Introduction to travel photography

Harvesting rice in Laos
Harvesting rice in Laos

Whether going on safari, to the seaside, or taking a city break, whether you decide to travel in a Rambo-style jacket laden with kit, or if you just want to slip a discreet compact into your pocket, this piece taken from Insight Guides Travel Photography covers all the situations a travel photographer is likely to face on the road.



Photographers love landscapes, and though nature is so generous in providing such photogenic vistas, not everybody is an Ansel Adams. There is a lot we can learn from other photographers, too. Whether it’s Yosemite Park in the USA, the English Lake District, or the wilds of Pakistan's Karakoram Highway, there are certain lessons to take into account. There is black-and-white and infrared photography to experiment with, or you might think about stitching images together to make a magnificent panorama. The rhythms of nature, both untended, as in deserts or grasslands, or tended in cultivated fields, create many interesting patterns and shapes that can be abstracted into intriguing pictures.


Elements and skyscapes

The weather is the most unpredictable part of travel photography. Some of it, like lightning, needs both forethought and snap judgment to capture, while dust storms can be a particular hazard. Often, poor weather can ruin a shoot, but sometimes it improves it, as you will see if you ever stand in a Japanese garden in the rain. A major visual part of the world’s weather patterns are cloudscapes, seen from aircraft windows when we fly over them, but they are more complex than they appear, creating interesting patterns and sudden shafts of light.


The built environment

The urban landscape offers many possibilities – from ancient ruins and sites, so favoured by pioneer travel photographers, to the edgy streets of the modern metropolis. Here man-made colours and straight lines suggest graphic images that can be monumental or fragile, ambitiously grand or on a human scale. Ancient sites may be familiar even before we actually see them, which gives the opportunity to photograph them in a completely new way. City lights always have the possibility of good pictures, as do traditional buildings such as churches and great houses. Vernacular architecture can quickly convey a sense of place, and local architecture, both inside and out, can result in personal encounters on your journey.



The most rewarding area of photography is also the most difficult. Photographing friends is one thing, but getting among strangers is quite different. Festival time, whether it’s the big Rio carnival ( or Nevada’s Burning Man (, is a great opportunity for animated portraits. Crowds have their own demands, particularly in confined spaces, such as markets and bazaars, which are some the most difficult subjects; but they make an interesting vision if they are all headed one way, such as on Howrah Bridge in Kolkata (Calcutta), the busiest commuting bridge in the world, just one aspect of the world of work.



Whether you are after the Big Five in Botswana, the great migrations of the Serengeti, the elusive Indian tiger or the flight of a condor in the Andes, wildlife photography is for the patient travel photographer. It’s not just a question of waiting by the waterholes at dawn and dusk – you have to know about animal behaviour to anticipate the perfect shot. There can be a big story to be made from nature’s smallest creatures and most delicate plants, which opens up a whole new world in macro photography, from curious insects to the most delicate flowers. And it is often the habitat, rather than the animal, that determines the approach to bird photography.


Details and close-ups

Sometimes it’s the little picture that gives the big picture. It can be the everyday – items in small shops and busy markets, colourful, isolated or piled up to make pleasing patterns. People can be expressive by the way they grip a cup of tea or a bus rail – you don’t have to go for the whole portrait. Even a subject as big as an elephant at an Indian festival can be brought down to size with a judicious shot. Go for graphics, too, posters and lettering, street signs and scripts in different languages.



Your journey is likely to start and end on transport – and there will be a lot of travelling in between. Whether it’s a city bus, a steam train in Darjeeling, in India, or Machu Picchu, in Peru, an inter-island ferry in the Philippines or a horse-drawn carriage in Seville, in Spanish Andalucia, your mode of transport and its passengers are key elements in your journey. Transport hubs are often extremely lively places and offer photo opportunities, though often it’s the vehicles themselves – Pakistani trucks, Cuba’s 1950s American cars – that are the centre of attention. If you are ambitious, you could try aerial photography.


Active pursuits

You don’t have to be sporty to enjoy photographing outdoor activities – but it definitely helps. Watersports, mountain pursuits and aerial activities all require special considerations about personal safety, and the safety of the people you are photographing – you don’t want a surfer crashing into you just as you get the shot. Your equipment needs protection, too, from water, snow and dust. A head for heights helps when you are snapping mountaineers, paragliders or bungee jumpers, and you need good friends to reenact their best ski-jump or bike feat over again when you missed the shot first time.