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Travel Photography - Slow, Fast, and Static

There are three types of travel photographs:

  1. - Slow photos, where points of interest may remain as they are for a short while, but will change soon.
  2. - Fast photos, where the shot you want is there for a second and then disappears, never to be seen again.
  3. - Static photos, such as buildings and landscapes. Main items will not change, though smaller items will.

How each of these is handled can be quite different. Likewise, the way that you, a Travel Photographer, should prepare yourself for each can be different as well, so I'll discuss each type: Slow, Fast, and Static, quite separately.

  1. - Slow photos. Lets start with the most common type of travel photograph, and also the easiest to deal with. Points of interest are continually changing, but not with any great rapidily. You have got time to breathe, time to consider the shot, and maybe even time to make adjustments. Still, lets not get too complacent. The more we can anticipate and get ready before we start pressing the shutter release button, the easier it will be to (a) concentrate on the task in hand, and (b) make changes as needed. So, before we leave the hotel or campsite, lets check a few of the basics. What will the day be like? What kind of lighting conditions can we anticipate? Have we got the correct lenses for the scenes that we expect to see? And spares for special conditions we may unexpectedly encounter? Perhaps a short checklist might be useful, to make sure that nothing is forgotten. All batteries fully charged. Nothing missing from the camera bag. Camera time aligned to satellite time from the GPS if we are geo-referencing photos. Camera settings returned to standard. Guidebook book-marked to the correct page with a paperclip that won't fall out. Extra maps in my pocket, and a pen that really works to make notes on them during the day. No doubt your list has got extra items that you feel are important: share them with me, and I'll include them on this page.
    So now we are on the streets, taking photos as we wander about. Wandering is the key word for the travel photographer. We will see more good shots by just wandering about than ever we will by planning. Keep on the lookout for shots that interest you, and take them from many angles. Though the action is often changing less quickly than you might be moving around in the 'Slow Photo' category, subtle changes can nevertheless take place that will significantly alter the way a photograph will turn out, so take plenty of shots in case the scene alters and things get worse. Keep a list of the basics of composition in the back of your mind: this will help to remind you of seemingly mediocre photos that will turn out to be winners because they are compositionally brilliant. Free your mind from the iconic postcard shots by taking them first: this will empty your mind from expectations and prepare you for surprises, which is where all the really good shots are to be found. Wander softly through the streets, see the action rather than being the action, and always respect the surroundings that you are in.
  2. - Fast photos. Time to step up a gear. When taking Travel photographs, you often need to grab a shot very quickly. There isn't time to make more than the simplest of changes before the scene has altered and the shot that you saw originally has gone for ever. The key thing when taking travel photographs in an area where the action and the shots are changing is Preparation. You must anticipate what might happen, and prepare yourself accordingly. Are the camera settings chosen correctly? Have you got the correct lens on your camera body? Have you got a spare camera body with a different type of lens: maybe a wide angle, for when the action gets too close? Where is your spare memory card, for when the current one fills up? Is the spare memory card formatted in advance, so that you don't have to waste time clearing out the old photos? When you swap memory cards, where will you put the full one so as to be sure that it will remain safe until there is time to download it? How about your spare batteries: will one be enough, of are you planning to use a lot of on-camera flash, which will exhaust them quicker than usual?
    These are all things that you should anticipate before you leave your hotel or campsite. Once you arrive where the action is happening, there will be plenty of other things to think about. Most critical is your location: where can you stand to get the best, the most interesting shots as the action changes. Look into the sky: where is the sun at the moment, and where is it going to be as the day progresses? Is the light illuminating the action correctly for you, or will another location be better? What type of shots will you get from where you are standing, and how will the background affect them. If you change position, will they look better? Try some anticipatory shots of random people and vehicles to test your theories. As the action progresses, should you progress with it, or stay where you are? When you move, will there be another location that you can stand, or will it be full of people already, who will object if you try and squeeze in? Could you move a little time before everyone else does, and get the good spot first?
  3. - Static photos. With Static photos, we have time to explore our surroundings slowly, assess the expected photograph for its full potential, fine tune the composition for maximum impact, and make sure that all the elements of the photo are exactly where we want them. We have the time to double check all the settings on the camera, and confirm that every aspect of the photo is just right. If possible, with the time available to shoot a static photgraph, we should use a tripod rather than hand-holding, as this gives a number of advantages: The obvious one is that there will be less camera shake at low shutter speeds, so you can choose the lowest possible ISO to give you the best possible quality, and an aperture that is suitable for the depth of field you would like. Less obvious an advantage is that once the camera is fixed in position, and the focus point set, it leaves the mind free to stop concentrating on the technical aspects of the photograph, and turn instead to the real essential: the composition. Look carefully at every aspect of the scene. Should the camera be moved slightly? Is there some garbage in the shot that you could remove? Is there a branch waving to and fro that could obscure an important aspect of the scene? Is a tree growing out of someone's head? These and other aspects can be thought about slowly and carefully once the camera is fixed on a tripod. Always be aware of the light, though, whilst you are doing this, as light never stays the same for long, and will change its position and color-temperature with remarkable speed, just when you are not expecting it. Clouds come and go. Shadows race across the scene with rapidity. A good Travel Photographer is a painter of light, and how the light acts on the rest of your scene is always crucial.

One factor that is common in each of the above is Change. There will always be change, though the rate that this happens, as we have seen, can be quite different in each situation. Every change that happens will affect the final photograph, but these days, when using digital cameras rather than film, we have the ability to record the changes as they occur, just in case. When the cost of film and subsequent processing was an important issue to a travel photographer, he had to think carefully about when to take the shot, when it was going to be best. Nowadays, with a digital camera, the cost of taking pictures is negligible: just divide the cost of your camera body by 100,000 which will give you an idea of the cost of each shot during the expected lifespan of the body. With shots being so cheap, it make sense to record all of the changes to a scene as they happen, rather than just wait for the one magic moment that you have anticipated. Who hasn't experienced the heart-sinking moment when, after waiting quite a time for the exact moment to take that killer-photograph, a vehicle passes in front of the shot just as we press the shutter release button, or the sun goes behind a cloud and that wonderful moment is lost for ever! Far better to take shots as you approach the magic moment, so that if it is lost, you will still have a few shots, nearly as good, that can be used.


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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