Have you ever visited with a friend who just got back from vacation and they ask if you want to see their photos? Invariably in your head secretly whisper-cry “noooooo… please, noooooooo!” but your mouth says, “Yes, I’d love to!” You spend 45 minutes going through photos of smiling people you know standing in front of landmarks you’ve seen with the same description for each: “This is [insert person you know] in front of the [insert landmark you’ve seen on TV].” You might not be able to stop your friends from doing that to you, but you CAN vow to never do that to your friends by thinking a bit differently about travel photography.
So what do I do to try and avoid the groans and sighs when I show my travel shots to friends? I approach travel photography less from documenting my presence in a place to more capturing the experience of the place itself. It’s a little bit of a tricky thing to photograph a feeling, but it’s easier to do than you think… and the good news is, it’s all dependent on YOU experiencing and feeling so there is no reason to just work behind the camera and miss it all.
I recently went to Italy with two little boys and my big camera and my good lenses. That’s right… the BIG camera and TWO little boys. I’m going to pass on a couple of tips that worked for me like what gear to use, how to have it with you all the time, and how to involve yourself in your trip and still get a lot of great shots.
It’s probably the most commonly asked question: “What lens/body should I bring with me on my vacation?” My answer is always the same…travel light, but don’t skimp.
- Bring your most trusted and best quality gear. I know what you’re thinking and yes, it does go against common wisdom, but if you care about getting great shots, you’re going to be glad you captured the best quality shots you could on your trip with gear you knew how to use without thinking. Having said that…
- Before you leave the house, insure your gear. You can’t feel comfortable with your good gear on a trip unless you know you’re safe if it gets damaged or stolen. Now, of course there are going to be places where you don’t want to be a target and if you’re going to one of those places, then only bring what you’re comfortable with. I had heard that Florence and Pisa were ripe with theft and I was concerned, but in places as commonly traveled as those, I was one of 400 people with a dSLR at any given location so I wasn’t the only target. This leads me to my next point…
- Strap everything you own to yourself and never set it down. I had kind of an elaborate set up that I think ended up being slightly genius… I bought a small sling-style backpack and a sling style strap for my camera. When the camera was in the bag, I put not only the backpack around my back, but the camera strap as well. That way, there were two lines of defense against the grab-and-run thief or dropping the camera at all times while it was in my bag. In addition, I could quickly take the camera in and out of the bag without it ever being free from me (the strap was always around me). At restaurants, I never took it off and set it beside me… I just left it out of the way on my back, swung it so that it was on my belly instead of back, or I took it off and put the straps around my leg. Sure, I was tethered to a bag for 14 days straight, but I also didn’t leave my camera anywhere or have it stolen (or miss a shot!).
- Bring ONE body and TWO lenses. I’ve already said to bring your good body, but for lenses I say bring one zoom and one prime. I know a lot of us like to say we’re not zoom girls, but here’s what I think is optimal… a fixed aperture normal range zoom (like a 24-70mm or 24-105mm) and a fast normal prime (like a 35mm or 50mm at least f/1.8). In Tuscany, I did 90% of my shots with my 24-105mm and the rest were done as needed with a 50mm f/1.4. You can always rent if you need to, which I think is pretty common when people travel. If you rent, make sure you give any lens that’s new to you a whirl before you go so you can learn the ins and outs of its capabilities.
What/How to shoot.
The key to travel photography is to go about it the same way you do with portrait or lifestyle photography: you ONLY click the shutter when something moves you. The most important thing there is to determine WHAT moved you in the first place, and how you can focus in on and accentuate that. In a portrait it might be beautiful eyes or an expression. In travel it might be unique culture (clothing, food, tradition), shapes and colors, the light, the landscape, an object, or an event.
For example… when I was in Bologna, I was amazed and moved by the dark, wet cobblestone streets. That gorgeous pedestrian cobblestone street is my most vivid memory from there. The stones were like glitter as we walked, so nearly every shot of mine uses that aspect as a focal point to tell the story of Bologna.
Take pictures of more than just people posing in front of things and when you shoot landmarks, shoot them from an interesting or human angle. For example, don’t miss out on people’s reaction to something awesome… rather than just showing them in front of a fantastic building, shoot them gazing up at it in amazement (or them asleep in the stroller, which is also likely and a common theme on the trip… you know, so he could stay up all night). Also, be creative with your portrait shots. They don’t all need to be smiles looking into the camera.
When you see a beautiful building in real life for the first time, it can be a breathtaking thing. Don’t miss out on that. Take some time to allow yourself to be a tourist and gaze at the landmark or landscape. After you fully take it in, pick an aspect or two that you truly feel inspired by and shoot it telephoto so you emphasize it. Then take a shot from your point of view, whether that’s looking down out of a window from the building after you’ve climbed it, or looking up at its vastness.
I brought my laptop with me so I could edit every night. I didn’t want to get home with a thousand images to go through and feel overwhelmed. Bringing a laptop is a bit of a stretch, but I felt it was worth taking it on the plane in order to have it with me for this task. It absolutely paid off… I had manageable groups of photos to edit and it was nice to unwind and exciting to see what I had captured at night after the little ones went to bed (in theory… in reality they were terrible sleepers). So consider whether or not you can make a laptop work. I recommend it if you can do it.
Make it concrete.
When you get home, promise yourself to get your images off your hard drive. I suggest spend the $50 to $100 to at least publish a paperback press printed book with your shots in them or wait for a great coupon on canvas and get them on the wall. You’ll be so glad you have a book or wall-hanging. Your travel shots are easier to share with friends that way and more fun for them to look at than staring at your screen in slide-show mode. I brought my little Italy book all over and let people thumb through casually at work or at events and it was a hit.