Easy Travel Photography
Photography is a fickle game. Often times, we overstep and reach too far for a final shot that is literally right in front of our eyes. This is especially true when taking pictures in foreign lands. Pictures are the way we prove to our family and friends that we were actually there. It is one thing to say you have been to Stonehenge but it is an entirely different thing to show a picture of Stonehenge straddled by a major English highway (who the hell knew that was the case?). And while any one person on vacation in France can say they have been to the Eiffel Tower, it is your picture that will show that it was blue one year and not the standard gold (which by the way was the case in 2008; France was the host country for the European Union and the Eiffel Tower go a temporary makeover in honor of that). There is also an intimidation factor that is difficult to get around. How often is it that you have the opportunity to photograph Saint Mark's basilica in Venice? The need to get that shot right can often supersede actually experiencing being there. But if you let the moment happen, allow the shot to fall into place and script itself, photographing the whole story will be easy.
The best part about photography abroad is the availability of subject matter. The most difficult part is (this could be said about most situations) knowing the light source. So often, navigating corridors in markets, going from interior spaces to outdoor scenes can confuse the camera and cause for time consuming adjustments. However, taking the time to assess the breadth and direction of your light is essential in getting that money shot.
Side Light over Front Light: Though it is possible to fix a backlit image in post-production, not everyone knows how and there is something about the lines and noise that will never be quite right. Capturing side light will highlight all the right elements, bringing the subject to life. However, be careful with side light and the shadows it can create. There is a time and place for this. Side light is the best way to show texture, a technique that works great on old architecture. It can also cast heavy shadow on your subject. For instance, if you are photographing a person wearing a hat or holding an umbrella, they can be cast totally in shadow with the wrong side lit. You can control natural light by moving around the space a bit, fitting the subject into the right light within the correct frame. This will not always be possible but it can help. Front light is like a steamroller; it flattens a three-dimensional image with quickness. Grainy walls, al fresco paintings, gleaming water, powdery rubble will all melt away in front light. Back light is not going to help either. That will just wash out whatever is in frame. I am not recommending toting around a light reflector to the Great Wall of China, but it is important to keep in mind how light can lay a foundation for the story.
Flash or No Flash: Talk about a frustrating topic. A good many indoor locations at home or abroad restrict flash photography. In museums, the concern is on the paint and material of the art itself. While one quick flash from your tiny digital camera may seem harmless, imagine that hundreds of thousands of flashes that would go off every year in a museum if permitted. All that exposure to light would dull the pigments and ruin the painting, i.e. horrendous. In an outdoor setting, flash photography can flatten a subject (it is front lighting after all). Just keep in mind that when using flash, if there is a reflective surface nearby, the flash will flash back. (Respect the wishes of the museums and indoor spaces that prohibit flash photography. Whether they are doing it for the art or for the sale of gift shop prints, be kind. The last thing you want to do on vacation is upset the locals.) Capture a variable range of images of the same subject by using the flash (when permitted), not using the flash and tampering with settings on the camera. Once you get home, you will have a number of images to choose your favorite from. If you are indoors and need more light, try to stand near a window and soak up that indirect natural light. Indoor spaces are usual lit artificially. Use that light the best way you can. Bring along a small, portable tripod in order to get a clean image. By keeping the camera incredibly still, a slow shutter speed will help capture all the artificial light possible and create a crisp, full bodied image.
Subject matter is hardly an issue when photographing abroad. If it is the first time you have been there, everything will be new and picture worthy. Advances in digital memory storage make it possible for you to take a picture of every moment and not have to worry about lugging around enough film to do it all. Removable, rechargeable and portable batteries help facilitate the process. So by all means, get photo happy.
Telling the Story: The greatest thing about traveling is seeing how different the world can be. It is so easy to forget there is an entirely different world outside of your comfort zone, and when you finally see it, photography is the quickest way to capture it. Architecture, landscapes, culture all hold a level of mystery and awe. Tell a story with your camera in a way your words can't convey (your family would rather look at your album on Facebook than listen to your 30 minute explanation of that Freddy Mercury look-a-like street performer anyway). Just imagine you are taking graphic representations to the "parts of a story".
1.) The Characters: Photographing people does not have to be all staging and preparation. People are part of the location you are visiting and are part of the story you will tell to your friends and family later on. But be mindful of the culture of the people you are visiting. For example, if you take a trip to an Amish community, ask about their views on photographs taken of the community members; some groups prohibit images taken of people for religious reasons. But when all indications point to "photos allowed", take advantage. So often, local people or even fellow tourists can make the shot perfect. Don't forget animals are awesome subject matter too.
2.) The Setting: Laying the groundwork for your story is important. Capture as much detail as possible. Take note of where you are by taking pictures of signs. You would be surprised how helpful it is later when you are compiling your thousands of photographs. (A helpful tip for gallery or museum photography: take a picture of whatever it is you are looking at followed by the plaque with the name and artist of the piece.) Make note of the uniqueness of your surroundings. Proportions photograph really well. Ever notice how huge everything is in foreign countries? Plants are bigger, doorways are fit for giants and steeples on churches make it seem possible to reach the heavens. Give the viewer something to "feel". Find things that could be described texturally: shiny, prickly, saturated, visceral, enormous.
3.) The Plot: Get an all encompassing shot of where you are. If it is an outdoor market, get an overview of the entrance or the whole hall of vendors. That sort of thing. This will be your introduction. The rising action can be a more overarching explanation of where you are; the bulk of the story, if you will. This includes all the people, the relationships, the culture of where you are. Next is the climax. This can be any number of things, but what it does need to be is interesting. Fireworks, Chinese dragons, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or anything that makes the viewer go "Holy crap, you saw that?" should do the trick. The falling action should tie the whole thing together but keep it interesting. You don't want it to be anticlimactic. Keep the story moving and don't sway from your focus. The resolution would be a good time to take a classic "good-bye" shot. If you were at a market, the rear entrance; at a festival, trash on the ground at everyone's back; the beach, sandals at the back door. You get the picture (literally).
While on vacation, enjoy the experience above all. When you get home to review the photos you've taken in the Louvre only to realize you never actually saw the Mona Lisa, you only took a picture of it, you are going to kick yourself in the teeth. Take time to put the camera down and be part of the moment. If you don't have the luxury to travel every year or very often, the memory of being there is going to be more important than anything else. Allow yourself to get caught up, live like a nomad and embrace the challenge of being out of your comfort zone.
Other Articles on Steve's Digicams by the Same Author: