Want Better Travel Photos? Think Like a Film-maker

With Christmas and New Year behind us, the summer travel season is only a few short months ahead. It’s not too soon to be thinking about the capturing the best travel images of your life. As a photographer, the chance to travel and immerse myself in another culture while working to capture the essence of a place is a challenge I simply cannot turn down. But creating compelling travel pictures is no easy task.

Perhaps you have had the tortuous “pleasure” of sitting through a friend’s travel slide show, where each image is accompanied by the phrase, “This is us in front of the [insert name of well known travel icon]”. When a professional travel photographer decides to cover a destination, the first thing they do is research the location. Travel books, Travel web-sites, both commercial and those of the government tourist agencies are all good sources of information. Learn about what may be going on at your destination when you arrive. On what day of the week is the local farmer’s market? When are the local holidays? If possible, plan your trip to coincide with local festivals: these are excellent opportunities photograph people when they are out and about. Google your destination to death! To see how professionals cover your destination, search the web-sites of the major stock photography sites: Corbis, Getty and Masterfile. Now that you have a good idea about what you will encounter when you arrive at your destination, think about letting your images create a story of what the place is like: what it’s like to visit there, perhaps even what it’s like to live there. Good Travel Photography and Film Making share many of the same attributes. This makes sense, since both disciplines are essentially story telling mediums. Film Makers think in terms of three basic types of images: Establishing Shots create the overall view of a location. “This how the location looks”: is it set near the mountains, or the sea? Is it an urban or rural environment? Higher points of view can be useful in creating establishing shots… look for balconies, hillsides or observation towers.

Medium Shots provide the substance of your story; this is where you get right into the locale: street scenes, architecture and portraits shot with normal lenses or so-called “street zooms” are good examples of this type of image. This is also where you should let your compositional creativity loose: use these as an opportunity to look for patterns and colours to enhance the impact of your images.

Detail Shots (Film-makers would refer to these as “close-ups”) are in many ways the most important type of travel image: as human beings we are all the same: it’s only in the details that we are different from one another. While they need the other two classes of images to provide context, details provide the visual vocabulary needed to define a culture. Without them you’re missing the most important part of your story. Used in a slide show, or album of your travels, detail images may not occupy the screen for as long as other images, or they may be smaller and collaged together with other images, but be sure to include at least a few in every show.

With a bit of planning and some thought about what you want to communicate to your viewers, you can tell a story that will convey volumes about your subject; often with almost no need for words. Suppose you wanted to create a story about the life of the small independent lavender farmer in Provence. One of the larger lavender growing regions in this part of France is on the high plateau above Valensole in the Alpes de Haut-Provence. The four images below encompass an establishing shot, (the landscape), medium shots of two brothers in the fields where they work. The details of sun burned faces and weathered hands tell a story of years of labouring under the hot Provencal sun.

Start planning now to make this year’s vacation trip the most photographically rewarding one ever, be sure to plan for establishing and medium shots, and keep your eyes open for those telling cultural details. Best wishes for the New Year to all of you!