Five Pro Tips For Travel Photography
Photographing with New Eyes
Originally published in Shutterbug’s Outdoor
and Nature Photography magazine, Fall 1998.
Marcel Proust, the French novelist, wrote in his autobiography: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Proust applied his maxim to life, but I think it applies equally well to travel photography. Recently I’ve been teaching myself to photograph with “new eyes.” This article describes some tips that I’ve come across that you can use in your photographic “voyage of discovery.”
A few years ago, I turned “pro” by resigning my job and working full-time on a new series of travel guides for photographers called PhotoSecrets. The task appeared straight-forward — I would simply need to shoot photos of all the classic views in a geographic area. I soon found, however, that my amateur snaps weren’t sufficient for the requirements of a publishing venture. A book demands a different type of photograph than a personal photo album, and I needed to make my photographs more powerful, colorful, evocative and inspiring. Upon inspection, I discovered a whole dimension of skills I needed to learn to become ‘professional’ — making images suitable for publication instead of merely snapping to record memories. Like Proust, I didn’t just need new landscapes; I needed new eyes.
The first step was to better understand my objective. I started looking at travel books and magazines to discover which photographs I admired. As the adage goes, start with the end in mind. I analyzed the best photographs to determine what made them work, and why they were more effective than my pictures. This was a time-consuming task but I highly recommend it as a tool to improve your photography. The pictures I admired displayed bold colors, a simple composition, a good use of light, a three-dimensional depth, and an unusual and interesting view of a familiar sight.
After learning what I wanted to achieve, I read photography books and magazines, such as Shutterbug’s Outdoor and Nature Photography, to learn the skills I needed. The final step was to put the skills into practice, by setting up exercises and shooting many rolls of film. As with most skills, practice makes perfect, and practice is the fun part! This is a continuous-feedback cycle, and I continue to compare my photos to images I admire.
Here are five tips to help you improve your travel photography.
1. Aim for Impact
A great photograph catches the eye. It leaps off the page and demands attention. While a picture may say a thousand words, I think a great photo should say just one — “Wow!”
There are four keys to visual impact: simplicity, color, light, and depth.
Simplicity. When I look at many photographs, the element that is most often missing is simplicity — they’re just too cluttered. To deliver a clear message you must have a concise statement. In your photographs, crop out unnecessary items and resolve the view down to the most fundamental elements. Include only enough of the surroundings to give your subject some context. Banish distracting clutter, particularly from the edges of the picture. You can simplify a shot by getting closer to your subject and using a wide-angle lens, or zooming in more with a long lens.
When photographing a California mission, for example, I like to use a strong foreground and a 28mm lens. I place the white mission in the top third of the frame and fill the lower two-thirds with colorful flowers or a fountain. I love to overflow the bottom of the frame for that endless feel. Using a small aperture, such as f22, keeps everything in focus.
On the cover of my San Francisco book is a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands. Other photographers choose to include the whole bay and scenery, but I used a 300mm lens, plus a 2x converter, to zoom in tight on just the north tower. Using a representative detail of the bridge, rather than the entire span, makes the image simpler and thus more powerful.
Color. My favorite way to create impact is to look for bold hues. I love shots with sports-car reds, soothing blues, vibrant yellows and luscious greens. Again, simplicity is key — try to minimize the number and types of colors in your shot for more impact. Generally a photograph should have one main subject and one main color. Concentrate on just one of the three primary colors: red, blue, or yellow. These dominating colors are best balanced with their respective complementary colors: red with green, blue with orange, and yellow with purple.
For years I couldn’t record dramatic colors in my photographs; it was very frustrating. I tried filters and exposure bracketing, but nothing worked. And then I found the secret, which can be summed up in a word: Velvia. Changing to Fujichrome Velvia (ISO 50) slide film suddenly turned my tame amateur snaps into bold professional images. It was like a revelation. Kodak’s Ektachrome E100S and Elite II 100 are highly saturated films too, though not quite as “punchy.”
There are two other tricks for bold colors, both very simple. The first is to use a polarizer filter, a very inexpensive accessory. On almost every daytime outdoor photograph I use a polarizer to deepen the blue sky. It also wipes glare from surfaces, allowing rich colors to shine through. The second is to constrain your image to medium tones. Unlike the human eye, photographic film has a small dynamic range that can only capture a narrow range of brightness levels. So, exclude elements that are much brighter or darker than your subject is, and keep an even tone throughout the frame. Ansel Adams codified this theory in his famous “Zone System.”
Light. A good use of light is often the key to award-winning photos. Using daylight effectively can also improve your colors. The key to that rich “National Geographic” look is to photograph when the light is golden — the hours immediately after sunrise and before sunset, often called the “magic hours” by photographers. As the sun approaches the horizon, its light has to pass through a greater air mass, including ozone, dust and water vapor. Wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum are scattered and absorbed more than those at the red end of the spectrum, so the sunlight appears to turn yellow, then red. This golden light paints your scene in the warmth of a log fire, creating stunning images. The dimmer light also contracts the brightness range of the scene, allowing camera film to better capture the colors.
]Depth. Include some pointers to depth, to give your two-dimensional photographs a three-dimensional feel. For example, place the subject and context in different spatial planes by combining a distant background with a close foreground. Look for “leading lines,” such as a wall, fence or pathway to pull the viewer into the shot. Again, photograph in the “magic hours” as longer shadows enhance shape and texture, and help separate the subject from the background.
2. Conduct Reseach
The more you research a destination, the better your photos will likely be. This is the basis of my first book, PhotoSecrets San Francisco and Northern California, which catalogs all the classic views of the area so that you can capture your favorite views.
Before visiting a location, send away for free literature. Most cities and countries have convention and visitor bureaus or tourist boards that are happy to send you free booklets with color photos. Color travel guides and picture books include numerous photos. I find the Internet is great for pre-trip research. In any search engine, simply type in some key words, such as “California, San Diego, Tourism, Travel.” I maintain a list of useful sites on my web site at photosecrets.com.
When you arrive at a location, scour postcard racks and souvenir photo books, visit local tourist information offices, and talk with hotel staff and taxi drivers to learn what views are out there, waiting for your camera.
Before visiting India, I found a photo book with a fascinating view of the Taj Mahal, taken from the Yamuna River. When I got to the famed monument, no one knew how to access the river, including the tourist information staff. Eventually a taxi driver recognized the view and he agreed to take me there before dawn. We drove down a tiny alley and arrived at the riverbank, which was deserted except for a small house. Just as the sun began to rise, a man appeared from the house for a morning smoke. After asking his permission, I took a few photos of him enjoying his cigarette and the dawn. The shot, taken on my last amateur trip, is one of my favorites and won an honorable mention in a National Geographic Traveler photo contest.
3. Explore the Area
Before you start taking photos, get orientated by taking a 2-3 hour guided bus tour of the major sights. Use the time to make a list of the views you want to capture, and map out a plan to re-visit when each sight is in the best light. Generally, sights that face east are best in the morning, as the sun rises in the east, and sights that face west are best in the afternoon. (In the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing sights are best in the winter, as the sun rises and sets towards the south, and north-facing sights are best in the summer, when the sun is more northerly.)
Take time to appreciate a sight. Most people tend to take one shot and then move on, but I recommend staying longer and exploring the scene with your camera. Search for interesting foregrounds and vary the framing and composition.
I was photographing Mission Dolores Church in San Francisco when a tour group came through. The tourists each took a few standard shots, then departed. I stayed longer and explored the adjacent basilica and its flamboyant Spanish Baroque facade. I loved the mass of sugar-candy decoration and the way the sunlight picked out the texture. The extra time paid off — my shot of the basilica was picked for the cover of The San Francisco Book, the city’s official visitor guide.
4. Include Personality
When I started publishing my travel photos, I noticed that picture editors were looking for one common element — people. Including one or two people in a shot adds a point of connection for the viewer, a sense of being there. It can also add a sense of scale to a vast landscape feature, such as the Grand Teton mountain range or Yosemite’s towering waterfalls.
San Francisco’s cable cars provide rich pickings, as people love to hang outside on the rail. The climbs up Hyde Street by Fisherman’s Wharf, and California Street over Nob Hill, are my favorites. Attend festivals, and cultural or historic events and shows, where people are dressed in colorful, photogenic costumes.
5. Strive for Variety
Variety is the spice of life — and photography. Think how your photos will look as a group and shoot accordingly. Try to vary your styles, mix wide-angle overviews and individual details, daytime and night, portraits and abstracts.
When researching a city, I search for subjects in several categories, such as icons, skylines, monuments, buildings, people, street scenes, festivals, places of worship, lakes and oceans, food, etc. Look for unusual views of familiar things, as well as views that combine several icons. In London, for example, I tried combining British icons, such as a pub and an old telephone box. Remember that when you show your photos to friends and family, You’ll be telling a story. So include shots of the more ‘ordinary’ parts of your trip, such as signs, transportation, and restaurants to illustrate your story and provide variety.
I hope that these tips give you some new ideas to try out on your next adventure. They’ve certainly improved my photography. Just keep in mind what Proust (almost) said to travel photographers: don’t just seek new landscapes but seek them with new eyes.
Copyright 1998–2007 Andrew Hudson for PhotoSecrets / Photo Tour Books, Inc. You may reproduce this article for personal, educational, non-commercial and non-Internet use, such as in a local photo club newsletter or school project. No Internet publishing is permitted. For commercial use, please email me for permission. This article was originally written for Shutterbug’s Outdoor and Nature Photography magazine, fall 1998.