12 Tips: How to Capture More Heart & Soul in your Travel Photos
The best travel photos are the ones that strike a chord and make you want to be there. One look and something about it hits you deep: it could be the light, the outfit, the eyes, the smile, the mood, the landscape, or so many things. Whether you’re a snap-happy point-and-shooter, a novice documentarian, or a digital pro, here are my Top 12 (1/2) Tips for how to capture more heart and soul in your travel photos and help make the connections that live on long after you're home.
1. Respect Your Subject
Strong connections between people result in warm and engaging travel photographs, and if there’s one lesson we can all practice a little more, it’s this. Respect your subject enough to create the best memory you can and honor their contribution to it. Choose your moment wisely and avoid disrupting the moment. Take your cues from your subject especially around meal time, family time, times of worship or reverence. Respect them by holding yourself back until the right moment. It will be noticed by them and help you snap a better image in the long run. The photograph I took above at a Balinese cremation ceremony is a favorite of mine, with the celebrants dressed in their finest. Though we were invited to witness the ceremony, I was careful to stay out of the way and not disrupt the women's procession, and this vantage point was fine to create a meaningful and colorful image.
2. Ask Permission
This goes hand in hand with the first. Whether you can ask them in their native language, or simply hold up your camera for them to see your intent, always ask permission to take their picture. And most especially, ask a parents permission to photograph their children. In this day and age, there’s simply no excuse for taking a child’s picture and confusing or even frightening their parents with your intent.
2a. Social Media Posting and Privacy
As an extension of #2, this one should be obvious. If you’re close enough to recognize the subject in your picture and you don’t have their permission to take it in the first place, don’t post it on social media. Especially when photographing children! I’m amazed at some of the travel photos I occasionally see on social media - close up candids of people on the street and the photographer’s description clearly indicates this person is a complete stranger. I’m not referring to tourism employees, guides, or others who willingly pose for shots. No one wants their privacy invaded at any level. When shooting on the street, always use work-arounds like Tilt-shift, blurs, and focus points to direct the viewers eye to the real subject and away from unknown strangers.
3. Get Personal (Speak their language)
When it comes to photographing people, there’s nothing better to convey the heart and soul of the moment than building a rapport with your subject. Talk with them and show genuine interest. Spend a little time learning about them, what they do, or what they’re doing at the time. Your image will reflect the comfort level they have with you. If you don’t speak the language, pick up an inexpensive phrasebook or print out some basic greetings from your computer before you go. Many of my best photographs, the ones with heart and soul, captured a smile resulting from me trying to speak their language! Just as we giggle at foreigners attempting to speak our language, no matter how poorly it’s delivered, what’s more important is your attempt to speak it in the first place. Be humble.
4. Street Portraits: The Eyes Have It
They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and that is especially true with a well done street portrait. Your subject's personality shines through and your photo carries much more impact with a clear focus on their eyes. So if it's a straight-on portrait you're after, have your subject look straight at you and lock in the focus.
But who says a portrait has to be traditional to be a portrait? If your subject is camera shy, or prefers an indirect photo, try a different perspective. Shooting your subject where they're most comfortable - in their natural environment doing what they love to do - will make your "portraits" untraditional and every bit as interesting. Just ask Annie Leibovitz. She is known for creating the world's most unique "portraits" of her subjects by featuring them in positions, sets, clothes (or not), costumes, and lighting that refects their individual personality. Her portraits are famous, her photographic style unique to her alone. Remember the portrait of John and Yoko, or Whoppi Goldberg naked in the tub of milk? Classic. So try a new and interesting perspective. Make Annie proud.
5. Get eye-level with your subject, especially children
Unless you’re intentionally shooting a large group from overhead, setting your camera at the eye level of your subject just makes for a more personal shot. Photograph people who must remain seated by sitting at the same level as them, rather than looking down at them. With children, crouching down to their level can more effectively capture the enormity of their surroundings and a vulnerability that’s sweet and endearing. Plus, you’ll score points with the kids themselves as being kinder and more approachable. No kid likes a scary photographer!
6. Get Close
If you can’t see the facial expression of your subject, move in or frame it closer. If you’re shooting in outside natural light, get close enough to capture the wrinkles and lines of your subject’s face, because it’s truly in those lines that the greatest stories are told. I once photographed an old woman in Bali, who I gathered hadn’t seen her face in many years. She was startled at the lines on her face when I showed her the picture, but (with the help of my phrasebook) I told her exactly that - that there was no story of her life without them. She laughed, and seemed genuinely moved by my words.
7. Share your Photo on the LED screen
Everyone, especially children, loves to see their pictures in your work. If you’ve ever traveled to more remote places, you know that the technology behind digital photography alone is fascinating enough in some underdeveloped areas of the world. And seeing themselves in the picture elicits more smiles and camaraderie than most anything else I can think of. I showed my inexpensive point and shoot camera to some schoolchildren in Amantani Island, Peru, where we stayed there with a local family, and taught them how to tilt the LED screen back to take their own selfies. I finally had to put an end to the excitement as we said goodbye, but for over an hour I watched them explore and create, while I happily photographed them. I've since upgraded my equipment several times but I still take that little camera with me for moments like this. By the way, the photos they took of themselves are much more fun than those I took, with many a tongue stuck out and plenty of giggles all around!
8. Stage Ahead of Time
If you have a shot in mind you wish to photograph involving people or an interruption to what they’re doing, have an idea of the proper angle, lighting, and staging you want BEFORE you shoot. Choose the light you want for your image, whether it’s a back-lit silhouette or direct filtered sunlight you’re after. Avoid things like power lines, photo bombers, and background clutter. Include elements that enhance the look you’re going for rather than detract from it. For instance, if you’re after that iconic look of vintage cars in Old Havana, avoid the more modern signage, logos, containers, logo t-shirts, and plastic jugs and water bottles that seem to be everywhere. Be patient. Stage your shot effectively, but naturally.
9. The Right Lens (or Setting) for the Right Job
Consider the type of travel photography you enjoy creating most, and then select the most appropriate lens for your camera body. A wide lens comes in handy for scenic landscapes and panoramic views, while a fixed aperture lens isolates your subject for stunning portraits with beautiful bokeh, or background blur. If traveling light is important to you, a good quality zoom lens would fit the bill to eliminate hauling extra heavy lenses. If you use a mirrorless or Interchangeable Lens Camera (ILC), master your understanding of the settings to help you achieve the look you want. I once purchased one of my favorite Canon lenses especially for my first trip to Indonesia because I wanted to shoot in low light and candlelit temples without flash. The 50mm 1.8 (or the “Nifty Fifty”) was the best $98 I ever spent, and I was very happy with the photos.
10. Consider a Rental!
Speaking of the right lens, have you ever considered renting a lens? Did you even know there was such a thing? Renting a lens is a great way to get the ‘right lens for the right job’ without the investment. It’s also a cost-effective way to try out new equipment before you buy, and the cost is usually very reasonable. For example, for rentals lasting around 2-3 weeks plus insurance (just in case) I’ve paid between $120-$300 for various lenses through the very reputable BorrowLenses.com. They have fast shipping, excellent customer service, and a super easy rental and return process. Considering the investment you make to travel, a temporary lens rental to enhance the quality of your images may be a sound investment in the memories that last a lifetime.
11. Don't Forget the Details
Remember the small details of the day which can often be overlooked. Many times, its the details we remember most about our travels, like the colors and textures of a place (oh, how I wish we could document the smells). I love capturing the accoutrement surrounding the main event - like brightly colored clothing or textiles, architecture and hardware of a home (door knockers and handles are great subject matter), or just about anything that is unique and different about a place. When I was in Italy, I remember being fascinated by the manhole covers in the town of Amalfi. There was something so massive and crafted about their design, like the elaborate design of a Roman shield. Details make for interesting storytelling.
12. Don’t Miss the Moment
If there is one piece of advice I need to heed myself, it is this. In my passion for documenting and preserving the moment, I’ve had several occasions where I missed experiencing the moment itself, and isn’t that why we’re out there traveling after all? You’re there at the place you’ve been dreaming about and planning for months to visit. Stop and savor it. As tempting as it is to shoot countless images (the light will continually change, just like the tides), do your odds of capturing the perfect shot really improve by shooting more frames? Maybe. But wouldn’t you rather experience more of your trip when you’re actually there, than when you're home developing your thousands of images?
If you have any tips you’d like to share, or things you do to improve or streamline your travel photography, please share them - I’d love to hear from you.