Morning Reading

Five Steps to Bringing Home More Compelling Photographs This Year

Derek "How To" Travel Guides, Travel Tips & Advice 33 Comments

This post involves something I’ve never done before – it is written by a guest writer. And the reason I decided to publish this article here is because the author, Darin Rogers, is a super nice guy who has taught me a great deal about photography over the past year or so. What I like best about his approach is that everything he teaches is simple, can be learned quickly and can immediately improve the photographs we take. That’s why I’m confident you’ll find his advice to be useful as well!

If you’re planning a travel adventure this year – be it a long-term, multi-country, round-the-world tour or a just a one week vacation – the experience may be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, culminating what may be years of planning and preparation that you’ll want to remember with some great images. Unfortunately, many people come home from their travels disappointed with their photos.

Although it may be tempting to invest in a new or better camera before you go, thinking that will improve your odds, taking good photographs has little to do with what camera you use. All too often, too much emphasis is placed on megapixels and the latest wiz-bang technological wonder designed to take any thought and effort out of the photographic process. So here’s some steps you can take that will begin to help you get the most out of whatever camera you may be using.

1. SLOW DOWN

If your travels consist of rushing from one tourist attraction to the next extreme sport activity and then hurrying to meet your friends for beers, you’re probably not going to be getting a lot of compelling photos. Photography is about seeing, and seeing requires time and intention. Good images don’t just happen. Slow down and make a conscious effort at becoming aware of your surroundings. Find a place to sit and just watch for a while and see what happens.

Morning Reading

Slowing down in Oaxaca, Mexico

If you’re traveling with others who may not share your photographic interest, slowing down may be difficult. You may need to be willing to head off on your own occasionally, even if just for an hour or two.

This of course isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do that bungee jump (and that might be a great photo-op for some action shots). Everyone has different travel priorities and most people aren’t traveling just to take photos. But if one of your priorities is to take better photos, make an effort to slow down occasionally and focus on seeing.

2. GET CLOSER

One of the things I like to encourage is, after getting your standard tourist postcard shots, look closer for the details. You’ll often find that these details and vignettes can evoke a greater sense of place than will another snapshot of the Sydney Opera House. Take that snapshot; these are important reminders of significant events for us, but then look deeper.

Image 2

Postcard shot of Liberty Plaza, Taipei, Taiwan

A member of a flag ceremony team.

Getting closer at Liberty Plaza, Taipei, Taiwan

The things to look for are infinite, anything that may tell a story or help describe a place and the people who live there. One of my favorite subjects is doors, but the range of subjects could vary from fruit stacked at a market to street art and graffiti to, well, anything that catches your eye.

Opera House - Sydney, Australia

Opera House detail, Sydney, Australia

Getting closer doesn’t necessarily have to mean physically close. It can also be about finding a different or unusual way to present the same subject. This could mean finding an unusual or unique angle or perspective, or including some interesting element in the foreground, such as with the Taiwanese military officer in the above photo.

3. ENGAGE

This is not an easy one for many people, including me. However, getting over our fear of interaction, whatever that fear may be based on – rejection, embarrassment, language barrier – can lead to some rewarding experiences as well as some great images. Personally for me, my own fear is not so much about asking to take someone’s photo and being turned down, but rather being told yes and then wanting to make sure I do that person justice artistically.

Interaction doesn’t necessarily need to be a full-blown conversation. It can be as simple as a smile with a non-verbal acknowledgement that a photo is acceptable. But it can also be worthwhile to forget about the camera now and then and spend some time getting to know someone. Sit and watch that temple ceremony. Get to know your tour guide. You never know what photographic opportunities may arise from stepping out of your comfort zone.

Children are often quite willing and eager to pose for photographs. Despite that, be mindful of cultural practices and if someone, regardless of age, declines to be photographed, respect their wishes.

Image 6

Children posing in a rural Philippines village

4. TAKE A DIFFERENT PATH

Two women walk through the otherwise deserted and quiet streets of Mitla, Mexico.

Off the beaten path in Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico

Following the backpacker highway doesn’t mean you have to come home with the same photographs as everyone else. When out exploring, venture off on a side road. Wander random neighborhoods. Get lost. Take a risk. Life, for most people in the places we visit, doesn’t happen around the tourist attractions, museums, and monuments so get out of the tourist zones and explore the areas where people spend most of their daily lives. Some of my best travel experiences have occurred through random wanderings, like hopping on the back of the motorbike of a young man in Bali who offered to take me to see a cock fight, or being invited into the nipa hut home of a family of dirt-poor Filipino fishermen to share rot-gut liquor and dried fish. To be honest, the photos I took of the Filipino family turned out less than stellar but the memories will last a lifetime. And really, isn’t that why we travel?

Men and rooster at a cock fight.

At a cock fight in Lovina, Bali, Indonesia

Obviously this needs to be done with awareness and caution as it could be easy to stray into a sketchy or unsafe area. Go with a friend. Be aware of your surroundings. Take the usual precautions, but don’t be afraid to take a bit of risk.

5. PUT THE CAMERA AWAY

What? Put the camera away? How will this help you take better pictures?

This may seem counter-intuitive but there are times when I find myself struggling, trying too hard to see and create something new and interesting. For whatever reason, sometimes the inspiration just isn’t there. It happens to the best of photographers. If this happens, don’t force it, you’ll only create more frustration. You are much better off just putting the camera back in the bag and enjoying whatever experience you may be having.

Tlaxcala, Mexico

Seeing again in Tlaxcala, Mexico

Often, by putting the camera away and letting go of the self-imposed pressure to create, to capture that elusive perfect image, your mind relaxes and you’ll start seeing again. Or maybe not. Either way is fine. Just accept it, remember why you are traveling in the first place, and enjoy the experience of being in the place.

Finally…

Following these steps won’t instantly make you a great photographer. As with any craft, proficiency, if there is such a thing in art, takes years of hard work and practice. And with photography, while it may be possible to become technically proficient, it can be argued that the art of seeing is like reaching for that proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow: something every photographer is continually striving to master but never quite achieving. However, consciously following these steps as you go about your travels should at least put you on the path to increasing the number of memorable images you bring home.

Darin Rogers is a semi-nomadic writer, photographer, and part-time civil engineer. He is currently based in the Philippines. You can see more of his work at www.darinrogers.net or follow him on Facebook and Google+.

Any thoughts? How are your photography skills? Any other simple tips you’ve learned along the way?


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Comments 33

  1. Sean Sandoval

    Hi Darin,

    I am a huge photographer myself. Never traveled. Planning to in the near future. But for now I do a lot of photography and post-production (photo editing on Photoshop) at home on my desktop computer.

    How do you travel with your camera? There are some issues I have always thought about for traveling with a camera:
    Do you use a film camera or a digital camera (DSLR)? I always worry about the battery and memory card running out of my DSLR Camera if I were to ever travel. How many batteries and memory cards do you carry with you? Every night do you charge your batteries for the next day? Every night do you wipe out your memory card onto a computer so that you can edit your photos (post-production on Photoshop)? If every night you clean out your memory card to edit your photos, does that mean you also travel with a laptop so you can actually edit your photos???

    Also, I carry all my camera equipment in a huge photography backpack that I own. It holds extra lenses, extra batteries, my tripod, cleaning equipment, lens filters…
    What do you bring with you for traveling with a camera??? My bag is so big and heavy with stuff that even walking with it alone gives me back aches.
    What do you take with you for traveling photography?? What do you leave behind?

    I hope you will one day find time to answer my questions for travel photography, this one of my top concerns when I think about traveling.

    Thanks and best to your travels!
    Sean Sandoval
    California, USA

  2. Tommy

    I totally agree with you Sofie, I often feel patronizing and offensive when trying to take a picture of a local going about there business. Often I will ask if I can take their pic and they are usually fine with it but then you just end up with some cheesy pic of them waving at the camera haha.

  3. Sofie

    I definitely need to take more time and get closer more often.
    I often feel guilty for holding up my travel company and as to the getting closer: it’s okay with objects, but when there’s people involved I always feel like I shouldn’t be bothering them.
    I’ll have to woman up:)

  4. Clelia

    Great Tips! I am madly in love with travel photography, especially portraits/sunsets and details. It is true, too many people think that having the latest model, super tech camera is going to turn them in great photographers.

    My rule is: Passion, emotion. The picture itself can be a “masterpiece” of tecnique but if it doesn’t give me any special feeling that means it is not a great picture (my opinion).

    Funny enough, there are a few pictures I took with my crappy mobile and people loved them, as somehow I capture a special moment.

    Obviously a nice camera makes a lot of difference, but only if you focus on other principles first.

    All your tips are a very good base to start. I love the one on the details as it is also my obsession.

    We all have the “postcard” shots, but they are similar to a million other pictures. It’s the different angle that makes the shot interesting.

    Sometimes I study a place for hours, trying every possible angle to find the “perfect” one.

    I remember in Thailand, I was on a beach (nothing particular to shot in there) but as you said, i slowed down, had a look around and found a palm tree with a big coconut just behind it.

    I had to lay on the ground in a very weird position to capture what I wanted. But it was worth the embarassment (people looking at me and thinking what in hell was I doing, getting all dirty on the floor!). That is one of my favourite shots so far.

    Thanks for a great post Darin, and thanks to Earl for hosting you here.
    Some guest posts are worth reading if they add value, and yours definitely did!

  5. Jaryd

    This are all very GOOD tips. I found solace in slowing down and seeing things as I used to rush about to get it all done, however I found rushing didn’t particularly allow me to see more and slowing down did. I also appreciated the places I was a lot more and found my photography a lot more rewarding. I also tried the put the camera down trick and I find we all need to take a break every now and then for forcing things isn’t going to create those WOW shots like you said. Awesome guest post, thanks Darin and Earl

  6. Darin

    Hi Shaun, I have no problem with post-production. It’s art. I may not like how you choose to edit your photos, as some may not like mine, but that’s not the point. If you like it, that’s all that matters.

  7. Victoria

    Brilliant tips Darin. I especially like the points of getting closer to your target and engaging and interacting. As you say, not easy but very rewarding if done correctly. Thanks so much for sharing these excellent points. I only wish that some day my photos could be as professional-looking as yours. 🙂

  8. Banker in the Sun

    Great outside-the-box advice from Darin. The engagement thing is so tricky. My friend is a photographer in Vietnam, and he’s a master at it. When people come up asking him to buy something, he starts joking with them then. He never buys anything, but ends up hanging out with them for the entire day and photographing them as they do their work and sell their wares to others. It seems like some effort at relationship-building goes a long way in terms of capturing great photos.

  9. Shaun

    Can’t underline ‘slow down’ enough. Not only a great photography trip about letting the photo emerge in front of you but just a good overall travel montra. I’m guilt of being too click-happy sometimes and feel guilty for it. But I do have days where I put the camera away and just be in a location.

    How do you feel about post production? Some are senstive about the topic others find it’s the evolution in the art of photography.

  10. Christie

    Great tips. My photography is definitely something I need to work on, so I will definitely be using some of these tips on my next adventure! I feel like I am not very creative with my photos, I just snap and go, so slowing down is going to help!

  11. Emily

    I really like the tip to ‘get closer’. I am all for getting the standard shot but really love getting those different views, or shots capturing locals with the site in the background. It makes for more interesting pictures for sure!

  12. Tanner Colton

    I really like how the tips in here seem to present some of my own personal travel priniciples, photography or not. It is interesting to think about how much our chioces as we travel dictate and produce not only the images we capture, but the experience of a place. Even the choice to not choose leads us often to the most artistically and emotionally rich products. Thanks for this!

  13. George

    Wow, these are great, easy tips that really can be applied by anybody.

    It’s amazing how a simple change of position can completely change the story of a photograph.

    Thank you for this valuable information, Darin, and congrats to you Earl, on your first ever guest post on your website!

  14. Faith

    Good article! Some days I tour without my camera simply to enjoy seeing and some days I go out simply to photograph. I am gettin.g more comfortable in asking people to be photographed and have been able to get some very memorable photos of people I met.

  15. Kristy

    Great tips! I think many these are useful for travel in general whether you have a camera or not(slow down, engage,…). Personally my best photos have came from getting closer. And putting the camera down is so true. On a portion of my last trip I found myself completely uninspired for days. I think some places will inspire you and some just don’t. If nothing else I relax and resort to cheesy tourist shots when I’m not feeling inspired. In the end it really is about experiencing whatever place you are in.

  16. Matthew Karsten

    Engaging is very important for people. The worst thing someone will say is no!

    Darin’s advice to forget about the photo for a bit and talk to them first is key. After they’re comfortable with you, THEN ask for a portrait before you part ways. I also try to learn this phrase in every local language: “With permission, may I take your portrait?”

    It’s a magic phrase. 🙂

  17. sarah

    Good tips. I especially struggle with taking photos of people for exactly the reasons stated in this post. I’m trying to get over that though as some of my favorite shots from other photographers are of people…they tell such stories!

  18. Katie

    I have to say some of my favorite images I have are the mental ones. On our last trip, not only did we slow down, but I put the camera away several times. There are times when we’ve been travelling that I can only remember from behind the camera… great advice here!

  19. carlos

    Great article…
    Any advice on photoing people? I always fear a person may get offended. But it’s my favorite subject.

    1. Darin

      Hi Carlos, I find that it’s rare that people will get offended, as long as you are polite and courteous. I guess the best advice I can give is just practice. As someone else mentioned in a comment, if you’re asking someone the worst they can say is no. And some days you may feel more comfortable approaching people than others. Just don’t force yourself.

      1. Clelia

        Totally agree on that. I also find it difficult to ask sometimes and in some cases I had some “No”, but if you smile and ask with courtesy, explaining how interesting they face is, usually they are happy to pose or just let you take pictures whilst they keep doing their own thing (i prefer these shots, as they are more spontaneous).

        Sometimes3 I “cheat” a bit, and use my big zoom to capture some close up on people’s faces. I know that is not very nice as the person should know that i’m taking the picture, but sometimes they are the best shots.

  20. Quade Baxter

    Great points. So many of the things you mention, like slowing down, are just so much easier when solo traveling (Another advantage!)
    As for putting the camera down, I have actually found when I stay in an area for more than a few days, I will force myself to not take pictures some days, while still noticing things I want to shoot later. This has been woking into some even better pics.
    Thanks for the good advice!

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