The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography

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Traveling and photography is a perfect match, but photographers are often disappointed that their images fail to meet the quality of their artistic aspirations. This book combines theoretical information, practical advice, and helpful suggestions for taking better pictures while traveling, whether you are on a local trip, enjoying your annual summer vacation or exploring a more exotic, remote destination. This book includes descriptions for how to carefully compose photos, avoid common mistakes, and achieve a unique perception of places that have been photographed many times before. Beautifully illustrated with photographs from all over the world, this guide will help you find your personal point of view, which will lead to exceptional travel photos.

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1 On Traveling and Photographing

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Take Your Time

At first glance, photography and traveling are a match made in heaven. What could be more perfect than capturing what you see and experience on your journey, both for yourself and for the people at home? It can be exciting and at the same time relaxing to take your favorite hobby with you to locations you’ve never visited before, where a fascination with the unknown and the magic of first encounters propels you onward. As photographers, who among us is not thrilled to use our camera to discover new worlds and energized when searching for new subjects and perspectives?

A closer look at the relationship between traveling and photography, however, reveals a potential for tension: travelers are always on the move. Taking a picture requires pausing, if only for a brief moment. A traveler generally wants to see as much as possible – a quest that’s limited by the time spent on location. A photographer, on the other hand, is interested in stopping, observing, waiting to discover and acquire a picture and the perfect moment for it. Good, creative, unique images rely to a large degree on a question of time. And time is something that you have to allow yourself. With this in mind, the first and maybe most important piece of advice for improving your images is simply to give yourself some time. Your pictures will thank you for it.

 

2 From Conventional To Unique

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Opposite: An alternative view of the famous Stupa of Boudhanath (Nepal) emphasizes the prayer flags. You might not spot Buddha’s eyes at first glance. | Film photograph, exposure details unrecorded

Commonplace Photos and Your Own Point of View

Sometimes you have pictures planned out in your head before you set out on a trip. They may even be the reason for taking the trip in the first place. Who does not recognize the perfect symmetry of the Taj Mahal lit by dawn’s gentle colors? Or the most photogenic side of Switzerland’s legendary Matterhorn? Who wouldn’t love to press the shutter button when viewing the orange-red Dune 45 in Sossusvlei, Namibia?

Wherever you go, you can be relatively certain that other photographers have already been there. It’s always tempting to imitate well-known photos of world-famous sites or limit yourself to the obvious post-card view of your subject. As satisfying as the former and as convenient as the latter may be, take your own pictures of the world – don’t just imitate those of others. This sentiment is legitimate, but don’t stop photographing after you have the photo that you wanted on your memory card.

 

3 Off Center

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Why Subjects Should Move a Bit to the Side

When you take a picture, where do you instinctively position your main subject – the center of your image? Smack-dab in the middle, where the central autofocus point or area makes it easiest to get a sharp image; where the subject – whether it’s a person, flower, building, or mountain – receives undivided attention; where nothing will challenge its dominance. You place it where the logical position for your main subject seems to be.

But only at first glance. If you end up with a bull’s eye composition for all of your photos, they will all look the same – predictable, monotonous, outright boring. After the first look, the viewer will discover the main subject in the obvious position, and won’t have any reason to continue engaging with the photo to discover what else might be there. It’s an image composition devoid of tension, and what’s even more, you’re robbing yourself of all other creative composition possibilities. Always opting for central positioning means disregarding the endless play between the main subject and secondary details, and missing the opportunity to create a balanced, but nonetheless exciting, image composition.

 

4 Into the Picture

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Subjects Need Their Space

In the previous chapter, we discussed opting not to position the main subject where everyone expects it. But where to place it instead? There is no simple, universal answer to the question as each particular photo is different. And the position of the subject isn’t everything; the subject’s line of view or direction of movement and the desired message all make their contribution.

In addition to the rule of thirds that has already been mentioned, there is another rule of thumb that’s just as practical – unless, of course, you have a deliberate reason to ignore it: Give any main subject that is looking or moving in a particular direction some visual space in the area at which it is looking, moving, driving, or flying. Make it clear to the viewer what the subject is looking at or moving toward. In other words, a subject should look or move into your image rather than looking or apparently attempting to move beyond it. Viewers subconsciously wonder what a subject is looking at or where it’s going, and instinctively try to follow that path with their own gaze to find out. If your subject is looking or moving beyond the edges of your photo, viewers won’t be able to find any answers to their questions, at least not within the frame.

 

5 The Benefits of a Foreground

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On the Search for the Third Dimension

There’s a German saying about photography that literally translates into “Foreground makes a picture sound.” It’s sort of a buzzword but fairly easy to remember, and there’s more than just a grain of truth to it. Anyone who’s seen a successful landscape photo has probably noticed that the photographer placed an emphasis on the foreground of his or her image. You would do well to do the same. Strive to find appropriate foregrounds for your images, even when you’re not into landscapes. Your pictures can only benefit from this effort, especially in terms of depth.

One of the fundamental challenges of photography is mapping the three-dimensionality of a subject onto the two-dimensional photographic representation. As photographers, it’s our task to master this challenge through thoughtful image composition. A sense of depth is needed to give a two-dimensional picture the look and feel of three-dimensional reality. Viewers automatically pick up on this when the composition includes visual clues to guide their perception. By working with clearly distinguishable layers positioned at different distances from the camera, photographers can provide viewers with information about the spatial relationships of the individual elements within a photo.

 

6 The Diagonal

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Embracing the Slant

The diagonal has a long and honored place in photos. Using the longest length of an image – stretching from one corner across to the opposite one – is a compositional technique that allows photographers to add drive and tension to their pictures and create a marked sense of depth. Roads, paths, and fences are common examples of subjects that lead into a picture. On this double-page spread, it’s a stream in the Wadden Sea. The viewer’s gaze follows the stream, traveling up from the foreground into the background, which almost automatically gives the image a sense of spatial depth.

Not every diagonal line is the same. We associate lines that rise from the lower left to the upper right with energy, movement, ascent, speed, and excitement, even if these connections are mostly subconscious. In general, this type of diagonal introduces a dynamic element to a photo. A falling diagonal that goes from the upper left of an image to the lower right has a less dynamic effect. Within our culture area, this diagonal has connotations of descent, perhaps even deterioration. Keep these connotations in mind when taking photographs, even if you can’t always influence the direction of a diagonal line that you want to include in an image.

 

7 Horizon

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So Nothing Goes Askew

If you have a photo with the ocean slanting to one side, or a building teetering dangerously, or everyone running slightly uphill on level ground, then something’s gone askew and it’s time to take a look at the horizon. If you pay close attention when taking photographs you’ll likely discover that you tend to take slightly unlevel pictures, often tilted to the same side. (The ocean is particularly useful for detecting any unevenness, since it’s so unnatural to see the horizon there with even the slightest slant.)

Many photographers find themselves producing slightly off-level images, but that’s not a big problem since it’s relatively easy to remedy; it’s often just a matter of concentration. If you consciously attempt to hold your camera level, you will usually align it properly. At some point, you will no longer need to concentrate in this way, and the process will become second nature.

Even so, it still happens that I’ll take a look at one of my photos and think, “Something’s gone askew here.” This usually happens when I’m in a position where I need to work quickly or when there’s no natural horizon line within the image. It’s unfortunate, but the best thing you can do is be aware of the problem and look out for it in the future.

 

8 A Matter of Perspective

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Down Low or Up High

Set yourself up in front of your subject, hold up your camera, frame your shot – click. That’s how most photos are taken: from our normal angle of view, at our everyday level of sight. We look up to see and take pictures of anything above eye level and we look and photograph down at anything below it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you take all your pictures from this perspective, you risk your photos becoming predictable and dull on account of the all-too-familiar point of view. This is especially true when several pictures placed next to one another have the same perspective, perhaps in a vacation travelogue, in a photo book, or in a slideshow. For this very reason, it’s advisable to liven up your photos a bit by changing your perspective. Climb up on a tower, stand on a chair, step up to the next floor, crouch down, take a knee, have a seat, lie down on the ground – (almost) everything is possible.

The main constraint related to the play of perspective is the same related to the foreground: photographers should attempt to map three dimensions of reality onto a two-dimensional medium. The missing dimension – spatial depth – is left up to the viewer’s imagination. Viewers subconsciously use clues in the picture for help, and this is where the perspective comes into play.

 

9 Everything Is Relative

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A Sense of Scale

Everything is relative, even size – what one person considers large, another may consider small, and vice versa, depending on the reference figure. As viewers of a photograph, our own background knowledge helps us to evaluate the size of the elements present in a picture. It can be nearly impossible to detect the actual size of an object if a viewer’s subconscious can’t recall any information to help him or her determine the size of an object and the photographer doesn’t supply any point of reference.

It’s possible to employ this effect deliberately. For example, clues about size are often left out of abstract photos where shapes, colors, proportions, and composition are of primary concern. The photo from the Tunisian Sahara on page 80 is an example of this – it appeals mostly because of its graphic elements, and information about the relative sizes of the objects is irrelevant to the impact of the picture.

That’s the exception rather than the rule, though. It’s much more common for a photographer to be on the lookout for something that will convey information about the relative proportions of an image. For example, a photographer might emphasize the vastness of a landscape by including a person who appears tiny within it. This kind of information about proportions supplements and often even constitutes the message of a photo: Look how imposing the glacier’s escarpment on the previous spread looks next to the (relatively) tiny rubber dinghy! Without the raft and the people in it this photo would lose most of its power because there would be no point of comparison to comprehend the massiveness of the ice cliff.

 

10 Ninety Degrees More or Less

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The Underrated Portrait Format

How many photos from your last trip were shot in landscape format? Maybe 95 percent, or 98? Holding the camera in landscape format is much more logical and comfortable, and it corresponds to our natural perception (our eyes are next to each other, not on top of one another). In many cases the landscape format seems like the best option, and in many cases it is. But some subjects and pictures would greatly benefit from a change of format. It may seem like it’s more trouble and less comfortable to hold the camera in the portrait format, but the advantages outweigh the risks, not just with portraits. All it takes is the courage to turn your camera 90 degrees.

The first encounter with portrait format is often one of necessity: the subject simply won’t fit into a landscape-format image because the focal length is too long or because it’s impossible to increase the subject-to-camera distance. In many cases, however, a serious problem comes along with this use of the portrait format, first and foremost with urban photography – namely, converging verticals resulting from perspective distortions. Apart from that, the portrait format is much too valuable to serve only as a stopgap measure for these circumstances.

 

11 Less Is More

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On Photographic Minimalism

In the words of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupèry, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Put differently: Most pictures are showing too much. Two clear-cut statements (the latter from photographer Andreas Feininger), one distinct message: Less is more. This applies as much to travel photography as it does to any other genre.

The more distinct the composition, the less elements distract from the main subject, which in turn makes the photo more convincing. Usually, it can only mean good things for a photo if its idea and main subject are obviously recognizable.

Minimalism, in the sense of focusing only on what’s absolutely essential, is a means to an end for all types of photography. It implies maintaining a certain level of consistency with your compositions, selecting the image area carefully, waiting for the decisive moment, and tidying up the photo as much as possible.

It’s up to you, as the photographer, to choose who, what, and how much from which perspective is revealed in your photos. Consider which element you want to have the main role in your photo and design your picture so that this very element actually plays the leading part rather than anything else. Ask yourself while looking in the viewfinder or at the camera display with a critical eye whether your composition holds up. Is there anything (besides what’s absolutely necessary) that is distracting from the main subject? If there is, adjust your position to remove the distracting elements from your picture. This might mean moving closer to your subject, or you might opt for a longer focal length or a wider aperture to isolate your subject from its surroundings.

 

12 Opening Up

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About Photographing People

Anyone who isn’t blessed with boundless self-confidence and a natural gift of gab will find it difficult to take pictures of strangers at first. I am fairly shy, but I don’t think much of pictures of people taken from far away with a big telephoto lens. All too often such pictures fail to establish a connection between the viewer and the subject, a bond depending on the documented person being able to decide how much or little to reveal about him or herself.

Now what? The only way to get around this issue is stepping out of your comfort zone and, again and again, bringing yourself to ask the stranger if you may take his or her picture. Create some sort of interpersonal contact with an inquiring look, a smile, a friendly gesture towards your camera, or simply with words. It’s always helpful to learn a few phrases of the local language before traveling in a foreign country; ideally, “May I take a photo of you, please?” should be one of them. Making this effort shows that you respect the person, that you have made yourself familiar with the local culture, and that you are ready to do something for a photo. In rare cases, when circumstances demand it, you might have to take a picture first and then ask afterwards. But do respect someone’s wish if they decline to be photographed with words, a facial expression, or a gesture. Basically, the rule of thumb, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a good one to follow when taking pictures, and not only with portraits.

 

13 Fill Flash

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Preventing Shadows from Stealing the Show

Fill flash is an antidote for obscured foregrounds, unwanted silhouettes, harsh shadows, and drab colors resulting from overcast skies. It’s best used when the viewer can’t even tell it’s there.

I used fill flash for the topmost image to make sure our Bhutanese guide’s face was adequately illuminated. The difference between the two images is not dramatic, but it is perceptible. | Nikon D700 • 50 mm 1/250 s • f/7.1 • ISO 500

The most likely scenario in which you’ll opt for using fill flash – not only when traveling – is when you need to reduce the contrast of your scene. A portrait with a backlit subject is a classic example. If you expose your image based on the subject’s face, which is obscured in shadow, you run the risk of overexposing the background; if you base your exposure metering on the background, however, your subject’s face will be much too dark. The fill flash helps to give the subject’s face better color, more detail, and a proper exposure by reducing the range of brightness values in the image without significantly affecting the exposure of the background.

 

14 In the Best Light

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Early Mornings and Late Evenings

It’s quite simple: without light, there is no photo, and that doesn’t just apply in a technical sense. The quantity and, above all, the quality of light determines whether a photo exists, is good, or is extraordinary. There’s a reason photography literally means “painting with light.” When you’re creating your images, the light is at least as important as the concept and technology behind your shot. The lighting conditions of a specific location at a specific time affect the colors and clarity of your subject, in addition to what appears illuminated and what appears in shadows. In short, light plays an essential role in the look and feel of a photo and the mood that an image conveys.

Early risers and night owls often encounter rich lighting conditions. It’s for good reason that nature photographers swear by the moments just after sunrise and just before sunset as the best time of day to work (“two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset”). They rave about the soft, flattering light and the warm colors that cameras tend to depict more intensely than the human eye, which is regulated by the brain.

 

15 There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather

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It’s Just Rain, Fog, Snow, Storms...

“It would have been such a nice day for shooting if only the weather had cooperated.” Who isn’t familiar with this complaint? When we travel, we’re often met with rain and fog instead of sunshine, or ice and snowfall instead of pleasant temperatures, or stormy winds instead of a gentle breeze. But what we call bad weather doesn’t have to put an end to photography. As is so often the case, you get what you make of a situation.

Initially, “bad weather” just means that you need to prepare yourself for the conditions at hand, which implies protecting yourself and your gear appropriately (see the chapter “Better Safe Than Sorry”, page 196). It also means you’ll need to look for photographic opportunities amid the prevailing weather. There were fairly typical weather conditions when I took the picture of a King penguin on the island of South Georgia (opposite) – four seasons represented within a single hour. Rain, sleet, and wind gusts all appeared. It’s partly because of their oiled plumage that King penguins can withstand harsh weather. In the photo of the sleeping animal whose feathers are covered in raindrops, I intended to reveal exactly this.

 

16 Tell It Like It Is

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The Value of Documentary Images

In a rush to Milford Sound, New Zealand. The weather report forecasted sunshine for the coming day. We drove late into the night to be there as early as possible. | Nikon D70 • 36 mm • 1/20 s • f/3.8 • ISO 200

A picture of the salt deposits on the tires of the jeep. A picture of the ice crystals that cover the entire tent after a cold night. A silly self-portrait in front of a famous attraction. A peek into the cooking pot after the longest leg of the trek. The wind meter on the bridge of a cruise ship. A comical sign somewhere in the world. All interesting subjects, but the composition of the images is anything but perfect because each was shot quickly before the moment passed. Maybe the horizon is slanted, or one side of the subject is truncated and a random arm is accidentally included. “Just a snapshot,” you might be tempted to say dismissively.

Yes, snapshots. Many photographic souvenirs are not choice quality. They simply document what was. And really, there’s nothing wrong with snapshots; the opposite is actually true. It’s definitely worthwhile to document the circumstances of your journey and to capture special moments, people, feelings, and experiences, even if the resulting images don’t quite meet your photographic standards (or those of others).

 

17 The Small Traps

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A Plea for Concentration

“And that little dark spot in the background of the photo, that’s an extremely rare bird; there are only a few of them left in the world.” Unfortunately, the animal that seemed so large and detailed to the excited photographer while looking through the viewfinder is the size of a pinhead in the actual picture. It’s nothing but a splotch in the landscape. The picture still has value as a memento, but it’s disappointing as a stand-alone photograph. What happened?

The more intently you focus on your main subject, the more likely you are to overlook other aspects of the scene (and not just parts of what is visible in your viewfinder). We often don’t see what’s there; we see what we’re concentrating on. The more we concentrate on a single object, the easier it is to allow other objects and details to slip through the cracks.

A full-format shot of these flamingos wasn’t possible so I opted for a more graphical composition instead. Below: Nikon D700 • 500 mm • 1/1000 s • f/10 • ISO 1600. Opposite: Nikon D300 • 285 mm • 1/400 s • f/10 • ISO 200

 

18 On To Something New

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Seven Tips for More Variety

Nothing but chocolate, all day every day? Sounds enticing, but eventually it will all start to taste the same. With photography, we can run into a similar sort of problem: If you shoot from the same perspective, with the same focal length, and use the same concept for every image, you and your viewers will grow bored. Trying out new things is an effective way to break out of your old habits, both when you’re on the road and in familiar climates. This chapter includes seven tips for trying something new – you’re on your own for number eight and beyond.

Your favorite aperture is f/8? It might be time to step out and play the field. It’s ultimately up to you, the photographer, to decide how much of your photo will appear in focus. Admittedly, there are certain situations in which the lens or even the camera makes this decision, but whenever a range of apertures is available to you, you should exploit the possibilities of the entire range. Consciously set out to work exclusively with a wide or narrow aperture for a while. Become familiar with the characteristics of your lens. How far does the depth of field span at a specific focal length, camera-to-subject distance, and aperture? How does the depth of field change with the aperture, focal length, and camera-to-subject distance? How do the sharpness curves vary? How steep or gradual is the transition from focus to blur in the foreground and background?

 

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