Good travel photography is not just about photographing the obvious; the beautiful building, colorful traditional dresses and amazing food. Good travel photography is about creating stories, whether they are big or small, to show the real side of life in a particular country, area and/or culture.
A lot of my work is based around people and I like to think that my photography is an honest insight and impression of how I felt experiencing these cultures for myself. In this article I want to look at ten key aspects that I feel are important in making great travel documentary images.
I find that it is incredibly important to plan ahead before a trip, especially for long trips where I will be doing much more in-depth work. Having an understanding on the place you will be shooting , such as understanding their culture and customs, will enable you to approach your subjects in a respectful manner, which will ultimately lead to greater access to them and more intimate images.
I also like to research an area logistically and also to look at the work of other photographers who may have travelled to that particular area or region. I find this great for getting a feel for a place before I arrive but it is also important to not over research a place. Discovering cultural nuances through your own experience will help you to express these better in your work.
I can’t stress how much travelling lighter has changed my work over the last year or two. The first step I took was swapping the big heavy f2.8 zoom lenses for much smaller, lighter prime lenses. This almost halved the weight of my bag and allowed me to travel much more comfortably, especially in more remote regions.
The biggest change came earlier in this year when I switched from my Nikon gear to using a Panasonic GX7 and GH4. The move to Micro FourThirds not only reduced my pack size and the weight I was carrying around but it also had some more unexpected benefits. The smaller size of the cameras, especially the GX7 meant that my subjects seemed to feel much more at ease with me photographing them than they did when I was using my DSLRs. This is a massive deal for me when most of my work is based around people.
Discover before shooting
When you arrive in a location it is all too easy to go a bit gung ho and start shooting almost immediately. By taking a step back and spending a few hours or even a few days (if you have them) just observing the scenarios you wish to shoot will allow you to discover the best subjects to focus on.
Observing your subjects, especially in a culture which may be foreign to you, will also allow you to understand how they interact with each other and others. This will help you to approach your subjects in a culturally sensitive manner and hopefully increase your chances of getting the shots you need.
Much of the work involved in creating strong travel images, especially portraits, is put in before the camera is even taken out of the bag. Building relationships with your subjects can lead to opportunities and experiences that you will be unable to access without any interaction with your subject.
When photographing in rural villages, especially in Asia, it is advisable to approach the village elders or chief (depending where you are) first and get their expressed permission. This will not only give you a greater chance of being able to photograph but also offer an small amount of safety and protection if any situation should get out of hand.
Don’t fixate on exotic
It’s all too easy when shooting in foreign countries to find yourself fixated on creating an exotic impression of a place through your images which is not representative of regular, everyday life. All too often, probably as a result of preconceived western stereotypes, photographers will go out of their way to pay to photograph people in full ceremonial clothing or traditional tribal costume. This ‘ethnographic porn’ may be popular in the west, especially with people who have not visited these countries, but perpetuating these fantasies can also be highly damaging to these cultures. There is a good explanation of why this is damaging by Survival International director Steven Corry here.
My personal preference is more towards images of life as I find them, traditional clothing or not. There is often much more of a story and ultimately more powerful images through the photography of those moments and emotions that transcend cultures. Showing scenes that are relatable to the people viewing the images will leave a much great impact than the depiction of a fantasy surrounding an exotic culture for which the viewers of your images have no way of relating to.
Ditch stereotypes and clichés
Much in the same way as above, if you want your images to stand out then you need to do your best to photograph subjects which have not become clichés. At the beginning of my travels I found myself being drawn to places where I had seen amazing images such as the cormorant fishermen in Xingping, China or the temples in Bagan, Myanmar. These places often become hubs for photographers wanting to capture the same or very similar images.
If you want your work to stand out you need to do anything you can to cut through the ever-increasing noise in a world where everyone is a photographer. By shooting in locations that have been photographed hundreds of times, you will need to produce better work than almost every other photographer if you want to get noticed. Instead, if you concentrate on shooting stories that may not have been told before, or in countries that may not have been photographed as much, you will have much less noise to cut through and be left with images that are unique and original. These are ultimately much easier to pitch to editors and magazines in the long run.
Work the scene
One of the most common problems I see many photographers having, and it is something I do myself occasionally, is taking an image or two until they get what looks like a good shot and then leave. There have been multiple times I have got back, uploaded the images to my MacBook, and been disappointed with what had looked great on the camera screen.
For this reason, even when I think I have a shot in the bag, I will continue to take images for as long as I feel my subject is comfortable. I’ve actually found many of my best images have come from those taken after I thought I’d nailed the shot, probably due to the fact I felt more comfortable and willing to try something different.
Getting close to your subjects is important both literally and metaphorically. One of my favourite quotes is by the famous war photojournalist Robert Capa who wrote ‘If you’re photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’. If you are shooting on the streets or even semi-posed portraits in a subject’s home, ditching the long telephoto zoom and using a shorter normal focal length like a 50mm will bring you much closer in proximity to your subject. I have found that getting closer physically allows you to create more engaging portraits than those shot from a distance.
Getting closer to your subjects on a metaphorical level can be a bit of a cliché, but it’s still very important. If you wish to take images that are more intimate and go beyond what is immediately obvious then it is important to spend time getting to know your subject. Great intimate imagery is a bit of a team sport and it’s something you won’t be able to produce without your subject’s trust, so spending some time learning about them and getting them onside will reap benefits down the line.
Photograph the light
As photographers we should always be thinking first and foremost about the light. Good light can convey a particular mood through the use of high and low key images; add depth and shape through the use of shadows and light can even affect how different colours appear to the viewer and also how colours work together in your images.
Slowly I’ve realized that a fairly average subject with great lighting will make a much better shot than an exotic tribal guy with flat boring light. The very best images come about when you get an interesting subject and then shoot them with great light.
The underlying principle to everything I have spoken about is to remain respectful. All too often I have seen photographers treating the subjects of their images like animals in a zoo. If you wish to produce really great travel imagery, step away from the tourist traps where traditionally dressed locals are paraded around like some sort of freak show.
If you get out into the places where local people actually frequent and spend time respectfully observing and building relationships with your potential subjects you will get the opportunity to photograph in places and during moments that would be off limits to those photographers who have no interaction with their subjects. Combine this with a unique subject matter and story angle and you will be well on your way to producing travel imagery that will stand out.
In a world where everyone now has the power to produce technically great travel images using even the smallest of cameras, the advantage of gear is becoming almost nil. Instead, the beauty of great travel imagery is in going beyond the superficial and to create images with depth, whether that be depth of composition, light or story telling. If you can’t afford to travel and experience different cultures don’t be disheartened, most of these principles are just as applicable at home as they are on the road.