The more beautiful the scene, the better your picture.
I always look for beauty when I travel. Finding beautiful scenes to photograph is no different from seeking out a nice restaurant in hopes of a good meal, or looking for a good museum in search of some history and culture.
Most tourists are passive photographers. They’ll photograph only whatever they happen to see while they are busy with something else. But finding beauty is an active process – you won’t get the quality travel pictures you’re after while sipping coffee at the cafe. With that in mind, let’s talk about some ways you can actively find beautiful scenes when you travel.
Start Now: Get inspired!
Inspiration starts before you leave home, and a great way to get some is with Flickr and Google Images. Search for your destination to figure out what you like and what kinds of scenes you might want to capture in your own photographic style.
While you’re looking, it’s important to determine your own reasons for choosing the destination. Why do you want to go there, what do you hope to learn, and what do you want to emphasize photographically? I talk more about this in another of my posts here at Go, See Write: How to Capture the Travel Photos You Really Want.
Next, imagine what sort of photographic challenges you might encounter when you get there. In India, I quickly realized that taking pictures with a tripod attracts a small crowd in a hurry (especially when you’re on top of a highway…) In other places, extreme cold or hot weather might present some difficulty. Even readily photogenic places like Europe come with challenges. It’s hard to put an original spin on often photographed quaint alleyways. Every place has its own challenges; figuring them out in advance will help you take better pictures.
I’m VERY excited about an upcoming trip to Nepal where I’ll be trekking the Annapurna Circuit. I’ve never been there before, and you can bet I’m thinking through my photos well in advance. I know I’m going to feel tiny against the Himalayas, and I hope to capture photos that will convey that feeling to viewers. I’m also curious about the tea houses and small villages scattered throughout the region, and I hope to explore that aspect of Nepalese life with my camera. As for challenges, I know that pictures of mountains in broad daylight can lead to bland photos. I plan to overcome this by shooting in excellent light at sunrise and sunset, and including silhouetted people to provide scale when possible. Knowing what to look for and what to avoid will help me recognize good photos when they happen.
Strategize Your Photography
Plan your photography just as you would any other aspect of your trip. You know what time you’ll eat breakfast and what time you’ll sightsee; why not plan a time for photography? Scheduling your pictures in this way does two things: it helps free you to enjoy the travel experience without the distraction of a camera at other times of the day, and it allows time for picture taking when the light is at its best. This also helps if you’re traveling with someone, as your attention won’t be constantly split between photography and everything else.
Technology has made it easier than ever to schedule your travel photography, even in a place you’ve never been. The best way to make a schedule is to check your destination’s sunset and sunrise times in advance. Make a note of where the sun is going to be when it’s low on the horizon. The sun’s location varies by season so you’ll need to do this even if it’s a repeat visit. You can use Google Street View to roughly estimate where the sun will be in relation to what you hope to photograph.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind dropping a few dollars The Photographer’s Elements app makes this all pretty easy. I found the app through this excellent post at The Planet D: Landscape Photography Tips. I tried it on a recent trip to Thailand, and I like it a lot. I should point out that this is not sponsored in any way – I simply like the app.
Pack for your trip
Now that you have a clear focus on what you want to shoot and a schedule in which to do it, you can narrow down your lens selection. Light weight, versatile zoom lenses are always a good choice for general shooting. Pack a prime lens if you want to do a lot of low light photography. Wide angles are great for landscapes and architectural photos. Unfortunately, “bring everything” doesn’t always work, as often you’ll be limited by space in your bag (assuming things like underwear are important). Travel light, and travel specific to your photo needs.
For Nepal, I’m bringing an ultra wide angle prime lens so I can capture the stars in the clear night sky over the Himalayas. I likely wouldn’t bother with this lens if I were traveling to say, Paris. I’m still deciding on my heavy 70-200mm zoom lens for the trip. It will help with close up shots of the mountains, but I’m not thrilled at the idea of the extra weight in my bag when I’m lugging it around at 17,000 feet (if I never post again, it may very well be thanks to an ill fated decision to bring it).
Finding beauty as a travel experience
So far I’ve spoken about photography as somehow separate from the overall travel experience, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, photography can add to the travel experience in a unique way. Here’s a short story that demonstrates how it all ties together.
I wanted to capture a sunset picture over Prague, so my girlfriend and I walked up a hill together just before sunset and hung out at a park. We drank beers and watched the city lights slowly come on as I took the occasional picture. This beautiful scene would have gone unnoticed by us had we not put in the effort to take a picture of it. Not only did the picture come out as I had hoped, but hanging out in that park has become one of my favorite memories from Prague. The overall experience was far better than another beer at another pub would have been, and we ended up with a photograph that I’d be happy to hang up at home.
It doesn’t even really have to be about pictures. When you’re driven to find beauty in the world, whether it be for photography or for the simple pleasure of finding it, you’ll witness things that you’d never have otherwise seen.