Travel photography is, by its very nature, difficult to define. An even harder, if not impossible task, is to identify and define a ‘travel photographer’. I have done the impossible. Following are five distinct and definitive schools of travel photography.
The Usain Bolt School
The title gives this one away. Acolytes of the Bolt school of travel photography attempt super-human imaging results by being on location for less time than it takes to unpack a small suitcase. Speed is everything. Photographers of this bent usually arrive out of breath after a last minute budget flight. They visit a local tour agency before checking into their hostel and book three one-day sightseeing tours in a row. If they’re lucky they can even fit in a half-day city tour before sunset. The methodology is simple: jump out of the coach before everyone else, shoot wide-angle to get the ‘hero’ shot and then use a standard prime to get the ‘detail’ shots while hopefully avoiding the other three dozen tourists that the bus also spewed out. Total time on location: thirty minutes. Repeat six or seven times a day over the following three days and these productive individuals hop back onto the plane to return home happy in the knowledge that they can cross another country off the list.
The James Bond School
In essence, the James Bond school of thought maintains that a photographer must be flown first class and then booked into a luxury hotel by his or her client. After rising late and enjoying an extensive breakfast, they stroll out to the hotels pool area and snap off a frame or two (blue cocktail in the foreground with out of focus blue swimming pool and cloudless blue sky in the background) before returning to the lounge to order a morning coffee. Exhausted after such productivity they wait until the Michelin quality lunch is served and then take a much deserved nap. Being true professionals and determined to give their clients value for money, they rise at about five and take a short stroll to capture that obligatory sunset image. Having achieved more than could reasonably be expected within any twenty-four-hour period, they retire in satisfaction to the pool deck for an alcoholic beverage, which they add to their generous expense account. This doesn’t mean that they days hard work is complete, however, they still need to decide on whether to have the duck or lobster for dinner.
The Bear Grylls School
Although easily identifiable these travel photographers are rarely seen. Clad in khaki and wearing combat boots, they are usually festooned with National Geographic branded equipment. The underlying premise of this group is that every image must arise from an ‘authentic’ experience. Not for them is the tour bus and local guide. Meals must be taken at restaurants (preferably on the street) where other tourists cannot be seen. Travel is conducted with paper maps and as many different forms of local transport as possible, to cover the shortest distance. All communication must also be conducted in the local language by use of a phrase book – irrespective of how well the locals speak English. The photographic goal is not the final image, but rather the time, confusion, misunderstandings and discomfort it took to arrive at taking the image. In addition, the one imaging virtue prized by these photographers above all others, is to take a photograph that no one else has taken before – even if that is because no one has ever seen any merit in taking such a photograph before.
The Bill Bryson School
In the words of the great man himself the modus operandi of these travel photographers is to visit the most beautiful places and have the worst possible time. The key to their success is an almost total lack of preparation and planning. Logistically it’s important to always find the worst accommodation possible and technically it’s essential to have left the lens they most need at home. Vital to artists of this school is the ability to arrive on location the day after a unique local festival has ended or, failing that, to at least arrive during the winter rains or monsoon season when sunlight is limited to less than ten minutes a day. Visually their work is well composed and exposed, but by its very nature cannot contain any distinctive cultural elements. Indeed, if done well, it should be almost impossible to know where the photograph was actually taken. Where they excel, like their master, is in writing and publishing blogs of their excruciatingly painful experiences, accompanied obviously, by rather boring images.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger School
These individuals are the true heroes of the travel photography community. Not only do they pack, bring and carry every bit of photographic equipment they own everywhere they go, followers of Arnie take great pride in buying kilos of new ‘essential’ kit for every trip they make. Online, ‘Arnie’s’ are well known for their long forum discussions regarding how to avoid airline weight restrictions. On location they are barely visible, buried as they are, under a bulging Lowepro backpack and one or two more shoulder bags and of course, a massive tripod bag. An obvious advantage to this is, that while they arrive at a location dizzy with dehydration and fatigue, they are so late that all the other tourists and photographers have already left. Sadly they are rarely able to create the photographs they had hoped to, as by the time they have searched through their various bags, found the lens they wanted and a body to attach it to, the sun has gone down and the opportunity for that blue hour photograph has long since passed. Undaunted they will look forward to the next morning’s sunrise shot, although by the time they have arrived and set up lunch is invariably being served at their hotel.
As I write, somewhat tongue in cheek, I am reflecting upon how many of you will recognize, or even identify with, one of these ‘schools’ of travel photography. I am confident, however, that many of you are also wondering upon which group it is that I belong to. Sadly, truth be told, over the last twenty-five years I have flirted with all of the above. Without, I should mention, becoming a certified card-carrying member of any. Travel photography is an evolutionary experience. We all have to start somewhere, and most pass through various phases before arriving at the place which, for the present time, best combines our resources, skills, temperament and photographic goals. The important thing is not so much where you are coming from, but rather, where you are figuratively and literally going, Kugara zvakanaka!
In my last post I ranted and raved about how photographers can be so divisive and sometimes downright unpleasant (to put it mildly) about other peoples choices when buying into a camera system. I argued that there are no really bad cameras on the market today but that some cameras are better suited to particular photographic tasks than others. I am sure that you agree with me... that is until I write that the system you use is not my favorite. Then I instantly become some ignorant hack filling the internet with pages of mindless drivel. Nevertheless, I'm going to explore some of the issues related to cameras for use in travel photography and I'm also going to nail my colors to the flag post and explain the specific choices that I have made regarding the photography on display on this site. Let me seal the bunker door, put on my flack jacket. helmet, grab my trusted FN 7.62 and begin...
First, out of all the recognized genera of photography, travel photography must be the hardest to define. I mean we all know what is meant when people talk about landscape photography, or street, food, portrait and documentary photography. Travel photography can be all these otherwise distinct things and much more. How do you define travel photography? In addition is the issue of what the photographs are being taken for. A person wanting some lovely photographs to remember their holiday will have very different requirements to a professional putting together material for an exhibition. Irrespective of these and other issues, I believe that travel photography should leave the viewer feeling that they have been somewhere themselves, and that great travel photography should make people wish that they could go there... hopefully even move them to arranging their own visit. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gives me greater satisfaction than when I get an email from someone who's viewed my images and emailed me for advice on planing their own trip to Vietnam.
Anyway, back to the topic. Due to the vast variety of possible subject matter when you travel to a new destination with your camera, it's essential that you have a lens selection capable of meeting a wide range of demands. On the other hand, most people don't want to carry around a heavy bag with two bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, spare batteries and a laptop. Oh, and don't forget the tripod. You might laugh, but for many years this is exactly what I did. In fact, before the advent of digital photography it was even worse. My gear in those days consisted of two Pentax 67 bodies, a Fuji 617 panoramic camera and what felt like 600 kilos of lenses. Obviously I was younger, fitter and a lot more stupid. The principle remains, however. decide what you think you are likely to shoot the most and select the appropriate lens or lenses.
For many a single super-zoom might be the perfect answer or maybe a long kit lens with a variable aperture. The advantage of this is that it eliminates the need for extra lenses and leaves the photographer with a more upmarket kind of point-and-shoot system which can cover most eventualities well enough. Improving on this might be a two lens selection. For example, a mid-range zoom like a 24-70 provides adequate wide to almost portrait possibilities. Then add to this a second lens that best meets your interests. This could be anything from an ultra wide angle for a landscape photographer or a telephoto lens for wildlife, sports or details. A 70-200 is not a small lens, but many manufactures offer an f/4 version which is both cheaper and lighter. At a push this can be combined with a small tele-converter which adds range with very little loss of image quality. For many years after switching to digital this is pretty much what I did. I carried a Fujifilm body with a Nikon F mount and the Nikon 14-24 and 24-70. For my needs this was a perfect combination. On some trips I would also take a 70-200, but even then I rarely used it. Having said that, a camera body and the 'holy trinity' of lenses isn't a crazy amount to carry and will fit into an average shoulder bay or small backpack quite easily. There can be no doubt that with a set up like this you would be ready for anything and everything your travels present you with. Modern technology has, however, presented us with another choice, and maybe a more difficult one.
Should the travel photographer carry a DSLR or mirrorless system? I am very aware that many people are asking this question, but I'm going to duck it. well, not really. What I will say, is that if you have already invested in a DSLR body and lenses, you should probably stick with them for now. Maybe, if you're a Canikon shooter you can think about changing to mirrorless next time you want to upgrade your body. You can still use your current lenses with the native built mount adapters, and you won't have to replace your entire system at one time. Did you notice what I've just done? I've suggested that no travel photographer would want to replace his or her present DSLR body with another. The future is mirrorless! You might disagree with me, and that's fine, but as someone who spends over half the year away from home and carrying almost all his kit everywhere he goes, you won't get me to change my mind. To be honest with you, for me the biggest advantage of going mirrorless is not the smaller and lighter system, although make no mistake I really feel and appreciate the difference. No, what I enjoy the most are the other advantages of mirrorless systems. A 3.69 million dot 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' EVF is a game-changer for me. In many culturally sensitive situations a totally silent shutter also allows me to make photographs that I could never have created before. I could go on, but yeah! That's right. I'm one of them.
I mentioned earlier that I used to shoot Fujifilm bodies with Nikon glass. The day eventually came when my fourth or fifth S5Pro body finally gave up the ghost and I just couldn't find another. They had been out of production for some time and I think I'd already bought all the remaining ones in Vietnam. So i switched. No, not to mirrorless. At that time the few mirrorless offerings on the market were laughable wannabee cameras. I bought the Nikon D800E. Wow! What a camera. I though that I'd died and gone to camera heaven. That was eventually relegated to back-up status and I got the D810. Bigger wow! The problem was when the time came to upgrade to the D850. In my opinion it is probably the best DSLR that has ever been produced, but I couldn't do it. I genuinely wanted to, but I just couldn't bring myself to purchase it. I'd been seduced. Some would say I'd lost my mind, but I hadn't. I'd lost my heart. I sold or gave away everything I had... and bought a Fujifilm X-T3. And that is the point of this whole story. The best camera is not always the best camera. It's the camera that enables you to take the best photographs you can take in the specific situations you shoot. Kugara zvakanaka!
Hard at work near Long Hai on the southern coast of Vietnam.
I know that many other travel photographers would disagree with me, but I'm convinced that a great deal of success in this genera comes down to... luck. I've spent a week or so at one or other location without getting the photograph I want, only to have a tourist who's been there half an hour show me a killer shot on his cameras LCD screen. On the other hand one photograph does not make the kind of story or portfolio that most clients demand. Success is born of consistently taking good photographs. While that wonderful serendipitous moment can never be removed from the equation, some careful preparation can go a long way. Morton's first rule of travel photography is the '3T' rule... and the 'T' stands for time.
The first 'T' is for the time of year. I know that many people, be they enthusiastic amateur photographers or professionals, live lives constrained by a wide variety of commitments. There's work, there's family and of course there's the simple issue of finance. Global travel is cheaper today that it has ever been, but once you add up flights, hotels, restaurants and local travel etc. it still adds up to more than pocket change for most of us. All these things, and quite a few others, make it almost impossible for someone to just pack their bags and travel whenever the itch need scratching. This, however is exactly why the time of year you visit your destination region or country is so important. To take time away from work and family and spend that hard earned cash on a trip to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) only to arrive in the middle of the summer monsoon would be a disaster.
When you first start to plan your trip, do an online search to check out the weather conditions. This doesn't just mean is it summer or winter, but more importantly things like precipitation, hours of sunlight and cloud cover. These are the things that really matter when you're standing there with a camera in your hands. One of the best travel photographers I know was once sent by a client to Ha Long bay to photograph a cruise ship among the islands... in the middle of the winter rains! An addendum to this first point has to do with regional travel. Here in Vietnam, for example when the weather is best in the South it's terrible in the North and vice versa. If you see online advertising for a photo tour of Vietnam that offers you the whole country in ten days, don't bother reading the fine print as it'll be a waste of time. If you're planing to travel within a region pay attention to local weather conditions also.
The second 'T' is for time of day. This one is just as important, but often more difficult to plan for. Obviously the best times for photography are usually early morning and late afternoon. On more than a few occasions I've risen long before dawn and spent an hour or two hiking through the dark to an iconic location only to find that there's a mountain to the East which blocks out all direct sunlight until eight or nine in the morning. Another common mistake is to plan to photograph some special location or building only to discover when you're there that the angle you want to shoot from is facing the rising or setting sun and you have nothing but a silhouette.
To overcome these and other similar problems local knowledge is always most helpful. There are, however, other options. The easiest is probably to do an image search on somewhere like Flickr or 500px and when you find an image that looks like the one you have in mind, simply send an in-media message asking the photographer what time of day they took the photograph... and what time of year, to avoid the trap of the first 'T'. I'm sure you'll get a few helpful responses. Some locations have their own specific time demands that need to be considered, especially buildings. The ancient and visually stunning Jade Emperor pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, for example is only worth visiting between about 11h00 and 13h00 depending on the time of year. Why? Because it's only at this time of the day the the sun is almost directly above and can enter the building through holes in the roof and lighten the windowless worship halls and their incredible altars.
Interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Ngoc Hoang) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The final 'T' is for time on location. To find, compose and take a good photograph, more often than not, requires time. You need time to explore the location, to find interesting subject material, experiment with composition and then to set up and take a great photograph. Add to this that sometimes the clouds are wrong or that you have to wait for other people to take their own snapshots and move off you will rarely have as much time as you would like at a particular place. Also working against you is the fact that you probably want to fit as much into your trip as possible. By giving one location time you are automatically denying yourself time at another. It's not easy.
It's best to admit that you probably can't shoot everything you would like to. Having said this, however, with the aid of something like Google Maps you can probably manage a lot more than most visitors. Start by prioritizing the subjects you most want to photograph and then identify the other places you'd like to photograph nearby. Plan a route that you can accomplish in a single walk or excursion. Remember that the estimated travel times provided by Google Maps are never ever going to be accurate. Always give yourself more time to move from location to location. Planing your travels this way might sound too regimented and more like hard work than pleasure, but it is the one way to ensure that you maximize the limited time you have available and come home with the best photographs you could have taken. Kugara zvakanaka!