Photography Tips for Travelers

A professional travel photographer shares his photography tips By: Kenneth Shapiro
Freddy Nock on his record-breaking tightrope walk to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Jungfrau Railway, Switzerland. // (c) 2011 Mark...
Freddy Nock on his record-breaking tightrope walk to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Jungfrau Railway, Switzerland. // (c) 2011 Mark Edward Harris

The Details

Mark Edward Harris

At TravelAge West, we’re fortunate to be able to work with some great travel photographers, including Mark Edward Harris.

Harris has traveled and photographed in more than 80 countries. In addition to TravelAge West, his editorial work has appeared in publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, GEO, Islands, Vogue, Wallpaper, Harpers Bazaar, Playboy, Life and the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. His commercial clients include The Gap, Coca-Cola, Mexicana Airlines and many more. His books include Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work, The Way of the Japanese Bath, Wanderlust, Inside North Korea and Inside Iran. He is the recipient of numerous awards including a CLIO, ACE, Aurora Gold, IPA and Photographer of the Year at the Black & White Spider Awards.

Here are some of his top photography tips. 

Big Picture Thinking
I see a common failing with many beginning travel photographers. They are so focused on the fascinating subjects before their lenses that they forget about the basic rules of composition that make for a great photo. Look at the whole frame and use the space effectively. Ask yourself “If I were painting this scene, what would I include? What would I exclude?” Treat the camera sensor or the piece of film you are about to expose as your canvas.

Depth of Field
I often shoot in the aperture priority mode so I can be acutely aware of what I will have in focus. You can lead the viewer through your image by careful control of the f-stop. Shooting with a minimal depth of field can be dramatic for close-up portraits whereas a maximum depth of field can create its own unique perspectives especially for dramatic architectural shots. It’s important to remember that when you look through an SLR camera you are seeing the lens at its widest aperture, which translates as its shallowest depth of field. This lets in the maximum amount of light, which gives a bright viewfinder and allows for easy focus. But when you depress the shutter and the lens goes to the selected f-stop, those palm trees that were soft in the distance all of a sudden are growing out of the heads of your subjects like antennas. Most cameras have depth-of-field preview buttons to see what your stopped down lens will have in focus, but with enough practice and awareness that knowledge will become second nature. 

Time of Day
Early morning and late afternoon have always been the favorite times for professional travel photographers to shoot. Shadows from an angle are more pleasing on the eye than the harsh light of midday. During the middle hours of the day is a great time to photograph people in open shade or to explore museums and other interior locations.

To Flash or Not to Flash
When traveling, especially in group situations, it’s not always possible to be at the right place at the right time in terms of ideal ambient light. The use of a flash can reduce or eliminate harsh shadows under the eyes that are often referred to as raccoon eyes. I usually have a slight warming gel over my flash head in the morning or afternoon to create a correct color balance. Most flashes fire at a cooler (more blue) color temperature than the prevailing ambient light. I often also hold my flash at arm’s length off the camera and trigger it with a cord or a remote flash system. This further helps to create a more natural and realistic scene by making the shadows drop down behind the subject. Additional flashes can be added and triggered remotely for all types of creative possibilities.

Shooting Contre Jour
Rather then saying backlit, I like the French expression “contre jour” which translates as “against the day.” Shooting with the sun behind the subject eliminates harsh shadows and keeps people from squinting. In-camera meters can get thrown off by contre jour situations and underexpose the scene so it’s important to know how to utilize the camera’s exposure lock controls. This technique requires a lens shade and at times a hand to help block the direct light hitting the lens. Without a shade, a lens flare can occur or at the very least a flattening or dulling of the colors in the scene will result. 

Creative silhouettes can be created at any time of day by finding a camera position that puts the subject of the shot against a bright background and adjusting the exposure controls. It’s vital to have a strong contrast between the background and the object or subject you are trying to silhouette.

Environmental Portraits
Portraits of people in their environment, whether it is of a sheepherder with his flock or an artist in their atelier, adds an important human element to any travel story. Pros tend to use medium to wider lenses for this type of photograph with the goal of creating an image that transmits emotional content and engagement with their subject. When doing this type of photograph I direct the person to achieve the best angle and to make sure that the elements of their environment I want to include are not being blocked or too out of focus to not be recognizable. I will talk to the person as a dentist talks to their patients, in other words saying things that can be acknowledged without the need to verbally respond past a simple grunt. Engaging in an active conversation should be done before or after a photo shoot, not during unless you want the person to be caught in all sorts of awkward mouth positions. It’s better to share a quiet human moment one-on-one and let the camera peer into the window of their soul.

Night Exposures
The legendary Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was asked after returning from an assignment in Paris what he did in the City of Lights at night. His response was, “Expose longer.” While he missed the meaning of the question he was of course right on with the answer photographically speaking. Many cities thrive at night and bring a completely different dimension to the travel experience. For cityscapes and architecture use a low ISO, lockdown the camera on a sturdy tripod, lock up the mirror, and use a cable release. This is especially important on exposures between 1/15 of a second to one or two seconds when the mirror on an SLR hasn’t had the time to settle down and will cause camera shake. 

Low Light
When photographing people in low light or nighttime situations I will use either a flash or a higher ISO with “fast” lenses. All my lenses including zooms are able to open to at least a 2.8 aperture. This allows for shooting in low-light situations without the need to go to such high ISO that the resulting image is full of noise (the digital equivalent to grain). 

Shooting without flash is often required when photographing shows and in museums. A lot of work often goes into the lighting of these venues and the use of fast lenses can capture the feeling of what the person in charge of lighting was trying to create.

The Travel Photo Essay
Creating pictures that tell a story have been the mainstay of travel magazines since their inception. Travel editors have a mantra that must be taken to heart before approaching a publication with an idea, “A location is not a story.” Look for stories that give the viewer an inside look into a culture by focusing on a person, a ritual, an aspect of history and more. The best photo essays are often the ones that come from a personal interest, so search “inside” before you go outside looking for ideas. 

Presentation - Put the Final Product of a Trip in Book Form
Your work is not complete until the images from the trip are put in a form that you and others can appreciate. In recent years, a number of companies — such as A&I in Los Angeles — have made personal photography books of high quality in a short amount of time both feasible and affordable. These books can act as a portfolio piece or just a great way to share your experiences with others. 

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