I take pictures when I travel, but don’t travel to take pictures. Too bad. I’ve practiced the theory that if you go to pretty places and snap enough shots you’ll get some interesting photos, and that’s worked pretty darn well, but the really nice shots are just luck that way. Nothing wrong with that, but it can be frustrating to look at your photos upon return and wonder “what would it have taken to take some of those really amazing shots you saw before your journey?” I’d love to tell you, but the fact is, I don’t know and neither of us is likely to take the time anyway.
Instead of reminding you to stake out a location, discover the best angles and perfect light, and wait for just the right cloud bank, here are some ideas you can do without ruining your trip. Unless someone is paying you to travel to a far away place expressly for photography, then you too, likely have something you want to do during your visit, aside from watching the whole trip through a viewfinder. You could get those amazing shots by doing your homework, but amateur travel photographers, are almost always, first and foremost travelers, not photographers.
You’ll rarely have the time to really scope out a location and discover the best shots and the right framing. Often you’re doing the best you can with the lens on your camera when you happen to walk past something. If you’ve got multiple lenses you might notice a shot would be perfect with your telephoto, but moments later, the walk-around has to go back on the camera. All this lens swapping will slow you down. Instead, most outings, can be some sort of out-and-back deal. You walk around the church, or museum, or monument with one lens on, and walk back with another. During the first walk, snapping happily at whatever strikes your fancy, you giving a bit of thought to the other lens you’re going put on for the way back. It’s like doing a mini site review, and your traveling partners don’t even have to notice. The only caveat is that if you see something you think is interesting, by all means take the shot! You can’t be sure you’ll always get back, but you can always delete a few extra photos.
There are times of the day when nearly everything is a winner. That time, right after sunset, for example, when a well exposed shot turns the sky a deep azure blue that contrasts so well with warm glowing spot lights on monuments. You’ve got to eat, but can’t it wait just a few minutes? It is truly a shame to be sitting at dinner when you could be out getting lucky snaps, over and over again. Maybe it’s not the best light for this location, or you haven’t found the perfect angle, but just delaying dinner a half hour can make all the difference in shots you’re proud of.
Never leave home without it
Most professionals may plan, and sit, and wait for the perfect shot, but they still get lucky now and again. You can’t take a lucky shot with your camera in the bag or back in a hotel room. I stay in hotels too cheap to trust with my camera, so I have the thing strangling me for the entire trip. The upside is that no matter what strikes my fancy, the camera is always ready.
More controversial is how much you drag with you. Rare is the traveler who is comfortable looking like a wedding photographer on assignment, with backup camera and extra lenses swinging from every limb, but, for the same reason that leaving your camera home means you’ll never catch a lucky shot, I suggest everyone weigh just how horrible it will be if they take a tripod, flash, or extra lens. It’s up to each person, and balancing your photography with your experience is a challenge, but remember, these things won’t do you any good at home. Mini tripods and sandbags are easy to pack and a heck of lot better than nothing.
Read a comic
Great scenery takes great patience, and loads of time which you don’t have. Instead, take advantage of how you and your friends will see the bulk of your pictures these days: several at a time. It takes time, planning and loads of talent/luck to make a single picture capture a story, but it’s way easier with three or four shots to tell same story . Instead of framing a single shot of something gorgeous you’ve come to see, imagine a page in a comic book, where few well chosen panes capture the scene completely. You need an establishing shot, some action, some detailed close up, and if you’re lucky, some result of your scene. Maybe it’s you and your travel partner eating an ice-cream. An establishing shot of the street and ice-cream stand, a snap of your partner buying a scoop, a close up of the ice-cream, and finally, a couple of empty bowls. None of these shots is necessarily so amazing, but together, chances are you’ve made a charming vignette from your trip. Either way, you did have ice cream. Mmm, ice cream.
Professional planning takes time and experience, but even a little can go a long way and all these are can be ad hoc each day of your trip. You can capture both the fun you had and a bit of local culture all at the same time. Have the gear you need (and are willing to carry) and have it ready all of the time. Think just abit about what you’re taking a picture of and how it will look flattened out on paper or a computer screen, and you’ve already stepped up form taking snapshots. Finally, at the end of the day, or end of the trip, telling stories is what photography is about, even if you need the crutch of four shots and one walk-around lens to accomplish half of what the greats can with time, planning, patience and a Leica range finder or a medium format box camera. Most of them, didn’t have any sightseeing to do!