Travel Photography 101

This article, written by 2006 RMSP graduate Liza Gershman, was originally published on Canon’s Photo Knowledge Base.

All images and article copyrighted by Liza Gershman.

Travel photography can provide some of the most inspiring and intriguing imagery. Photographs trigger our memories, help us to illustrate a story, and show us a sense of place. When we travel, those memories can often seem richer, more vibrant, and more significant to us than when we are at home. First impressions aren’t something that we only get when we meet new people. Each minute impression that you get from seeing a new country, a new town, or a new restaurant is something that you can express visually. When you travel (or play tourist at home), what are your first impressions of the place? What colors, scents, or sounds stand out? Each of these experiences can be expressed through the visual medium of photography.

When you hear the sound of horse hooves clacking against cobblestone streets or the deep horn of a passing ship in the sea, you can bring those memories and experience to life through your imagery. When you smell fresh baked bread wafting down a street, or feel the warmth of the sand beneath your feet, each of these moments tells a story and creates a sense of place. Bringing that sense of place through to your photography is what makes a travel image a lasting moment, rather than a fleeting snap shot, and your memories will be so much more vibrant for it. Not only is it important to capture the literal look of a place in travel photography, but for strong and memorable imagery, capturing the ambiance is important as well.

Knowing your place first

Before any trip, even one that you plan to do spontaneously, doing a bit of research to understand the customs and traditions is helpful. Photographers working for editorial publications will always do their research to know key items about a location before they arrive. It is always important as a photographer to “gain access” for the best shots. Access can mean many things, but the more you know about a culture and the friendlier you are, the more doors (figuratively and literally) will open for you. Some of the most incredible photographs happen because you took a moment to say “hello” to a stranger, and they welcomed you to their world. Knowing niceties in another language can always be useful, and knowing how to not offend in another culture will put everyone more at ease. Learning how to say, “please,” “thank you,” “Where is the bathroom?” and “This meal is excellent!” in another language has gotten me seamlessly though hundreds of trips with a smile.

Contemplate these questions and let them guide your photography:

  • What made you go to this place?
  • What season are you in? Is there something that only occurs during this time of year? How can you photograph the seasonality of your visit? Is there snow? Fallen leaves, or blooming flowers?
  • How is this place similar to your home and how is it different? Can you illustrate these differences and similarities in a visual way? Try to look intelligently, thoughtfully, and thoroughly, to truly see what makes this spot so unique.

When you arrive, notice your first impressions and write them down. Use this list as a preliminary checklist for your photography. What is the temperature, what do you smell, what can you hear, what can you feel? Capturing a photograph to illustrate each of your five senses will set your imagery apart. What you see can be anything from shapes and colors to specific architecture, to people dressed in a certain way. How is this different from or similar to what you see at home? Show these differences through your imagery and imagine having someone look at your photographs without you there to explain them.

Do you smell hot, baked bread? Find the bakery and the baker, offer to purchase a piece, if you can afford it, and take it all in. In many cultures, people have little in the way of money, and offering to purchase something from their shop or street stand is an appreciated gesture when you ask to take a photograph. You are getting something and giving something in return, and that is often greatly appreciated.

What you hear surely comes from something that you can see. Find the source of that sound and make an image. Is it clanging bells? Show those bells in motion to illustrate the idea that they create sound. You can use Shutter Priority (Tv mode on a Canon EOS camera), a slow shutter speed, and a tripod to slow the movement down, which helps visually express the ding-dong of the bells.

Playing with Shutter Speeds, Movement and Focus

The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the focus on your subject. The slower the shutter speed, the more blur you will see in a moving object. If you want to have a blurred moving subject with a sharp background, hold the camera steadily or use a tripod to steady your camera, and pre-set a slow shutter speed (under 1/60th). See if you like the amount of motion blur that you are getting from the moving object. If it isn’t enough, then take another image at 1/30th , 1/15th, and so on until you get the look you want.

If you want a blurred background with a relatively sharp moving subject, you can accomplish this by taking your camera off the tripod, using a slow shutter speed, and panning your camera in the same direction of movement as your subject (that is, following the subject smoothly as it passes you). Your camera movement will need to match the rate of movement of your subject in order to achieve this look. Conversely, you can stop action in an image to accentuate a moment. For example, you might freeze the action of a group of birds in formation in the air. If you use a shutter speed of 1/1000th, you will see how their motion has been frozen in time.

Using a tripod and a slow shutter speed is perfect for nighttime photography, as well. Tripods might feel a bit clunky, but that weight and sturdiness will keep the camera steady for long exposures. Wide-angle lenses are good for night photography, as well (such as an EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5or EF 16-35mm f/4L IS). Use a lens hood to minimize lens flare from other subjects around and behind you, too. For best results, select a scene with high contrast or bright contrasting colors, like city lights over water or street lamps against an alley, for example. Try exposures around 10 seconds or more (at f/11) to really get smoothness in the water and a pop in the city lights.

Get lost, get lost, and get lost!

Wander through back streets. Sit on steps and in cafes and see life around you as it takes shape. Go in the opposite direction of the tourist path and follow the locals. When traveling, the unplanned sights and moments can be some of the best. You might stumble upon a local’s scene, an ancient ruin, a colorful door, or a new friend. Allow yourself to put away the map, the phone, and the guidebook, and just lose yourself in the location.

Be ready – this means always having your camera with you, your batteries charged, and having a memory card with plenty of room for new images. I always carry at least two more memory cards than I think I will need because there is always a surprising sight or an unexpected scene.

The Essentials

Traveling light can be an asset. Often, people think that they have to carry every piece of gear invented to be a good photographer. While having a versatility of lenses to choose from is a benefit, sometimes traveling with only the essentials can allow you to navigate with ease. I often restrict myself to one lens for a day and force myself to be creative using that lens. Let’s say that lens is a 50mm f/1.4. You already know that you simply cannot photograph anything that is far away from you and you also cannot get closer than approximately 5 feet to remain in focus. At moments, that can be frustrating, but I find it generally frees me in a very creative way.

When you don’t have all the gear that one could want, then you are forced to come up with creative solutions for photographic challenges. If you are using that 50mm f/1.4 lens and you see something in the distance that catches your eye, you are forced to physically move towards the subject and investigate it more closely. Your angle may change and you might look to the subject in an entirely different way. Additionally, carrying a big bag of photo equipment is heavy and cumbersome. Often having only one or two lenses with you for a day will allow you to move more freely. Nothing is worse than a sore back and feet from carrying too much gear if you truly don’t need it.

Take your time

It is ok to occasionally miss a shot. Remember that you are traveling, and experiencing things without a camera is as important to maintaining creativity as experiencing things with a camera. If you are always looking through the lens at everyone dancing or jumping off of a cliff into crystal clear water, you will miss the excitement and memory of participating in that experience yourself. Let the travel invigorate you and occasionally leave the camera behind.

Travel can often be scheduled down to the minute with activities, sight, tours, and more. Great photography takes time and creating this space in your trip is important. Set aside time each day to be alone with your camera. Maybe this is only 15 minutes, or maybe it is hours. Take your camera on an adventure of its own. Use your eyes without worry that you are holding someone up, making others wait, or missing out on something else. It isn’t always easy to be the only photographer on a trip and if you are with family or friends, then they will also have expectations that want to be met.

“I can get that shot tomorrow or next time” is a photographer’s worst curse. Moments only happen once. Sunsets only look the same one time; the clouds will only be that way once, etc. If you want to photograph something, you can never predict that the light will be as good the “next time.” Take a moment (or five) to photograph now and you will thank yourself later. In travel photography, you will want to photograph everything from portraits to landscapes to food. Becoming knowledgeable in each category will enhance the visual stories that you tell.

Don’t forget portraits

Portraits are such an important aspect of travel photography. Portraits can be of family and friends, people you meet while traveling, and even strangers. We often travel with friends or family, and taking memorable photographs of them is a must for most photographers. When you are doing this be sure that you set the subjects in a place that tells a story and creates a lasting memory for you. If you do a close-up portrait without background they could very well be at home. Select a landmark or a scene that is evocative of the travel location that you are in and use this as your backdrop to set the mood of the image. Remember to look through the camera lens and see what is inside the frame. Avoid having trees, poles, etc. look as though they are coming out of heads. If you encounter this, then simply shift your subjects a few inches, or move yourself to re-frame the shot.

Tip: You can move your body to frame a scene, just like in tennis you move towards the ball. In both instances this is easy to forget, so practice! Additionally, Don’t forget though, that you can place your family and friends in your other imagery and use them as models, hand models, figures in a distance, and more to enhance your imagery. This can be fun for everyone and takes the pressure off of them to be in a “serious” portrait! If you tend to travel alone and have an opportunity to focus a majority of your trip on photography then always get a guide who speaks the local language and knows the lay of the land. This person, calleda fixer, will be someone who can act as a liaison between you and his or her culture. This connection will give you incredible access that you wouldn’t necessarily find on your own. Having someone speak the language fluently is an enormous help. If you are traveling to a location and are fluent in that language, a fixer is still an incredible tool. Insider perspective and knowledge of a location is invaluable. Additionally, having a local introduce you gives you instant street cred and makes everything seem much more available and approachable.

Is it possible to truly photograph something new?

Every photographer has probably asked himself or herself this question at one point or another. When I was at Rocky Mountain School of Photography, I learned an incredibly valuable lesson. On our first day of school we had a bear safety talk (the most important lesson of all), and on our second day of school we were all assigned to photograph the very same things. At the end of the day we returned to the classroom to a presentation of our imagery. Although each of us made an image of the identical subject, the way in which we photographed that subject was unique. We used different lenses that created different focus, distance and view. We selected different positions to stand in, different distances to stand from our subject. Our angles were different as some were from above, some straight on and some from down below. Some photographs were light and bright, while others were dark and moody. Some images had blur and others were sharply detailed. Some images were macro, and some placed the subject almost as an after thought in the frame. Negative space and positive space was different, too. Even with every student photographing the same subject, our images were vastly unique. Every person brings a unique identity, perspective, and past to every new image. Remember that and don’t let yourself become frustrated.

What sets your images apart from everyone else: your eyes, your history, your tastes and desires, your feelings and even your mood. The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, has been photographed millions of times. But if you go and take an image, you can find something that truly represents you. Add people, get in close, photograph only the texture, photograph from above or underneath, and photograph at night or in the day. It might take some time, but there is absolutely a way to make even an image of an iconic landmark truly unique to you, and that is the beauty of photography!!