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 hop online, use a man and van delivery service and have a fancy, expensive new camera delivered to your door before you go, thinking that will improve your odds of landing beautiful photos, it really 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.
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.
Postcard shot of Liberty Plaza, Taipei, Taiwan
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 detail, Sydney, Australia
Getting closer doesn’t necessarily have to mean physically close (especially if you have a good pair of glasses). 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.
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.
Children posing in a rural Philippines village
4. TAKE A DIFFERENT PATH
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?
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.
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.
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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