Travel Photography: How to Find Those Special Photos

June 04, 2018

This article was originally published on April 12, 2016 and has been updated to include current product information.

Creating assignments for yourself when traveling is a helpful way to focus on what you want to look for each day and can be lots of fun. You can imagine that you are on assignment for your favorite magazine and spend a day photographing for them. If your favorite publication is adventure or sports related, spend the day looking for adventure and sports. Even on a trip to Paris or Manhattan, you can find something that would be the right fit. Do you see runners, cyclists, or an outdoor fitness class? Try freezing their movement with a fast shutter speed using Shutter Priority mode or pan with them using moderately slow shutter speeds to illustrate the movement in the scene. Look to their shadows and find interesting compositions and shapes. Anywhere you go, you can find something to focus on. Is there a boat race on the river, or a circus performer on the street? Even in Paris you can find a way to illustrate a sport theme in your imagery. Additionally, finding a story in a location like Paris that is so different from the typical story everyone else tells will be exciting.

If you love art and find yourself in an automotive shop, focus on the details of shapes and textures in your imagery. I once photographed for an auto-repair shop and had no idea what the difference was between all of the nuts and bolts. I did, however, see beautiful shapes, patterns and textures all around. The metals, grease, even the wires and pipes were all perfect for detailed texture shots. You can make any subject interesting and appealing if you spend a bit of time seeing it from a new perspective. If you planned to photograph the auto-repair shop with a wide-angle lens, try photographing with a macro lens and get some incredible close-up detailed images of textures and shapes.

If you love food, go find the local market, the closest farm, and the best restaurant. Try using a super wide-angle lens if that is something that you wouldn’t normally use. If you like fashion, pay attention to street fashion and see if you can find common trends that are different from what you see at home. Maybe this is a certain shoe type, a specific way in which people wear their scarves, or tuck their shirts. If nature is your passion, then find waterfalls, beaches, trees, and more. If it’s cars, photograph everything from the Rolls Royce to the Tut Tut on the street. Look at the people driving those cars and see how similar or different they look to people at home. These differences will make for powerful photographs.

Another more general, yet incredibly creative form of self-assignment is to do a color story. Select a key color, like turquoise or red, and spend the day photographing each and every thing that you seen in that color. Look at people, buildings, natural elements, and more. By the end of the day, you will have a strong collection of images that tie together with a central theme.

Self-assign

Self-assign by selecting a shape and focus on photographing as much of that as you see. Circles in circles in circles can make for interesting photography. Perhaps you are surrounded by shells. Find those shapes elsewhere in nature and in architecture and fashion all around.

Select one lens and use that for each and every image you make in a day. This forces you to make creative choices when you photograph. If you typically use a long lens, assign yourself to use a super wide lens for the day and see what it feels like to look at the world up-close. Wide-lenses can cause distortion and your world for the day could look like a fun-house mirror if you get wide enough (a 10mm lens will give you some serious distortion).

If you typically use a wide lens, then view the world for a day through a long lens. Force yourself to look away from details and look at a larger scene. What points of interest are in the distance? How can you draw attention to details that seem to be far away from you? You can always add or wait for elements into the horizon line like a passing boat, a couple walking in the distance, birds flying through, etc. to make a more dynamic scene.

Finding interesting things to strengthen an image

Some of the most interesting things occur in the wee early morning and late at night. For diversity in your photographs, get up early or stay up late and see a place at times when others do not. Not only will the light be different from the average image of that location, but activity in the early morning and late night is something many people never see. Are you going to the Mayan ruins of Tikal? Wake up before the sun has risen, climb to the top of the pyramid in the dark, and watch as the jungle below you awakens. Birds will appear, fog will lift, colors will change, and monkeys will come to life. Seeing this is so much more dynamic then seeing the jungle when it is already wide awake. If you are in a city, watch the vendors open up shop, the street sweepers clean the streets, the children head to school. Look at early morning light and see unique colors, animals, scenes that midday will never reveal.

Play with your composition. A general understanding of the rule of thirds will enhance your imagery and once you know this rule, you can certainly break it as you please. The rule of thirds suggests that an image can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. In this division, the important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections, known as power points. Aligning a subject with these points creates more tension to the viewer, more interest and more energy in the composition than centering the subject.

Gesture is another way to strengthen a photograph. Even when photographing a landscape, you can add people to the scene to create a level of interest and scale. In this landscape, the people can be stagnant or they can have a gesture that enhances the image. Imagine a horizon line with two small figures on one side. Is it more interesting to see the figures as they appear to stand straight or is it more dynamic to see the figures as though they are in motion walking through the scene? Small and subtle gestures, like the bend of a leg or arm, can make all of the difference between a generic image and something much more exciting.

Expression and gesture go hand in hand. When you are photographing people, be sure to capture a number of images of them. With each image, they will typically become more comfortable with the camera and their expressions will change. You have seen this before, even in yourself. At first, people tend to “fake” a smile for the camera, but moments later, once the initial pressure of a photograph is alleviated, a natural smile comes through. Often when photographing people, the moment you put your camera down is the moment in which you see the best smiles. Always be ready for this shot.

Be kind and wise

The world isn’t a large Disneyland waiting for you and it is essential to remember to be courteous, conscious, and green as you travel. Act as though you are a guest in a stranger’s home and people will welcome you. A camera can be an off-putting thing and remembering this as you travel will get you much more in the end. Ask before you photograph someone, watch what you are standing on, listen, and look.

Knowing the history of a location will help you with context. Find the main sights and challenge yourself to capture them from a different perspective and locate places that are off the beaten path. Ask a local for advice or even hire a guide. You don’t have to be on an organized trip with other photographers to have a photographic experience when traveling. If you are with family and friends, perhaps you spend one day by yourself with a guide and photograph everything in sight. Not every family member or friend will have the patience it takes to follow you around as you photograph to your heart’s content. If they do, remember to thank them!

Safety first. Traveling with photographic gear and not being flashy about what you have with you is a safe way to travel. Many professional photographers even cover camera labels when they are in the field to reduce temptation from theft. Remember that if you are traveling, you are wealthy compared to most of the world and your camera is more than people in much of the world will make in five years. Not only is it a good idea to not flaunt your privilege out of respect, but for safety reasons, keeping your gear close to you at all times reduces temptation from wandering hands. Many camera bags offer locking systems that are easy to use and provide an added level of security when traveling. The worst idea is to purchase a bag with your camera company logo on the front. Nothing in a train station or bus terminal says “take me!” more than an unattended camera bag that advertises exactly what it is. Temptation is a large part of theft, so why add temptation when it is completely unnecessary? Travel with the most inconspicuous bag you can find. If you can weather-proof your bag a bit too, even better. A brand new bag also signals “take me” as well, so scuff up or wear in that new bag a bit before you take it on your next trip.

Travel insurance can help to put your mind at ease. Depending on your company, full replacement of equipment that is lost or stolen on your travels might be covered. Insurance can often be purchased through your renter’s or homeowner’s policy and that is something to talk with your insurance agent about. Other organizations like the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) offer camera insurance as well, but be sure to check if your next destination is covered on your policy. Many camera equipment insurance policies only cover loss or theft while at home.

Know your gear

Knowing your gear can make the difference between capturing a rare bald eagle and its babies in flight, and missing the moment altogether. If you are in the middle of the Sahara, that is not the ideal time to start learning your camera. Know your gear so well that it becomes an extension of your body and let your imagery and eyes do the work. Read the manual thoroughly before a trip and know where to find reference information on the web if you have questions. Bringing a copy of the manual with you can’t hurt either.

Before you go, there are a few things to check: Does everything work? Do you have proper batteries and chargers? Do you have power outlet converters? A pre-trip gear packing list will save a lot of headache on the road!

Here's my list of gear I prefer to travel with:

  • Camera
  • Camera backup
  • Camera batteries
  • Camera battery charger
  • Power converter for outlets
  • Memory cards
  • Memory card backup (hard drive, etc.)
  • Flash/flash batteries
  • Cleaning tools and cloths
  • A small extension cord
  • Camera bag
  • Pen and Sharpie
  • Note cards/small notebook
  • Model release printed
  • Camera manual
  • Lenses
  • Lens case
  • Computer
  • Tape (you never know, but it’s great to have when you need it!)
  • Small scissors
  • Energy bar

Enjoy yourself and don’t make getting each and every shot your job! If you are traveling with family and friends, one can only expect them to be so patient. Most importantly, have fun with your photography and remember to play!

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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