‘Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.’ Imogen Cunningham
To me there is nothing more electrifying than walking the predawn streets of cities whose culture and landscape I love.
I love that feeling of breathing in the fresh, often cold, morning air. Watching the sky turn from inky black into deep blue and then gradually bringing the wild colours of sunrise – pinks and oranges, yellows and bright blues – to light the magnificent, empty city.
I have found a subject that I follow all over the world – dawn – that makes me feel incredible to be alive. That makes me want to roll out of my warm bed (and oh, how I love my warm bed :)) and go explore.
Today I want to share with you some simple, but powerful ideas to help you create stunning and unique travel photos.
I also want to help you ignite that incredible joy you can get in finding a subject that is mesmerising to you as dawn is to me.
If you are new to travel photography I will to arm you with knowledge that will empower you to follow your curiosity and get great images.
If you already do a lot of travel photography, I want to offer inspiration and ideas that will help you develop your photographs so they have more depth. To help you say more about what it is like to stand in that place, to feel the energy and the atmosphere and to translate all of that wondrous unique spirit to your images.
This travel photography guide is divided into sections:
- Mindset – how you see, what you’re thinking about, in fact the state your entire being is in – are all the things that define you as a photographer. How you travel, what you see and the energy you bring to the place defines the photos you take.
- Subject & composition – here I discuss the approach you take in new places, along with some simple techniques.
- Your kit – some simple tips for gear. Plus links and resources provided here for more in-depth teachings.
- Exploration – once you have your vision established, your gear packed and you are away, this last section will look at some ideas about exploring and finding subjects.
A lot to cover – so let’s get started!
“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” Anonymous
First, a question:
I want to ask you this: why do you want to travel? What are you yearning to see, to feel and to experience? What is it about travelling that excites and moves you? What do you want to learn?
Many of us might think: well, it’s to see things, beautiful and interesting things. But I will counter that by saying: no, it’s not just things we want to see – it’s experiences that we want to have.
So often we are on our hedonic treadmill – going about our lives and living the way we do. But then we also want to get off that treadmill – we want to feel something different.
I believe that most of what we need to develop as creative people – as photographers – is already inside of us. We just need to find ways to reveal it. Travel is an amazing way to do that.
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Seneca
Travel brings new ways of seeing and thinking into our lives, but we all have different reasons for wanting to do it. I like to get a feeling, some ideas, about what I am looking for when I travel (because it changes all the time.)
Sometimes for me it’s about overcoming a fear of the new, or pushing myself outside my comfort zone; sometimes it’s about connecting with the beauty of the world to refresh my frazzled brain; sometimes I want to meet people and hear stories of new places, or it could be I just need some thrill of the new in my life.
“I lay in one of those protracted moments of rapture which scatter this journey like asterisks. A little more, I felt, and I would have gone up like a rocket.” Patrick Leigh Fermor (wonderful travel writer)
Right now I am sitting in a darkened bedroom in the south of France, looking out onto the faint lights below in the garden of a little hotel. Behind me my children are sleeping, I can hear their soft in and out breaths. The world around me is quiet, but the air feels heavy with expectation.
It feels exciting because I am in a new place, the air feels different, the world around me looks different – but in fact it’s not the newness of it. It’s the fact that I am totally present, totally fascinated by looking out this window in twilight onto a garden I have never seen before.
I can’t help but be present when everything is new to my eyes – when I am seeing it for the first time. It’s electrifying.
I am feeling totally open and aware of this experience. Not wanting to move or do anything but simply witness what is before me.
It’s sitting round a table on a rooftop in a new city at sunset, talking to new people, drinking a different kind of wine, eating new foods, as the night settles onto you.
We yearn for the new, we yearn for adventure, we yearn to have something new come into our lives and shake that sleeping person awake.
So I ask you again – what is it that you want to see, to feel, to experience in travel? What adventures are you looking to have?
Subject & composition
Look to shoot the iconic in a different way…..
I am always trying to go for a different approach when I shoot. I want my photos to have a unique feeling and quality about them. I don’t want people to look at my work and think it’s indistinguishable from everyone else’s.
Now to do that you have to be looking, always looking, around you to get a feel of what you could be adding to your photo about the place that you are in that could be different.
It could be shooting a famous building (here, the ‘Shard’) from a different angle (here through the gap in another building:
Or getting in the ambience of around the famous building (here, St Paul’s) and not making it a focal point of the image:
Or just being so patient by going back and back and back to a place until you get the perfect light:
Or it’s getting a great angle by going up onto a rooftop – like my shot of the Blue Mosque:
Always look out for unique elements at the location – and play with them. Like the graffiti in Paris, the flat grey skies of London, the deep blues and greys of Istanbul. Make them an asset in your photos.
People are hospitable and want to engage
I’ve written about this in-depth in my article ‘How to Photograph Strangers’. The essence of the article is that people are in general hospitable and kind, and most don’t mind having their photo taken.
I want you to assume that the world is your oyster and if you take the time to connect with people almost anyone can be your subject.
But I also want to point out something very significant, that I am coming across increasingly as I travel to more countries with intense poverty that attract lots of tourists….
Don’t just take (photos) – give something
In this world where we all have cameras on our phones, let alone actual cameras, it’s important to remember that in places that have lots of tourists there are people who are going to be photographed every single day by the constant flood of foreigners.
Photographer Lauren Pond said in an interview about her project about serpent handlers, “That’s another weird thing about photography, I think it tends to mentally sort of remove you from the situation.”
So I think we have to be aware of that.
For example – in many hot countries people are out and about on the streets and have no choice but to be there. Perhaps they work out on the street, or their apartments are hot and stuffy and to be out on their doorsteps is cooler and more refreshing, or perhaps life is just lived more outside.
Be aware of this: that people are just living their lives and don’t owe you a photo. They aren’t there to be photographed by endless strangers.
Think to yourself – if I am taking this image, if I am taking this from someone, what am I going to do with this image? And, what am I prepared to give?
When I think of giving I think of the place I am in, and the way I am travelling. Am I using local businesses rather than big multinational chains? Am I spending locally? Am I working with local people?
Am I being culturally sensitive? Am I giving my full attention to the people I am photographing – offering respect, gratitude and kindness – can I send them a photo or something else when I get home?
It’s wise to think: I wonder how it feels to be photographed constantly? Are we turning people into tourist attractions? Are we interacting with them or are we just looking at them as objects that we have a ‘right’ to photograph.
This opinion isn’t supposed to make you more self conscious about taking photos, it’s meant to get you to think more deeply about your purpose in taking photos.
If you are chatting, connecting and being open to the people around you, if you are coming with the attitude of giving and being grateful – you will get more complex, more in-depth photos.
You could be buying something in a market or shop, starting a conversation with someone, asking about their house, the history of the area, their religion, the food they are preparing – taking a genuine interest in people’s lives is so important when you travel. It is the connection that is often like the ‘payment’.
When you connect with people that’s also when magical things happen, like when I was in Venice. I ended up talking to a random guy who then invited my workshop group into an ancient clock tower that a specialist clock fixer who comes to Venice once a year, was fixing. It was utterly amazing to be in this secret place, and it happened just because I had my camera out and was wandering around talking to people.
Or the time it was early morning in Istanbul and I ended up being invited up onto the roof of a building where I got one of my best shots of the city – 45 minutes after having left my hotel for the first time ever!
I truly believe it’s my feeling of openness and gratitude that brings me cool photo experiences like that.
Take a look at this incredible photo project by Greg Girard about the now-gone walled city of Kowloon in Hong Kong. A former Chinese-run enclave when the island was run by the British, it became a lawless state because the Chinese government couldn’t access it. Girard photographed Kowloon shortly before it was demolished. One of the best photo projects I’ve seen recently.
In praise of slow travel
There are places in this world that astound me, inspire me and make me almost shake with excitement – Havana is one of those places. At first it was an intimidating and difficult place to be. I found the poverty, pollution and tourist traps to be overwhelming. I felt like I had been planted in a different world that I just didn’t understand.
But after a few days of quiet observation, of wandering around and just looking, catching my breath, settling into myself and my new surroundings – I started to feel the rhythm of the city and get a feeling for how it worked.
Every place has a rhythm, has its own logic and energy that you want to connect with.
This is why I advocate ‘slow travel’. This is what works for me. I would rather spend a week or two (or a month or more if I can!) in one place than go to ten different spots. I don’t want to ‘see everything’ – but I do want to give myself plenty of time to really absorb and notice and wander and drift to the things that interest me.
I know it’s tempting to try and see a lot – go here, go there, fit it all in! But I think that leads to a rushing mentality, almost like you’re marking things off of a checklist.
When you get to know somewhere things happen, like perhaps you become friendly with the your local cafe owner where you go for breakfast, or get to know the cats on your street, or you see the weather and the light change over several days, or weeks.
Having time to notice, to absorb and feel a place is an incredible way to connect to its atmosphere.
It’s no coincidence that in the 18 years I have lived in London my photos of the city (even the same places in the city) get better and better. More ideas, more complexity, more atmosphere developed as I got to know the streets and areas, the personalities of the places over the years.
Of course you don’t need years to capture a great photo – but you can see what I’m saying, right? There is an advantage to developing a relationship with your subject that isn’t just a quick photo here, then move on, and that’s especially relevant with travel photography.
If you feel deeply inspired by a place, stay longer or go back. I’ve travelled a lot and for me there are places that I have enjoyed photographing – and places that I have loved photographing.
I try to always pick the latter for my projects: Venice, Havana, Istanbul. These are all cities that make me feel excited and incredibly alive. I want to keep discovering new facets of them – and I doubt I’ll ever be done.
Key take away:
A collection of images that tells a story about a person, a place, an event is much more interesting and powerful than vast collections of unrelated images. Less is more is usually my advice (unless you struggle to actually get your camera out and take photos, and then I’ll say, just to start, more is more 🙂
Interesting photo projects:
- Cuba on the edge of change by Tomas Munita, wonderful images of a place I love
- Fred Lyon, San Francisco – black and white photos from 1950’s San Francisco. Atmosphere, some wonderfully simple compositions (the hardest kinds)
- The coming storm by Jonas Bendiksen, one of my favourite contemporary photographers
- Atmospheric, cinematic project of Toyoko by Masashi Wakui
- Trente Parkes’ projects of Australia. Couldn’t agree more when he says “I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical. ”
So many boring photos suffer from these two highly significant issues…
Not moving your feet!
Literally the number one issue I see with photographs where the subject is interesting but the photo is not, is that the photographer didn’t get the right angle. In some cases it’s because there wasn’t time, they couldn’t get to the right spot quick enough. But mostly it’s because the photographer wasn’t moving around enough and looking for the perfect angle.
They saw a cool subject and got so caught up in the subject they just started shooting, rather than taking the time to set up the perfect angle.
Preparation is everything, people!
“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” Yousuf Karsh
Lots more on finding the perfect angle in my ‘Finding the Perfect Angle’ article! Possibly the most useful article I have ever written. It’s not a sexy idea, but it’s super super impactful.
Remember what Robert Capa said: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. I don’t think you need to always be thinking close, close, close, but what you do need to be thinking is – what is the optimal range for this subject? Usually people are not getting close enough because they are scared. OR they are not moving into the optimum position because they feel self conscious.
Start to focus instead less on the world around you (so what, you’re taking photos?) and more on the subject. Start to concentrate on placing your attention on your subject – and not on yourself or your surroundings.
The optimum range can be – not very close at all! But as long as that’s intentional then that’s cool! I loved the approach Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis took in his project about daily life in the rust belt of America –
“He doesn’t enter houses, diners, or stores. He prefers to imagine them from the outside. “If I do decide to enter, I most likely will not take my camera inside,” he told me. He keeps a certain distance. It seems almost superstitious—like he’s afraid of breaking something precious by getting too close.”
So each photographer – and each project – is different. No ‘one size fits all’ advice here – you set the intention.
- I also liked Kallianiotis project about Greece, Motherland. I am half Greek but apart from being born there and growing up with a Greek mother, I have no real connection to the country. To me this project feels a bit more ‘real’. I suppose it says more than all the pretty picture postcards of Greece. It intrigues me…)
- I also liked this recent photo essay about Notting Hill Carnival – I think it shows well how you can tell a story about an event or place. You’re not always able to make every image incredible, but to capture a story is fantastic.
I am a full on advocate for taking total creative control and shooting on manual. There is a freedom to be found when you can use your camera without feeling intimidated by it, afraid of it – or even the opposite, too overawed by its capabilities.
You can still do more amazing things on Manual than on Auto – because instead of letting a computer make a creative decision to interpret what it sees – you are making the creative decisions.
Your camera is just a tool that is helping you capture the vision that you see and bringing it to life. No more, no less.
It may strike you as silly, but the best general camera advice I can give is to read your camera manual. That will hands down give you the best technical advice you need, and it’s something I have noticed people rarely do.
“The best camera is the one you have with you”. Chase Jarvis
People ask me all the time what camera I would recommend and probably the best advice for travelling is – hold it first before you buy. Don’t get stuck with a camera that fatigues you quickly. Feel it, weigh it. Then think about price (if you have that luxury!) – and all the bells and whistles – later.
- Pack light – of course it’s super tempting to really go for it on the gear front – but pack the least amount of kit you need, and that which you feel most comfortable with.
- I would also encourage you to not over-use your zoom lens, because I think it can act as a barrier and encourage you not to get close to your subject (here’s my blog about Zoomlazia. Don’t do it!)
- Invest in a good, tough portable hard drive – it’s obvious but don’t lose those hard earned photos when technology fails (it happens to the best of us!)
- Keep your kit clean – another obvious one but not something I find all people do. Pack a couple of good cloths because they can get dirty after awhile.
- Here’s a guide to shooting on manual: I love Cambridge in Colour for tech advice. It’s comprehensive and clear and I could spend hours, days even, reading the articles. Even if you dislike tech stuff you’ll still find it useful.
“The tripod of my camera served for a candle stand, and on it I hung my clothes and boots at night, out of the way of rats… With absolute security from vermin, all else can be cheerfully endured.” Isabella Bird
By the way – Isabella Bird was an amazingly inspiring woman who in the late 19th century travelled alone to China, Malaysia, Colorado and through the Middle East. If you need an injection of adventure inspiration read this great article about her here.
One of the many amazing benefits of travel for me is that I am growing so substantially as a human everytime I go away and explore. I am being fed by this experience so that I come back having learnt new things, enjoyed and experience new ideas.
Here is a little more about how I see travel as helping me grow and develop in my ‘How I travel like an Artist short film’.
“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” Paul Theroux
As I will mention below I like to scout a location before I go, but a big intention for me is to get lost. I want to get lost because the magic of creativity for me usually comes when I am not following a map, or looking for something specific, but I am just in that state of wandering and looking around.
We live in a world that is very ordered and organised. That’s awesome when you want to file your taxes or find out when the bus is coming – but less so when you want to see something unusual, interesting or new.
So I make it my mission to frequently get lost so I can lose that ordered part of myself (which let’s be honest isn’t that massive, I really think my artist personality dominates in this regard). And this could be relevant for you.
Scout locations and research before you go
I always explore a new location using Google Earth – it’s so intensely helpful to help me get my bearings.
I also like to read about a place – but rarely will it be a travel guide. I loved reading Istanbul: Memories and the City, an incredible book or Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, a collection of amazing and unique stories about the city. These two books brought a new dimension to the cities for me.
I have also just ordered the highly recommended Sicily: A literary Guide for Travellers in preparation for my upcoming photo-exploration trip to the island.
- I wrote an article a few years back about The wonders of exploring the world with your camera, which has tonnes of great projects in it.
- Because I also love to look for inspiration in many places, it was interesting to read about how travelling to Hawaii was a great inspiration for Georgia O’Keefe and moving to Arles likewise was for Van Gogh (before the breakdown of course)
Travel can be tough – it brings out new facets of yourself
I don’t think of travelling as always an easy, blissful thing. Sometimes it is, and it can be a wildly exciting escape from the drudgery of day to day life. But it can also be tough, and it’s usually asking you to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone. I would even say that if you’re not feeling a little uncomfortable at times you’re not doing it right.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Andre Gide
Prepare your mind (see mindset again, it’s everything) with thoughts of adventure, with the intention of discovery and pushing yourself beyond what you already do and already are. Commit to discovering new things about the world, but also about yourself. Don’t settle just for some nice photos and a good time.
“Fear is only temporary. Regrets last forever.”
Commit to keep learning and opening yourself up to possibility. I always, always, always want to be learning. Learning, like getting lost or going to new places, keeps that brain matter alive and electrified.
True exploration will always reveal new things about who you are, and who you could be. Really honour that.
Remember, wonder and awe, beauty and inspiration are everywhere
There is a quote I am sure I’ve read somewhere that the whole of the journey is the destination, not the destination itself. From getting on the bus at 5am to go to the airport, to sitting in the airport lounge watching the rain and grey skies outside – everything you experience on your trip is food for your imagination.
I love to photograph mundane, the ordinary, just as much as I love to photograph the wildly exotic. Being in thrall to the world and all that it has to reveal to you, and knowing you can find incredible subjects anywhere and everywhere, is amazing as a photographer.
“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.” Matt Hardy
My last idea is to say that everyone travels in a different way – attracted by different things, drawn by different forces. Remember to be led by what fascinates you, be led by who you are and how you like to travel.
What fascinates me and what fascinates you is likely to be very different. But we are united by the desire to explore – and that is what is beautiful and incredible. Let’s celebrate this world by observing it, and sharing what we discover.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain
I would love to know if you have any tips or ideas or advice about travel photography. Let me know by commenting below. It’s amazing to hear from you all.