How to Nail the Perfect Shot and Become a Great Travel Photographer
I really love photography. I love taking photos, I love visiting photography exhibitions and I love talking about photography with friends, but as with most creative activities, I find my inspiration and drive comes in bursts.
I’m sure photographers of all skill levels will agree that sometimes it can be a real struggle to find the inspiration to get those ‘killer’ shots. It’s sometimes taken for granted, but inspiration truly sits at the heart of all great photography and, for many keen photographers, this is where much of the value of travel lays.
Beautifully vivid magazine shots of Indian markets may inspire others to visit, but the inspiration to take those great photographs will have undoubtedly come from the fascination and sense of wonder the photographer felt when he or she was there, amid the bustle and shouting and smells. This is the symbiotic relationship that exists at the heart of travel photography. Travel inspires photography and photography inspires travel.
It’s probably fair to say that I’ve never been one of life’s natural planners but when it comes to travel photography, there is definitely value in forward thinking; especially if you’re only planning a short stay.
Run an internet search for destination advice on almost any location and you are likely to find a wealth of useful information, but it is also likely to be quite generic.
Advice specifically written for photographers is surprisingly thin, so if you want to find the best photo spots it will probably require some old-fashioned manual research.
If you are serious about taking good photos, plan your trip with photography in mind.
Finding your way to those iconic photo spots overlooking the Grand Canyon or Machu Picchu is generally easy to do with little or no planning, but an adventurous traveller looking to capture post-civil war urban decay in the former Yugoslavia, or a budding photojournalist hoping to immortalise the essence of village life in Sub-Saharan Africa, would be wise to plan ahead.
Perhaps the easiest approach to location scouting is to simply look at where other photographers have taken great shots. One way to do this is to browse through online photo galleries and travel magazines and look at the captions. Glossy travel magazines will offer more professional shots but are generally costly, so buying a stack of new issues probably isn’t wise. Look for second hand ones in charity shops. This is a great way to find inspiration. Working out where the photos were taken relies on the accuracy of the photo captions. Some magazines are good for inspiration, but caption accuracy tends to vary. For sound commercial reasons, magazines rarely offer much that pushes the boundaries, but the aspiring amateur can afford to take more risks.
Geotagging is the process of adding map references to photos. Geotagged photos should carry the information you need to get to the exact spot on which the picture was taken. Many photo gallery sites will also show you the photograph’s Exif data. This is very useful for learning how to recreate a particular style. Exif data contains all of the technical information about a photo, so you can see for yourself which camera and lens were used to take a photo and even the aperture and exposure settings used by the photographer.
The point of photo research should, of course, be to find new destinations that will inspire you, not to find pretty pictures to recreate. When you arrive at your well-chosen destination, turn on your inner artist; explore, interpret and capture the place in your own unique way.
Getting in the Zone
If you are serious about getting good photos, you need to become one with your camera. If you don’t feel you know how to use your camera properly, figuring everything out while travelling might mean missing great photo opportunities early on in your trip, something you are likely to regret later.
Spend time learning how to use your camera at home and practise using it in different situations and with different light levels. Even if you know your camera inside out, a few weekend photography excursions near to where you live should go a long way to ignite your photographic inspiration before you go.
Time might be tight when you are travelling, so deciding what to shoot may require some strategy. Some iconic shots will be obvious. Look through your lens while standing in front of the Taj Mahal, gazing upon the beautiful symmetry of its architecture perfectly reflected in the water, and you’ll no doubt find yourself composing a classic shot that many generations of tourists and photographers have taken before. There are of course many reasons why this has become a classic shot, so line it up, take your own version, and then move on to something a little more outside-the-box.
Taking Pictures of People
Photographing people up close takes a bit of courage, which can be difficult at first. Starting off with some easy subjects is a pretty good tactic. Bartering with market vendors and getting them to allow you to take a portrait as part of your offered price is a bit crafty, but quite effective. Save introducing this till the end of the barter; you’ll eventually accept their final price, but only on the condition that they let you take their picture.
Unless you want a portfolio focused on the market vendors of the world (which might actually make a nice little project), you’ll need to build courage quickly and become confident asking people if you can take their portraits. Look and act the part, respect others’ wishes but don’t be down-hearted by people saying ‘no’ and don’t let the time constraints around each individual portrait cloud your longer-term creative development. Learn from each shot and try new angles and techniques with each new photographic subject. Patience and hard work will pay off over time.
Think Like a Travel Photographer
Imagine the (not at all uncommon) scenario of standing among a large group of photographers, shoulder-to-shoulder on a tropical beach; all looking out on a tranquil sea, all trying to get that perfect image of the setting sun reflected in its calm waters. Try as you might, your shot probably isn’t going to be the best of them, and even if it is, there are likely to be dozens of other photographers with an almost identical shot.
Simply taking ten or twenty steps backward and looking down the beach might reveal a highly photogenic scene; scores of photographers, lenses glistening in the blaze of the setting sun, all looking out in wonder. Originality in photography is often about seeing the trees that make up the wood.
The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera. Dorothea Lange
I’m a firm believer that with the right balance of skills and inspiration a decent photographer can take a great photo of almost anything, from the most grandiose of skyscrapers to that mundane pile of nails in your dad’s shed. Your own interests and photographic style will play a big part in determining what you shoot as well as the way you shoot it. If you have a well-honed style, then be sure to do what you do best, be that finding amazing textures, composing minimalist landscapes or capturing urban decay. Travelling will of course give you great scope to do these things, but try not to get too hung up on staying consistent with what you’ve done in the past while you’re away.
Think like a travel photographer. Imagine you haven’t paid for your own trip. A magazine such as National Geographic has hired you and sent you to your destination. What kind of brief would they give you? I mean it, actually think about it…
It might seem a bit childish to play ‘make believe’ in this way (and I guess it is), but the ‘thought experiment’ does serve a purpose.
Taking a few minutes to reflect on this myself, it is clear that the kind of destination photographs travel magazines favour tend to be vivid, bright and iconic. The best photojournalism always tells a story.
A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed. Ansel Adams
The most memorable portraits are those that are emotive, capture the essence of a person’s mood and contain some clear cultural identifiers. Simply taking the kinds of shots that would inspire you to travel is definitely a good place to start, but it is worth taking a moment to note that the kind of shots a skilled photographer might covet aren’t always the same shots a potential traveller might appreciate.
Truly great travel photography should be photographically brilliant while also able to appeal to a general audience that lacks, for the most part, the technical knowledge required to appreciate exactly what makes it so good.
The true ‘art’ of travel photography is not in simply learning how to take photos when travelling, but in aspiring to create images of far-away places that get a reaction, that inspire photographers, travellers and non-travellers alike.
Above everything else, make sure you have a great time while taking photos on the road. No matter how much you love photography, if you are taking a gap year to go travelling, you’ll probably come home with regrets if every travel memory you have engrained on your conscious mind has been made while peering through a viewfinder.
If you are travelling for a prolonged period, taking time off from the camera can be every bit as important as driving yourself to take photos. Sometimes the best inspiration comes from just relaxing and enjoying the wonders of life and nature, just so long as the camera is always to hand when you need it.
It’s very easy to get obsessed with getting the best shot wherever you go. At times you’ll learn to love this obsession as it drives your photography to greater and greater heights, but you’ll also need to learn when to cut your losses and move on. If you only have a few days to spend in Rio de Janeiro, and you end up spending all of your time in its outskirts trying to get interesting shots of life in the Favelas, you’ll miss out on seeing the likes of Christ the Redeemer, Copacabana Beach and Sugarloaf Mountain.
A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity. George Bernard Shaw
Chances are that if you are travelling on a gap year, you are going to visit places you’ll probably never get the chance to go back to, so snap happy! When not in ‘travel photographer mode’ it’s fine to shoot hundreds of average shots which just capture memories for your own benefit, as long as these don’t end up in your travel photography portfolio. Do the touristy things too. Get strangers to take pictures of you standing in front of iconic buildings, get snapshots with nice people you meet on your travels. Make the most of the experience. Enjoy yourself.
Have a great time, take a wide variety of pictures and don’t forget to share your travel photography with the world on your return; ideally via a gapyear.com gallery. Good photography is more art than science; and what is the point of art if you don’t share it with the world?
Find out more about travel photography by reading Cormac’s Guide to Photo Editing for Beginners and his Photo Essay of Surfer’s Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast.
About the Author: Cormac Scanlan
Cormac is gapyear.com’s COO. A keen photographer and videographer, his downtime is usually spent camera-in-hand and his travels are usually geared towards the world’s more photogenic locations. Away from the viewfinder, Cormac can usually be found playing acoustic guitar or ‘nerding out’ over some new book he’s just started reading on some obscure field of science.
Cormac Scanlan’s photography website features more of his work.