I get a lot of questions about my photography style, cameras and workflow, and I get a lot of emails asking for advice for beginners. I wrote about my camera setup here, and about photography expeditions here and here, but I’ve never done a post before with advice for travel photographers.
First though, a caveat: photography is not my priority when I travel. I like to take photos and capture scenes, but I’m a father first, a traveler second and a photographer third. There are a lot of amazing photographers who cross mountain ranges before sunrise and then spend all day camped out to get bizarrely cool landscape photos. That’s not me. If I’m traveling with my kids I document it, but my first priority is to have a great vacation. And even if I’m not with my kids, I would rather be moving around and seeing a broader area than spending all day waiting for a perfect shot. I hate tripods. I use flash maybe once a year. I travel light.
But I still get really good photos from every trip, I’ve won some pretty cool awards including Conde Nast Traveler’s Photo of the Year, and I’ve built up a healthy following on Instagram, so I feel like like I’ve found a good balance between enjoying travel and capturing it. How do I do it?
I Travel a Lot
I visited 24 countries last year, including some really photogenic places like Sri Lanka, China, Oman, Iceland and Kenya. India is by far my favorite place to photograph – people are happy to have their photos taken, the colors are incredible, and there are cool/unique sites everywhere. Of course there are scenes to be captured no matter where you are in the world, but your odds of capturing amazing travel photos improve if you go somewhere that’s amazing to photograph.
I Shoot in the Best Light
Photography is all about light, and specifically early morning and late afternoon light. Very rarely are you going to get a great photo at 1:00pm in bright sunlight. I always try to walk around before sunrise and capture a city waking up. Italy is my favorite place to do that – it’s so much easier to appreciate the art, history and architecture of the cities when there aren’t other tourists around.
I Include People
If photography is all about light, travel is all about people. I’ve mentioned this before on my Instagram posts, but I appreciate photography far more when it includes people. If my kids are with me I let them walk ahead and I capture that scene. They hate to pose anyway. If there is an amazing site, I figure out a way to include a person in there, whether it’s me, a family member or a random local. I have some early-morning photos of the Taj Mahal without anyone else in them – a rarity – but my favorite photo includes a lone caretaker. At the Great Wall of China last year with my cousin and his wife, there was no one around so we purchased a traditional outfit and umbrella for his wife at the gift store and used her as our model. The Great Wall is incredibly cool, but it’s boring photographically without someone there.
And I’m always willing to ask people to be in my photos. In Oman I asked our guide Malik to pose often. In India I frequently ask people if I can take their photos.
I Look for Color and Patterns
Unless a photo is capturing an amazing moment in time, it needs something else to make it stand out. Is there a pop of color somewhere, or can I add one? Is there a repeating pattern that adds an interesting element? Always be on the lookout for a colorful and/or patterned scene, and then wait for something to happen in front of it.
I Stop at Every Puddle
Look for unique ways to capture scenes. If there’s a puddle, I assume that there’s a reflection and I’ll go down low to see if there’s a possible photo there. If there’s a window, I look at what’s reflected in it. If there’s a tunnel or an archway, I use it as a frame.
I Let the Kids Be Kids
I rarely pose my kids – although I may ask them to linger at a particularly perfect overlook while I take a few extra photos. I typically just let them play, or run, or read, or take breaks, and try to capture them naturally.
I Shoot in RAW
Most cameras have options to shoot in JPG or RAW. Always choose RAW. That way your camera is capturing a lot more data about the scene, and it makes it easier to improve your photos on the computer.
I Process Everything in Adobe Lightroom
The camera is never going to be as good as the human eye – it simply can’t see all of the stops of light that you can, and it usually has to make compromises when capturing a scene. In Lightroom I quickly adjust every photo so that it looks more like the scene actually appeared in real life. My average processing time is 20 seconds. I usually take down the highlights, take up the shadows, reduce exposure a little, increase contrast, slide vibrance up a little and adjust for the camera lens I used. There are absolute masters in Lightroom who spend 10 or 20 minutes on each photo. That’s awesome, but it’s not me – I would rather be out shooting than sitting in front of my computer.
I’ve purposely crafted this post to be about what I do, since it’s not my place to tell you how or what to shoot. Craft your own style, or copy mine – I’m not proprietary! And I haven’t discussed camera settings because I don’t pay much attention to the settings. The scene and the light are far more important than what you shoot with or what your settings are. I shoot in P (Program) mode the vast majority of the time and choose an ISO that lets me capture photos without blur – anything that gives me a speed over 1/125 or so. Of course you want to understand what the dials and buttons on your camera are for, since you may want an extended exposure to capture stars or an aperture that brings everything into focus – or conversely one that blurs the background. But I usually trust the camera to make good decisions and I put all of my focus (no pun intended) on framing the scene or waiting for the perfect moment…as long as it doesn’t take too long to happen. Otherwise I’ll move on after a couple minutes and look for the next scene with potential.
Am I missing anything? Feel free to post questions, or add your best travel photography tips below.