Travelling is undeniably one of life’s greatest pleasures. Whether it’s a plane ride to New York or a road trip to Baguio, there’s often a lot to pick up from going to some place. Being able to travel widens your perspective of the world. As the saying goes, “The best place to be is somewhere else”.
Naturally, people who treasure travelling like to document their experiences. Because everything is so exhilarating and exotic in foreign lands, people get caught up snapping away at everything they see. But from a photographic standpoint, are any of these photos actually any good?
Before I go any further, I want to stress that this article isn’t really for those who just want to take travel photos just for the hell of it (which is perfectly okay – there’s nothing wrong with taking a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower). This piece is more for people who want to capture objectively (it isn’t a nice photo just because you took it) good travel images.
There’s this misconception that photographing in other countries is inherently much better than taking photos in one’s own homeland. Again, that’s only because of the unfamiliarity of the place one is visiting. I’d even go as far to say that it is much harder to take good photos in a foreign place than in one’s home country. The unknown can also be a negative thing because it’s hard not to get snap-happy and just photograph anything and everything in one place.
With that said, here are a few tips for travel photography (accompanied with my own photographs from my recent trip to China and Hong Kong):
1. Come prepared.
Will you be outside the whole day? Will you be within the proximity of the place you’re staying in? Do you have enough storage space or film with you? Is your camera battery fully charged? Is it bright and sunny outside? or its gloomy perhaps?
Understand the logistics of your travel. I recommend just bringing one camera (preferably, a compact one). A cell phone camera would do just fine as well, but those with high quality camera capabilities (think iPhone cameras). When I visited China a month ago, I only brought my trusty Fuji X100 with a few extra batteries (you’re going to need them fully charged) and memory cards (you’re going to need the extra space). Also consider the weather so you know what other necessities to bring when you’re out taking pictures. Most importantly, dress comfortably because travelling entails walking… a lot.
2. Consider the span of time you’re staying out of the country
I believe that a week is essential to really produce good photos in a foreign country. But if you’re only going to stay for a few days, it’s best to maximize the time you have in that country. Get to know the place you’re visiting. Feel its dynamics, its hustle and bustle, and its ups and downs. Immerse in their culture. Pretend that you’re a local just wandering the streets on a normal day. Be aware of how long you’re going to stay in a place, but take your time taking meaningful images as well.
I was able to stay in China for around five days, which gave me enough time to explore the city. Because I had not been to mainland China previously, I took my time to get to know the place better and subsequently photograph that place. After that, we went back to Hong Kong for less than two days. Luckily, I had already been to Hong Kong numerous times, so I know what to expect photography-wise.
Basically, the length of time isn’t so much the duration but what you make of your stay in a place.
3. Photograph what interests you.
During my trip to China and Hong Kong, I noticed so many people (specifically teenagers) wearing rubber shoes (usually New Balance 574s or Nike Air Max shoes) on the street. I then became interested in the fashion culture of this country, so I gravitated towards taking images of these fashionable youths. I was also curious about the plethora of signs/billboards that illuminated the night-time Hong Kong sky, so I started photographing those things too. Suddenly, I had more direction in what kind of travel photos I wanted to take.
Take pictures of things that interest you in a foreign land. This is when unfamiliarity of a place can be a good thing – the trick is to hone that unfamiliarity and narrow down what things you want to photograph. In a new and unknown place, what things pique your interest? Is it the tall buildings? The clothes people wear? The delicious food? Or the people themselves? Consider also what kind of photographer you are. I think of myself as more of a street/candid photographer (taking pictures of un-posed reality) so I’m usually drawn to daily life and the banal.
Knowing what you want to take pictures of will give you a better sense of the place you’re travelling to, and this in turn will help you take better images.
4. Take the road less traveled.
Tourist spots are great – they’re prime destinations for a reason. Unfortunately, these places have been beaten to death by photographers, that’s why it’s hard to take fresh and original photographs of “hotspots”. Of course, if you’re going to India for the first time, it’s a must to visit the Taj Mahal. But to take really meaningful images, one should take the road less traveled.
When I was in Guangzhou, I didn’t visit the temples, the rivers or the mountains – I just wandered around and photographed. Some of the best photo opportunities arose when I was just on some random street.
Wander around. Allow yourself to get lost. That way, you’ll see the mundane things that occur every day in that place. You’ll notice the subtle things and tendencies that happen in “daily life”, which will aid you in producing good photos.
5. Be spontaneous.
In relation to points 1-4, I think that the most important tip when taking travel photos is to rely on spontaneity. Being in an unfamiliar place requires you to be instinctive. Go with the flow. Be prepared (point #1), but don’t go bizzare when something goes “wrong”. For example, maybe you thought it would be really sunny in the place you’re visiting, but it’s stormy when you get there. Adjust – some really great travel photography is taken in the rain. Maybe you’re staying for only two days instead of three (point #2). Adjust – go to the essential spots you need to visit and photograph from there. Maybe you’re still taking images of anything under the sun because everything is so interesting in a foreign place (point #3). No worry – let your intuition and instinct guide you in photographing. Maybe you’re afraid of going down unfamiliar roads (point #4) – be spontaneous and just trust that your instincts will lead you to a place with great photo opportunities.
There are thousands more of tips that will help in travel photography, but I tried to narrow down some of the more important ones. Again, it’s okay to go to another country to simply document your own experience. But travelling is a luxury that not everyone has, so I think that it’s important to be able to take meaningful images that will last a lifetime.
Photographs and Words by: Chio Gonzalez