How to see: tips for travel photographers

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My first and probably only time in this location (Harborview Restaurant/pier, Manila, Philippines).

If you’re only going to be in a place once, how can you ensure that the images you get are unique and strong? Though it sounds a lot like the question of what makes an outstanding image, it’s really got a bit more of a travel bent to it. Though the macrolinear and causal nature of time (a topic for another article, if there ever was one) means that no single moment will ever be repeated again during our lifetimes, and thus every image will be unique – probable reality is that due to the difficulty in accessing the location again, we almost certainly won’t get the chance for a do-over. It’s not like shooting sunset in your own home town: pick a night, any night. So what can you do to increase your chances of coming away with images you’re happy with? Here’s my list of tips.

The basics still apply
The four core elements required to make an outstanding image – good light, a clear subject, balanced composition and a strong idea – are required regardless of time and place. Think of them as the four photographic commandments; I personally haven’t found a situation where they are violable and still result in a good image. Travel is no different. Even if the location itself, or the subject is novel to you, you need to keep in mind the possibility that it’s nothing out of the ordinary for at least some of your audience. And this means that having a relatively unique subject alone isn’t going to cut it. I can’t make it any more distilled than this: no light, no photograph.

Go in with an open mind
Sometimes, the most interesting images you’ll make on a trip are the ones you weren’t looking for. They sneak up on you as you turn a corner, and stop you long enough to whip it out and shoot one off. Often, you might not even think about these images again until you start reviewing when you get home; or, they may stick in your subconscious and form a theme for the rest of your trip – for example, with me it was old architecture in Prague, or details of boats in Amsterdam.

Observe first, shoot later
The more unfamiliar the environment, the more we’re likely to be overwhelmed in every sense; I find the first couple of days of shooting generate a lot of ‘false positives’ – we land up capturing things we think are unique because the subject matter overpowers our other compositional judgement; in the end, these tend to be weak because in our exuberance for subject, we’ve missed one or more of the four important elements. In fact, the majority of my final cut is produced on the last day, or at very least, the second half of the trip. My theory is that there’s an optimum amount of time to spend in a place; it’s before you get jaded and the differences stop jumping out at you, but after you’ve gotten over the initial shock of arrival*.

*The Japanese have a term that describes this perfectly: doki doki.

Look for the unique
Once the doki doki has passed, you should be able to think rationally again. Or at least objectively enough to figure out what it is about the place that’s a) different from home, but b) also different from everywhere else. Then, start consciously looking for these elements. That way, every single image you produce will have a visual cue for your audience that signals the place and geography. It might not be a single physical object, but one of many; taking the Japanese example again, we have vending machines, the script, explosions of seizure-inducing color, the food, etc. Conversely, it might well be the absence of anything distinctive at all that makes your image unique – photographs of generic American suburbia around the 1960s/1970s come to mind. (This is actually very difficult to do; I think perhaps the closest we get to ‘generic international’ is the main shopping streets of any major city, which are all dominated by the same brands – and that certainly isn’t at all interesting.)

Wait for light
This one is a no brainer: capturing the unique is one thing. Capturing the unique in great light is quite another. Hint: look for shadows. And if the time you’re there isn’t conducive, take an insurance shot anyway, but put a little flag in your mental folder to come back again later at a more suitable time of day.

Don’t use unfamiliar equipment
I too-frequently get emails from people asking if they should buy a particular piece of gear before a trip. My advice is always no: never take something unfamiliar into unfamiliar territory. You’ll probably have your hands full already trying to get around (especially if your language isn’t spoken) and figuring out how things work – if you’re going to add another layer of learning to that, it also increases the risk that you’re not going to come back with the images you want. It’s the same reason I’ll never take untested/ unfamiliar gear out on a paid shoot; there’s too much risk involved, and probably no chance of a second try. Even if you don’t have problems using it, there are always the questions of reliability, and missing shots simply due to unfamiliarity…

Go off the beaten path/ explore lots, carry less
If you don’t go, you can’t see it, and if you don’t see it, you can’t capture it. Simple, right? Beyond that, if you go where everybody else has gone before – it’s much harder to make unique images. I know from experience it’s very easy to get lazy and head back to the hotel early especially if you’re jetlagged and carrying too much gear. Never forget your sense of curiosity; I also find that for some odd reason, as a tourist/ explorer/ foreigner, I feel like I have more confidence than I would at home; perhaps because I know I stand out anyway, and people are going to just ignore you (or think you’re crazy, which is fine by me).

Don’t look at too many other images online before you go
See the bare minimum required for you to decide if a place is worth a detour or not; reality is that even if it doesn’t appear to be, serendipity will reward you with an image or two if you happen to go. In fact, some of my favorite travel images were shot in locations that wouldn’t feature anywhere on a guide. Partially that’s because you bring fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, but partially also because you go in with few expectations – which means you’re less likely to miss opportunities regulars would walk past. If you see too many images beforehand, it’s going to precondition you to look for certain scenes or subjects; even if you say ‘no!’ consciously, your subconscious is still going to be swayed – once we see things, we can’t un-see them. And if you’re preconditioned towards looking for certain images, then not only are you going to produce similar cliches to what’s already been done before, but you’re probably going to land up missing stuff.

Ask yourself, ‘what does this place mean to me?’
The end objective of any photographic trip is to come away with images that you feel are representative of both the place; in order to reproduce your experience with fidelity, you need to first be clear about what that experience was; what were the unique things that characterised your trip? If you manage to capture those, and hit all of the four critical photographic elements…mission accomplished. MT

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Comments

  1. Ming, do you mind if I translate this into Chinese for the wider audience? Will acknowledge your original article and link back. The translation will be free to view and not tied to any commercial intention.

  2. Kristian Wannebo says:

    ” – once we see things, we can’t un-see them.”
    Yes !!

    And: Once you have told a story, you can’t un-tell it.
    After telling a story about an experience, especially if one has told it several times, one’s memory fades a bit and one tends to remember only the story.

    I find that this applies also to taking photos. I often have stronger memories of places/experiences if I didn’t photograph them. On the other hand, shooting good images not directly connected with the situation can help keep the memory (and occasionally even enhance it).

    It’s a bit like the difference between writing about the moment and being lucky to find a couple of poetic lines from the mood you are in.

    • Photographs probably help us to remember things more accurately, but not necessarily more pleasantly…by nature, our minds lack objectivity: things tend to be better or worse in hindsight.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Yes, a photo of a situation helps me stay accurate about many details, but these are then often no longer really part of my living memory, and this may – or may not – really matter.

        In my experience, the action of concentrating on making good images of a situation distracts me from shaping my memories.
        And showing the photos later and re-looking at them myself tends to diminish the direct memory of the live situation. Like telling a story about it too often…

        ( But other images shot just before or after the event can – by association in time, place or mood – help to recall the whole experience, it may have lost details but it feels more alive. )

        Yes, usually I still shoot if I brought a camera, but sometimes I’m afterwards glad that I went without…

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Also,
          having a camera at hand and deciding not to shoot something I feel will stay in my memory takes another, and (for me) not very easy, shooting discipline…

          For memory, a nice looking pebble picked off the ground can be much more effective than a photo, even though details fade with time.

          But I still want to bring a lot of good images home…

  3. Kristian Wannebo says:

    There is a strange quality about the surface of the sea in your photo. It’s so smooth all over and still reflects so diffusely; it looks as a frozen sea sometines does.
    I first thought it was a flickr-effect, but then checked the exposure, “60” (60 secs, right?), which explains it… :-)

    Colour in photography can be a strange beast…
    It’s interesting how the strangely contrasting colour in the foreground helps build the photograph!

  4. Reblogged this on Photographically Curious and commented:
    I’ve been following Ming for about 8 months now, and his words / ideas / images are always spot-on. With this article he hits in on the head again.

  5. Great tip indeed.Once I carry a heavy camera and it was such a drag because of the heaviness. Now with this those mirrorless camera, it’s such a delight to wonder around again in search of the uniqueness.

  6. I often struggle capturing the image on film (or chip) that I have in my mind. Your tips are really great. Thanks.

  7. Slight digression and might really be suited for an article of its own, but I’ll ask: I feel a bit dissatisfied by blown light-sources in my own night images. I don’t feel pleased that otherwise interesting features end up reduced to nothing but indistinct blobs of light. At times I can’t help but feel that it sometimes makes those objects in the image “unnecessarily” unappealing or ugly depending on the composition. Would you have any words of advice, that you’re willing to share in this format :), about how best to manage that problem?

  8. Reblogged this on Rennie Coit and commented:
    LIght, subject, composition, story.

  9. Well said as always. I’m headed to Tanzania next month. Taking 2 bodies and two lenses (no changing of lenses in mid stream). Frankly if I didn’t own a D800e, I would consider buying a nice bridge camera like the Sony RX10 and using just that. I don’t think the world needs another portrait of a lion, and I am definitely not Nick Brandt.

    I hope I can capture a couple of images that convey the sense of the Serengeti, but my main goal is to feel, smell, taste and generally experience it for myself.

    • Well said Jim……”I hope I can capture a couple of images that convey the sense of the Serengeti, but my main goal is to feel, smell, taste and generally experience it for myself.” With this approach I’m sure you will create some nice images.

    • Makes sense. And the RX10 is pretty darn impressive – I’m picking it up far more over the A7, A7R and Df I’ve also got here on test.

  10. Thank you, Ming. This is one type of photography that I’ve encountered quite a bit of in the past year and with improving results, I believe. The four commandments that we learned in Prague certainly never go away. But traveling solo, light, and with familiar gear really do allow you to see, experience and ultimately capture the unique essence of a place and culture. Kyoto, especially the black and white, were for me a new high-ground. I can’t wait for Cuba! Thanks for another great article – I loved the doki doki concept – and happy holidays my friend!

    • I’d better come up with another six. Um…
      5) Always carryeth spare batteries and cards, ensureth they are charged and empty
      6) Practiceth x3
      7) Curateth well
      8) Experimenteth
      9) Do not think better gear will cure thy shortcomings
      10) Remembereth to hath fun

      Happy holidays Roger! :)

  11. “once we see things, we can’t un-see them” is indeed true, or the “bliss of ignorance”, which is the same. Have you read by any chance any novel by Javier Marías? That’s one of his recurrent themes, nothing to do with photography, but your sentence brought him to my mind immediately. Just an off-topic literary comment!

  12. How did you get that “shine” on the bottom of the photo? Can you give us photo details? You’re photos are always amazing.

    • SS, click through on the image, doing so will take you to flickr, and from there you can click to request the exif data.

      Perhaps there was some editing that influenced the foreground “glow” in PS but I have a personal supposition (could be wrong) that the foreground glow was at least partially created by artificial lights behind MT — thinking about things such as light(s) on the pier or perhaps emanating from the restaurant. Just my personal guesswork since I wasn’t the talent to create this lovely image…

    • Long exposure of water; it’s ambient light from behind me bleeding into the main shot.

  13. Thank you for your useful suggestions. As a painter (I’m not a professional photographer), one method that I’ve found to be quite useful for picking a good scene is to squint. Squinting makes the scene easier to visualize abstractly and it clarifies the broad tonal structure, i.e. the abstract patterns of light and shade. It gives me a good idea how a painting will look from across the room when hanging on a wall. I ignore the details at the start and decide what to paint and how to compose from these big light and shade patterns. Also, I’m always aware of the sun’s position and how it travels through the day. One can get good at predicting the times of day it might be best to return to certain views. This approach may or may not be useful to photographers, I realize that some photographers prefer to hunt for striking instants in time, for example, which is another equally valid approach. That said, much of what makes a good painting applies to photographs as well.

  14. Both informative and enjoyable. Thank you!

  15. Ha yes, KL could not be described as small in any way. I wish I had an environment like that readily at my disposal; then again, I’m sure there are lots of photographers who would’t mind being out in the British countryside. The grass is always greener (literally, in some cases)…

    As for sins and forgiveness, we’re getting almost as Freudian as the comments above surely?!

    (On a more down-to-earth note… Billingham Hadley Digital: enough for a D800 and a couple of the 1.4 primes, or should I go Hadley Pro? I’ve been looking into both on your recommendation, but there’s nowhere locally to try them/gauge size. If I have to order both and send one back, so be it, just thought I’d get your opinion first…)

    • You’re welcome to swap – I love getting out of the city; photography becomes slow and contemplative instead of a mad rush. I’ve got clients who tell me the Vallee de Joux in Switzerland (home of a number of the big watch brands) is boring as hell, and they live in Lausanne or Geneva and commute – I personally love the peace, quiet and big skies :)

      The Hadley Digital will not fit a D800. It’s just too small. You can use it as a lens bag though if you’re fine having camera in hand all the time. Hadley Small or Hadley Pro will be a better fit.

      • For me, it’s the opposite: slow and contemplative is the norm, so I enjoy the rush. That said, I also enjoy going home afterwards :) A swap would be great fun though, I’d like to do some more neon light stuff like in the How To See Ep 1 video–London seems a bit muted by comparison. Maybe I just need to get back up there now I’ve watched it. I’m keeping an eye on your London 2014 workshop, not sure quite what my finances/time off situation is going to be yet…

        Thanks for the bag advice; I’ll try the Pro. I like the camera in hand/lens bag idea, but in reality the convenience of being able to keep everything in the same bag probably makes more sense. Viva Travel Minimalism!

  16. “I also find that for some odd reason, as a tourist/ explorer/ foreigner, I feel like I have more confidence than I would at home…” — Hear, hear. I live in a small village, and it and my nearest (small) town are my absolute least favourite places to shoot. Even travelling to London just an hour away gives me a huge, comforting slab of anonymity.

  17. ” and stop you long enough to whip it out and shoot one off”…I don’t think you’re talking about the “BOATS” in Amsterdam but another district altogether…..lol… good article…

  18. Iskabibble says:

    I disagree with carry less. Only if you are going after one or two specific types of shots do you need less gear. Carry what you need and if it is a lot, then get a good quality bag. That makes ALL the difference. I carried a Canon DSLR, and four lenses plus auxiliary equipment hiking all over Asia, during the brutal summer heat. Think 38 C at a minimum temperature. Carrying that gear was no problem at all because I had a fantastic Kata bag that put the weight all over my back. It was very comfortable and walking/working 8-10 hours per day was a joy. I just drank a ton of water from the heat. I had my super wide, normal wide angle, normal, telephoto/macro lenses with me and could capture 90% of the shots I wanted. I found some ultra rare (for me) spiders while in Japan as well as Malaysia and had I left the macro lens at home (a 1:1 lens), they would have have gone unphotographed.

    Carry the gear that you need, but get a good bag!

    • Whatever works for you. Every time I’ve packed the kitchen sink, it landed up getting installed in the hotel room and never leaving.

      • Agree 100% Ming. 2 lenses max for me. 50mm and 24mm and i’m done. Trip starts becoming more about gear and thinking too much rather than going with the flow and taking it all in …and making images. Once that most important element starts to become compromised (your brain) I find it very distracting for photography.

        • Well said! Our eyes and brain are far more important tools in the creative process than our lenses.

          • Iskabibble says:

            I’ve got shots that simply would not exist had I followed this advice. I cant recall ANY shots missed because I had too much gear. None.

            • It’s all theoretical Iskabibble though what you don’t or didn’t see if distracted is what you won’t shoot/create. There is a very strong possibility you HAVE missed some opportunities…you just won’t be aware of what they were imo….and that happens to all of us at some stage! It’s all personal preference and I respect your opinion.

  19. Rain Santiago says:

    Thank you again Ming for sharing your tips and advice on travel photography, must remind myself the Europe book guides are cliches :D :D

  20. Hey dude – learnt a lot from your photos and articles. Was in KL recently and went to the Petronas. Only photo which I have really liked – has got your footprint all over it. Check out the link if you could really be bothered. I got the idea from your boats of amsterdam photo essay.

  21. Wonderful timing. What if it is cloudy with no sun breaks the entire time you are on the trip? My last trip my insurance shots were the city lights at night. Never did get a break in the clouds… I did end up with one excellent shot at night. However now I am tempted to delete the other pictures.

  22. That’s a great shot from the HarbourSquare. Hope you didn’t came into brush with this ridiculous ordinance in Manila banning snaps on selected tourist spots.

  23. doki doki, I learn something new every day. My latest challenge is to see my home town as a visitor.

    • :)

    • Julius Pang says:

      Ron, the Japanese language has a massive number of onomatopoeia. It far exceeds what’s available in English and their usage is very important in mastering Japanese. “doki doki” describes the sound of heart beats and is most commonly used as such, but can also be used to express anxiety, nervousness, and excitement.

      In the case of “travel shock/awe/excitement”, I think “waku waku” is more common (at least in my experience), and means the “feeling of excitement”, and less of anxiety. I’d get “waku waku” looking at an amazing skyscraper and “doki doki” from looking down at the ground from that skyscraper.

      The other one that is exceedingly common for me is “ira ira” which is “feeling of irritation, anger”. I get this whenever a tout approaches me. :)

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  1. […] a few days. Before I went through the photos a second time I happened to read Ming Thein’s article on travel photography. One point stood […]

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