Scott Kelby shared a rare moment of honesty you don’t normally hear from professional photographers.
“Do you know how you can take better pictures? Go somewhere interesting!” he joked during a presentation at PhotoPlus Expo. “Do you see this photo?” he said of a spectacular sunset image. “I just showed up and pressed the button.”
Of course Scott is simplifying his role quite a bit. He’s right that travel photography is a great way to create photographs, but it requires more than showing up and pushing a button. Follow these 5 Ps for great travel photographs and travel photography experiences.
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Choose somewhere interesting. Watching all the photography presentations, it became almost overwhelming how many different kinds of locations photographers were showcasing. You literally have the entire globe, from Antarctica to the sweltering jungle, from the rural areas to the biggest cities. You can go global or find great destinations in your own country. What would be interesting to you? Spin the globe and start your bucket list.
Research to see what other photographers have created. Once you have your ideal location, see what others have photographed there. Any of your photography social sites can be helpful with this part. From Flickr to Instagram and beyond, most platforms have a location search feature. I want to see what's most often photographed to create my must-see list as well as my must-avoid cliche shots.
Check the light. There's nothing worse than showing up to your iconic location when the light is behind it, and you have to be content with silhouettes. Doing a little research up front can help you organize your day to arrive at the right location in the best light. One of my favorite tools is the Photographer's Ephemeris. Use it to predict where the sun will be at any point on the globe at any time of the day you plan to be on location.
Look up local laws. I had a friend who was almost arrested in a foreign country because he was photographing a restricted building. A client told me of having his camera seized for street photography that was not permitted in that area. If you are traveling internationally, it is always a good idea to research the local laws and follow them.
Create shot lists. Once you have a good idea where you want to go and what images you hope to capture, create a list. Shot lists are a good way to make sure you don't miss anything important as you get caught up with the excitement of the day. I keep mine in a list or reminder app, so I know it is always with me. Here's an app I sometimes use.
Pack light vs take everything. Once you know where you are going and what you plan to capture, deciding what gear to take should be much easier. Philosophically, you are usually in one of two camps:
- Packing light — Take one camera body and couple lenses, usually a fast prime and a mid-range zoom. I would also take a table top or gorillapod for late night and evening opportunities.
- Taking everything — If this is a bucket list trip, I might just opt to be over prepared by taking everything. That means a backup camera body and array of lenses that cover every eventuality. If I have one shot, I don't want to my vision to be limited by my gear. At least that's what I tell myself.
Ship gear to your location. I don't know about you, but I never plan to check camera gear on my flights. I did that once a long time ago, and the camera never made it to my destination. If you have too much stuff to carry on, consider shipping the gear to your destination. FedEx or UPS are reliable carriers and, with their insurance options, you should be able to travel knowing your investment is covered.
Practice. In episode, 034, travel photographer Mike Randolph reminded us that practicing before your trip is a great idea. When magic happens during your trip, you don't want to be fiddling with your camera or settings.
2. Producing (or shooting)
Work your shot list. You have a shot list created. Your easiest way forward is to just work off your list. Keep open to other opportunities, but consult the list to make sure you are pacing your time and won't be rushed later.
Turn around at locations. Sometimes your more interesting shots will show themselves when you turn in the opposite direction of everyone else. What are all the other photographers missing? And what's behind that monument anyway?
Use ESAD for complete coverage. There's nothing worse than returning with a card full of the same type of photo. I use the acronym ESAD to ensure I have good overall coverage.
- Establishing - Your establishing shot is the postcard shot that tells everyone where you are. Go wide and set the stage.
- Storytelling. What do you see, feel, and smell? Try and take photos that tell the stories of the day..
- Angles - Use extreme angles to inject some creativity into your coverage. You don't want everything shot from eye level anyway. Use unusual variations to make the ordinary look more interesting.
- Details. Fill the frame with some extreme close ups. Dissect your subjects and focus on a feature, color, texture, or some other characteristic. This will set your work apart from anyone else.
Use a six shooter approach. If the ESAD feels too prescriptive, try the six shooter approach. For a building or static subject, find six different viewpoints and compositions Change lenses and try six again.
Situational awareness & safety. In the Army, we preached Situational Awareness. You always know where you are and what's going on around you. Civilians might just refer to this as safety first.
- Don't advertise expensive gear. The evildoers seek to steal your gear. Don't invite them by pointing out the expensive pieces.
- Know your surroundings. Sometimes it's fun to go wandering, but keep aware of your surroundings. Know your way back to the hotel, and ask hotel staff which areas are best to avoid.
- Know your way back to the hotel. I always like to know my pathway back to the hotel, in case of emergency. Google Maps makes this easy. Know it before you need it.
- Know where to find your embassy. If you are traveling internationally, it's always a good idea to know where to find your closest embassy. That's your home away from home if things get sticky.
- Check the CIA Alerts and Warnings list. The CIA posts warnings and advisories for countries you should avoid. I would heed that list.
3. People relations
People bring travel photography to life. They tell us so much about an area — the climate, the conditions, the way of life. Don't forget to include people in your travel photos.
Make friends. Your camera shouldn't be a barrier to the locals. The best way to understand the way of life and find some of the less publicezed photo ops is by talking with the locals. Ask questions and show an interest in them. Sometimes that yields your best photos.
4. Post production
You're back home and wading through thousands of photos. Here's some tough love. Nobody wants to see all of your photos. Nobody. Not even your mother.
- Only show one of each type of photo. We don't need to see five variations of the same shot.
- Only show the best. People judge you by the worst photo you show them. Make it your best.
Look for opportunities to group thematically and tell stories. Our brains are hard wired for stories. We want to know what happens next. Use that curiosity factor to keep people interested in your images.
Show and share your work. Don't let them wither away in the darkness of your hard drive. My sister would collect everyone's best photos and create a coffee table book of our family vacations. I still treasure them.
If you want interesting photos, start by going somewhere interesting. But use the 5 P's for better travel photos and a better travel photography experience. Tell Scott Kelby I said so.