With all the cameras, lenses, and photo software on the market today, it’s truly a great time to take pictures. But same as it always has been, the camera doesn’t make the picture… the photographer does. And simply owning a DSLR doesn’t ensure you’ll triumphantly return from a foreign land, memory cards full of pictures destined to wow and amaze.
I’ve been there, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating to return from a big trip with less than stellar photos. But over the last decade, through trial and lots of errors I’ve finally figured out how to reliably take the kinds of pictures I want when I travel abroad. Let me save you some years of trial and error here. Because in hindsight, it really wasn’t all that hard after all.
“You had to be there”
Have you ever experienced something truly incredible and thought, “I just HAVE to take a picture of this!” But inevitably the picture fails to capture the moment, and you resort to the all too common phrase, “well, you really had to be there.”
That’s because what we perceive as “interesting” involves all our senses: the sounds, the exotic smells, the taste of the air, and the feel of being in a foreign land. Absolutely none of that readily translates into a good picture, and when it does it’s called luck.
Pictures directly connect only with our sense of sight, and because of that they instantly strip away so much of what makes a moment interesting.
Digital photography’s biggest strength and greatest weakness may very well be the same thing: it’s quick and cheap to take tons of pictures. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of mindlessly snapping away. The best pictures come not from shooting but from thinking. Nearly all of my portfolio pictures were methodically thought through. When I finally press the shutter button, it marks the completion of a much longer process of thinking about how I can get the best possible picture.
The shot above of Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, India may look like a quick snapshot, but it was anything but. I had driven by that spot and made a mental note to return during “blue hour” (the hour after sunset). The following evening I walked around in search of a good spot to take photos. I sat on a curb, low to the ground to emphasize reflections from the wet road. I set up my camera for a longer exposure to show motion, and I took pictures of interesting people over the course of an hour. The scene had always been there, but capturing it photographically was anything but luck. A mindless snapshot would have looked very, very different, and it would probably be accompanied with me saying “you really had to be there.”
Start thinking before you leave home
Ask yourself, what interests you about this place? Why do you want to travel there and what do you hope to learn? Just as thinking about the weather helps you determine what clothes to pack, thinking about your pictures helps you decide what photo equipment to bring. I have too much photo gear at home to bring on any one trip, so I’m constantly asking myself what I want to capture and how best I can do it.
When I traveled to Besalú, Spain, I knew I wanted to capture the quaint feel of a small European town. So I brought my tripod, my sharpest zoom lens, and my remote shutter release. When I explored the town at night I took my time with the scenes I thought would help me best capture the feel of the town. I knew I wanted this picture (or something like it) before I even got on the plane to Spain.
The two questions to ask yourself
When I shoot, I’m constantly asking myself two questions:
- Why is this interesting?
- Is there anything I can do to make it visually MORE interesting?
On a recent trip to Iceland I spotted some ground haze that was really interesting. It gave everything a sort of mythical and grand feel as I drove on the main highway, but it’s very difficult to take a picture of something as vague as haze – you can’t just shoot the horizon and call it good.
Haze is interesting to me because it makes things fade away quickly as they fall into the distance. If I was going to make an interesting picture I needed to find something that stretched toward the horizon, visually leading the viewer into the haze. I continued driving and eventually spotted these power lines. Perfect! I parked the car and walked until I found an angle I was happy with. Even better that the mountains were in the background – they added the mythical and grand feel which I experienced in the moment.
Through the years I’ve slowly learned that it’s perfectly okay to not take a picture even when something is interesting. Without these power lines, I’m not sure it’d have been possible to capture what I felt when I saw the haze. I was content to drive through the area, happily enjoying the view with my camera tucked away in the back seat.
Reliable ways you can add interest
Here’s a quick list of methods I depend on to add interest to my pictures:
- Take a picture of something. Know what your subject is before you press the shutter.
- Use the rule of thirds to emphasize your subject. It works.
- Use lines and shadows to lead the viewer into the shot
- Hold your camera at something other than eye-level. Everyone sees at eye level; show your viewers something new.
- Shoot in good light – sunrise, sunset, and blue hour (pre sunrise and post sunset)
- Vary your shutter speed to show motion or smooth water. Neutral density filters and a tripod help
Find your travel/photography balance
I always challenge myself to take the best travel photographs I can, and it motivates me to explore far more of a destination than I would ever see without a camera. Forever searching for the “perfect” picture, I’ll do things like hop off the bus and head straight to waterfront of Puerto Natales, Chile at sunset when I otherwise would have been looking for accommodation for the night. I never would have seen this beautiful sunset from such a scenic a setting if I didn’t care about taking good pictures.
Deep down though, I’m still a traveler first and a photographer second. I’d rather hang with the locals until the early hours of the morning than wake up early to shoot the sunrise. And I never neglect the people I travel with in favor of taking pictures. I use photography as a way to compliment my travels, not the other way around.
That’s my balance and I’m happy with it. Even though I’ve probably I’ve missed some amazing pictures over the years, I’ve gained plenty of experiences and enjoyed a lot more culture than I would have if it were all about photography. My balance isn’t your balance, and I urge you to find your own!