like any job, you have to deliver, and having been in this business for over 35 years I’ve developed a way of working that gives me the best chance of capturing successful images wherever I am in whatever conditions I’m presented with.
Essentially, it’s about commitment to the image. Nothing gets higher priority than being in the right place, at the right time, all of the time. This mantra, and the fact that simply shooting as you go along will rarely provide enough opportunities to be in the right place at the right time, has been the foundation of my work and underpins my goal of creating a comprehensive and compelling collection of photographs of people, places and wildlife from around the world.
I keep my gear as simple as possible, although it may not look like it from the list below. I take the same equipment on all my trips, except for my 200-400mm zoom, which I only take if wildlife is a key subject of the trip. My choice of equipment is aimed at giving me the flexibility I need to capture the wide range of subjects I cover, so that I can shoot quickly and efficiently. I use:
- Two Canon EOS 1Dx MkII DSLR camera bodies
- Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8 L III USM zoom lens
- Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 L II USM zoom lens
- Canon EF 70-200 f2.8 L III USM zoom lens
- Canon EF 200-400 f4 zoom lens with built- in 1.4x converter
- Gitzo G1228 carbon-fibre tripod with Induro ball head.
I rarely leave the hotel without both DSLRs - one with the 24-70mm zoom and the other with the 70-200mm zoom. However, the majority of my pictures are taken on the 24-70mm lens.
A good tripod is an extremely important piece of equipment for the serious travel photographer. All my landscapes and cityscapes are shot with a tripod allowing me to achieve images with minimum noise, maximise depth of field and to use slow shutter speeds for creative effect.
I’m the first to admit that the 1DX isn’t necessarily the ideal travel camera, but I don’t really consider the weight of the gear important as my choice is based on ensuring I can produce high quality image files of a wide range of subjects in a wide range of locations and conditions. On top of that, build quality and reliability are absolutely crucial when I’m travelling, particularly to remote places.
Planning & Research
After all these years of travel I’m pretty confident in just turning up at a new destination and being able to seek out photo opportunities and get the job done. In fact, it’s something I really enjoy given many of my trips are quite structured. However, I think this confidence not only comes from experience, but from an ingrained process of research, planning and routine that I’ve developed over the years.
I think it’s very important to research a destination in advance with regard to the places and subjects I want to capture. The first thing I check is the dates of festivals, public holidays and market days. You might be lucky and stumble across a weekly market or an annual festival, but a little research can guarantee you’ll be there, which is much better than turning up the day after and being told how good it was. In fact, the spectacle, colour and crowds that are the hallmarks of these special days provide so many great photo opportunities that I usually plan my trips around them.
My research typically involves reading and marking up a Lonely Planet guide book (old habits die hard) and general image searches on the web. I check out what is available on Getty Images, as that’s where many of my images will end up. The aim with the image research is to get a sense of a place, the photographic possibilities and to generate ideas. I’m looking to find out what makes a place special or different beyond the well-known famous sights. Things like national dress, local food, souveniers, sports, dance and performance.
I create a shot list of all the places and subjects that I’d like to photograph. This allows me to come up with a rough itinerary, which in turn informs me as to how long I need, and on what days of the week I should be at a particular destination. A well-researched shot list will make you the most informed person in town, but don’t be afraid to stray from it. There will be plenty of interesting things to photograph that you haven’t read about or seen pictures of, particularly with regard to the everyday activities of the local people and I always allow time to just wander around.
Although it’s possible to cover a lot of ground in a day and work quickly through a shot list, the light is at its absolute best only twice a day. It’s not easy photographing more than one or two subjects in that hour or so at the beginning and end of each day. As a really rough guide, assuming your intention is to photograph as many subjects as possible, four nights and three full days will allow you to cover most cities and towns reasonably well, although you’ll need to set a cracking pace in the larger cities. Importantly, you’ll be able to plan at least six sessions of photography in the best light.
Learn the Technical Stuff
Learn the technical stuff (ISO, shutter speed, aperture, exposure) so that the mechanics of taking a photograph become second nature. You’ll then be able to concentrate on, and enjoy, the creative side of picture taking seeking out interesting subjects and great light and you’ll have a much better chance of capturing those fleeting moments and expressions that make unique images.
Shooting Iconic Subjects
One of the great challenges for the travel photographer is to capture images that in a single frame encapsulate a distinguishing feature of the country they’re visiting. These are the iconic subjects, famous places that everyone photographs, often from the same well-known viewpoint. I place a lot of importance on photographing the iconic subjects, as these are often the initial reason people choose to visit a place, and the images are always in demand.
My aim is to capture what I call the classic shots as well as, but ideally better than, previously published images. Emphasis is placed on good composition and shooting in great light, the more dramatic the better. Once I’m happy that I’ve got my version of the classic shot, I’ll spend a lot of time finding a more unique take on the same subject. Typically, this involves either seeking out less well-known viewpoints or adding a dynamic element, something that adds to the image, but is not always there, such as a person walking through the scene.
Seek out unique subjects and angles
The next aim is to reveal something new about a place, another interesting challenge, especially in the most popular destinations. However, finding new and unique subjects is still possible and the easiest way is simply by walking away from the hotel district or the major attractions. And you often don’t have to walk that far to find people and places that rarely see tourists.
It’s also about being open to subjects that aren’t so obvious, in other words pursuing your own creativity, rather than building on someone else’s. Finally, get out early and you’ll not only be shooting in the best light, you’ll usually be the only person with a camera on the streets or at the market or at the viewpoint.
Of course, finding new subjects and viewpoints takes time so it’s worth accepting, that so much of what goes into creating good pictures is spent not actually taking pictures, but incessantly looking, either on the move or standing around, watching, waiting. Once you’ve got the image in mind you need to commit. It could be a matter of seconds, or hours, or may mean you have to return later the same day or on another day altogether. Commitment to the image is a key professional trait that keeps photographers out there way beyond the time needed to simply visit a place or an individual site.
Perfecting your Technique
There’s no better way to prepare for shooting your trip than getting out there and doing it. You can photograph most of the subjects (or variations of them) that you’re likely to come across on your travels in any town or city in the world, including your own. Planning and executing a shoot of your own city is a great way to practise your research skills, test your camera equipment, perfect your technique, develop your eye and get a feel for changing light.
Buy a guidebook, check out the postcards and souvenir books and draw up a shot list. Treat the exercise exactly as you would if you were away from home. You’ll quickly get an insight into just how much walking you can expect to do, how many locations and subjects you can expect to photograph in a day and how suitable and manageable your equipment is.
You can then use this knowledge to plan your trips away from home a little more accurately to meet your own goals. As a bonus, you’ll be rewarded with a fresh insight into your home town. You’re sure to see it in a different light, literally, and to discover subjects and places you didn’t know about.
Look out for Part 2 next week.
About the author: Richard I'Anson is a freelance photographer who has built a career on his twin passions for travel and photography. Over the past 35 years he has travelled the world, amassing a substantial and compelling collection of images of people and places in more than 90 countries on all seven continents.
Richard was one of five photographers selected for the first series of the award winning television documentary Tales by Light (now on Netflix). He is a Master of Photography awarded by the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP) and represents Canon Australia as a Canon Master Photographer.