To look at the envy-inspiring stream of travel photography on Instagram, you’d think making great travel photographs was a matter of showing up and pointing your camera at something interesting. Anyone who has traveled knows better. Here are four things I consider essential to making stronger images when I travel.
There’s being there and then there’s really being present in a place. Clearly you need to show up and that means giving yourself time, and plenty of it. When I say “be there,” what I really mean is be there at the right time—and you need an abundance of time just to discover not only where you need to be, but when. The person who shows up in a village in Italy for only one day is fighting a losing battle. So that’s the first thing you need to do: before you even leave home, schedule enough time. And if you don’t have more time, then visit fewer places so you can really see the places you visit. Too many photographers expect to show up, make amazing photographs, then move on. It doesn’t work that way. Do your research, find a place that appeals to you, then give yourself enough time to wander and explore. Once you’ve done that, do whatever you need to do to be present. Observant. Immersed. Put the phone away, close Facebook, stop Tweeting everything you see, and be there. Find the places that feel magic to you and settle in for as long as you have to in order to really see and experience that place. One of the biggest challenges for photographers is getting portraits of the people they meet, but spend more time with those people and you’ll find it much easier to ask to make their photographs. Time is everything, and I’d rather spend more time in just one place—time that allows me to go deeper, try again, see a place in different weather, meet people more than once—all of which gives me a better chance at stronger photographs. Almost no one gets “the shot" the first time, and those who do would probably get stronger images with more time.
Traveling is hard enough without being weighed down with too much gear. We often carry too much because we’re scared we’ll miss a shot. Trust me on this, please: you will miss far more shots when you are exhausted from carrying too much gear, when you are trying to decide which lens to use, or are fiddling around with dials and buttons. Take a camera, choose a lens, put an extra battery and memory card in your pocket and go. I prefer the Fuji mirrorless system for all kinds of reasons, and am very happy walking all day with a 16-35 or 24-70 lens (35mm equivalent). Your own lens choices will be your own, but don’t get distracted by thoughts of what you might miss. We miss a million photographs a day: those don’t matter. And if you’ve booked enough time to be in one place then you can go back tomorrow with the slightly longer or slightly wider lens that you left back in the hotel room. I travel with two bodies, and three lenses: Fuji XT-2 and XPro-2 bodies, 10-24mm, 18-55mm, and 55-200mm. But I almost never carry more than one camera and one lens as I walk and photograph.
One of the most important parts of my process in photographing a place is what I call my visual inventory. It’s a mostly-mental list (these days it’s in my brain, for a long time I wrote it all down in my Moleskine notebook or in my iPhone) of the things that turn my head, catch my imagination, and feel like essential pieces of my experience in a place. Some of the things I might write down are particular activities (great light at busy fish market at 7 a.m.!) or locations (fantastic red wall beside restaurant near bridge!), or even people (wonderful shopkeeper at vegetable stall next to temple). It might even be little details of a place, like blue taxis or red phone booths, but I take note. Why not just photograph it and be done with it? Because not everything you see is the best expression of that thing. Because often it takes a couple days to see the thing that excites you, in the right light, in the right location, with the right characters. Anyone can make a photograph of an interesting thing seen while travelling. But a great photograph of that thing takes some work. Noticing these things and keeping a list is one way to remain receptive and observant.
Fall in Love but Don’t be Seduced.
This is related to the previous idea. It’s easy to find interesting, novel, or exotic things. It’s much harder to make compelling photographs of those things. You have to fall in love with a place, let it captivate you and fascinate you enough that your curiosity pulls you around corners you’ve never explored. But the subject alone is not enough. You still need to consider the light. You still need to compose intentionally. You still need to know how to tell a story that works for you but also intrigues people who aren’t there, the people that will one day read your photographs. This sounds so obvious, but it’s tough. Most of us travel because we like the heady addictive experience of encountering the exotic. Enjoy that, and let it take you to new experiences, but don’t let it be a substitute for the craft of making a great photograph.
If you want more along these lines, consider reading See The World, as well as Making the Image, both of which were written with exactly this in mind: "How do I make better photographs in the places that I love?"