5 Quick Tips to Improve Your Travel Photos
The word “photograph” derives from the combination of two Greek words: “phos”, meaning light and “graphi”, to write or draw. Photography means to write with light.
The first time I traveled abroad, my camera was out and shooting away with abandon. It never occurred to me that I was writing. I was in Sweden visiting some family friends and I wanted to capture everything about my experience: the snow, the light, the frosted trees, the people, the cities, even the individual snow crystals. When I returned home and developed my film, I had dozens of good, snapshot worthy pictures of many things, but they failed to tell any story or capture what I had felt. Just like the first grainy landscapes taken of Mars by Curiosity, my images gave a nice overview of my trip, but the really detailed, interesting components failed to jump from my images to tell a story. I cataloged my photos in an album that ended up on a shelf, seldom viewed.
A winter day in Stockholm.
There are countless subjects and opportunities to shoot. With so much out there, how do you get a great shot, one that tells a story? In this post, I’m going to offer some simple tips to help you improve your travel photography skills. Today, I focus on landscapes and scenes not involving people. In my next post I’ll focus on portraits and people. Even with a camera phone, following these five tips will help enhance your shots so that you can tell clearer, better stories with your images.
Research Ahead of Time
Always take a few minutes to acquaint yourself with where you’re headed. It’s always best to travel with an idea of what there is to see so that you can think about how you might shoot it. Headed to a penguin colony? Check it out online and see if you can find a map before you go. Maybe you’ll be able to get really close to the birds? Maybe the area is in a dramatic location? Check images that other people have taken. By doing just a bit of research before heading out, you’ll arrive better prepared with your creative juices already flowing.
Previsualize the scene:.
Now that you’ve done a bit of research, try to think about what you want to compose before ever arriving on site. American landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, said, “you don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Think about the kind of light, motion, form and emotion of a scene and how you want to bring it all together. This is where you can set your sights high and work to compose a fantastic image. Here’s an example: Last year while taking images of San Francisco from a hill, I noticed that the road to my vantage point had some amazing curves. Then it occurred to me, “What if I could highlight the curves with the light of passing cars?” I crafted the scene in my head, then found a new location to shoot and started going after that preconceived image. With some patience, it all came together.
Include a leading element
One quality of great photographs is that they pull you in and make your eyes travel around the whole image. A good way to do this is to include some foreground element into the image that leads the eye deep into the scene. Foreground elements help add a sense of scale to photos, especially in vast landscapes. Look for natural lines that lead away from the camera. Boulders, bushes, curves in a road, railroad tracks, whatever you can find—all can be great elements that engage the viewer and add interest to a scene. In this shot from Death Valley, California, I was captivated by the texture in the surface of the sand dunes, but also enthralled with the enormity of my location. To combine the two, I worked to find an angle on the dune that included the ripples and lines in the foreground, then make their natural shapes lead eyes into the background.
Ask yourself, “What inspired me to pull out my camera?”
Ever get to an exciting scene where you pull out your camera and start snapping away at everything, but return home to the realization that you didn’t really capture anything? It’s easy to get over-excited; our natural emotions can make it difficult to look objectively at our compositions as we’re snapping away. Fight the emotions, take a breath and ask yourself, “What is it about this scene that made me pull out my camera? What specifically captivates me?” This simple exercise helps hone in what we want to express in an image.
While volunteering on a nature reserve in Chilean Patagonia, one morning I awoke to a huge herd of guanacos passing just outside of camp. Guanacos were common where our crew camped, but the fact that they were so close was really unusual. When I approached the scene, I noticed that our camp cat was taunting the herd in front of me and slowly drawing it closer to camp as the cat backed up. I could barely contain my excitement as the animals inched ever closer to camp. I grabbed my camera, crawled in on the grass and started firing off close-ups of friendly, curious-looking guanacos.
When I reviewed them in my camera, I still wasn’t satisfied. I had some cool shots of furry friends, but they didn’t communicate the theme of the scene. So I asked myself, “What is it about this scene that made me run, throw myself on the ground and start shooting?” Immediately I remembered: the curiosity that led the guanacos to come within inches of the cat to inspect it. I then focused on the “head” guanaco as it approached the cat:
Don’t forget your camera!
I can’t count the times that I have left my camera in my car, at home or back in camp only to end up watching an incredible scene unfold that I’ll never photograph. If you love to travel and photograph, always have your camera on hand. It’s easy to leave it behind because of bulk, fear of theft or “being that guy with the camera”, but you won’t regret it. Life only happens once. Light is fleeting and always unique. Tonight’s sunset and sunrise will never happen again in exactly the same way. Keep your camera on hand and be ready to make beautiful images from life’s unique moments.
Despite not wanting to carry my camera on a bike, I brought it along and ended up finding this fiddler crab claiming its territory in the marshes of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Whether you have an expensive and advanced DSLR or are just traveling with a camera phone, simply thinking differently about photography and your subjects can make a huge difference in the power of your images. Take a few seconds to step back, look at the scene and feel it out. Then let your curiosity, passion and camera help you write the story of the unique moments you encounter.