Travel Photography - Making the Most of Your Opportunity

Tips and suggestions to maximize your enjoyment and minimize stress

By babywriter in Articles and Tips on Jun 26, 2017
Travel Photography - Making the Most of Your Opportunity

So, you’ve scheduled the trip. Travel plans are set, excitement is building, and of course you want to record it with your camera for posterity. But the more you think about it, the more stressful it gets. How do I prepare? What should I bring? And how can I end up with great photos when I’m done?

The good news: you don’t need to stress. Traveling with a camera can be both fun and meaningful, and you don’t need thousands of dollars of gear, or a handy-dandy six-step instruction course, to make that happen. A bit of preparation, and trusting your instincts, can result in some stellar photos. 

In this article, I’m going to assume that you’re traveling for pleasure, and not shooting for publication. If you’re doing professional work, there are many other, more qualified sources out there, and I wouldn’t presume to advise you. (You probably know more than I do, anyway.)

Street musician, San Francisco, CA, USA

When I shoot while traveling, it’s for three main reasons:

  • Memories. I want to be able to look back at the photos and remember my trip in a way that would be impossible otherwise.
  • To make me more aware of the moment. Raising a camera makes me look for the unique, the noteworthy, and the beautiful. It’s like adding a sixth sense that makes the experience even more awesome.
  • To get that "perfect" shot. You know, something to share proudly to friends, loved ones, and fellow shutterbugs. That’s part of why we all shoot, right?

If this rings true with you, then read on.

Packing Well

If you love camera gear the way I do, your first impulse will be to bring all of your favorite lenses and accessories. After all, you’ll need them to get all those great destination shots, right?


Personally - and I’ve seen this advice reflected elsewhere (see here, here, and here) - I’d recommend bringing as little as you can get away with.

Over an 11-year career as a small town journalist - shooting county fairs, sporting events, accident scenes, US Presidential candidates, and everything in between - I carried a single 35mm film camera, two lenses, and a flash. That’s it. That single-bag setup allowed me to be mobile, and to shoot in the moment. The more gear, the less you’ll be able to do either.

Any decent camera bag should allow you to pack one or two camera bodies, a couple of lenses, a flash, and some batteries and incidentals. That’s more than enough (if you’re packing a Pentax Q, well, then, knock yourself out. You can pack a body and the entire family of lenses in a cosmetics case).

Are you flying to your destination? Then packing well - and light - is doubly important.

Contracts of Carriage - the basic agreements between the traveler and the airline - vary widely in terms of how camera and photo equipment are handled. In the United States, for instance, both United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines exclude camera equipment from any liability claims. (Translation: if your gear is damaged, tough luck.) Delta Airlines doesn’t exclude camera claims, but won’t accept it as checked baggage. You get the idea.

So read the Contract of Carriage, and know your options.

Here’s your goal: fit it all in a single carry-on bag. That way, you can watch over it personally and not worry about whether some automated sorting equipment, or ham-handed handler, is doing violence to your precious gear.

If you absolutely need more stuff - say, for example, you want to shoot long-exposure starfield shots, and you can’t strap a tripod to your carry-on - it’s feasible to stow some sturdy, impact-resistant items in your checked luggage, within reason. Be aware, however, that many airlines don’t allow hazardous items (like lithium batteries) in the cargo hold. Keep those with you.

Also, pack a small notebook,one that fits in your bag. We’ll come back to this.

Prepare to Shoot in the Moment

In August 2016, I was assigned a work-related trip to central and northern California, USA. The trip required me to fly into Sacramento, and then drive up and down the Central Valley for several days, visiting various sites and researching a software package my company was considering.

As I planned the trip, and meetings and appointments fell into place, I realized quickly that two things were going to happen: I would be driving through San Francisco at one point, with a few hours to explore - and, later that week, in northern California, I would have a full day to myself, with no appointments at all.

San Francisco was easy. I mapped a route into the heart of downtown, stopping at Fisherman’s Wharf and then looping across the Golden Gate bridge. I figured I could play it by ear from there. 

Perfect planning? Well, not quite.

In San Francisco, I got to Fisherman’s Wharf and fell in love. I found some street performers, and talked with one of them - the silver one - for a bit. (I also tipped him, which I’m sure didn’t hurt.) 

Street performers and a courageous bystander, Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco, CA, USA

I kept stumbling across unique moments to capture....

Cool dogs and their owner, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA, USA

...and ended up having to scratch the trip across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was okay with that, though: interesting moments like these are worth sacrificing for. 

A few tips, when you're shooting in a locale that's crowded with people.

First of all, focus. It's easy to get overwhelmed because there's somuch motion and activity. Look for the unusual, the truly eye-catching. Then position yourself for an optimal shot, and fire away. Don't just shoot blindly into the crowd, hoping you'll get lucky. 

If you're shooting fast-moving street locations, like Fisherman's Wharf, I'd advise going with a 28-50mm prime. In this situation, I generally shoot aperture-priority (so that I can control depth of field when I need to), and start with the aperture somewhere between f/8 and f/16, depending on how much sunlight there is. That gives you a good middle ground between motion blur and a decent depth of field. From there, experiment.

In terms of framing the shot, I try to leave myself a fair amount of space around the subject. Most modern DSLRs have plenty of megapixels to work with. If you need to crop later, then crop. Remember: you're traveling, and you always want to retain that unique sense of place. Sometimes, to do that, you need to keep the background loose. 

For my full-day adventure, I chose Yosemite National Park.

Half Dome in morning mist, Yosemite National Park

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, it’s now possible to have boatloads of information about any destination at your fingertips. Use it. I downloaded a park map, and picked some waypoints. I wanted to go into the central Yosemite Valley to start, where the famous El Capitan and Yosemite Falls are within easy reach.

And, because I’m a Mark Twain fan, I wanted to see Mono Lake, which is way across the park, nearly into the desert. So - a quick jaunt from Yosemite to Mono, then back to my hotel in the Central Valley before dark. 

Let's just say that Yosemite National Park is vast - really vast - with beautiful vistas around about every corner. That being said, here's my obligatory tourist photo of El Capitan - hey, not every shot has to be artsy and original. Being a tourist is fun, you know. 

El Capitan in the morning, Yosemite National Park

One of the great advantages of shooting in a place like Yosemite (as opposed to, say, Fisherman's Wharf), is that you have time. The mountains and trees aren't going anywhere. Use this time to your advantage by experimenting. Try different framing and depth of field choices. Use exposure compensation when, say, the abundant sunlight is washing out details. If you're shooting closeups, experiment with a bit of fill flash (or, if you brought along a ring flash, get some great macro shots of that beautiful wildflower). 

And when serendipity strikes, as it inevitably will, hold your breath, put your camera to your face, and fire away:

Deer, Yosemite National Park, CA, USA

I hiked up to Yosemite Falls and back, wandered around with my neck craned upward to see all of the amazing rock formations, stopped again and again to grab just one more photo, and ended up at Mono Lake way later than I'd intended. That meant rushing my shots at Mono (and not getting anything worth saving); driving back way too late; and ending up on a mountain road full of blind hairpin turns in total darkness. Not my best decision.

But along the way I still ended up with stuff like this:

Olmstead Point, Yosemite National Park

Here’s the point: know where you want to go. But don’t be afraid to modify the plan if the moment requires it. You will have a limited amount of time, and you will inevitably plan too much for the time you have available. Accept it, give yourself time to wander, and enjoy it anyway.

Remember that notebook you packed? It’s an old journalist’s trick - use it while you shoot.

Jot down locations, time of day, camera lens and settings used (EXIF data doesn’t capture information about the vintage M42, K, or A-series lenses you’re using), conversation notes - whatever you need in order to catalogue the moment. You’ll want that information when you upload to Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, 500px, or whatever online or social media service you use.

Stretch for the Shot

Travel photography is, in my opinion, much like journalism. You are going to a specific place of interest, one visited by many others in the past. What makes it unique is the moment: your surroundings, the light and shadow, and the people sharing it with you will never be the same again. Work hard to see what is different, and capture it. 

This may take you out of your comfort zone. I’m an introvert by nature, and it’s difficult for me, for example, to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But it is good practice to ask permission if your photo is isolating specific subjects - especially if they see you, and exhibit discomfort at being photographed.

Rather than saying, “Can I take your photograph,” try something else: “May I make a portrait of you?” Or, if you’re more extroverted, say, “I really like how you look. I’m from out of town - may I?” Be sensitive to local customs - some cultures are more open to that than others. And don’t force anyone; if they refuse, lower the camera, thank them, and walk away.

In San Francisco, I asked permission before I took this shot. I did not, however, tip them:

Panhandlers, San Francisco, CA, USA

Occasionally, you may even make a new friend - one that you will feel comfortable offering a copy of the photo via email, or staying in touch with later. That’s serendipity at work.

There are times when serendipity favors the determined, and "stretching for the shot" means actually stretching physically. At Yosemite, I wanted a closeup of the falls, and I didn’t have a lens with me that could do the job. So I spent half an hour climbing the rocks below the falls, watching kids one-fifth my age pass me by, until I got to a spot where I got this: 

Yosemite Falls, CA, USA

Well, ok. Someone else pushed the shutter button. But I set up the shot for them!

(Note: please know your physical limits before you do something like this. There's a difference between "stretching for the shot" and "ending up in the hospital." Just saying.)

Later that day, I wanted more than just roadside vistas. So I took a brand new rental car down a rutted path better suited for a Jeep, and spent almost an hour exploring south of May Lake. I got lost in the lovely, almost moon-like landscape of exposed granite and weathered wood. 

Rock formation, May Lake, Yosemite National Park, CA, USA

Finally, watch the light - because good light never lasts long, and always pops up when you least expect it. Case in point: before the sun went down on my trip out of Yosemite, I rounded a corner and literally gasped in wonder. In thirty seconds flat I had pulled off the road, along with about a dozen other amazed motorists, to capture this vista: 

Sunset, Yosemite National Park

It was a fitting exclamation point to a memorable day of shooting.

Don't Waste Great Light

A little more about light, because this can't be over-emphasized. If you're visiting a location that is a popular tourist spot - or one, like a major city, where thousands of people pass by the same point every day - getting a unique perspective can be challenging. However, the one element that is never the same, from moment to moment, is light.

Use it.

I was in Dallas, TX, recently, and decided to grab my camera and walk the streets of the West End. We all know about the fabled "golden hour" just after sunrise or before sunset, right? Well, it's true. This is my favorite time to shoot, because quality light can transform an otherwise ordinary scene. 

Reunion Tower and Hyatt Regency, Dallas, TX

The route that I walked that night wasn't unique at all. It went past Dealey Plaza, site of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, which is where most people pull out their cameras. Mine did, too, but not to capture a static shot of the location. Instead, that magic "golden hour" light was at work again, and a light rail track just north of Dealey captured it perfectly:

Light rail power lines, Dallas, TX

On my way back, after the "golden hour" had long since faded to darkness, I pulled out my Pentax Q and began shooting "Bold Monochrome" photos at high (for the Q) ISO settings. The weather was beautiful, and it seemed a shame to waste it. I wasn't expecting much, but sometimes the camera pulls off some magic of its own.

Flag and memorial, Dealey Plaza

Final Notes

So, to review:

  • Pack light. You probably don't need all the stuff you think you do.
  • Make plans, but be ready to alter those plans and "shoot in the moment."
  • Take yourself out of your comfort zone to get the shots you want.
  • Watch for great lighting, and then use it to your advantage.

It may be that what excites you about travel photography is completely different than what I shoot. I'm very attracted to my surroundings (and I'm an introvert; see above), so I tend to gravitate toward beautiful views, great colors, and unusual points of vew. That's ok. What makes photography such an amazing passion is that there's so much room for personal choice and creativity - and if you're shooting digital, you have an unlimited supply of exposures.

Experimentation is cheap, so experiment. Find out what works for you.

Go online and read up about travel photography, from photographers who do it for a living. One of the best articles I found was this one, written by former National Geographic photographer Robert Caputo. He delves into the art and craft of great travel photos, waxing eloquent on different types of travel photos, the willingness to experiment, and the power of serendipity. 

Personally, I believe the photographer who chooses Pentax is a step ahead of the pack when it comes to great travel photography. Pentax DSLRs, with their built-in weather resistance, generally compact size and rugged build quality, are perfect for the varied and sometimes difficult conditions that traveling can bring. Personally, I primarily a shoot a K-S2, but when responsiveness isn't paramount, i pull out a K-01 mirrorless - which renders warm, rich colors that make me swoon with joy.   

More compact options, like the Pentax Q-S1 or the Ricoh GR series, can deliver excellent quality in an unobtrusive, highly portable package. Or grab a Theta and capture some wild 360-degree action. 

Take pictures. Make mistakes. Have fun. And keep trying for that perfect shot.

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