We look back at the annual Travel Photographer of the Year contest to glean a selection of tips and ideas on how to take better shots and improve our travel photography skills.

Travel-Photography-Tips

Train travel, Bangladeshi style! Part of the portfolio that scooped GMB Akash of Bangladesh the overall Travel Photographer of the Year 2009 title.

The annual Travel Photographer of the Year competition is one of the highlights of the photography calendar and should be essential viewing for anyone interested in travel photography.

Looking back at the winning images from the 2009 contest, we couldn’t think of a better time to showcase some of our favourite shots and to see what tips and ideas we can glean from them to inspire us in our own travel photography.

As these images show, travel photography is very different from holiday photography, which is primarily a record of ourselves: where we went, what we did, what we saw. Travel photography is all about trying to capture something of the essence of a place, its people and its culture. It’s about telling a story in a collection of pictures, as well as creating great individual shots.

Why It Works

Shooting at close range with a wideangle has given the subject lots of impact and made him the clear focal point. Although he’s certainly aware of the camera, and probably posing, he was still photographed doing what he was already doing anyway, so the result looks natural. The use of a slow shutter speed on a moving train has created motion blur which has added to the dynamism.

Travel Photography Tips – People

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African dancer, Liberian National Peace & Cultural Festival. By Jonathan Banks, UK.

People

The essence of any culture is its people: their faces, clothes, jewellery, the way they live their lives. There are many ways to photograph people and, to tell the whole story of a country, you should explore a variety of approaches.

Candid Portraits

People are at their most natural when not posing for the camera, but getting good candid shots isn’t easy. Staying a discreet distance away and shooting with a telephoto lens is one method. Another is to use an ultra-wideangle and place subjects near the edge of the frame, or you could practice shooting from the hip.

Be sensitive to the fact that not everyone likes having their picture taken, especially if not looking their best, and be prepared to put your camera down and move on if you’re spotted and encounter a hostile reaction.

Posed Portraits

It’s much easier to photograph people with their consent, but there’s a chance they will look wooden in front of the camera. One way around this is to shoot them going about their normal business. You may have to stick around for a while to gain your subject’s trust and reach a level where they forget you’re there and start behaving naturally.

A short telephoto lens is great for head and shoulders shots, but wideangles are better for showing the subject in their environment. Getting close to your subject with a wideangle produces a dynamic perspective that gives the viewer a feeling of being close to the action.

Vary the Perspective

As well as using a variety of focal lengths, vary your shooting angle too. Try shooting from low angles looking up, or high ones looking down.

Watch your Depth of Field

The best way to isolate a subject from a distracting background is to select a wide aperture, particularly if combined with a moderate telephoto lens. This will blur the background so your subject stands out.

Fill-in Flash

Fill-in flash is a great tool for improving the lighting on a subject’s face, or for creating more impact, but must be used with care. Set an exposure to record the ambient illumination and reduce the flash power output by a couple of stops to make the flash more subtle.

Travel Photography Tips – Places

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After the fishing, Erhai Lake, Dali, China. By Johan Ensing, Netherlands.

Places

When you think of a foreign country, the chances are that the images you conjure up are of famous buildings, and landscapes.

Famous Landmarks

It would be a shame to come away from a country without any shots of its most famous sights, but try to avoid the clichés. Rather than going for a straight record shot, consider pulling back with a more wideangle lens and including some of the surrounding people and activity.

Time of Day

Research the places you’re going so you know when will be the best time to photograph them. You can get some idea just by looking at maps. With easterly facing buildings, for example, you’re likely to get the best shots early in the morning; westerly facing ones may be better saved for late in the day. For landscapes, early mornings and late afternoons are always best. Set your alarm for an early start and use the middle of the day for researching, editing or unwinding.

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South Coyote Buttes, Arizona, USA. By Louis Montrose, USA.

Exploring Cities

Cities are best photographed using a combination of walking and public transport. It’s a good idea to take a city tour when you first arrive as an orientation. Make lots of notes about the best sites to return to. Many tours let you hop on and off at each stop which can be useful, but be prepared to return at a different time if the light isn’t right.

High Viewpoints

If possible, a wide vista showing a city skyline, or rural view, can be a valuable addition to a travelogue and give the rest of your shots a sense of place. In most cities there will be a tall building or nearby vantage point from which you can shoot the skyline. Dusk is a great time for this, when the lights come on, but before it gets fully dark and you lose all the shadow details.

Settings

With landscapes, try to find some foreground interest to balance what’s in the distance. Set a small aperture for maximum depth of field. The resulting slow shutter speed will probably require the use of a tripod. An ND grad filter can be useful for darkening the sky and enhancing clouds without underexposing the ground below.

Travel Photography Tips – Details

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Table for two, La Guarida restaurant, Havana, Cuba. By Deb Hillerby, UK.

Details

Don’t get so caught up in the big picture that you fail to notice the small details that can say so much about a culture. Close-ups give you an opportunity to explore colours, textures and abstract shapes, or to home in on something that’s unusual or funny. Unless your subject is very small, a dedicated true macro lens isn’t essential but you will need one that offers reasonably close focusing to around a quarter lifesize.

Where to Find Them

Markets are an ideal place to find interesting details, whether it be food or trinkets. It’s best to ask the permission of the stall holder before pointing your camera at their goods, and in some cases a small token payment may be a welcome gesture. Keep your eyes peeled for street signs and shop windows too. Early morning and late afternoon light casts oblique shadows on subjects, which can often reveal interesting textures that aren’t visible in the middle of the day.

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Homeless man, with hands stained by huffing paint thinner. By Taylor Weidman, USA.

Focusing

Focusing can be tricky at close range and your depth of field will be reduced. This can sometimes be good for isolating your subject from the clutter around it, but in some cases it may not be enough for your needs so you’ll have to stop down the aperture. Be careful that your shutter speed doesn’t fall too low for handholding. If necessary, raise the ISO. A monopod can be ideal to grab shots at slowish shutter speeds, giving you a couple of extra stops of safe speeds to play with.

Travel Photography Tips – Know Before You Go/Kit Bag

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Vegetable vendor outside a butcher’s shop in New Delhi, India. By Karoki Lewis of India/UK.

Know Before You Go!

Where to Go

If photography is the main purpose of your trip, choose your destination wisely – you might not find much worth photographing in a purpose- built tourist resort! Research travel books and websites and view other photos on sites such as Flickr.

When to Go

Most countries have special festivals and events at certain times of the year which lend themselves to photography, and in some countries, such as India, the climate can change dramatically, throughout the year. Do your homework!

Stay Safe

Be very careful of wandering off the beaten path with expensive gear, especially in some poorer countries where the proceeds of your camera could feed a family for months. Don’t advertise your gear. When not in use, keep it hidden. Keep your bag close to you, and be wary if wearing a backpack as people can steal from them without you seeing.

Pack Spares

Take plenty of spare media cards and batteries as you may not easily be able to obtain more when you get there.

Obey the Law

Familiarise yourself with local laws before travelling. In some countries it may be illegal to photograph bridges or railway stations, for example. It’s good to know this stuff in advance!

Olympus-E-P1-17mmTravel Light

If you’re travelling from place to place you’ll curse yourself for taking too much. Stick with what you can carry in your hand luggage. If you’re based in one place you can take more, as you can keep your heavier kit in your room.

What Camera To Take:

A light DSLR, or micro system camera (e.g. Olympus Pen).

Lenses and Accessories:

  • A fast standard zoom like the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8.
  • A superwide, such as the Sigma 10-20mm.
  • A 75-300mm zoom, for candids, portraits and details.
  • Alternatively, a longer zoom between 18-135mm and 18-270mm is a good one-lens solution for backpackers.
  • Small flashgun, polarising filter, travel tripod.