Dodging Little Ghosts: A Novice Guide to Travel Photography

How To  /  Photography
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I happened to be in Nepal for the 2013 presidential election, and with so much going on it felt like sacrilege not to have my camera with me. Even so, I missed things, and these missed moments are like little ghosts that still haunt me. So now when I travel, I try to avoid such regret by doing a few things to be sure I’m not only prepared to take good photographs, but that I’m actually taking them.

Arch near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo © Gregory Elgee

Whether you’re going off the beaten path on safari, or simply taking in the sights of a foreign city, a little advance planning at home pays off in peace of mind in the field. Here’s my pre-flight gear checklist:

1. Extra Batteries

Have you ever lined up the perfect picture, only to have nothing happen when you pushed the shutter release? It’s not a good feeling. Things like the environment, or how you’re shooting can profoundly affect battery life, so I carry two extra batteries plus the one in my camera at all times. I’ve learned the hard way that things like high elevation and cold temperatures will drain a battery more quickly than usual — as will shooting video — while an hour of constant shooting in either situation will only accelerate things. With backup batteries, I know I’ve got my bases covered.

2. The Right Mix of Lenses

Having the right lenses is important for being spontaneous, and able to cover a range of situations. I recommend traveling with three: a 55-250mm telephoto, a 28-105, and an 18-55. I switch between these depending on my subject, without having to worry about distance. At the high end, 250mm is great for shooting wildlife from a safe distance (though 400mm is great if I want to be really safe, or really sneaky). For midrange, 100mm on the 28-105 lens is great for portraits, while dialing down to 28mm will do decent long exposures if I’m in the mood for shooting waterfalls, freeways, or star trails.

A family of Macaques grooms one another at the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu. Photo © Gregory Elgee

3. Composition

Once you’re confident you have the right setup, it’s time to think about how you frame your shots — composition. While we are not often afforded the luxury of being able to control our subjects, the ability to compose a shot well will make a candid photograph look and feel intentional. One of the most basic (and best) rules you can follow is the rule of thirds: Mentally dividing your image into 3 vertical and 3 horizontal boxes. While everyone will tell you to do this, the truth is, it will add extra punch to a candid shot. Instead of centering your subject in the middle of the viewfinder, compose the frame so that the mountains, ground and horizon all draw your eye to it. Linear features allow the eye to flow from section to section easily, creating more tension and energy than an ordinary photo. Don’t just shoot horizontals though. As you can see from the photo below, pillars in threes work just as well.

A Tibetan girl attends the 2013 presidential ballot in Kathmandu. Photo © Gregory Elgee

4. Photo Etiquette

Now, what about your subjects? If you really enjoy shooting people but you’re not into getting up close and personal with your subjects, a telephoto can be your best friend. If you have an LCD screen that rotates, flip that puppy and shoot from the hip. This will allow you to remain anonymous and leave your subject feeling less self-conscious than if that gun-shaped object was right in their face. The body language of an uncomfortable person will speak volumes in your photography.

Whatever your approach, take a moment before your trip to understand the culture of your destination; depending on where you are in the world, people can take great offense to having their picture taken. Remaining incognito can ensure that people aren’t made to feel uncomfortable, but do try and get permission when possible. Make a habit of approaching your subject – either before or after the shot — even if you don’t speak the language. Not only is this the ethically sound thing to do, but it will also make the experience more personal. And if you ever decide you want to use your photography for promotional or editorial purposes, that little human exchange could also mean the difference between getting a model release or not. A model release is an agreement between you and the subject that says that the subject gives you consent to be photographed. The purpose of the release is to protect you from future lawsuits the person might file for claims such as defamation or invasion of privacy.

Releases should usually be done on paper (you can find templates online, like these) but if you don’t have one during your shoot, make sure to get your subject’s contact information so you can send them one later.

These tips should help to give you peace of mind when spontaneity calls for quick action. Having good equipment won’t improve your technique, but knowing your way around it will help you be prepared when that amazing shot pops up. That, and some basic feel for composition is guaranteed to improve your travel photography. Happy shooting!



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