How to Make Great Travel Photographs.

Find Emotion

I was working at the University of Colorado in 2002, a year before I quit my “day job” to become a full time photographer. I had sold a print to the University, and became acquainted with the head of the housing department. One day while talking with him, he asked me if I would show him how I make good photographs. I said sure, it snowed yesterday, so let’s go the the Flatirons early tomorrow morning. We arrived at the above location, and as I was setting up my Tripod, I explained what I saw. The snow in contrast with the deep blue Colorado morning sky, and a fence in the foreground to give interest. The whole process took around 10 minutes. When I finished, the man’s jaw dropped. That’s it? he asked. He was expecting a long complicated process.
Making a photograph is usually not difficult, but it does take practice to refine your vision. It also helps if the location is exciting, inspiring. One of the best ways for a photographer to practice, become inspired, and refine their vision is to travel to a place that triggers an emotional response.

The “Be There” in “F8 and Be There”

The world is slowly beginning to open back up as the pandemic starts to subside. As I write this some countries are still under lockdown, and some are suffering horrifically, but it is a fact, that given time, all countries will eventually return to some degree of normalcy. For most countries tourism plays a major economic role, so opening the country to foreign tourists is a priority and even domestic travel is an important consideration. What does this mean for us photographers? It means that soon we will have the ability to “be there” the most important part of “f8 and be there”, a phrase that is popularly attributed to Arthur Fellig, the press photographer better known by his nickname ‘Weegee’. For a press photographer, “be there” is everything. It even trumps the 1st part of the phrase f8, which is a reference to making sure the image is in focus. For travel photographers, the importance of being there is quite obvious. “There,” could be a few blocks from home at first, while restrictions are still in place, but soon, “there” will be anyplace you have the means to access.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

At first, this step sounds quite obvious, but I have found so many people in my travels who were unprepared for what they were going to encounter, that it is appropriate for me to mention planning.
When I am going to a location I have never visited before, I do some research. I Google the location. I use maps, I look at images made there. What time of day do I want to be there? What season? When is the light the best? Then I make an itinerary. How long is the journey? What time do I start? How many days am I going to stay? What are my initial photographic goals? (these goals will change) What is plan “B”? An old military saying is “if you don’t have a plan “B”, you don’t have a plan.
What equipment am I going to bring? A day trip for a few hours or a morning walkabout is going to require much less equipment than traveling for a few days, weeks, or months. I firmly believe that less is more, but still, nothing is worse on an extended trip than not having what you need photographically. You can buy food, even clothing, and accessories if needed, but in remote locations camera stores are few and far between. So be prepared for anything, or at least be prepared to be prepared.

Varsity Pond Bridge, The University of Colorado

The image above was made on a morning walkabout a few blocks from my home in Boulder, Colorado.
When I left home that morning walking was my only option, all the roads were closed. I carried with me one camera and one lens. The snow was two feet deep in most places and deeper in others. I did not want to carry a camera bag in the knee-deep snow. I dressed in snow gear, heavy boots, gloves, hat, and winter expedition parka. I was only out for a couple of hours but was glad I had prepared myself for the elements as it was cold that morning. So the “travel” in this photo was not far from my home, but I use it to make a point. Travel photography does not have to be in an exotic location. How many of my readers have been to Boulder Colorado, trekking in deep snow the morning after a winter storm? In that respect, it is a travel photograph. It is also a good selling photo.
Remember you can photograph anywhere and it will be a travel photograph to some, one person’s exotic location is another person’s home. Enough said.

Photograph What You Enjoy Doing

Many people think of travel photography as one particular genre of photography. Like grand vistas found in scenic photography. But actually it can and should be anything you enjoy doing. Do you enjoy cooking? Rock Climbing? Fine Dining? Sports? How about scuba diving?

The above image was made in a remote, difficult to access location on a classified military base in the Kwajalein atoll. But you would never know that by looking at the image. It is a jellyfish, and could have been made in any number of oceans around the world. But if I were writing about traveling to the Marshall Islands, it makes a statement about that location.
The Marshall Islands.

Women Basket Weaving

Is The Culture Unique?

Then by all means photograph it. Find ways to photograph parts of the culture that the people are proud of. Seek out the unique. I have visited the islands of Yap several times, and yet, have not done what most people visit Yap for. You see, yap is known as the best place in the world to find giant Manta Rays, and although I’m a diver, I never even put on a wetsuit. I found photographing the traditional culture much more fascinating.
The Islands of Yap.

Use The Light

Light is God’s gift to you as a photographer, use it! Wait for it. Plan for it. Light is everything to a photographer, without it there is no photograph, but not all light is equal.
The above image was planed for several months. I walked by the small boat marina on the island of Kwajalein many times, almost every day during my three year stay on the atoll. This particular evening I knew the sunset was going to be colorful, I could tell by the cloud formations. So I went down to the marina and waited, and waited, and waited. I needed the light to be just right. And as happens magically sometimes, God said, “here you go Lee, don’t blow it!” — “Thanks God, I’ll do what I can”.
The Marshall Islands.

Elephant and Mahout

Don’t Try To Be Inconspicuous

Sometimes you can make a totally candid image, but in most cases, you are a foreigner. You look different. You dress different. You have a camera! You are going to stand out like a sore thumb. The trick is, let the people you are going to photograph get used to you. I learned this trick years ago as a wedding photographer. I wanted candid shots of the wedding, so I always went to the dinner the evening before, and shot tons of photos. Those photos were not important, but the guests and the wedding party got used to me and my camera. Pretty soon they ignored me and went about their normal business. The day of the wedding they were so used to me and my camera that they just ignored me, which is what I was after. Same thing when I’m traveling. I make a few photos and wait. Soon the local people will ignore this foreign stranger with a camera, and I get natural images, some so natural they almost look like a trained model working the camera, but that is the secret — waiting and timing.
Thai Buddhist Monks.

Make A Return Trip

I realize returning to a location is not always, in fact seldom, an option but when the opportunity presents itself, it can bring excellent results. My first trip to Wat Ban Rai, made me realize the Elephant Temple would look it’s best at sunset.
Thailand in Focus.

Ubon Ratchatani, Thailand

Ask the Locals

Every year in Thailand, there is a festival and parade in Ubon Ratchathani where locals display huge two story wax candles. My wife and I Traveled to the location and spent a couple of days photographing. The reason we went a day early, is that the parade, while nice, was, well a parade. I was interested in people building the candles. We drove around until we found people building a candle, and simply asked them ” where can we go to find more candles being made”. They gave us directions to an out of the way location where monks were building a candle. We made a few photos, did some sightseeing, then returned when the monks were moving this huge candle from the temple grounds to the main street to prepare for the parade. This made for much more interesting behind the scenes photographs.

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