How to Put the Fine Art into Travel Photography

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“Fine Art” when it comes to travel photography is not an often used term and few photographers define themselves as “fine art travel photographers”. Genre definitions in photography can be highly subjective, and the fine art line can be very fine indeed. For me as a travel shooter, the fine art approach is just a natural extension of who I am and how I see and share the world through my images.

Vietnam is one of my favorite places to photograph, not only because of its remarkable aesthetic qualities but because of my great fondness for its people. And so when asked to talk about my photography through the fine art lens, using Vietnam as the focal point was an easy choice to make.

Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography - Vietnam rice terraces

Flower H’mong mother and daughter walking a rice terrace berm in Mu Cang Chai, northern Vietnam. Exposure settings: f/4, 1/2000th, ISO 400, 70mm focal length.

fishermen resting on Boats - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

Fishermen resting. Shot from a bridge near Lang Co Bay. Exposure settings: f/8, 1/320th, ISO 800, 56mm focal length.

The Fine Art of Travel Photography – People and Landscapes

Fine art photography, at least the way I see it, is about focusing on a specific style or look that reoccurs in every image with a goal to create aesthetically pleasing and engaging work.

Fine art travel photography implies that each travel-themed photo is of a very high artistic standard with consistent consideration to an effective composition, use of tonal range (lights and darks), and a balanced or focused color scheme throughout the photo.

Personally, I use natural light, and again, approach a photo to be a work of art. The goal is to create a visually striking image that looks similar to what a painter might have created, while still also looking completely like a photograph.

Fishermen in Halong Bay - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

Fishing amidst the thousands of karst limestone formations of fabled Ha Long Bay. Exposure settings: f/9, 1/200th, ISO 800, 35mm focal length.

Fishermen Ballet - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

Four fishermen raise their nets on the Perfume River in Hue, central coastal Vietnam. Exposure settings: f/11, 1/160th, ISO 800, 30mm focal length.

Showcase the people and culture

I aim to do this while still faithfully representing a country’s culture, with the goal to accurately, if ideally, portray the personality and lives of the people within the photos. I have always been most interested in the artistic side of travel photography, and less so in the traditional or documentary approach.

That said, I can see myself taking on more singularly focused projects in the future, where I can apply my artistic sense to the challenges of documentary storytelling within the travel space.

Vietnamese Monk - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

A Khmer-Vietnamese monk daydreams at his monastery window in the Mekong Delta region. Exposure settings: f/4, 1/125th, ISO 640, 40mm focal length.

Set your intention of making art

Although it may seem obvious, I think it’s critically important when adopting the fine art style to have the intention of making art throughout the process – from preparation to post-production. I take this mindset into the field and shoot a variety of subjects in various ways.

Portraiture is my first love, but I also enjoy landscape, wildlife, and cultural documentary photography. The purpose is to showcase scenes of life and culture for others to observe and enjoy. And of course I enjoy it as well, or I wouldn’t be doing it!

Playing in the River - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

Ladies from the Cham ethnic group in Phan Rang having their own water festival. Exposure settings: f/36, 1/15th, ISO 400, 90mm focal length.

Lady in Conical Hat - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

Vietnamese lady wearing the traditional white “Ao Dai” and Non La (conical hat), Saigon. Exposure settings: f/4, 1/125th, ISO 640, 70mm focal length.

Have a vision and shoot with a purpose

In each work, I try to have a vision and understand what the photo will be about and how it will look in my mind before I take it. There is nothing in the frame that shouldn’t be there – everything included serves a purpose.

I also like to look for patterns in the scenes and feature these in the composition. Careful composition allows for clean backgrounds, no unnecessary distractions from the subject, and a clear focal point that is immediately identifiable against a complementary background that helps to tell the story or set the mood for the piece.

Below is some insight into how I approached photographing some of my favorite Vietnam images taken over the last few years.

Forever in Love

Forever in Love - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

“Forever in Love” – A loving couple in Hoi An share a moment of joy and happiness together in their garden as the sun sets. At the time of photography, they had been married for 66 years. Exposure settings: f/7.1, 1/200th, ISO 500, 50mm focal length.

I met a fellow travel photographer who now resides in Vietnam, Réhahn Croquevielle, and he generously invited to show me around his hometown of Hoi An. I was lucky to meet a lovely old couple who live in his village. When I met them they were smiling widely and happy be photographed by us.

To take this photo, I first observed the direction of light. Then I made sure to position them in front of the setting sunlight so their faces would be bright and the details on their skin well exposed.

I also had to consider the background and overall scene, and I found an area near one of their vegetable patches which was clean (consistent colors and even patterns without clutter) while also providing context and a backstory for the couple. So I asked them to sit there. They found this all very funny and were laughing constantly as we kept the mood light and fun, which I think is important to help make subjects enjoy a portrait session.

Interesting subject matter is the most important element to a successful photograph, in my opinion, followed by good composition and lighting. But a background that complements and doesn’t distract from the focal point is also crucial for a powerful photograph, and perhaps too often overlooked.

Playing in a Sea of Fishing Nets

Playing in a Sea of Fishing Nets - Playing in a Sea of Fishing Nets

A happy boy playing in a blue sea of fishing nets in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. Exposure settings: f/8, 1/250th, ISO 500, 24mm focal length.

I was in search of a workshop where fishing nets are made by hand in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. When I arrived, I noticed a boy and his friends were curious about my presence and wanted to meet me and help out if they could. They led me to the net weaving shop, which was a large open-ended structure with a corrugated tin roof.

Inside were seated ladies spread about busily creating these nets. I was immediately struck by the blue color and knew it would be very photogenic, but it was important to get the right light to make them come to life. I noticed all the ladies were in shaded, darker areas where the light wasn’t strong enough. There was an area that was close to an opening in the rooftop, under a natural skylight. I saw that the light was good there, but without a human subject the photo wouldn’t be so interesting.

Since I had created a rapport with the boy and his friends and they were still hanging around, I encouraged them to play in the fishing nets. Demonstrating myself, I ran and jumped into the nets, making everyone laugh, and the kids started to do the same themselves. I captured this photo knowing that the frame had to be filled with the blue fishing nets to bring attention to the boy. It’s his genuine smile and action that makes this photo all the more interesting and enjoyable to view.

Patterns on the Streets of Hanoi

Patterns on the Streets of Hanoi - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

A busy street scene in Hanoi photographed from a bridge on a rainy morning. Exposure settings: f/14, 1/40th, ISO 1250, 35mm focal length.

It was raining one morning that I was to be exploring the city of Hanoi, which could have been considered a problem for photography. I went to the Long Bien Bridge after visiting a nearby market and observed the traffic passing by underneath me. I saw the potential for a really interesting pattern of cyclists with the high volume of motorbike traffic and the occasional bicycle. The rain had stopped, but the wet roads were creating reflections which would ultimately be beneficial and make for more dynamic lighting in the picture.

I waited a long time and photographed many combinations and patterns of commuters. I felt it was important to have an interesting focal point that was different from the rest of the scene. That was either going to be a person walking across the road or riding a bicycle amongst the sea of cars and other traffic.

I decided to use a slightly slower shutter speed to blur the traffic and capture the human subject sharper than the surroundings. It took a lot of patience and time on the bridge to finally capture an interesting pattern. It was fun to find the art in simple, everyday life.

Old Man with a Lute

Old Man with Lute - Putting the Fine Art into Travel Photography

Exposure settings: f/4, 1/160th, ISO 1000, 70mm focal length.

I met this old man in the small idyllic village of Ninh Binh where he was walking by a lake. When he learned that I would like to make his portrait, he invited me into his home close by. We drank some tea and I spent some time together with his family.

Before I photograph someone, I always look around the scene and try to find the right place where I will take their picture, depending on the lighting and the background. I noticed near a window there was strong natural light coming into his otherwise dark home, and I placed a chair in this spot for him to sit. There was enough light on the man to not require a tripod in this position.

I noticed an old lute hanging on the wall. I found out that it was his and he could play, so I asked if he could show me. As he played, I took some pictures, but I noticed that the light would be stronger on his face, which is the main focal point if he were looking out the window. The breeze from the window blew his beard gently to one side, creating some movement in this portrait of an interesting, old and very friendly Vietnamese man who I was privileged to meet and photograph.

Here are a few more example images of my fine art travel photography.

Fisherman at Sunrise

Girl with Blue Eyes

Lady with Fan

Mekong Breakfast

Running and Playing

Salt Harvesters

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

David Lazar is travel photographer based in Brisbane, Australia, who’s been featured in National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Condé Nast Traveller, Australian Photography, Practical Photography and numerous other publications. He also leads annual Vietnam photo tour workshops, as well as in India and Indonesia. To see more of David’s work please visit his website.

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  • Rogue

    What suggestions do you have for an introvert who is a little shy to approach people in getting them to take shots and overcoming a language and cultural barrier?

  • David Lazar

    I would recommend pushing yourself to engage and interact with more people when you travel, and if you practice approaching people and interacting with them, you will find yourself becoming more comfortable with this over time. A smile is most important, and maybe showing interest in what they’re doing or something about their culture or surroundings is a good start. Learning some words in their language can be good too, but ultimately gesture and expression will go a long way if there is a language barrier. Good luck!

  • Rogue

    Thanks! I have been getting better about approaching folks locally, but haven’t quite gotten the bravery up for when I travel.

    Have you ever had a negative experience or a rejection to you taking a photo?

  • No negative experience I can recall, but sometimes people have said no to having their photo taken, which is fine. I respect their decision – not everyone has to say yes, but still nothing lost in asking, and I find more often than not people will be happy for it, especially if there was a bit or rapport created first.

  • Rogue

    Awesome, thank you!

  • Adrian Lowe

    A very well presented article focusing (sorry) on the art more than the technical which is (the art) sadly missing these days. Of course, it has to come from a Brissy boy. Your photos and site are magnificent, and truly an inspiration for photographers to see the importance of creating elements in the image in all and only ways that are complementary. You’ve definitely got the eye, and the vision.

  • Thanks very much Adrian, it’s much appreciated.

  • rwhunt99

    I understand what you are saying, it is simply the art of photography and with hard work, and perseverance, the photos you take are taken with the idea of art in the first place, every beautiful photo should be a work of art.

  • drdroad

    I rarely ask people if I can photograph them. I don’t want to work with them anymore than I want to go back to doing weddings and portraits. Look at the photos in this article. For me, the photos with people in them that you don’t need to ask are the best. The others are just portraits. Pretty people, but . . .?

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  • kenneth

    Thanks for sharing such informative tips on fine art photography, Vietnam is a place I like to go to visit ,the rich culture and traditional activities are good subject to photography. The attached photo was taken while a picnicker playing with bubble foams. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dc4bcfc4e2fd6fa5ab0a34db032115dfd8e9e1254e0a465181dff61b62e14d3c.jpg

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