Guest writer and photographer, Chris O'Dell has an opportunity to travel the world and photograph some of the most beautiful and honest places in the world. With his job as a Minister, Chris often finds himself traveling all over the world, helping local communities and bridging the gaps between cultures and people. Listen closely, as he shares the tips he's learned from over 20 years of experience.
Open up almost any photography website, i.e. flickr, 500px, or any of their ilk and you’ll find the Travel sections to be not only one of the most amazing, but also the most visited portions of the site. Man is born with an innate curiosity about his world and our hunger for glimpses into foreign cultures and sights reflect that.
In the next few paragraphs, I want to share with you a simple and foolproof guide to travel photography. As in all photography, there are a myriad of methodologies, lists, and tutorials on how to capture terrific shots while on the road. Many of those are valid. However, I write today from my own experiences after twenty years of full-time international travel and photography. We could spend months covering all the intricacies of shooting during travel but I'll endeavor to keep this as simple and straightforward as possible.
The keys to solid and rewarding travel photography can be broken down into 3 distinct sections.
If you spend too much time perusing magazines or B&H, Adorama, and other store sites for tips on travel photography, you'll often walk away from the experience believing that you need to drop $10K and hire a gear-carrying Sherpa just to get one simple picture in a foreign country. Not so.
If you're even a slightly enthusiastic shooter, odds are you already own all the gear you need. I won't address the issue of what camera body/system is best, frankly, because that is an unwinnable argument. What I will talk about is glass.
A lot of people will try to sell you on the idea that you need the newest whiz-bang stabilized, hyperspace capable telephoto made from 9 elements of fluoride glass and the tears of a dragon enamored of Ansel Adams. Forget teles. Primes are the only way to go. Why? Well, you have to remember, tele’s are heavy, large, and generally (for a good one) hellaciously expensive. Sure, they get you a bit closer but honestly, if you're in a foreign country, endeavoring to take memorable shots than you've already traveled thousands of miles, why not use your legs to move a few extra feet? You want to be IN the action, not standing 300 feet away merely recording it.
Primes are also light. In the space I could pack a 70-200L in my kit bag, I can pack a 24mm, an 85, and a 135. Those three lenses are not only much lighter and easier to pack and they give superior coverage … provided I don't mind walking 15 steps to get a little closer. On top of that, the biggest advantage in most primes is their speed. Fast glass wins over long glass, every day. When you're on the street in Karachi and you're trying to get a shot of a beggar at a crowded bazaar, you’ll want and need the extra separation from the bustling scene that the fast glass affords you.
Also, remember that packing issue I mentioned? Not only will your life going through airport security be far easier NOT carrying something that resembles a high-tech mortar shell, but your camera kit bag will be far, far smaller. That might not seem important while on the airplane and in comfortable surroundings, but once you’re on the ground at your destination, it WILL make a tremendous difference. Chances are if you’re carrying a lot of kit with you, you’ll be dragging a lovely Think Tank bag, or even a nice sturdy Tamrac like the 12 bag. Great bags. Reliable, roomy, highly protective … and things that scream “I’m a tourist! Please, ROB ME!” You want your kit small enough not only to travel easily but to fit in a bag that is nondescript and easily manageable. There is a reason why most photojournalists back in the day carried the venerable Domke F4. It wasn't fancy, but they could fit 3-4 lenses, flash, and body in it and it looked nothing like a standard camera bag, particularly the modern ones which have more zippers and quick release straps than a Navy Seal’s backpack. One of the keys (which I’ll explain more in a paragraph or two) of travel photography is to be able to get close to the action, which you can’t do if you look like the aforementioned Seal loaded with a backpack straight out of Weekend Warrior magazine. Keep your kit small enough to make it easier to move around on site and nondescript enough to not attract attention.
Just like the argument of which body is best, there are a million different ideologies on how find and get the best travel photo. 99% of my personal experience is in the third world, doing street photography, so I’ll base this on my personal experience. This method can be easily broken down a few simple steps.
1 - Do your research – Before you arrive, get on the internet and check out your destination. Check for festivals, elections, special holidays, even protests. Find out where the hotspots are. If you’re into landscape or still life photography, stick the standard tourist spots. Do a google search for images from those tourist spots and use them to work out the best angle, locations, and times of day to shoot. If you're into shooting people, like I am, stay away from the tourist spots. Ironically, some of the best places to shoot are often only a stone’s throw from the main tourist locations. I was in Hyderabad, India last year and went to shoot near the mosque in the center of town. It’s one of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in the area, and it’s choked with tourists. By escaping the throng and walking 2 blocks over, I found a smaller area with a bazaar not for tourists but for the locals. I didn't have to spend half my time fighting off pickpockets or people trying to shill junk on me or jostling with others for photographs. Within just a few minutes I was able to capture several shots that I've now got hanging on my wall. One memorable one was of a woman with a skin disease. You could see people shunning her as she came by, but when she could see I was friendly and wouldn't push her away, she stopped for a moment and let me take a photo.
2 – Find a good guide/taxi driver. – Find someone who can guide you to the places you want to shoot. Sure, when you’re in Paris, everyone know where the Eiffel Tower is. However, not every person is aware of the best times to go or the best way to make your approach. The best piece of advice I ever got from a local Parisian was to skip the day crowds at the Eiffel and go late in the evening when the light show is turned on and to come up from “behind” the tower on the left bank. Why? Well, a large portion of the tourist traffic is coming from the other side of the river. The Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Trocadero and countless other beautiful tourist spots are on that side. During the afternoon/evening people are continually going between those spots and the tower. By coming up from behind it, you not only skip many of the crowds but you find yourself in an area of Paris traditionally not filled with tourists. There are countless small pocket parks, restaurants, and quaint businesses filled only with locals. Those are the pictures you want and the ones you'll remember. So, ask around your hotel or any locals you know. If you have to … pay cash for help and information. Sometimes, when traveling in SE Asia, I’ll find a taxi driver I trust and preempt him the entire day by paying a day rate. Then, I not only have easy travel, but a guide in the form of someone who knows the city intimately. If you consider it as an investment towards returns, it’s actually a cheap and efficient way to do things. Consider this: If you've just spent 1500 on tickets and hotel, then an extra 50-100 a day is well worth it to have reliable and knowledgeable help while on the ground at your destination.
3 – Be friendly and adventurous – Have you ever heard Louie CK’s rant about being bored? That’s how I feel when people talk to me and say “We went to such and such place, and outside of seeing a few monuments, there wasn't anything really interesting.” Today, even during this advent of globalization, we live in a world that is a ménage of colors, cultures, beliefs, and experiences. There is ALWAYS something interesting. There is ALWAYS someone knew to meet. There is ALWAYS an interesting subject for your lens … if you take the time and make the effort to find it. All it takes, is a little bit of bravery and a smile. I spend much of each year in Pakistan, a country that if you believe the press, is rabidly anti-American. Yet, I walk freely through its streets and constantly am greeted with warmth and hospitality. Why? Well, I wish I could say it was because I'm exceptionally handsome, but that simply isn't the case. It’s simply a matter of attitude. In Pakistan, many of the people believe that Americans dislike and even hate them. Others are convinced that all Americans look down on them as simpletons … yet when the run across an American who greets them with a smile, respectfully, and with open arms … they are instantly put at ease. One of the customs in Pakistan, and much of the moslem world is to offer tea to strangers when in your home or business. I often see westerners turning down this hospitality for a variety of reasons. Some don’t trust beverages on the street from a stranger, others complain about taste. They don’t understand that the rejection they offer out of hand, is not just a slight to those who are simply following their traditions but is also the failure to build a bridge of commonality between themselves and the locals. So what if you don’t speak the language! Buy a guidebook and chance a few phrases. The locals will respect you for the attempt. So what if you can't identify the food on your plate! If the locals are eating it, it must be nutritious in some way and within the range of the human taste buds. Try it! So what if the customs are different! The variety of human customs is part of what makes us human. Most, if not all, are familiar with Steve McCurry’s famous picture of the Afghan girl with green eyes. Stunning, not only in its simplicity but also in the beauty of the subject. Yet, if that he had taken that shot of a simple western girl with green eyes and dark hair, no one would have stopped for a second glance. Why? Because that shot encapsulated not only the fathomless star of the young girl but gave a glimpse into her whole world. Covered in a shawl with rich colors belying it’s hand-made quality, grime covering her face from her daily toil, highlighting the conditions she lived in as a refugee. Had McCurry said to himself “I don’t want to go to that camp. The latrines are open air and stink. The people are desperate and I can’t deal with the depressing faces of poverty …” he would have missed one of the iconic photos and stories of the last century. If you want to get memorable pictures, be willing to go to memorable places and to take a few chances.
In this last section and shortest section, I going to assume you know how to work your camera or at least have access to your manual. If you don’t, make sure to read up and get familiar.
Want to know the dirty little secret of how to get the good shots? Bracketing. If you bracket, you'll nearly always get the shot. What is bracketing? Again, without diving into specific menus for each camera, bracketing is taking 3 shots sequentially (set your drive mode to continuous,) each one with a slightly different exposure.
“Ah-ha!” you say. “He’s going to talk HDR blending.” No, I'm not. I’m talking about simple, ages-old, exposure-bracketing. Here’s the thing. Most travel shooting, especially street work, happens on the fly. Yes, your fancy digital camera has a solid meter in it, but when you're running and gunning and light sources are constantly changing … better to bracket and make sure you’ve got a decent exposure. Personally, I set my camera to always do bracketing with a full stop in-between each shot. You'll have to find the sweet spot you like best. That works for me because I’m often in desert locations and the light is tricky bouncing off the ground or off buildings, especially in direct sunlight. This will ensure that when you get the files dumped to your computer, at least one of them should be dead-on or at least very close to the ideal exposure. Whenever I put a fresh card in my camera and see how many frames are left for its memory, I always divide that by three. I assume I’ll bracket every single shot I go for. It is far cheaper to buy more memory cards than it is to miss the shot. The added advantage to bracketing is that you’ll have 3 shots in a row of the same subject, greatly reducing your chances of missing a perfect expression.
Not only that, but all modern digital cameras have a “AI FOCUS” (terms will differ between camera manufactures) mode in which the camera continually tracks your subject as you shoot. You might blow focus on your first shot and even your second, but the onboard processor for the camera will be constantly tracking and making adjustments so you’ll nail the shot on the third take. When you get to the computer and dump your shots, you might have to invest a few extra minutes weeding through the extra shots but I promise you the end result will be worth it. I know some shooters who refuse to bracket, let alone turn on “continuous” mode because they don’t want to be a “spray and pray” shooter. Nonsense. When you’re aiming your camera at something you want to capture, shoot it for all it’s worth till you get the shot. Anything else is vanity and ego replacing that spot where the final capture should be.
To sum up: Shoot fast glass. Pack light. Travel and shoot inconspicuously. Research your destination and find good locals to pump for information. Go places others traditionally don’t. Meet new people and try new things. Bracket your shots.
Chris O'Dell is a photographer and minister based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Check out his work on his Website to get a glimpse into the photography and aid work he is doing.