Few subjects inspire the creative juices like travelling to another country. We explain how to make the most of your visit by improving your travel photography.
We all like to take photos when we go abroad, but there’s a big difference between a few snaps in front of the main tourist spots and a set of photographs that capture the spirit and essence of a place. Good travel photography should tell the story of your journey, of places seen, of people met and events witnessed.
Or you can narrow the scope to an essay on a specific aspect the place you’re visiting: Cuba’s American cars, the Moghul architecture of India, or portraits of local children, for example.
Travel photography incorporates many genres within it, such as landscape, architecture, street photography and portraiture, so a variety of skills need to be mastered in order to tell the full story. Good travel photography not only observes, but engages with the people of the countries visited.
Successful travel photography starts long before the trip itself. As with many things in life, good planning increases the chances of a positive outcome. Your choice of where to go and when, as well as what to take with you, will to a great extent dictate the results you’ll get. Here are a few pointers.
Travel photography: Preparation
Deciding where to go and when is the first step. If the trip is purely photographic and you don’t have to consider the needs of other, non-photographers in your group, the world is your oyster.
You are free to be influenced by whatever inspires you – religious temples, ancient tribes, rainforests, colonial architecture, and so on. If you do have to accommodate others, such as for a family holiday, try to choose somewhere that ticks every box.
Barcelona, for example, has great beaches and theme parks, but is also a photographer’s paradise. Cuba, Thailand and Morocco are among many other places that are able to satisfy conflicting needs.
It could also be that you have little or no say in your destination – perhaps you’re being sent somewhere on business. If so, try to build in a little solo photography time.
Travel photography: Research
Once a destination has been determined, it’s important to research the photographic opportunities. Guide books are good, of course, but the web is your best friend here.
Don’t just visit tourism sites; go to photo sharing websites like Flickr and search for images of the places you’ll be visiting, to see the kinds of photos that other people have taken there.
With Flickr in particular, you can do a general image search and order the results by ‘Most Interesting’ to get the best shots first, or you can see if there is a group dedicated to your chosen location – the chances are there will be.
You may also discover locations you were previously unaware of – add them to your list of places to visit. The next step is to consult Google Maps to see where in relation to one another these locations are; those that are close together can be visited consecutively.
With buildings or viewpoints, pay particular attention to which direction they face, so you’ll know whether to visit them in the morning or the afternoon to get the best light.
Travel photography: Before you go
- Make sure your camera equipment is covered by your travel insurance or home insurance, or take out a specific policy
- Make sure your sensor is clean. You can clean it yourself using one of a variety of products from the likes of Visible Dust and Green Clean, or get it done professionally. Park Cameras (www.parkcameras.co.uk) is one of numerous places that offers this service. The time and expense spent doing this could save you many hours of retouching dust spots later
- Take your camera gear as hand luggage. Choose a bag that will fit within the hand luggage dimensions, but also has pockets for tickets, passports etc. On flights with a miserly hand luggage allowance wear a jacket with big pockets and fill those with extra kit
Travel photography: Camera kit
The biggest dilemma in planning a trip is how to strike the right balance between having enough gear to be prepared for every eventuality, and turning the trip into an ordeal by having to lug tens of kilos of gear around in the sweltering heat.
Unfortunately, the best-quality gear is usually the heaviest, so choosing the lighter, more convenient options often compromises on image quality. The answer should always depend on how big a part photography will play on your trip.
On a family holiday or business trip, photography time may be something you’ll be sneaking into the itinerary, so try to keep your kit to a minimum. If, however, photography is the entire point, then you may want to go fully laden. For an entirely photographic expedition, I take the following:
I take two DSLR bodies so that I have a backup if one fails, and so that I can keep a different lens mounted on each body to reduce the need to change lenses. Swapping lenses in the field loses time and risks missing potential shots, as well as increasing the chance that dust could get onto the sensor.
My main camera is a full-frame pro DSLR, which is fairly heavy. My backup camera is a smaller APS-C model, which can shoot HD video and extends the effective focal length of my lenses by 50%. In addition, I have my Apple iPhone 4S, which features one of the best cameras on any phone – perfect for quick, discreet snaps, or pictures that I want to quickly upload to Flickr or Facebook.
Back in my film days, I avoided zooms and carried seven primes in my bag. Zooms are better quality now and help to cut down on the weight, but even so I avoid the cheaper, more lightweight options and stick with the heavier professional models for their superior optical quality. My 24-120mm f/4 lens makes an excellent, general-purpose, standard optic on the full-frame camera, as it offers outstanding image quality. For my wideangle needs, a 10-20mm f/3.5 lens is perfect, with its fast and constant maximum aperture. As an APS-C lens, though, it has to stay on my backup DSLR. A decent telephoto lens is a must, for candids, distant landscapes and wildlife. My preferred lens is a 70-200mm f/2.8, but it’s a monster, so for travel work I tend to favour a 70-300mm with image stabilisation, which is typically smaller and has a longer reach.
Finally I never go anywhere without at least one fast prime lens – perfect for low light or shallow depth of field. My first choice is the 50mm f/1.8, which makes an excellent portrait lens, especially on an APS-C sensor when it becomes equivalent to a 75mm f/1.8 lens.
Travel photography: Accessories
I rarely use flash but it’s there if I need it – mainly for filling in dark shadows. The Nikon Speedlight SB-700, for example, is a good compromise between power and size.
A tripod is invaluable for low-light photography but carrying one around can be a chore. Gitzo’s Traveller 1580 TQR5 is among the smallest and lightest available.
A lightweight monopod can help to support the camera when using long zooms or shooting at camera-shake-inducing shutter speeds. At 390g, the National Geographic Tundra is light, and small, enough to hook on my belt or keep on my bag in case of emergencies.
I’ve had a Manfrotto 709B mini tripod for about 20 years and it’s got me out of many tight situations. Despite its size, its all-metal construction makes it strong enough to support my full-frame DSLR with 24-120mm f/4 lens. It lives permanently in the corner of my camera bag.
The free strap that comes with the camera is pretty uncomfortable when you’re having to carry a heavy camera around all day. My Black Rapid RS-Sport strap is worn across the body with the camera hanging by my side from the tripod bush. The springy neoprene Op-Tech straps are a good weight-reducing alternative.
Plenty of fast, high-capacity media cards are a must. Mine are mostly SanDisk Extreme Pro or Lexar Professional cards, and are designed to withstand professional-level abuse. The Lexar dual slot USB 3.0 reader takes both my SD and CF cards.
Apple’s smallest, lightest laptop, the 11in MacBook Air, is a thing of beauty. Barely heavier than an iPad and not much bigger, it comes loaded with Apple’s iPhoto and iMovie, and the built-in webcam makes it great for making Skype calls home.
It is essential to back up your images to at least one external source besides the media cards. The sturdy, rubberised iomega eGo offers one terabyte of storage and comes in a durable case.
I have a large collection of camera bags and none is perfect for every occasion, but for travel photography I prefer a shoulder bag to a backpack as it allows instant access to my gear if a photo opportunity arises. I have a 20-year-old Tenba bag that is tall enough to hold a laptop and contains several internal, full-width pockets, some with zips, so I can keep my passport, money and documents safe
The minimal option
For those who want to travel light but still cover all the bases, an 18-200mm superzoom lens, would be a good compromise, and will fit into a small bag. I would still take along a 50mm prime lens, however, as it takes up virtually no space – and, of course, a tabletop tripod.
Travel photography: Top shooting tips
Don’t be embarrassed to ask interesting locals if you can take a photograph of them. For head-and-shoulder portraits like this, use a wide aperture to blur the background and focus on the eyes.
I much prefer fast prime lenses such as the 50mm f/1.8 for this type of subject. Pay attention to the light. If the sun is in the subject’s face, turn them around so that they aren’t squinting or obscured by ugly shadows (though the shadows cast by side lighting can look good in some situations).
Take a meter reading from the face to avoid having the exposure influenced by the brightbackground. Some photographers like to use fill-in flash, which can work, though it’s extra kit and more hassle.
Alternatively, shoot in the shade to get soft, shadowless lighting. Don’t ask people to smile, it looks cheesy. If you can say something to get them to smile naturally that’s great, otherwise just capture a natural expression.
Unobserved candids can be great too.
They allow you to get natural, unposed images of people going about their lives, though sometimes the sight of a camera may cause those people to stop doing what it was that you found so interesting.
While shooting candids can mean standing in the shadows with a long lens, even at close range with a wideangle optic it’s possible to shoot unobserved.
The trick is to set the focus and exposure with your camera by your side, then quickly raise it, shoot and lower it again.
The whole action can be over in seconds, and markets – even at night, due to modern high-ISO performance – make for atmospheric shots.
Architecture forms an important part of travel photography, and many countries are defined by their iconic buildings.
Move around your subject to find the best viewpoint and lighting; if these do not coincide, return later, when the sun will bathe a different façade.
When shooting tall buildings, keep the camera level and move further back (if possible) to include the whole structure without tilting. Or seek a high viewpoint adjacent to subject. This will help to avoid distortion.
If you can’t take a tripod, then modern digital cameras make it easier than ever to shoot handheld at night.
Many DSLRs produce acceptable images at ISO 12,800 and even higher, which means you can even shoot moving subjects such as street markets.
Make the most of this opportunity and you’ll be rewarded with some really atmospheric shot.
Travel photography: Tips and tricks
Take a smartphone with you and use it to snap interesting landmarks. The GPS information it records will help you to identify the location when you’re back home.
Of course, if your camera can record GPS information, you won’t need to do this.