I’m a wanna-be photographer. I’ve been snapping travel photos as long as I’ve been traveling, but only about four years ago did I get serious and decide to learn something about photography. I may never be a professional, but I’ve learned much about photography from trying to capture my travels.
I usually don’t like articles that are lists, both because they are often sloppy writing and because they are often clickbait titles such as “13 reasons why holy crap you frakking need to visit Montenegro right bloody now before you die!” But this subject will make for a good list. I won’t do this too often.
Your skills are important, but you still need a decent camera.
My history of photography is always being glad for the equipment I now have and kicking myself for not buying it earlier. Having a good eye for photos is better than having a good camera, but it’s no substitute for having both.
Yes, I know your cool new iPhone takes good pictures, but you only think they’re good because you’re not used to something better. Your camera needs a good lens and a good sensor, at minimum, and a camera phone just won’t do it. You don’t need the best camera, but you may need a better one. Camera phones and point-and-shoot automatic cameras simply have limitations that you need to overcome. You’ll want to have manual control over your exposure. Eventually, you’ll want things like a wide-angle lens and a shutter release cable and a tripod.
I used to resist any camera that didn’t fit in my pocket, as I didn’t want to stand out by carrying around a visible camera, but nowadays with a large camera, people treat me differently. They realize I’m serious about this. I needed to break the size barrier, to just accept that I’ll be toting a camera bag from now on.
If you want to stay smaller, I highly recommend the Sony RX100, a fantastic travel camera. It’s a bit large for a pocket camera, but consider: it’s fully manual, shoots in RAW, has a large sensor and a fast, sharp lens, and is great in low light. Especially in the evenings when I want to dump my larger camera, I slip the Sony into my pocket. When I’m traveling, I am rarely without a camera.
A good skyline isn’t enough. You need a good sky.
A few years ago when I was new to photography, I was traveling in China with a photographer friend who kept complaining that the air pollution meant dull, gray skies there. His photos of the Great Wall would be lacking.
It’s not enough to have an outdoor shot of a great structure, or a nature scene. You need a dramatic sky behind it. This means you need to work on methods of post-processing your photos that enhance the sky, and you need to learn how to isolate the sky from the foreground in order to work just on it. You’ll often find that that a sky may look unremarkable straight out of the camera, but some work on it will bring out the contrasts and details.
Strangely, bad weather can be a photographer’s friend. I was walking in Belem, Portugal one day, dodging the rain. After the drops stopped, the resultant turbulent sky made for a nice background.
And that leads to…
There are few great photos without post-processing.
Get some photo editing software and spend time learning what you can do with it. There are no original digital photos. To “photoshop” a picture, in today’s parlance, means to cheat, to alter it unnaturally, such as inserting an image of yourself into a scene. Yet every photo I produce these days goes through Photoshop and is modified by me, at least slightly.
If you’re getting a JPG image produced by your camera (such as from your phone), you’re letting the camera’s internal algorithm determine settings for you, such as the white balance, the contrast, any sharpening. When you start learning about photography, you start taking over those decisions yourself, and that’s where some image editing software like Photoshop comes in. People think it’s cheating, that you’re modifying the original image, but there is no original image. That JPG straight out of your camera is also not natural, not somehow pure and untouched and just like your eye saw the scene. The parameters that affect the way it looks have been decided by your camera, same way as you’re about to do manually.
And you need to do it manually. Photoshop is expensive, but there are others out there, such as Photoshop Elements ($80 US, as I write this) or Corel Paintshop or ACDSee Ultimate for a couple hundred dollars. These are a primo investment. Free options include GIMP and PhotoScape, but really, spend some money and get better.
Photoshop is the most complex software I’ve ever worked with.
I’m a former programmer who is still in IT. I’ve done a lot on computers, and still Photoshop is one thing I’ll be learning about for years. I’ve done a dozen tutorials, and have several books on Photoshop, and I still feel clueless about lots of it. Accept that it will take a while to learn your editing software.
In other news, there are so many plugins and supplements for Photoshop that it’s possible to spend as much money on software as you did on your camera.
Skylines and landscapes are the easiest shots.
Tom’s Law of travel photography is that the easiest way to get a beautiful, dramatic photo is to travel to someplace beautiful and dramatic and take a picture of it. There are several iconic attractions when traveling, such as a market, that are wonderful scenes but are awfully hard to photograph. Landscapes and skylines just appear and wham, you’ve got a decent photo.
I have a great shot of the skyline of Florence, Italy, because a fellow traveler told me the best spot in Florence to shoot it (the Piazzale Michelangelo). I have great shot of Hong Kong Harbor because I walked up to the waterfront with my tripod and shot just straight across the water. Another good shot of the Hong Kong skyline happened because I went to the highest point on the island and shot downward.
Photograph = composition + exposure. The exposure is up to you, but having a nice skyline right in front of you means you almost automatically have a nice-looking photo. If you’re taking bad photos of the Hong Kong skyline, that’s your fault. Likewise with dramatic landscape. If your shots of Iceland come out bad, you have some learning to do.
Chances are, even if you know nothing about photography, your Iceland shots will rock. Landscape and cityscape shots are easier because things generally aren’t moving, and the only timing issues are the light and the weather.
One of my goals is to get better at street photography, capturing people in a slice-of-life scene. I say “get better” because I’m not so great now, because it’s hard. Which leads to…
People bring a photo alive
When you see a photo of a beautiful square filled with people, notice that your eyes dart among the people much more than the square. Notice how many travel photos feature an almost empty square except for one or two people, to bring it alive.
I’ve seen several tutorials about how to remove people from a scene using editing software. I get it, as sometimes you want a clean architecture type of shot, and that ugly person in the pink tee-shirt in the foreground is ruining the view. Yet when I see a photo of the Spanish Steps in Rome without any people in it (shot at 5:30 in the morning by some eager photographer), I feel it’s sad. The steps are not the attraction—it’s the crowd that always hangs out there.
There are some places, like the Charles Bridge in Prague, where I hate the crowds and I’d rather shoot in the middle of the night when everyone’s gone. But unless you are strictly going for the architecture, get some people into your scene, and take the time to wait for interesting, photogenic folks to stroll into your frame.
The most difficult type of photography is street photography
I love wandering around a thriving neighborhood trying to do street photography, just snapping people doing random things. Yet this impromptu style means most of my street photos are boring, or perhaps just bad—blurry, out-of-focus, wrong exposure. It’s hard to just stumble upon a good street scene and capture it correctly. You need a few things to get good street photography.
- A decent camera with good shutter speed. Any camera with lag time between focusing, pressing the button, and snapping it is not going to work. Bump the ISO if needed, to maintain a good shutter speed. Street photography can be grainy; it’s cool. The important thing is to get the shot.
- Location. One strategy is to find a good location where the background is interesting, the composition works, and the light is good and just hang for a while to see if anything happens there. Some neat people might just wander into the frame.
- A moment. You’re not capturing a pretty, set scene. You’re getting a moment, and you want people to look at it and ponder what’s happening at that second, what the people were thinking or doing.
Shoot your meal. Shoot your hotel room. Shoot the bus ride.
We’re well into the digital age. Shooting more doesn’t cost anything except disk space, and you never know what memories you want to keep. We all used to make fun of the people in the restaurant taking photos of their meal before eating it, but now everyone does it and so you have a great shot of that cheese plate in Paris that can bring back all types of memories.
Much of your travel photos isn’t about beautiful, epic scenes that you’ll show off. Some shots are just for you, just for the memories of what your cool (or crappy) hotel room looked like and to remember that plate of pasta that had at least four dozen clams in it and how the table was awfully messy when you finished.
Embrace black and white
Especially for street photography, I feel black and white works quite well. The viewer loses some distractions that we normally use to rate a photo, and all we have left is the scene. Doing black and white is hard—it took me quite a while to figure out how to do it decently in Photoshop. We don’t shoot B&W anymore; it’s taking a regular color photo and changing it without ruining it.
Some shots just work that way. For instance, I think this bartender in Lisbon would be boring in color:
People expect the Eiffel Tower
As I write this, I recently saw an Anthony Bourdain travel program about Rome. Except he didn’t cover the canonical Rome, not the Colosseum and the Vatican and such—he focused on the suburbs, telling stories about the ordinary people there. Neat idea, except it was boring as hell.
When you show your photos of Rome to someone, you’d better have some of the Colosseum and St. Peter’s. When you shoot Paris, get the Eiffel Tower in there someplace, along with the grand boulevards, the cafés, and the other stuff that makes up Paris. Try to do it differently from everyone else, putting your own take on it, but there’s no reason to shun those things. It’s okay to be the travel snob and shoot the ordinary people and things if, and only if, you’re an awesome photographer and you can make them interesting.
The location makes a huge difference on whether people like your photo.
This holds true to stories on your travel blog as well. Shots (and stories) of Paris will always go over well. Portugal, sure, but not as much. My photo essay entitled One Night in Bangkok will probably be much more popular than “One Night in Buffalo”.
Similarly, if a person has never heard of a place, they don’t often give it a chance. My photo essay of the beautiful cities of Piran, Slovenia and Romanj, Croatia wouldn’t be very popular if I named it after them, so I entitled it “Venetian cities that aren’t Venice” to give it some familiarity.
Have a camera with you on your trip. Always. Even if it’s just your phone.
On a trip long ago to Germany, my friend and I were about to head out the door of our hotel on the first day. I grabbed my camera (an old one, point-and-shoot), tried it out, and it was broken, utterly useless. Our first stop then was a camera store, where I bought a new one.
It was a cheap one, a temporary one, low quality. But it means that today I have photos of my Germany trip, even if they’re not so fantastic. Today’s cameras are much better, so there’s no excuse to not have even a cheap camera.
I can think of many missed photo ops over the years, scenes where I just didn’t get the shot. Maybe I didn’t have my camera with me, or it wasn’t good enough for the conditions. I would love to revisit several destinations from many years ago just to re-photograph them with the better knowledge and tools I have now, and for some, perhaps I shall. And I’ll keep learning more. This post may eventually have a Part II.
Anyone have pointers to add? The comments section below is waiting.