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2019 Update: This post is by far one of the most popular pieces on Paper Planes. If you’re picking up what we’re throwing down, then check out the photography+yoga+culture+good living retreat we’re organizing this November in Chiang Mai here!
Looking back at photos of when I first moved to Thailand or traveled around Southeast Asia I’m torn between two feelings. On one hand, I love them all – it was such a new, exciting time for me and looking at the photos brings back a hint of that excitement and novelty. On the other hand, they kind of suck.
Since then, I upgraded to better camera gear, improved my composition skillz and learned how to better process and edit photos. I still am by no means a great photographer, however, and often fake it when it comes to the technical side of things.
Fortunately, I am friends with people who are more talented and smarter than me and actually know how to use their camera. What’s even more fortunate is that these friends stayed with me in Chiang Mai for months and not only indulged me in some photoshoots, but let me steal some of their photography tips and tricks as well. (You can also see some of the cameras and gear I personally use here.)
So, today Laura and Tim from Sullivan & Sullivan Studios – a couple of yoga teaching and social working turned photographers and retreat organizers, self-described typewriter pen pals who became best friends, fell in love, got married and started dreaming of ways to tell the world’s great stories together – are going to share some of their tips for taking better travel photos with you.
Sweet baby Ganesh, we’ve all been there — your acquaintance down the street gets back from some package sight-seeing trip to Mexico and is like, “Come over and look at my photos!” and 3,000 unedited images of a donkey on the side of the road later, your brain is mush and you never want to speak to another human again.
DON’T BE THAT PERSON.
Or the person who floods Facebook with a trillion blurry shots of their food from Indonesia. Consider these humble tricks when planning your travel photography and your Facebook friends will thank you.
(Note: there are some tips and lingo in here that are aimed for beginning DSLR users, but most of them will apply to the iPhone photographer and DSLR user alike. Take what serves you and leave the rest behind!)
If your images are going to pack a punch, they need to be well-edited and sparse. When I first started travelling, I bent over backwards trying to document every little detail of every little experience. The way a salad was arranged, the way the light hit the Gothic bricks, the expression on my travel companion’s face when we sang happy birthday on a Spanish beach. But I quickly realized that by trying to document every moment, I wasn’t really being a part of them. I was reminded of this again in New York last year, when I got stuck walking behind a guy who was literally strolling through Soho, filming each step on his iPad. HIS IPAD. He was trying to seize a moment to enjoy again later, when really… He won’t. He was missing the experience in real time in a vain attempt to capture it forever.
When you’re abroad, the temptation can be very real to document the trip in its entirety. But if you step back and only shoot the things that really speak to you, you can trust that the story of your travels will be told well. Put the camera down. Notice what’s happening with each of your senses. Be present, and the photos will follow.
“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel.” –Susan Sontag
Every famous landmark has that one iconic image, but you’ll make a mistake by trying to replicate it. When you show up to the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower, pretend like you’ve never laid eyes on it. Try to find the details that other people missed. If something is always shot wide-angle, capture a tiny detail, and vice versa. I’ve still never been to the Grand Canyon, but I always get excited when I think about photographing a tiny ridge, a small stone, a minute detail that the big images can’t include. I know I’ll never be Ansel Adams and I don’t want to be—I want to be Laura. Be you, and create your own iconic images.
Google “sunrise/sunset times” in your city and set your schedule around them. The gentle light that crawls in right before the sunrise, the cool haze right around sunset… There’s a reason they call these times “golden hour.” You can banish the harsh midday shadows, stay out of the noon heat, and avoid crowds, all by following the first and last light of the day. This also allows for siesta time, and there’s no arguing with that.
If you have to be out shooting in the brightest times of day, never fear! There are a couple of tricks that will help you manage dat sun. First, seek open shade. You know that super-bright white light that happens in photos when the sun is hitting your subject directly? That’s called “blow out” and there’s no IG filter that will ever fix it. Avoid having mixed light on your subjects so you can properly expose for the entire image. Second, use the light to your advantage. Put the sun behind your subject (whether it’s a person or the Pyramids) and use it to create beams of light and lens flare. Basically, if you have to shoot in bright daylight, own it, but make the sun work for you rather than vice versa.
A general guideline: the higher your f-stop, the less interesting the photo (this is arguable when it comes to panoramic views and groups of people, but think of it as a basic rule of thumb). When subjects are sharp and the background is blurry, that background blur is called bokeh, and it’s controlled by your f-stop. Most cameras with built-in lenses will start somewhere around f2.8, and staying as low as possible will help you capture the tiny details leaving extraneous information out of the frame and draw the eye in.
When I started getting serious about photography, my biggest concern when abroad was being respectful of the people I was shooting. It can feel quite invasive to have a camera flung in your face, even when you know the photographer, and I never wanted to treat traveling as a way of simply checking off the boxes (one Thai hill tribe elder, CHECK! One Bolivian coca farmer, CHECK! One Cuban taxi driver, CHECK!). Not only does having a pre-determined idea of the “kind of person” you want to shoot put them in an inappropriate box, it will limit your ability to relate with people on a basic human level. Cultivating a deep curiosity and respect for the people you are living and traveling amongst will freshen your vision and allow for the creation of more organic, mutually respectful photos. This isn’t you thieving a shot; this is you sharing an exchange with a fellow human. And if you aren’t doing that, then why are you travelling?
A friend of mine was visiting the ancient ruins of Tikal, a stunning Guatemalan site that draws visitors from around the world, and she came home with a dozen stories not about the incredible architecture or history, but about stopping on the path to crouch down and closely observe a unique bug that she’d never seen before. I can’t help but feel that the people who rush from one attraction to another are missing the real heart and soul of a place—the little discreet things that guidebooks never tell you. Keep your eyes open to the things you’ve never been told to shoot. Your photos will be exponentially better.
If you’re not already shooting in Manual mode, it’s time to play. Give yourself more control over the final image you’re getting by leveling up to Manual mode, and you’ll never look back.
Solid composition can make a plain photo great. While rules are made to be broken, and you’ll never see me insisting that the Rule of Thirds is the only way to shoot, I keep one specific thing in mind while I’m shooting: that the human eye can only take in so much information at a time. The more you are able to “guide” the eye through your photo, the better. Some examples: Use stark backdrops to frame your subject. Pay attention to where the lines in a photo are facing (such as roads, mountaintops, limbs). Exclude information the eye doesn’t need. Look for symmetry and repetitive patterns. The list goes on, but remember that the “thing” you’re shooting is only the first consideration—everything surrounding it is just as crucial for a stellar shot.
Ok, Robert Capa died in the Indochina War because he really believed in that, and maybe you don’t want to go that far. But his point stands: get closer. Don’t try to capture it all in a single photo. Get detailed, baby.
THIS IS A BONUS ANALOGY FOR LIFE!
When I think about my basic rules for travel photography, I find that they overlap a ton with how I imagine a life well-lived: being present. Being respectful. Looking for details. Ditching the stress of doing and seeing everything. Finding your own voice and using it bravely and generously. What else could you want from life– or your photography?
Now go forth, fellow travelers, and pay loving attention to this crazy amazing world. I can’t wait to see your images.
Now that you seen that they know their stuff, and tend to travel to some pretty interesting places, follow Laura & Tim on Instagram at @sullivanandsullivanphoto.
Want to get started with your own travel photography? See what’s in my travel camera bag here.