I went to China. For three weeks, I was free to roam the city alone for a vast majority of the daylight hours each day; just me, myself, and my camera to explore the cultural goldmine. Husband was at work. English-speaking friends were limited (but a gem to find!). I had a bicycle, a bike basket, and a camera. Exploring was challenging in a English-less city, my camera didn’t always explore with me, but I loved my time in Shanghai and Nantong and have the photos to prove it.
Travel photography is a challenging, rewarding, life-altering, memory-making kettle o’ fish and I’ve learned quite a bit over the years and through the travels. Always by trial. Usually by error. But always in fun.
My very first “big” trip was in April 2001. I won an all-expense paid trip to Germany through Parade Magazine’s Young Columbus Program. For ten days, I was the dork carrying not one, not two, but THREE CAMERAS through Munich, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, and Oberammergau. (Aside: I just discovered the promo video compiled of my trip is on YouTube!) Since then, I’ve done my more than my fair share of travel and each flight brings a diverse set of photographs waiting to be shot.
Exceptional Travel Photography
We’ve all sat on the couch holding a stack of snapshots wondering when the pile would end, wondering if we’d ever see the last shot highlighting the hotel room, the rental car, the road signs of that trip we didn’t get to go on (salt on the wound, right?). But what photos would you love to be seeing? The same-ole-same-ole? Or a pile of unique, storytelling photos without repetition or bore? During each new adventure, I ask myself three refining questions before I press the shutter release button. .
What memories am I creating that NO TRAVEL BOOK will EVER showcase?
First answer: people. People, people, people. I will never be in any travel guide. You will never be in any travel guide. Family will never be in any travel guide. So those are the photos we should be taking.
Beyond that, though, our travel photos are our memories full of culture shock, travel weary days, jet lagged nights. Those are the memories to photograph and share. It’s map reading on the Bund. Or a shocking smog-infested sunrise. The roof-top selfie. The relieved glee after hiking to a mountaintop and not getting lost. The bicycle among bicycles. Your memories are the real point; photographs are to share the memory.
What will you definitely want to remember in 20 years?
I was here. I saw this. I did that. I ate lots. When I think back thirteen years to exploring Germany, the memories are already hazy: the Rhine River cruise (that blustery, blustery wind), the incredibly sweet counselor/chaperone over our group, and the streets of Heidelberg. Looking back over my photographs, I’m reminded of that awful food at that one restaurant, the tour bus winding up the snowy mountain to Neuschwanstein (and my fear of inching off that incredible cliff), the yodeler, the castles. My memories are not crystal clear, but my photos can fill in the gaps.
How can I photograph this memory as beautifully as possible?
The basics of photography matter a lot in travel documentation. And, most importantly, the fine art of composition as a storytelling craft. Each photo should answer as many of the basic journalism questions as possible: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Not all photos answer all the questions, and some photos will only answer one question. But asking the questions will improve the photo.
1. WHO am I taking a photo of? Is it obvious? Are they prominently positioned, or a fleck in the frame?
2. WHAT am I taking a photo of? Is it a photo for the sake of a photo? Or does the photo have a point?
3. WHEN am I taking the photo? Is timing important? Could I get a better photo by waiting for better sunlight? What if I let darkness come?
4. WHERE am I taking the photo? If I shift direction or change angle, will I better tell the story? Move my feet, maybe? Or get higher? Lower?
5. WHY am I taking the photo? Does it have a purpose? If so, I should make sure the purpose is in the composition. If not, I should probably not take the photo.
6. HOW am I taking the photo? Is that part of the story? How can I use my tools to best showcase my memory?