Five Steps to Better Travel Photos

Travel Photography

I’m relatively new to travel photography, by which I should say that I’ve been traveling with my micro-DSLR (Sony NEX-5) for three years. I guess what sets me apart from most other people who’ve been learning to use a DSLR is that I live as an expat in South Korea. So technically, while I’m new to to travel photography I’ve been wracking up more experience in those three years than most people do. During my time here and abroad, I’ve been carefully trying to cultivate a “How To” on travel photography. Unfortunately, there are no hard rules to photography. It’s more of a “whatever works” sort of deal most of the time.

Until I can boil down some concepts and crystallize a few “whatever works” into an actual “How To”, I’ve got a decent hold on some generalities that all travelers should try to hold to. Here are five tried and true “truths” to travel photography.

1.       (try to) Get Off the Ground Floor.

This photo would have been a bit more interesting if I had gone up a level or two in the building behind me.
This photo would have been a bit more interesting if I had gone up a level or two in the building behind me.

The most common travel photos feature people taking pictures from the sidewalk and street level. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but if you have the opportunity (time) I’d suggest moving around and trying to get up one or two flights of stairs. One of the easiest things to do is to take a tripod and use a timer to get over shots. Take a moment and look around to see if there’s a balcony, a second floor or even just a high place to stand on. Don’t always settle for a worm’s eye view.

2.       Prepare for the Shoot

Normally I’d write about getting your gear together and packing your bag but that’s a given. Grab one or two lenses (at least one zoom), a light tripod and a spare battery (or a charger) and you’re gonna be able to handle most of what the world throws your way.

After checking around online, I found a village site in the heart of Seoul that offered Hanbok rentals (for like $5). After finding the place and buying some entry tickets (and rental fees), my girlfriend and I had the run of a nearly empty site with decent lighting and great backdrops.

The next, and arguably, more important step is to do your research. Take into account time of day, weather and/or lighting if you want to go the extra mile. The internet is your friend here, check out Google’s “Image Search” or hit Flickr to check angles, lighting and everything else your heart desires. The goal is to take a picture that is indicative or representative of where you’re traveling (or in my case, living). Don’t just head for the hot spots and the tourist traps, look around online and try to find something else.

3.       Take a Moment, Enjoy Where You’re At

Beautiful.
From one of my first visits to the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. As amazing then as it is now.

After 3 years of living abroad and traveling around, I’ve got my own backlog of favorite photos. But the ones nearest and dearest are those that are linked to memories. Places I’ve been and people I went with are important but it’s more important that I remember the stories that went along with those photos. For the most part, photography should be used to supplement your memories not to replace them.

4.       Know HDR (and Know Not to Use It)

The Facade
A great building but a not so great photo. High dynamic range, this is not.

Take a look at this photo. I took it a year back when I was beginning to experiment with HDR (High Dynamic Range). It was my first and last which was taken to this extent. There are lots of photos like this flooding the internet, it’s a trend and like all trends it is beginning to run dry.

Used properly, High Dynamic Range can bring light to shadows and even out blinding whites. Use them improperly and no one will recognize what or where a picture was taken. Instead of looking up HDR, try looking up Exposure Blending or Digital Blending. You’ll get photos that look a lot less like alien planets or video game levels and more like actual places you’ve visited.

5.       Walk Around

Geunjeongjeon (근정전), the King's throne room shot from behind.
Twenty minutes shooting the front of Geunjeongjeon (근정전) yielded no decent photos. Three minutes from this spot and I had my favorite photo of 2013.

I took this photo a few months ago when the palace in Seoul was open at night. I’d been waiting three years to visit the palace at night and I was more than a little nervous, after all, if I missed this opportunity then I’d have to wait another few months to get another chance. I took a hundred photos until my battery died but it was one of the unexpected ones that came out the best. My girlfriend and I rounded the King’s Court to the back where the lighting wasn’t nearly as harsh and the crowds were a bit thinner. In a turn of events, the photo of the back a building came out infinitely more interesting than the front.

All in all, my five steps aren’t all that different. Just step off the beaten path and try something different. Head to new places, try new things, take the sights from a different angle, and always enjoy your time.

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