We’re all guilty of it. Staring at our Instagram feeds or checking out travel blogs — fueling the fire, so to speak. That travel fire that burns inside all of us. We know what we’re doing; we know that good imagery will always, quickly, and without fail get that fire raging.
So we sit, scrolling through image after image and occasionally wondering not only how we can get to that spot, but how we might nail that very image. The light looking just so, the action frozen perfectly, the exposure just right, and the colors balanced. A photo that seems to blast off the retina screen.
This week, we embraced our armchair wanderlust and asked some of our favorite roving photographers for advice on scoring the perfect travel photo. Ryan Struck, Megan Haywood-Sullivan, Morgan Maassen, DJ Struntz, Mitch Cox and myself all weighed in on our top five rules. The input ranges from tech heavy tips to advice on basic politeness and if you’re out to get a killer image, none of it should be overlooked.
1. Pack right
Travel photography is only as complicated as you make it. Being an avid traveler myself, many times I’m off somewhere without an assignment, and in these cases I love having as little as possible with me. Such an anti-photographer sentiment, I know, but try carrying less and simplifying your kit. You’ll make way more pictures than if you were having the internal debate about which body and lens to use.
2. Double down
If you love shooting landscapes at home, you’ll love shooting them abroad too. Bring the little things that make life easy when shooting. The Tiffen Pro100 Landscape Kit sits in my bag because it’s a great set of filters for stills that double as neutral density when shooting video. Piggyback your gear like this to keep your load to a minimum, especially if you’re shooting still and video.
3. Be prepared to travel alone
Everyone has an ideal of “Wouldn’t it be great to just leave everything behind and go to…” Yes! It is great! Leave it all behind, buy your plane ticket and just go. Don’t wait on work, don’t wait on other people, if you want to go and you think it’s right, you have no other choice. Traveling alone isn’t for the faint of heart, but you’ll have an experience you wouldn’t have had otherwise; you’ll surprise yourself. Be sure not to just disappear, tell friends and family what’s up.
Google maps allows you to download areas to your phone so you can navigate, even without service or wifi. Make this your priority before leaving.
5. Engage people
Even if you can’t speak the language well, just try. To put it in perspective, when anyone stops you in your hometown for help, I’m sure you try your best to lend a hand. You’ll find most people are just as friendly. Talk to people, ask questions, and seek what interests you. This practice will lead you to interesting photos and great stories.
1. Back up your images.
Whether you are in the middle of an Indonesian jungle or 5 minutes from home, I can’t stress enough how important it is to back up your images. There’s nothing worse than capturing a once in a lifetime image only to lose it forever thanks to a failed hard drive or a stolen camera bag. While there are countless online solutions, I prefer the good old fashioned approach of storing an exact copy of all your images in a completely separate location. Whilst traveling, back up your images to two hard drives, one stays on your body at all times and the other stays hidden in your hotel or car. Every couple of weeks or months (depending on how pedantic you are), mail your second hard drive home or to a friend’s place and then repeat the process. Uploading your best and most precious photos to Drop Box or a similar online storage facility is a good option also and should hopefully keep your images safe.
2. Know your gear
Before rocking up to a perfect location for a sunrise shoot, you have to know every part of your gear 110%. This includes every setting of your camera, every focal length of your lens, and all your weird and wonderful accessories. Imagine capturing some killer images only to realize you were shooting in the wrong format or your lens was set to manual focus. Sit at home and practice until you know what every button does before venturing out into the unknown.
3. Research You Location
Research can really make or break an image. Some locations look great at sunrise, others look terrible, whilst other areas can be sunny all morning or rain most of the afternoon. Research as much as you can about the location you are traveling to before you arrive, chances are you won’t have an internet connection once you get there. Check what time the sun rises, what time the moon sets, the tides, the weather, will there be a fog in the morning? Does this town not open on weekends? Seriously, research everything, it will pay off later.
4. Always carry a camera
Always carry a camera wherever you go. It doesn’t have to be your brand new Canon 5DMK4, it could be your iPhone 3GS or your $9 disposable camera — just carry something. Chances are the second you venture out without your camera, something amazing will happen and you will kick yourself later.
5. Have some fun
After all your hard work backing up your images, learning your gear, and researching your location, hopefully you’ve taken some impressive shots. However, the best part about traveling and travel photography is to have some fun. Grab a couple of beers with the locals, splash out on a fancy dinner or maybe jump off some cliffs (preferably into some water). It’s important to actually enjoy yourself while traveling, as your images will reflect it.
1. Say “yes”
Getting an image you’re excited by could be as simple as being there, and you’re not going to be there unless you say yes a little more. If you took the time and energy to travel half way around the world and someone in your hostel invites you on a hike, go! If you’re presented with an opportunity on the road, it’s always better to take it than to sit and wish you had.
2. Keep your wits about you
The world at large is a very peaceful, beautiful, welcoming, place. Through any extent of travel, you will see that. People are inherently nice and welcoming. They want you to see and experience the best of what their country has to offer—generally. Some people are in more desperate situations and people who aren’t familiar with an area are easy pickings. I’m not saying this in contradiction to rule number one. You should absolutely see everything you can while traveling, but while you’re jumping in a swimming hole, don’t leave your iPhone or your new DSLR sitting on a rock. Ask a friend to watch it for you or photograph the others splashing around. Just because you’re in unfamiliar territory doesn’t mean you should turn your brain off.
3. It’s the wizard, not the wand
Do not stress about the camera you’re using. You could be shooting on a smartphone or an 8×10 view camera. Getting comfortable taking pictures and photographing your adventure does not mean you need the best kit. You need something you’re comfortable with that will help you get the images you want.
4. You don’t need to go halfway around the world
I’m a very firm believer that, as a travel photographer, you don’t need to be traveling to photograph. The light in the hills of Nepal is certainly stunning, but you are much more familiar with the light on your street. If you’re out to make a great image, you don’t need to start across the world. Start at home and let that take you around the world.
So your new camera can shoot 12 frames per second. Very rad. Keep in mind that doesn’t mean you need to shoot 24 images of your wife standing in front of Philly’s best cheesesteak joint. Take a breath, compose your shot, and click. You’ll be grateful you have less when it’s time to go back and edit.
Most of the best moments on the road come at unexpected times. Wandering around a city, a stormy boat ride, free-diving a secluded beach. It never hurts to walk around aimlessly with your camera. Just be ready to jump on any opportunity that presents itself!
Take just a photo, leave just a foot print. Also, be very conscious of local customs, parks/reserves, wildlife. It is crucial to be respectful to others and the environment, wherever you go.
The more people you meet, the more opportunities will unfold. Whenever traveling, I try to network with people I admire in the region, like artists, filmmakers, musicians, surfers. It always leads the way for interesting conversations, new friendships, and unexpected adventures.
If you plan to go somewhere where they speak a different language than your own, any headway into their dialect is a major footing. Whether you are visiting Mexico or France for three days or three months, knowing how to ask “Where to get gas?” or “How much does it cost?” can save you so many headaches.
Never take a moment abroad for granted! If you’re in a foreign country — or even just the great outdoors — really appreciate the fact that you’re not stuck in traffic commuting to your desk job. Wake up early, go explore, meet people, get sunburnt, stay out late dancing. Just relish it — you’ll never regret a good time.
1. Travel with the lightest setup possible
The less photo gear you bring, the more you can focus on capturing the moment, plus it’s a fun challenge to make the most of what you bring. My go-to travel lens is my 24-70mm 2.8.
I try to research the unique ecology and culture of the places I am traveling to/shooting before I arrive. It adds depth and context to the photographs.
3. Bring a good lens blower!
They are essential for shooting in the raw elements.
4. Invest in a good Pelican case with locks
I’ve had to check my precious camera gear at the gate many times, but I’ve never had a problem checking my gear locked in a Pelican case. Those things are indestructible.
If I’m traveling for pleasure, I try to pre-visualize a storyline for the images I want to make. It helps to have some direction on the road in an unfamiliar and exciting place. That way the photographs will have a cohesive theme that can be created into a solid piece of work like a photo essay, prints, or a zine.
1) Do your research
Local customs, friendly greetings in local language, geopolitical situation, local politics — they all come into play if you want to have a successful trip!
2) Find a great trustworthy local guide/fixer
He/she can mean the difference between success and failure and can act as your bridge into the community, especially if you don’t speak the language.
3) Visit your travel/tropical medicine doctor
Getting the right meds to take with you can save you from a trip spent in the bathroom and focused on taking images!
4) Make sure you have insurance on your gear
If it’s stolen, you don’t want your burgeoning photography gear to be derailed by the inability to replace your kit.
5) ALWAYS, ALWAYS BE FRIENDLY
Be friendly and genuinely interested in the people you meet and photograph — it will make your experience so much richer and the memories that much brighter!