Versatility – Your Guide to Shooting Great Travel Photography

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Professional travel photographers realize that the key to their business is versatility: to be able to shoot all styles of photography, and to consistently capture great shots even under very trying conditions. To be a strong assignment photographer you must identify your weakness and then work on it.

Instead of concentrating on what you shoot well why not break out of your comfort zone and try something more challenging? Some of the most experienced photographers from The WideAngle network give us their insights into a few of the specialized fields of travel photography.

DPS1 DALE MORRIS

Image by Dale Morris

PHOTOGRAPHING WILDLIFE

British born wildlife photographer Dale Morris has built a reputation as one of the most widely published photographers in South Africa. His background as a trained naturalist allows him to capture aspects of the natural world that many photographers would miss.

I’m a firm follower of the philosophy that wildlife photography is not only about getting a great image but equally about taking time out to observe, and more importantly, really enjoy the experience of being in the company of wild animals. It helps to understand that every animal stands at the center of its own concentric set of invisible circles and if something unusual (a photographer for example) steps across the outermost boundary, the animal will react (usually by becoming more alert to your presence). Move across the next circle in the set too soon and an imaginary alarm is triggered. You are now running the risk of eliciting a flight or fight response. An animal’s rear end vanishing post-haste over the horizon rarely makes for a good photo, nor does a trampled and gored camera. Move slowly and in a non-threatening manner. The secret to wildlife photography is patience, empathy, awe and a true appreciation for your subject matter.

SHOOTING MOVEMENT

Craig Pusey is a dedicated motoring and expedition photographer, who’s never scared to go the extra mile for a shot. You might see him scaling an Indonesian volcano or lying face down in an Andean stream just to get the perfect angle.

DPS2 CRAIG PUSEY

Image by Craig Pusey

The perfect panning shot takes practice. For people and animals moving perpendicular to you, aim to keep your shutter speed between 1/15th and 1/90th of a second to get a bit of blur. For faster things, like cars or galloping horses, set a speed of between 1/60th to 1/125th. Try to focus just ahead of the moving object and if you have the opportunity shoot a trial pan before your subject even arrives. (This will check exposure and focus but also make sure that no obstacles are going to get in the way of your pan…it also limbers you up!).

It’s best to start with a higher shutter-speed and then work down, but it’s also dependant on distance from you to the subject. The farther away, the lower your shutter speed will need to be to show the effect of panning. With practice you can shoot slower, and will be better be able to judge the object’s speed.

SHOOTING ARCHITECTURE

Laurence Garçon is an experienced Parisian artist, publisher and assignment photographer. She has travelled widely but has retained an unshakeable love affair with her hometown and is recognized as one of the city’s most visionary photographers.

DPS3 Laurence Garcon Misty Morning

Image by Laurence Garçon

Firstly, be aware of the highlights. Play with the speed and the aperture of your camera to avoid over-exposing sunlit walls, etc. Secondly, try to frame a composition that will best display the building. Be prepared to wait a while for something to happen (a passer-by, a vehicle): this could be the element that will be capture the soul of the quarter. Be aware that, in some countries you may need specific permission to photograph some particular buildings (especially airports, military buildings, ministries, embassies, sometimes even bridges). If you plan to publish your photograph of a single (isolated) contemporary building, try to always mention the name of the architect.

PHOTOGRAPHING INDIGENOUS PEOPLE

Axel Fassio left his home in Italy to travel the world (everywhere from Antarctica to Iceland) on assignments. In 2013 he won a first prize at PX3 Prix de la Photograhie Awards in Paris and a 3rd at the International Photographic Awards. He’s currently based in Nairobi.

DPS4 Axel Fassio

Image by Axel Fassio

Ideally, if time allows you should approach a community without a camera and hangout a bit, getting to know the elders and playing with the children. The last thing you would want to do is have to rush to take pictures. Resulting images would lack of spontaneity. A few hours are enough to create a basic ‘relationship’ within the community and the resulting images will benefit hugely.

If your time is limited, always contact the elders and ask permission to take photos. A money arrangement is common when time is tight but it’s not desirable. Negotiating to pay for each images tends only to produce aggressiveness among the people, bad memories for you and usually this shows in the shots.

Longer zoom lenses can be used to “steal” candid portraits and a wide-angle held at waist level often has the effect of bringing the viewer more intimately into the scene. It is always better to avoid clearly aiming at a person unless he/she is very comfortable and is agreeable to being photographed. In this case, a medium-length zoom is perfect for portraits.

DPS5 Wylie Maercklein

Image by Wylie Maercklein

SHOOTING PORTRAITS

Wylie Maercklein is an experienced Texas-based photographer and videographer with a specific talent for powerful portraits.

Portraits are similar to other action shots to me, in that you’re just waiting for the right moment. With a group, that moment is something larger – an externalized emotion. An action. With an individual portrait, it’s an internalized thing – it’s the moment when their defences drop just a little and you see something living behind their eyes.

LOW LIGHT AND NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

British photographer Jonathan Perugia has built a reputation as one of the most prodigiously published assignment photographers in the business. In addition to his freelance work he leads photography holidays with Authentic Adventures.

I love the way cities look after sunset, so I shoot a lot in low light. If you want to really explore this kind of photography, then adding a fast prime lens to your collection (if you use a DSLR) is invaluable. I use the Canon 50mm f/1.4, which is pretty good value. Another invaluable bit of kit is a tripod. Go for something as sturdy, but as light, as you can afford. Carbon fibre is ideal. Try to avoid anything flimsy. There are some good mini tripod options too, with bendy legs that will hook around a handrail at a push. Generally I avoid using flash, so I’m often at high ISOs. I recommend testing or researching your camera to see how high it will go without too much noise.

DPS6 Jonathan Perugia

Image by Jonathan Perugia

For cityscapes, the best time to shoot is the period after sunset but before dark, when there is still colour in the sky. On a clear night you can get fantastic electric blue skies with all the city lights illuminated. Note that the brighter electric lights will start to blow out as the sky gets darker, so you may want to choose your frame accordingly. If there are no bright lights in the shot, you can use longer shutter speeds to get colour out of a sky that appears dark to the naked eye. Cloudy skies reflect street lights and can look quite surreal. This is the perfect time to do classic long exposure traffic shots with streams of light from the car lights. Smaller apertures give points of light a kind of starburst effect that looks more natural than starburst filters. You’ll notice that you can start shooting into doorways, shops, windows that wouldn’t work in daylight when the light outside is much brighter than inside.

Experiment and enjoy the different effects and colour casts you get after dark – even ‘painting with light’ with long shutter speeds and no tripod. Look for pools of light from street lamps, windows, street stalls.

SHOOTING LOCAL CEREMONIES

Ingetje Tadros is a Dutch-born photographer who emigrated to Western Australia. She spends much of each year on assignment in various parts of Asia.

DPS7 Ingetje Tadros

Image by Ingetje Tadros

While shooting ceremonies pay close attention to your choice of lens. Personally I like the 35mm prime as I like to be close and look for little moments. But, I also find it important that people feel comfortable with my presence and you need to be aware of personal space. When rituals are taking place it’s important to be aware what the rules are and specifically to know where you should and shouldn’t stand. Take your time and don’t just go in snapping. Try to limit use of flash to an absolute minimum as you should be as unobtrusive as possible.

Do you have any tips on versatility? How do you approach travel photography? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mark Eveleigh has shot more than 500 magazine stories as a freelance travel photojournalist. In 2006 he founded The WideAngle, with a network of 50 dedicated assignment photographers, based in 37 countries. They now shoot assignments all over the planet for some of the world's most prestigious media. Their work is showcased on The WideAngle and on Mark's travel blog The Kitbaggers.

  • ChristopherLHogan

    Ideally, if time allows you should approach a community without a camera and hangout a bit, getting to know the elders and playing with the children. The last thing you would want to do is have to rush to take pictures. Resulting images would lack of spontaneity. A few hours are enough to create a basic ‘relationship’ within the community and the resulting images will benefit hugely. http://num.to/427837276945

  • Concerning architecture, highlights are always the trickier part for me, as you mention in the article, and framing is the most important aspect to get a powerful image. During my last holidays I visited Thailand’s ancient capital city and took photos of the wonderful ruins that remain from that period: http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/04/thailand-historical-parks-sukhothai-si.html

  • Michael Owens

    Nice article, and some of the ideas I have copied, and noted down for ease of access on my phone, hope you don’t mind!

    Thanks again! 🙂

  • Michael Owens

    Why do you have a link to an Amazon item in your reply?
    As for your comment, it would be ideal to spend hours with people to get comfortable, but most people, who are on a holiday, and not on a travelling photo-shoot, dont have the time to intersperse with the locals on that level.

  • Thanks Michael, good question – I’ve edited the comment and removed it

  • Mark Eveleigh

    This is a fair comment Michael. Not everyone can enjoy the luxury of
    unlimited time. I think Christopher’s statement is very valid though –
    I’m sure you’d agree that even a moment to smile, interact and chat with
    your subject before you start snapping can be a huge advantage for
    natural shots. What do you think…?

  • Glad you liked it Michael. And I hope it comes in handy. Where you off to next?

  • Thailand could well be the most colourful, exciting AND challenging country in the world for shooting architecture. Right Gonzalo?

  • Michael Owens

    Locally as it happens, Photo-Walk around the ancient city of Chester here in the UK.

    But, hopefully planning on a Spanish trip sometime soon, so will put these notes to good use!

    Thanks Mark!

  • Michael Owens

    Oh I agree it would be awesome to have that rapport with the locals wherever you are, and have them feel at ease with you enough to get nice candid shots.

    But… the more you feel confidence with yourself, this kind of rapport can be gained in 5 mins or less. A simple hi, how are you, nice day, lovely stall/dress/eyes/whatever suits hehe, and make them feel comfortable with patter, even if you are nervous, I always try to convey confidence. Then and only then will I enquire as to a shot, and if they are up for it, direct them quickly and efficiently, getting the shot, showing them (offering them a copy when home), and thank them for their time.

    I would also politely offer them thanks and if they happen to be a stall owner, buy something!

    After all, its a holiday, you are there to buy trinkets right? Ha!

  • When it comes to traditional and historical architectures, no doubt! But if we talk about modern architecture, not so much! 😉

  • Suki F

    I suck at
    taking photos! Hopefully after practicing some of this I’ll get better. Wish me
    luck!

  • A lot of people who are not too sure of themselves when travelling and when taking travel portraits struggle with knowing when to pull out the camera. You are so right that with practice you can ease into a comfortable position to do so relatively quickly. I’ve just been dashing around markets and plantations in remote eastern Java on assignment this morning and, unfortunately, the luxury of spending hours with people before I shoot them is something I just can’t afford on this job…I still agree with Christopher, however, that if I had more time the shots would have been better.

  • Just got back from 2 months (working) in Spain. Still one of my favourite countries. Buen viaje!

  • Here to help. Let us know if there’s any improvement and good luck. 🙂

  • A lot of people who are not too sure of themselves when travelling and when taking travel portraits struggle with knowing when to pull out the camera. You are so right that with practice you can ease into a comfortable position to do so relatively quickly. I’ve just been dashing around markets and plantations in remote eastern Java on assignment this morning and, unfortunately, the luxury of spending hours with people before I shoot them is something I just can’t afford on this job…I still agree with Christopher, however, that if I had more time the shots would have been better.

  • Michael Owens

    It has everything doesn’t it! I just wish they embraced me as a Brit more openly, as I tend to get the feeling they don’t like us much haha!

  • Depends a lot what area you go to. I live in Pamplona much of the time. There are very very few foreigners there and I think that makes a huge difference. Try inland Andalucia or Extremadura too – really friendly and incredibly photogenic. I wrote this from there recently: http://www.kitbaggers.com/locations/europe/andalucia-stern-and-melancholy/

  • Michael Owens

    Oh wow, Pamplona, always wanted to visit there, bull running must be fantastic for photographs!

    Andalucia, will definitely visit there more. Thanks for the tips.

    Thanks for the link Mark, will definitely read. Appreciated.

  • Andrew Theodoropoulos

    Great article, portraits part was my favourite, re: best shooting time, I prefer pre and post sunrise, also I think the travel photographer should add one more huge thing, Research.. Local maps, transport, customs etc. The more you know about the place your about to visit the better your shots will be.

  • Wayne

    I have been on several photo tours (India, Bhutan, etc), and I would recommend them to anyone interested in travel photography. First the itinerary includes area specifically for photography that the average tourist might miss. Second, you stay in an area long enough for everyone to take their time their shots. There is no rushing to the next venue. Third, a lot of self-consciousness is lost when there is a group of you. You learn how to approach local people effectively and positively. And fourth, if you’re lucky to have a good tour leader, as I have had, you learn good photography and camera habits. Photo tours aren’t for everyone, but as a rather shy rank amateur I have greatly benefited from them.

  • Several of the photographers in WideAngle supplement their magazine assignment work by leading photographic tours. Check out Jonathan Perugia (see his section above). He leads some incredible tours. Even beyond the pure photography angle they can be life-changing trips.

  • Research is hugely important. Experience and local knowledge go a long way too. And language of course is a massive benefit when you need to break the ice with your subjects. Even a few words of market place banter can work wonders.

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