Introduction to Travel Photography
|'Land-diving' on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu|
Travel photography is a fairly unique discipline. It encompasses just about every style of location photography that you could imagine, with the logistical burden of getting yourself, and all of your gear to a foreign locale in a fit state to work, and hopefully getting it all back home again!
Over the last 25 years or so as a professional travel photographer I have traveled to some 87 countries. I have snowmobiled in the Arctic, trekked in the Sahara, swum with sharks and photographed the largest gathering of humans ever on the planet. I have worked in sweltering rainforests, ancient cities, amidst breathtaking mountains and even hanging out of planes.
Travel photography suits my low boredom threshold. One minute I can be a landscape photographer, the next a documentary photographer. In the same day I can be shooting wildlife, portraits, architecture, interiors, macro, documentary, food, action and even underwater.
So much of travel photography revolves around getting to your destination with the equipment you need. There is a fine line between having enough equipment and too much. Airlines have restrictions on both checked and carry-on luggage luggage, and once on location, you'll actually have to be able to carry all of this gear.
Over the years I have settled on a standard (and fairly comprehensive) kit with which to shoot. I might supplement this with a few things - a more powerful telephoto for wildlife or an underwater kit for diving. If I have to use smaller planes or anticipate more difficult shooting conditions I will pare things down accordingly.
With regard to cameras and lenses, there is little that you can do about weight. Professional gear is bulky and heavy, and I always bring backup equipment. That means at least two camera bodies and a range of lenses (in duplicate) covering wide, middle and telephoto focal lengths. If this seems excessive, it's not. Theft, damage or mechanical failure can all render you incapable of taking pictures. In fact, if I come back from a trip having used only half of what I have taken, I consider that a good thing. It means I haven't lost or broken the other half!
My lenses range from a 10.5mm fish-eye through to a 300mm f4. Most are Nikon pro-zooms: 14-24mm, 17-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. I also carry a 60mm micro, a 50mm 1.8 for low light and 1.4x and 2x tele convertors. All the lenses have B+W UV filters and lens hoods attached. I also carry a Lastolite reflector, flash and sometimes a ring-flash adapter, which is perfect for fill-in flash.
The gear is transported in a Lowe-Pro Phototrekker AWII. This conforms to most airlines' carry on restrictions. If there is a problem with carry on weight, then I always have a Domke photographers vest which is perfect for stuffing heavy gear in at check-in. After all, as I have pointed out to a few check-in clerks, nowhere does it say that they can weigh my pockets!
When I arrive on location, I typically use a smaller Domke Original canvas bag for shooting, leaving my spare gear back at the hotel room for safety. One drawback with pro zooms is that they tend to have a more limited focal length range than their consumer counterparts. I find this a worthwhile sacrifice for the image quality, but it does mean I have to change lenses more often. So I also use a couple of ThinkTank modular system lens pouches to speed up the process of changing lenses.
All of my electrical gear is fitted with the Euro-style 2 pin plugs. These are far lighter than the bulky 3 pin UK versions, and more universal than US fittings. A Euro 3-way adapter is small, and hardly weighs a thing. I have the camera charger, laptop charger, battery charger for the flash and flashlight and an adapter the the backup drive fitted with them. I also have two fast card readers, a GPS unit for tagging images, B+W polarizing filters, wireless and wired remote releases, four spare camera batteries, spare batteries for everything else, a fused travel adapter with spare fuse, an Xrite Colorchecker Passport, spare lens caps and a comprehensive cleaning kit.
Equipment is only a means to an end. The ultimate aim is to capture images that convey the emotion you experienced. The first time you see the Taj Mahal, for example, it's all too easy to get excited by the ambience and snap away. But remember, you have the adrenaline rush and sensory overload of actually being there; an advantage that friends back home looking at your pictures won't have. It is a bit like the bottle of local booze that you bring back from your travels. It tasted great when you were on the road, but like washing up liquid once you're back at home!
When I looked out of the hotel window before dawn and saw the overcast night sky, I was tempted to go back to bed, but persistence and dedication are crucial traits that can pay huge rewards. At the top of Corcovado, the scene that greeted me was overcast, but by shooting into the light, I still managed to get light and shadow. If I had been shooting with the light the image would have been very flat and dull. The result was an image which was the cover of my first book, in most of the thirty co-editions (although not on the US edition) and is probably the image I am most associated with. And to think – I nearly stayed in bed!
|Sugar Loaf Mountain from Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
It doesn't matter what the light does – you can often find a way of taking great images. You just have to be flexible and creative.
|Crowded pontoon bridge at the Mahakumbh Mela, Allahabad, India|
The Mahakumbh Mela in 2001 was the largest gathering of humans that there has ever been on the planet. Ever! The scale was immense. On the most auspicious bathing day, when Hindus believed they could wash away their mortal sins by bathing in the river at a sacred point called the sangam, estimates for the number of pilgrims were as high as 35 million. The next equivalently auspicious date will not happen until 2145.
The festival is a unique mix of the ancient - with legions of naked sadhus or holy men who are trained in martial arts - and the modern. Just down from the ashram I was staying in was a Nescafe vending machine and an Internet cafe in a tent. Just opposite was a holy man meditating on a swing of nails above a fire. I was shooting for Geographical Magazine in the UK, and was illustrating a story that focused on the town planning aspect of the festival. The Indian authorities had built what was, for a single day, one of the most populated cities in the world.
|Taj Mahal, shot through reeds, Agra, India
No matter how familiar the subject, it is always possible to take a unique and interesting photograph, if you work hard and use your creativity.
Some of the best views of the Taj Mahal are from the far side of the Yamuna River. Heading down there at sunrise I was able to take this image of the Taj Mahal through reeds.
This was just after sunrise, and so the light is misty and warm. Shooting with a telephoto lens, from some distance, I was able to control the relative size of the reeds and the Taj. I actually had food poisoning when I took this shot, and so I actually threw up between shots. Despite this, it is one of my favorite pictures.
Steve Davey is a professional photographer and writer based in London. He is the author of Footprint Travel Photography, which covers just about everything you could ever want to know about shooting on location. Steve also leads his own unique series of travel photography tours to some of the most exotic parts of the world, and runs photography courses in London. More information on www.bettertravelphotography.com. Steve's professional website can be found at www.stevedavey.com.