These days just about everyone is carrying some sort of camera when they travel. But have you ever noticed that very few of the average traveler’s photos out there ever seem compelling? In fact, the large majority of travel photos tend to be the usual visual clichés of landmarks, selfies, and sunsets — photographs that are both predictable and forgettable. If you want to reach beyond the world of ordinary travel photography and capture something that truly reflects the essence and feel of a place, there are a few fundamentals you’ll need to learn, the most important of which are light, composition, and moment.
What is Travel Photography ?
Wikipedia describes travel photography as a subset of photography that involves in “documentation of an area’s landscape, people, cultures, customs and history”. While that is of course true, we believe there is more to it. Travel photography is also about being able to narrate the stories about similarities or differences between places through your camera.
Now in order to be able to recite stories through a photo, in this article we will capture the fundamentals that are essential while capture such a shot.
If photography were a cuisine, Light would be the primary raw ingredient. It’s literally what makes photography possible. The quality and direction of the light you capture will make all the difference in whether your shot is flat and uninspiring or something that makes the viewer say “Wow!”. Also, one needs to keep in mind that unless you’re a professional photographer, you’re probably not traveling with lighting gear. This means that what you have to work with is whatever’s available. Here are some of the most likely outdoor scenarios:
Some of the best outdoor light you’ll find—especially if you’re shooting landscapes—happens to be during the “golden hour”; i.e. right after dawn or right before sunset. It’s perfect for shooting just about anything—macros, portraits, landscapes, you name it. In fact, it’s so perfect that many landscape photographers won’t shoot at any other time. (Well, except that “blue hour” that precedes sunrise and follows sunset.) If you’re serious about your travel photography, you’ll need to compose at least some of your photos during this time.
Overcast days offer a subtler, flat and diffused light than sunny days. Often times you might find that you need to bump open your aperture and bump up the ISO to get enough light to your sensor. If you’re shooting portraits, getting slightly above them and having them look up will allow enough light to get catchlights in their eyes. It also helps to shape the light by reflecting or blocking some of it with buildings, trees, or if you have an assistant, a reflector. This will help create more shadows and add more dimension.
While many photographers avoid shooting during sunny late mornings and early afternoons, you can still get some great photos if you learn to use the harsh light and highly defined shadows to your benefit. It’s not the best time for color landscapes, but silhouettes, dramatic portraits, black and white landscapes, and reflections all make great subjects during this time. Alternatively, you can use these hours to explore cool buildings and do some indoor photography.
Chase the Storm
Some of the most dramatic outdoor light happens just before, after, or during breaks in storms. It’s a time when many travelers are taking cover inside, but if you can find a dry place to wait and are ready to go the moment there’s a break, you might be rewarded with some fantastic shots.
The Secret Ingredient: Patience
Patience is especially key in travel photography where we’re working with whatever light’s available. Take the time to wait for the right shooting conditions, or, if you’re doing portraits, for your subject to look up and into the light. It can make all the difference between an average shot and a fantastic one.
Composition refers to how you put everything in your frame together. Where do you want the viewer’s eyes to go first? What’s in focus? What’s soft? Where should you place the elements that carry the greatest visual weight? Good composition can turn an ordinary scene into one that really grabs the viewer’s attention.
Where to Place the Subject
Whether you place the subject in your photo will have a huge impact on whether the image works well or not. Good rules of thumb include working with the rule of thirds and creating balance between the different elements in your photo. Some of this you can get in-camera, some you’ll probably have to do later in post-processing (i.e. by cropping).
Since photography is a two-dimensional medium, it’s important to convey a sense of depth in our photos. For landscapes, that means including different elements in the foreground, mid-ground, and background to help give a sense of scale. For portraits and objects, choosing the correct depth of field (aperture) will be key.
Focus, Leading Lines, and Framing
These three elements, while all completely different techniques, have one thing in common: they direct the viewer’s eye. What you choose to have in focus, composing the photo so that the lines in it will lead the viewer further into the photo, and using the elements surrounding the subject as a frame to bring more attention to the subject are all key factors in creating a successful photo.
Capturing the Moment
If light is a photographer’s raw ingredient and composition is the way you cook it, capturing a unique moment in time is the secret sauce that will take your photo beyond the ordinary. It’s the flavor that ties all the elements together. This is, of course, the most challenging part of travel photography, but when you get it right it will really be magic. Sometimes it will be as simple as waiting for the right expression on your subject’s face. Other times it may be a complex arrangement of numerous different elements syncing up within a perfectly composed frame. The trick is to learn to anticipate the action and be in place for it. And that takes practice and patience.
Like any great recipe, the quality of the ingredients, the cooking method, and the secret flavors that time them all together make all the difference in the final outcome. Master the fundamentals of light, composition, and capturing the decisive moment and watch your travel photography transform from cliché and predictable to impactful and unforgettable.