5 Common Mistakes Aspiring Travel Photographers Make (+ How to Avoid Them)

5 Common Mistakes Aspiring Travel Photographers Make (+ How to Avoid Them)

This travel photography post is written by Mitchell Kanashkevich – author of Transcend Travel: a Guide to Captivating Travel Photography

As you can gather from the title, this post relates to travel photography. However, I want to note that travel photography is a broad topic and so for most part, the mistakes that I’ll discuss here are actually made by the majority of those of us who are in the beginning of our journey into the world of photography, regardless of the genre we’re involved in.

Because I wanted to go into some detail and to provide some visual examples, we’ve decided to split this post up into two parts. Without further ado, here’s part I and check back for part II.

1. Having misconceptions about equipment

The two main misconceptions that we most often have about equipment when we’re starting out in photography are:

  • The latest, greatest gear results in better photos.
  • The gear you have is not good enough because your images are not. In other words you blame the equipment.

A camera doesn’t take the photo, nor does any piece of photographic equipment. Photos are made by you – the photographer. Sure in some very rare cases you might have a technical issue with a camera body or a lens, but for most part that’s not the concern. Most of the essential photographic gear is better than good enough these days, it has been for the last five years or so (with the development of affordable digital SLRs), one just has to know how to use it to its full potential.

My advice here in short is – forget about chasing the latest, greatest stuff. Get out there with what you have, figure out how to get the most out of your equipment, learn when to use one lens over another, when to use a tripod and of course, learn about the basics of photography – setting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. This might seem like the most obvious advice imaginable, but somehow so many aspiring photographers still think that it’s all about the equipment you have, there’s just nothing further from the truth.

2. Not Researching

When I refer to research, I simply mean gathering as much information as possible about the place you’re traveling to. The best time/season to travel, the DOs and DON’Ts, the modes of transportation – these are the necessities, that we must find out about before every trip in order to have a smooth experience not only as far as photographing, but traveling in general.

Beyond the necessities, when photography is the main focus of your trip, it’s worth finding out as much as possible about what’s visually special in the place you’re going to. Sometimes this isn’t going to be obvious, you might have to dig a little, but when you do, a great number of photographic opportunities arise.

Traditional Vedhic school, Thrissur, India

I’ve chosen to include the image above because the story behind it is a good example of what even simple research can lead to. The photo depicts a Namboodiri boy (priest caste) chanting the Vedhas (which can be described in short ancient Indian bits of wisdom) in a traditional Vedhic school in the town of Thrissur. This place (the school) is not a major attraction, it’s not something that the regular visitor travels to Thrissur for, but to me it provided an incredibly interesting photographic opportunity. Despite the fact that I would have never just wandered in there by random chance, as the school is isolated from the main town, it wasn’t at all hard to find it or gain access to shoot there, it was simply a matter of knowing that it existed.

The reason I knew about it is very simple – I researched and by this I don’t mean that I did something complicated and difficult. I went into the tourist office and chatted to the staff there, telling them that I’m a photographer and that I’m keen to see anything that’s visually interesting and unique in their town. After “picking their brains” for about an hour I got a few bits of useful information and the traditional Vedhic school was one of the places I realised I just had to check out.

3. Not looking beyond the main attraction

A lot of travel destinations have “must see”, “must photograph” main attractions. Sometimes we get so obsessed with getting an image of these attractions that we fail to see the subjects around them which could be equally or even more photographically interesting.

I’ve been guilty of this numerous times in the past and so these days I consciously force myself to look at what else there is to photograph besides the obvious. Sometimes this might even mean that I stay at a place for an extra day or two. I photograph the main attraction and then discover the lesser known yet still photo-worthy subjects. This is how the following image came to be. It was taken in Bromo National park.

Bromo National Park, Java, Indonesia

During my first couple of days I shot what everyone shoots there – the Bromo volcano and the neighbouring mountains, from different viewpoints. On the third day, rather than make my way to another viewpoint from which to photograph the volcano and mountains at sunrise, I decided to purposely focus my attention elsewhere. I rode around the area on a rented motorcycle and noticed the spectacular scene of these horsemen walking in the fog through the surrounding volcanic desert.

4. Not being aware of light

Not being aware of light means that you simply shoot whatever you see in any given lighting conditions without giving much thought to the whole matter. Your results might have impact on the viewer every now and then and they might sometimes reflect what you want to say and how you feel about what you see, but more often than not that won’t be the case.

Being aware of light means that you know there are different kinds of light and that the way your image looks will greatly depend on the light you shoot it in. This of course also means that you can make a conscious effort to photograph in the kind of light which will reflect what you want to say and how you feel about the subject you’re photographing.

Let’s look at a simple example.

Transylvanian countryside, Romania

The landscape in the image above looks beautiful, vibrant and dramatic because it is lit by the golden light during sunrise. I made a conscious decision to photograph in this kind of light because I knew that it would bring the colours present in this scene to life and it would basically “beautify” everything.

The light enabled me to create an image that reflected what I wanted to say – how beautiful Transylvanian countryside is, as well as to communicate the excitement which I felt. Had I photographed the same scene without considering light, I could have very well ended up with something much less dramatic. I would have likely just photographed the landscape the first time I saw it and that was on an overcast day, when the light made everything look rather grey and drab.

5. Avoiding artificial light

As we get a little more familiar with light and begin to develop an understanding of how it effects our photographs, a lot of us tend to move away from using artificial light, especially flashes.

The reason most of us do this is because we don’t have enough knowledge about artificial light. It’s true that the on-camera flash should indeed be avoided at all costs, but it’s not the only available artificial lighting option and avoiding artificial light altogether means you’ll never see what you can achieve with it, which in my opinion is a big mistake.

The artificial lighting tools that I consider a great addition to any serious travel photography enthusiast’s kit are an off camera flash in a softbox and/or a reflector. The reason these tools are great is that they allow you to control the light or to manipulate it. This opens one up to a whole range of creative opportunities or even opportunities to make photographs in situations where it would be impossible to do so otherwise. The following image is a good example of this.

Nomads at a camel fair, Kolayat, Rajasthan, India

The only reason I could make this shot was because I had the artificial light from an off-camera flash in a softbox “assisting” the light from the fire, which on its’ own was no where near strong enough to allow me to make the kind of photo I wanted.

Without getting into too much more detail because of the constraints of a blog post, I will say that artificial light is a very exciting topic. If you’re interested in learning more about it, particularly portable, artificial light in the form of an off-camera flash and a reflector, you can check out my eBook “Seeing the Light”, which was featured here on DPS a while a go. Find out more about Seeing the Light.

Update: check out part 2 of this series – 5 MORE mistakes travel photographers make.

Also check out Mitchell’s eBook – Transcend Travel: a Guide to Captivating Travel Photography.

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