Photo tip of the Week: Take better travel images (Part 2)
In part two of Richard I'Anson's tips on how to increase your chances of capturing something remarkable next time you travel, he looks at creating a visual narrative, how to break the ice with your subjects, how to compose for impact and how to identify the best light. You can read part one here.
The secret to great travel photography
I think great travel photographs offer an insight into the world at large in all its diversity, adding something new to our understanding of a place and the people who live there. They evoke an emotional response and take people to places they may not have the opportunity to go themselves or might not feel comfortable being there.
The best of these also encapsulate unique moments in time that surprise, inform or intrigue viewers. And of course, they inspire people to travel & see the world for themselves. My favourite compliment is when I’m told a place or an event was visited because of one of my photos.
I aim to shoot strong individual images worthy of individual attention, but I shoot them in the context of telling a broader story through a series of clearly connected images to present as a visual narrative. These could be taken in one session, such as a morning at a market, or they could be accumulated over many visits and many years.
I do this by capturing different subjects, scenes and activities, by moving around constantly, varying my point of view and by composing with different focal lengths to ensure variety in the final presentation. When shooting with a story in mind my advice is not to hold back. It may feel like you’re taking way too many pictures, but it’s much better to have choices than to miss a key link in the narrative, which you may not discover until you’re actually putting the story together some time later.
Should you aim for posed or candid images?
I’m a documentary travel photographer so my aim it to capture the moment as I come across it. My version of posed travel photography is getting someone to look at the camera for a portrait or getting them to go back to what they were doing if they stop when I ask to take their photo, or they become aware I’m shooting.
I never pose subjects or set up images. I regard posed images, especially where people are choreographed into position, and often paid, to be commercial, not travel, photography.
Breaking the ice
I take a lot of people pictures, both portraits, which are close-up studies of a subject’s face; and environmental portraits, which include the subject’s surroundings as an integral part of the image, providing a context for the portrait. In my experience I have found that way more people are happy to be photographed than the few who refuse.
For both portraits and environmental portraits, I like to get close to my subjects. I feel that standing at a distance with a long lens rarely results in pleasing portrait images. My approach is to get in and get out quickly, to minimise my intrusion into their life. Because I am working close it’s pretty obvious I’m taking their photo so I ask permission first, I see it as common courtesy. Some people think this means you miss the opportunity of capturing natural people pictures.
To overcome this, I’ve learnt to work quickly. This is a classic example of where it pays to be completely comfortable with your equipment. If people do stiffen up in front of the camera it’s up to you to get them to relax. Take one frame however they have posed themselves, then wait, show them the image on the LCD screen or talk to them, before trying again.
How you approach people will affect the outcome of your request for a photo. Simply approaching with confidence, smiling and holding your camera up is usually sufficient to get your intention across and to receive a positive response. I thought it would be a good idea once to learn the phrase for asking permission in the local language, but being hopeless with languages it just caused confusion and much hilarity at my expense as I mispronounced the sentence again and again. I gave up and went back to smiling!
I plan the shot before I approach my subject. I think about the composition and make sure I’ve got the right lens on the camera. Should it be a close-up or environmental portrait? Should I compose horizontally or vertically?
I check my exposure settings and decide in advance on the viewpoint I think will work best. I only shoot using natural light, never using flash or fill-flash. I study the light on the person’s face and check where it’s coming from; I check the background to make sure it’s not distracting in terms of stray elements, distracting colours and patchy light.
I also work on the basis that I’m only going to get one chance, and it’s amazing how many of my best photographs come from situations where I was only able to capture one or two frames before something changed and the moment was gone.
This planning process allows me to position myself correctly in the first instance. Once I have permission to take a photo and engaged the person, they will usually follow me with their eyes if I move.
The slightest change of camera angle can make all the difference to the way their face is lit. Taking the time to work through these steps gives me the best chance of capturing natural-looking portraits. When I’ve got the shots I’ll show my subject the results on the LCD screen, it’s a quick and easy way to say thank you.
Work the Subject
Another one of my mantras is to compose for impact. For me that means building a composition around a strong point of interest and shooting in light that enhances the subject and in the best-case scenario, includes a dynamic element that adds fleeting drama and colour. There is no one single or correct composition for any given subject or scene.
Photographers regularly work the subject, exploring the different possibilities, all the time taking photos. I will definitely work a scene after getting the first shot, not necessarily because I think there is a better shot, but because I know there are nearly always other great shots to be had. I call it maximising the moment. I’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money to be in that place and I want to capture as many different images as I can.
For sure, one of them will be the best of the series, but others will be useful in a commercial way, such as giving an image buyer options and being able to provide multiple image buyers with different takes on the same subject.
Shoot in the best light
Light has the ability to transform a subject or scene from the ordinary to the extraordinary and is one of the most powerful tools at the photographer’s disposal. Consequently, I’m obsessed with this transformative power.
I work very hard to be in the right place at the right time to give myself the best chance to match my subject to the best possible light and with that the best possible chance of creating unique images. For me the best light is that which enhances my subject and focusses the viewer’s eye on the point of interest.
These days, no matter how magnificent the landscape or built environment or how interesting a person or the activity they’re engaged in is, if the light isn’t right, I tend not to shoot, preferring to find another subject or return at another time.
The ability to ‘see’ light, and to understand how it translates onto the sensor and impacts on your compositions is a crucial element in creating striking images. If this is a new concept, get out there and practice.
You can do this in your own backyard, literally. Or pick a favourite landscape or building close to home. Shoot the same subject with the same composition at different times of the day and study how the light affects the composition and mood of the image as shadows lengthen and shorten, colours change and textures and shapes are more or less accentuated. ❂
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.