With the travel season upon us, five established photographers–Chase Guttman, Joanna Yee, Jessica Sample, Matt Horspool, and Chris Sorensen share both practical and creative advice for capturing compelling images that communicate the essence and story of a place.
1. Research before you go
The first step toward a successful trip is research, which can be done online. The photographers we spoke with recommend Roadtrippers, Atlas Obscura, Google, Instagram, local websites and blogs, and beyond. Start looking for those hidden gems and thinking about how you can capture the location in a new or different way, beyond the cliches.
2. Tap into Google Earth
The research phase also includes visualisation and planning. “Undoubtedly, Google Maps and Google Earth are the fastest and cheapest resources for finding unique locations to shoot,” Matt says. “This is even more valuable when documenting remote locations where others may not have ventured.
“I’ll often scour the area using a satellite view to gain a general idea of the geography, then start looking at topographic maps to work out routes and viewpoints. It’s important to note that seasons can change drastically from when the Google Image was taken to when you are planning to visit. So take this into account, or you might be very disappointed to find the lake you were hoping to photograph no longer exists.”
“For my photography style, having a small but reliable camera system is paramount to me.”
3. Travel light
“Beginning photographers often get caught up in thinking the latest tech with the biggest camera sensor size will make their shots better,” Matt continues. “This is simply not true. In fact, it’s quite the opposite because they begin to rely on their gear rather than their creativity and eyes to find unique shots. For my photography style, having a small but reliable system is paramount to me moving fast over longer distances in all types of inclement weather. I can also fit a wider variety of lenses in my bag, meaning a wider variety of amazing shots.” Matt uses Olympus OM System OM-1 mirrorless, weatherproof cameras (he’s also an ambassador for the brand).
4. Scout during the day
Several of the photographers we interviewed confirm the transformative power of shooting during the golden hour, when the light is soft, warm, and directional. Jessica recommends scouting your location in advance (for example, when the light is not ideal) and then planning to return when it’s just right. “Always take a look in the other direction of your instinct–maybe some backlight or a different angle you hadn’t thought of could be interesting,” she suggests.
“I like to research locations using Google, Google Maps, and Instagram before I go, and then I save locations on my phone in Google Maps for later. Another app I use is Sun Seeker. It shows you the path and direction of the sun so you can find the ideal time to shoot a location. Sometimes, you don’t realise the sun is going to pass behind a mountain or building, and you will actually lose light earlier than you think.”
5. Bring a polarizer
Filters are lightweight and easy to fit in your bag, and they can make a significant difference. “My most-used tool besides a camera is a polarizer,” Jessica says. “I even like wearing polarized sunglasses so I can visualise what difference a polarizer would make for a photo. To cut the glare off water and get that beautiful ocean or pool colour, it is essential. It’s also great with greenery and blue skies.”
6. Change your vantage point
“Having authored one of the first-ever books on drone photography, I am a huge advocate for the use of perspective,” Chase confesses. “The angle you use to portray a scene can dramatically impact its effectiveness–seeking unusual perspectives can help expand the visual repertoire of your frame, and often it presents distinctly graphic designs, reflections, and patterns.
“To me, perspective is what often separates an average snapshot from a strong visual statement. Enthusiasts often shoot from a default standing position, rather than playing with height to contextualise a scene from above or getting low to the ground to discover mirrored reflections and make your subject loom large.” Look for balconies, rooftops, or other locations that offer an unexpected view.
“To me, perspective is what often separates an average snapshot from a strong visual statement. Enthusiasts often shoot from a default standing position, rather than playing with height to contextualise a scene from above or getting low to the ground.”
7. Take advantage of the blue hour
While the golden hour might be the most popular choice, there’s another time of day that’s just as magical. “Before golden hour in the morning and after golden hour in the evenings, there is another special stage in the day’s light,” Chase explains. “This lesser-known period, called blue hour, is when vibrant blue hues take over the sky. Blue hour is wondrous because it’s one of the most reliable times when the lighting is exceptional.
“No matter the day’s weather–be it dense clouds, rain or snowfall–you can expect the heavens to fill with vivid indigo hues for blue hour. As a travel photographer, I use blue hour to ameliorate the effects of a dreary day. When you’re on the road or in a place for a short stretch of time, sometimes you just have to make pictures despite the weather. Blue hour gives you the perfect window to create the imagery that you need.”
8. But prepare for less-than-ideal conditions too
While the golden hour and blue hour are far-and-away preferred, Chris cautions against banking on being able to shoot during these times. “We all love beautiful light, and if we could shoot everything at sunrise or golden hour, we probably would,” he admits. “But the reality of most travel assignments is you’re sent somewhere with a long shot list and a limited number of days to get it all done, which means sometimes you’re going to have to be shooting in bad light, bad weather, and so on.
“You can try to minimise these challenges by scheduling things so you’re inside a museum or restaurant during midday or rain, but the crunch of needed shots and short time frames means at some point you’ll be outside with the sun directly overhead and have to get something good. So while you’ll often see recommendations to shoot in the morning and evening, you also need to be prepared to get good work midday and in bad light and weather.
“You can do that by embracing hard shadows to create more graphic or black and white images, using bad weather to make moodier images, or shooting pieces/parts of landmarks that still tell the story without showing it all in an unflattering light. Before you go, think about how you’d shoot a location on the shot list not just in ideal light, but what you’d do if you were there at noon or in rain. Because you might have to be.”
9. Make time for wandering
“On assignment, you usually have a pretty long shot list, which often already has the ‘hidden gems’ the writer has included in the article and limited time for exploring,” Chris says. “But you’re usually walking a lot from place to place and interacting with locals, so you often see things or get suggestions for things not on the shot list that you can add to expand the story. For personal trips, I also spend a lot of time wandering to give myself the possibility of stumbling upon things I wasn’t expecting.”
“With both assigned work and personal work, I'm talking with locals a lot. I’ll reach out beforehand to friends or friends of friends who have been or lived someplace to get their recommendations.”
10. Connect with locals
Chris also recommends chatting with locals for suggestions and tips before your trip. “With both assigned work and personal work, I’m talking with locals a lot,” he says. “I’ll reach out beforehand to friends or friends of friends who have been or lived someplace to get their recommendations. Extensive and thoughtful research goes a long way toward making sure you’re at the right place at the right time, but the best resource for finding spots is embracing the serendipity that comes from meeting locals in the know.”
Joanna also reminds us to support local businesses. “For personal travel, I enjoy going on food or photography tours, which have been great resources for finding popular spots and hidden gems,” she tells us. “You can’t beat local knowledge. Also, it’s a great way to support the local community.”
“Telling the story of a place does require landscapes/cityscapes but also portraiture, food photography, architectural photography, lifestyle, documentary, and street photography. It’s part of why I love travel photography—getting to shoot so many different things in different ways. It never gets boring.”
11. Branch out
“One thing I see sometimes is photographers wanting to get travel assignments but only having landscapes/cityscapes in their portfolios,” Chris tells us. “Those definitely qualify as travel photography, and you can get assignments doing that. But for the feature work I typically do, you need to be good at and show more types of photography. Telling the story of a place does require landscapes/cityscapes but also portraiture, food photography, architectural photography, lifestyle, documentary, and street photography. It’s part of why I love travel photography–getting to shoot so many different things in different ways. It never gets boring.”
12. Pay attention to the details
“Everyone gets those grand landscape/cityscape shots and the cute storefronts, and those are important,” Joanna says. “But don’t forget to also capture the details and the people in order to convey a deeper sense of place.” Those details can be the view from your hotel window or rearview mirror, a close-up at a farmer’s market, a pop of colour on the street, a candid portrait on the tram, or anything else that captures your attention. Keep your eyes open.
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.