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How to Capture the Essence of a Place – Travel Photography Tips

How to Capture the Essence of a Place


Travel Photography Tips

If you’re a traveler and you enjoy bringing back photos of the places you’ve visited – let’s face it, who doesn’t – then it’s extremely important to capture a set of images that more completely tells the story of the place. To me, the best way to ensure this in my own work is to work from a well thought out and organized shot list. Then I don’t have to worry about trying to remember the categories of images I have yet to photograph, as I have a check list at the ready all the time and I can easily track my progress.

Creating a shot list

The idea of creating a shot list is nothing new. It’s a concept that’s been around since the dawn of photography, and it’s so easy to incorporate into your photography workflow. I research what’s unique about the place so that I know what to be on the lookout for and then I make a list of all the categories of images I’d like to capture before I even set foot in a location. I find the more I know what I’m looking for, the more likely I am to find it. It really is as simple as that.

Scouting a location

Recently I had the opportunity to spend 10 days scouting in the reclusive Kingdom of Bhutan. It is one of the few countries in the world that require you to work with a local guide to drive and show you around the country at all times, that is unless you’re from a small number of surrounding countries, like India, whose citizens can come and go as they please.

Scouting trips are essential to laying the groundwork for the future photo tours I lead to any country, but even more so to this landlocked nation, about the size of Switzerland, but with only about 700,000 inhabitants. During a scouting trip I have a chance to meet, assess and bond with the local guide(s); visit the sites our group will visit; have the experiences they’ll be having; figure out the best times of days to be in certain locations and from where to shoot; and even test out the hotels, modes of transportation, restaurants and other services we’ll be using. But of course I’m also out to capture the quality images necessary to help market the trip to potential clients and to add these to my ever-growing portfolio from around the world. Additionally, although I’m often shooting right alongside my groups, having been to the location allows me to more fully concentrate on helping each participant to bring back the best possible images from their trip.

Dream location – Bhutan

Bhutan is a photographer’s dream, and there seems to be a photo opportunity around every corner from most of the categories on my shot list. But instead of shooting randomly, I try to use my list to track and organize the images I’m after. Maintaining your own shot list is as easy as using a piece of pen and paper, creating a spreadsheet, or simply using a free Notes app on your smart phone. Although, I did find the use of a shot list so important that I actually created an app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch® called My Shot Lists for Travel to aid me in doing this, and it’s always in my pocket.

Below is a set of images I culled from the many thousands I made during that initial scouting trip, as well as several from the photo tour itself. This select group of images is meant to give viewers a high level sense of what the country of Bhutan is about, and what one might expect on a visit there. I could, of course, add dozens of other images from additional categories (food, interiors, sacred sites, details, etc.) to help create a complete cultural portrait of Bhutan, and when I put together my slideshow presentations I certainly have the chance to do that, but unfortunately space doesn’t allow here. Perhaps in a follow up article I’ll continue this theme.

The following categories are presented in alphabetical order:


Travel Photography Tips Architecture  Punakha Dzong  Punakha Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

The architecture in Bhutan is extremely unique and it’s rare to find a single building that doesn’t adhere to this strict building convention. The “dzongs,” or fortresses (Punakha Dzong is pictured here), that dot the country are icons, and as such they’re an essential part of the visual story I want to tell.


Travel Photography Tips - Everyday Life  Woman Spinning Prayer Wheels at 7th Century Monastery  Bumthang Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

It’s extremely important to show the local people just doing what they do. It might be standing in doorways, sweeping the local monastery courtyard, or filling butter lamps. As is the custom in Bhutan, many people, from young to old, are found at the local monasteries spinning everything from very large prayer wheels (with the right hand only and in a clockwise direction) to personal ones as they walk, again clockwise, around the building.


Travel Photography Tips Landscapes Sunset Over Rice Paddies  Punakha Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

Capturing the landscapes in Bhutan is a must. Here, venturing just outside the town of Punakha, on a fairly rough dirt road, we came upon yet another series of rice terraces spilling down the hillside. At this time of year (image above), during the summer monsoon season, the fields are an almost neon green, and just as the sun was falling behind the nearby mountains, considered foothills to the mighty Himalaya nearby, we pulled off the side of the road and I was able to make a few images before the good light was gone. Summertime is a great season to highlight the very green rice fields and other local vegetation. Come fall and winter, however, this area is completely dry and brown and a different photo opportunity presents itself (below).

Travel Photography Tips Landscapes Dried Up Rice Paddy Landscape in November  Punakha Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco


Travel Photography Tips - Man Made Wonders - Tigers Nest Monastery in Complete Fog  Paro Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

Travel Photography Tips - Man Made Wonders - Tiger s Nest Monastery in the Mist  Paro Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

The Tiger’s Nest monastery is a classic example of a man-made wonder. First constructed in the late 1600s (it’s since burned down and been rebuilt several times) at almost 3,000 feet above the valley floor on a sheer cliff face, this architectural wonder is a great way of demonstrating man’s ingenuity and building skills. These images were made from the local viewpoint, just across a gaping chasm with a 1,000-foot drop. In the summer, weather is a bit unpredictable, but that can make for some great photo opportunities. I’d prefer to shoot on the fringes of inclement weather any day, as opposed to a plain blue sky, it just makes for much more interesting images. In the first image above I wanted to show what the scene looked like upon arrival, the prayer flags disappearing into the fog. But a bit of patience, one of the photographer’s best qualities (along with curiosity), paid off as the low lying clouds came and went, eventually revealing the Tiger’s Nest in an otherworldly haze, adding to its mystery.


Travel Photography Tips - Native Clothing - Woman in Kira in Wheat Field  P  Bumthang Valley Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

The people of Bhutan wear very distinctive clothing. The women wear what’s known as a “kira,” often accented by two brooches, as in the first image above. Some of these brooches are antiques and have been handed down to each successive generation and can be worth thousands of dollars. Again, something very distinctive to this place. I encountered this particular woman as she was picking wheat in a field in the Bumthang Valley. Asking my guide/driver to pull over to the side of the road, I climbed over several fences and negotiated some muddy trails to get closer, but I like to think the result was worth the effort. She’s also wearing a traditional bamboo hat often seen in this part of the country, and I certainly want to highlight that.

Travel Photography Tips- Native Clothing - Man in a Gho with Shadow  Thimpu Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

Men, on the other hand, wear what’s called a “gho.” This single piece of cloth, expertly wrapped around the man’s body and accented by the often white, rolled up sleeves, is seen everywhere in Bhutan, from the young school boys to the older men spinning their prayer wheels. The addition of a simple shawl is required to be draped over the man’s shoulder and around his waist as he enters the very sacred dzongs where it’s of the utmost importance to show respect for country and king. Our guide, Sangay, said that it’s law that during working hours a man must wear a gho. One of my tour participants asked him what the penalty is if a man is caught not wearing a gho, and Sangay said, “There is no penalty, it just doesn’t happen.”


Travel Photography Tips - People - Little Girl with Hands Folded at Pepper House  Bumthang Valley Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

Travel Photography Tips - People -  Time in a Face  Thimpu Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

As in any country, a people are their culture, and undoubtedly Bhutan is no exception. The people photo opportunities are virtually endless in this nation where everyone seems to be outside most of the time (the interiors of the houses can be very dark and smoky from the wood burning stoves and lack of quality electricity). Although I do make an effort to get inside of people’s homes to experience this essential part of a place, as well. Getting out early in Bhutan will often be rewarded, allowing you to capture the children on their way to school, and the adults on their way to work, all generations dressed in their traditional ghos and kiras.


Travel Photography Tips - Storytelling  Sangay Walking Up Trail to Tiger s Nest Monastery  Paro Bhutan  Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

Although it’s a good aspiration, not every image has to be worthy of a magazine cover. Sometimes it’s important just to make an image so that you can convey the story behind it. In this shot I simply wanted to show the condition of the trail we took to get up to the viewpoint overlooking the infamous Tiger’s Nest Monastery near Paro, Bhutan. It’s not going to win any awards, but I think it conveys this idea, which was my intention.

Final words of advice

So my recommendation is to work from your physical shot list, not try to commit it to memory or shoot whatever presents itself at the time. The more prepared you are for the photo opportunities you seek, the more you’ll find them, I can almost guarantee it. Have a goal of five solid images in each category before you tick it off your list, as this will provide you with options when it comes to putting together that book, website or slideshow presentation later.

Finally, know that any single image may represent two, three or even five or more categories, so there can be some crossover.

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Ralph Velasco
Ralph Velasco

is a travel photography instructor and international guide who has led trips to Morocco, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Spain, Central Europe, Mexico and Egypt, plus ten fully-licensed People-to-People programs to Cuba. His latest eBook is called Essence of a Place: A Travel Photographer’s Guide to Using a Shot List for Capturing Any Destination. Ralph is the creator of the My Shot Lists for Travel app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch®.

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