As discussed in part 1, intent and planning play an important role in travel and travel photography. In order to avoid those ugly eyesores in the real world of travel, you should be doing your research ahead of time. But even when you do your best to plan in advance, sometimes the ugliness is still there. Part 2 delves deeper into specific strategies that should help you take great photos, despite the obstacles that pop up during your travels.
Timing is everything
All that research you did beforehand can be applied to choosing the best time for photos. Factors like good light, crowds, and access will influence how you manage your timing from the dates of your trip to the hours in each the day.
Choosing the right time of day for capturing your photos will really make a difference in the quality of your work. Shooting at mid-day will typically leave you with dark shadows and bright highlights, making it more difficult to set a proper exposure. There is no hard and fast rule that photos can’t be taken at noon, but it is usually best to skip the high, harsh light of mid-day if you can. Generally photographers will favor the hours around sunrise and sunset for softer light and richer colors.
Often a place of interest will be touted as best for either sunrise or sunset. While I encourage you to be there during the suggested time, I also recommend staying late and going early. A place I know well for sunset is Seattle’s Kerry Park. I have photographed the sunset there countless times, but it can be hard to get “the spot” unless I arrive before the other photographers. I always stay until after the sun has gone down. Most amateur photographers pack up right after sunset and completely miss the lovely blue hour that follows. The same goes for sunrise. Arrive well before anyone else and capture the growing light just before sunrise. I also suggest trying the opposite of what is recommended as it may be just as beautiful.
If the best light of the day is not an option, or if there are other obstacles like crowds to consider, this is when all that advance research should come in handy. Consider visiting a destination during low season to save yourself a lot of crowd-fighting headaches. Even in low tourist season, you may still run into throngs of people at certain times of the day. Companies providing highlight bus tours will stop at a place, dump out camera toting passengers, and reload them 20 minutes later for the next viewpoint. Knowing when the tours come through is very helpful, but I believe the biggest culprit to sudden tourist surges is cruise ships. As a former cruise ship employee, I can tell you that one cruise ship in port can easily triple the population of a small town for the day, and that is something you will want to miss. Cruise ships are often the reason for multiple bus tours as well, so make sure you go when they are not in port.
Sometimes you just have to turn to the experts. It’s possible that a place simply isn’t accessible during certain times of the day, or even at all without the right person. In these cases sometimes you can find private guides or small tours (photo specific tours are the best!) that can provide you entry at the best times for avoiding crowds and getting the best light for your photos.
Find your spot
Much of the difficulty in photographing iconic places is trying to find the best spot to avoid any people, trash, construction, fences, or countless other obstacles that may present themselves. Sometimes all the planning in the world can’t beat just showing up and looking around, so make sure you give yourself time to do this.
If the obvious spot right in front of that famous landmark is way too crowded, there may be no other option but to move. Instead of that wide, iconic symmetry you’ve been dreaming of, you may have to find a totally different idea or composition of the same place. Shoot from a different perspective – get up high and shoot down, shoot from low on the ground, or just look up. Sometimes simply turning around can be magical. Try shooting details instead of the bigger picture. This can help to tell a more complete story of a place anyway.
You may have to incorporate people into your shot if you can’t totally miss them. This can often give a sense of place better than a photo with no people. Whatever you decide, be sure to challenge yourself to capture an iconic landmark in a way that no one else has ever photographed it.
Don’t get stuck on one idea of how to capture a place. Explore! Go somewhere entirely different! This is the best part about traveling for me. I can tell you from experience that the popular spots are not always the best ones for photos. During my cruise ship days, I was delivered to the world’s most beautiful destinations where swarms of tourists took their photos. But the best parts of those destinations were rarely where all the tourists gathered.
Just a head’s up that when you visit Seattle, you should try Columbia Tower’s Skyview Observatory instead of the top of the Space Needle. You’re welcome. ;)
The right tools
Often your choice of gear can be the key to achieving the results you’re after.
- Lenses – A long lens can zoom past garbage and over people’s heads, essentially cutting out the clutter surrounding your preferred subject. Shooting through something like a fence with a low aperture lens (like f2.8 or less) can blur the foreground to the point of not being visible. You can also blur a cluttered background in a similar way, making it less distracting. Sometimes a blurred background or foreground will create an abstract shape that can be used to partially frame your subject. Good lenses have a huge range of creative possibilities that can be fun to play with! This could be an entire topic of it’s own, so I may revisit this subject in a future post.
- Polarizers – Shooting through glass might be your only option. Use a polarizer, lens hood, or a dark jacket to block or minimize the reflection.
- Tripod – If you have a tripod, a long exposure may be your best bet. Even during the day, if you can slow your shutter speed down enough (shooting on manual with a neutral density filter will help with this), people walking through the scene can be blurred or they may not even show up. This of course doesn’t work with masses of people standing still, but hopefully you get the idea (if not, check out this post). This technique has saved many of my evening photos from being totally ruined. Just watch out for those people with cameras and bright LCD screens!
- Photoshop – Yes, I said it. Programs like Photoshop (Lightroom and Aperture are lesser known to non-photographers) can allow you to edit out those little undesirables that you find in your otherwise priceless photo. I don’t make a habit of using Photoshop for this purpose, but if there is a bit of litter I hadn’t noticed or a person wandering into my shot in the distance, I won’t let that ruin an otherwise nice photo. You can of course crop out other distractions on the edges of your photo with other digital editing tools.
My point is to think outside of the box, because you do have options. Too many times people get stuck with one idea of how something should be photographed. I’m guilty of it too! When you have been inspired by another photo of a place, it can be difficult not to recreate that very photo. Forcing yourself out of your photographic comfort zone is good practice anyway, but you may be faced with some situations where taking a different approach is your only option.
Not all places hold these challenges, of course. There are many parts of the world that are untouched and often less accessible to the average sightseer. The wilderness offers a plethora of photographic opportunities for those who put the effort into getting out there. There are quiet cities, empty streets, and unspoiled landmarks that are just waiting to be photographed. You can spend your days exploring these places, and these alone, but where is the fun in that? Sure, the silent wild is a welcome respite from a bustling city, whether you’re a photographer or not, but why limit yourself to just these places?
Travel is about experiencing the world in a new way, and sometimes that means seeing the junk around the beauty. The important things to remember about traveling and photographing your travels is to manage your expectations, be prepared, and most importantly, be flexible.