We’re drowning in images. Particularly – thanks, Instagram! – travel images.
Here’s how to keep your head above the water of photographic mediocrity and impress friends, family and – perhaps most importantly – yourself with creative shots of this incredible world.
1. Kill the clichés
Memorable travel images are partly about what not to shoot.
Do a quick mood check before you click the shutter. If you’re feeling the slightest bit self-satisfied about the impending shot, you could well be taking a tired, too easy image.
Sunsets, selfies, wacky visual ‘illusions’ involving the Taj Mahal, Cuban grandmothers with huge cigars, east-meets-west photos involving monks with mobile phones – all, you’ll find, fill the frame suspiciously smoothly.
2. Drop the equipment
A camera is a box with a hole in it. From the cheapest disposable point-and-shoot to a brick-like Canon 5D costing more than £3,000, the principle is the same, and one is a hell of a lot likelier to give you neck ache – or to get you mugged – when you’re travelling.
People take great photos: cameras don’t. No matter how expensive and impressive-looking the outfit you buy, it won’t make you a better photographer.
Size does matter for travel photographers: it gets in the way! The smaller and lighter the camera the better, when you’re on the road.
These days, mirrorless cameras, combining light weight with high image quality, are the choice for more and more travel snappers above bulkier DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) machines. Sony and Fuji make some of the best mirrorless models, alongside the venerable (and pricey) Leica.
But don’t forget: you can take a brilliant shot with a Box Brownie or a battered old Nokia camera phone. Splash the cash only when you crave the greater versatility a higher end camera can provide.
3. Elementary (mistakes), my dear Watson
If it feels as if we’re dwelling on negatives, we are. Cut away the dross of basic photographic errors, and the core of your creativity can emerge.
So when you’re framing your shot in a thrillingly different foreign locale (difference being grist to the mill of good travel photography) just make sure you’re avoiding some rookie photographic blunders.
Is the horizon slicing through people’s necks, giving your picture a grisly quality you really didn’t intend? Are trees or streetlamps sprouting from their heads?
Are you shooting into the sun, so that the colourful local character you’ve come across is reduced to a faceless black profile?
Perhaps most commonly of all, are you shaking so you lose that precious photographic commodity: focus (as in the picture above)?
(Lesson: bring your elbows into your chest, as if they’re stuck to it with glue, and plant your legs a shoulder-width apart. You’re now a human tripod: shoot.)
4. Find the freshest angle
‘Photographers’ are lazy. They shoot at head height.
Don’t be a ‘photographer’; be a photographer, and find the freshest possible angle for your shot. A clever angle is a sure-fire way to make a picture interesting, and it doesn’t cost a cent.
So, snap the Eiffel Tower (if you have to) but lie down on your back on the grubby pavement to show how seriously perpendicular the thing is! Who cares if people are laughing? You got the shot.
A Bali street market – photographed to death, surely? Not if you crouch down and snap it from the perspective of the luscious tamarinds and malang apples lined up on the trader’s barrow or, climbing up on a friend’s shoulders, a passing butterfly.
Kids diving off Galata Bridge, spanning Istanbul’s Golden Horn? A bit snoozy. But why not get in with them and – up close – frame a diver’s tensed back and the rivulets of Bosphorus water running down it as he prepares to take another plunge.
5. Get closer
The taut landscape of our tremulous diver’s torso illustrates another maxim of good travel photographers: they get right up close to the subject.
“If you’re photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough,” famously said the war photographer Robert Capa.
Conquer your shyness and hesitation and get proximate to the action. Fill the frame with your subject and avoid ‘blah’ – boring spaces in the shot with no visual interest.
Zooms are for sissies (and spendthrifts). Your feet are your zoom.
6. Golden opportunity
Photography is painting with light, someone said, and one of the joys of travel is sampling the different qualities of light the world lays on.
But you think decent light obeys your lie-in-heavy holiday schedule?
Sorry. Any decent travel photographer will be rising at dawn to capture the so-called ‘golden hour’: the day’s first delicate rays that bathe everything in a magical spectre your lens will lap up.
And if you’re walking the streets at this time, you’re far more likely to be able to snap people – not expecting a photographer around – acting naturally.
Dusk is your second golden hour of the day. But noon, with its harsh light and deep shadows that your camera sensor will struggle to capture? It’s for sleeping.
7. Geometry lesson
A good photograph has balance (or is deliberately unbalanced).
The classic trick for lending a photo balance that the human eye seems naturally to find pleasing is to apply the ‘rule of thirds’.
No, it doesn’t involve mental arithmetic. Instead you mentally divide the photo frame: first with two lines lengthways, then with two more horizontally.
Now position your subject at any of the four points where those vertical and sideways lines meet. You’ll find that automatically lends the picture a pleasing sort of tension.
Luckily, these days, you rarely have to imagine the rule of thirds. The technique is so universally applicable that most cameras and devices have a mode that overlays the grid on the viewfinder.
If you think the rule of thirds sounds samey, though, you’re not alone. Some pro photographers sneer at it (while probably using it some of the time secretly, anyway).
So deliberately break it. Position your subject just off one of the connection points to give your photo a different kind of tension.
Some final geometry lessons? Look for (natural or manmade) symmetry in your travel locale.
And find ‘leading lines’ – banisters, vineyard rows, fence posts – that lead the eye towards your subject.
8. Blur, speed, shadow
Speaking of technical things, there are only three settings on your camera you really need to know: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
Aperture controls how much of that lovely sensuous blur you want in a photo, while your subject remains in pin-sharp focus.
Set your shutter speed to freeze fast subjects – breaking waves, a dragonfly, dancers.
And vary your ISO to deal with challenging light. Master these controls and a world of photographic experimentation opens up.
If your device or camera lacks some or all such variables, you may find yourself itching to upgrade so you can take your travel photography to the next level.
9. Ground control
When travelling, all the novelty can get the better of you. That mountain might be so majestic – to deploy a travel cliché – it captures all your photographic attention, leaving a good portion of the frame, namely the foreground, wasted and bland.
With landscapes, especially, you want to control your foreground and your background, not just whichever one is your intended subject. Get some intriguingly hued moss or sculptural stones in the foreground of a mountain pic, for example, to lead the viewer’s eye right through the photo to the peak.
Many a landscape can do with a human figure, too, to give it life and scale; you can make them anonymous by not showing their face, if you want. No matter how majestic that mountain, alone it might leave the frame echoing with emptiness.
10. Only human
Dwelling still on the benefits of people, your travel portraits, done well, are likely to be among your most popular shots.
But how many of us have baulked at snapping that fantastically photogenic snake charmer, market trader or artisan because it just seemed too intimidating?
The secret is to break the ice with your subject with a little small talk or, failing that, a simple smile, before you ask to take their portrait. If you learn only a few words of their language, include the ones for, “Could I take your photo, please?”
When they consent, try to position them in a setting – in their shop, perhaps – that says something about them.
And always focus on their eyes. They’re the window to the soul, don’t you know.
11. Living colour
Been to India? All the colour – in the saris, the spice markets, devotees’ body paint – can make you giddy. Morocco (try the ancient carpet-dyeing factories of Fez) is a colour trip, too.But if you’re going to shoot in colour, try to take pictures that are about colour, that explore a hue.
Find a forest of pink flamingo legs, a national flag’s red stripe matching the carmine of a woman’s lipstick, human figures weaving through a uniformly coloured crop field.
Although who said you had to shoot in color? It’s neglected but travel themes can look superbly atmospheric in contrasty black and white.
12. Have it surgically attached
Lastly, take your camera everywhere when you travel – to restaurants, a nightclub, even the bathroom. The most priceless shots are also often the one you never saw coming.