At its best, photography is a powerful way to tell stories. And in that storytelling, photography can bridge the divide between cultures. It allows people to gain a better understanding of people and places they have not otherwise seen, and it illuminates our common humanity.
When we travel, we have a unique opportunity to use photography as a tool that doesn’t simply document what a different place looks like, but it also allows us to meet and appreciate new people and cultures.
Travel photography, at its best, is more than a record of your trip. It’s a way to understand others, and share that understanding. So here are some basic practical travel photography tips followed by ways to reconsider your travel photography as visual storytelling.
Travel light (as in not heavy) If you haul all your gear with you, you’ll always want to leave it behind at your hotel or Air BnB, because who wants to schlep? The key is to minimize your gear and have it with you always. Bring a body (but leave a spare in the hotel safe just in case), and the bare minimum of lenses. Keep them in a camera bag that will protect them from wet or dusty conditions. Unless you’ll be shooting after dark, or using long exposures around dusk or before sunrise, you can leave your tripod in the room.
Travel light (as in the light you see while you travel) Speaking of sunrise and dusk, those are often the best times for good light when you’re at home, and the same goes for when you’re on the road. So get your butt out of bed while it’s still dark, and get to your location early for pre-dawn and sunrise light. Likewise, you should be shooting when it’s magic hour through dusk. Midday when the light is bad is for staying indoors and editing your take.
Bring lots of cards and a backup drive. Try to have enough memory cards with you so that you don’t have to download and re-use cards while you’re traveling. Memory is cheap, so have enough cards and at least one backup hard drive that you download your photos to every day.
What’s the story? Just like at home, look for what’s honest and storytelling. Read up on your destination ahead of time, and consider what kinds of photos you’d like to take that tell the story of the place you’re visiting. Your photos may reveal something about the place’s past, its people or current issues. To have an understanding of any of those, you’ll need to do your research.
Take notes. If you wait until you get home before you start captioning your photos, your memory will have failed you. What’s the name of that town where we saw that glass blower? So keep notes about where you are, who you photograph, what events you’re shooting.
Scout ahead. Look online for photos from your destination, it may give you ideas for locations. Find out about the place and culture you’re visiting, including on social media. Can you connect with a photographer who is already there? Or one who has visited your destination?
Safety. You can travel most of the world without a worry, but in some situations a tourist with expensive camera gear is seen as prey. So if you can travel with someone who will watch your back, it can’t hurt.
Once I visited the abandoned mining town of Rhyolite to get a photo with star trails in the sky. I was completely alone, in a Nevada desert ghost town, near the edge of Death Valley, some two hours from Las Vegas. Just me and my car and a couple of cameras and tripods. Around 3 a.m., I saw the headlights of a car turning off the highway and coming up the rough road through town. The car passed me, went up a few hundred yards and stopped. then it turned around, rolling back past me slowly.
There I was, in the middle of the night, alone in the desert. And like an idiot, I had been listening to a podcast about the Manson Family murders. Paranoia got the better of me, so before the car came back, I packed my gear in my car and left. It means I didn’t stay long enough and try to get a better photo. Having someone with me would have helped.
Treat people with kindness. You’re a visitor, an outsider. This may sound elementary, but being a tourist with a camera doesn’t give you a license to walk through someone’s life, take photos without asking, and walk out. The people you’ll see on your travels - whether you photograph them or not - aren’t there as props to provide scale for some pretty buildings and works of art. So say hello, and ask permission of the people you photograph, show them the photos on the back of your camera, and send them some. Really do it, don’t just say you will. People from other cultures aren’t exotic and other so don’t exoticize them. They’re people just like you.
Respect the culture, and blend in. Yes, your camera may set you apart and attract attention, but aside from that you can try to dress in a way that is culturally correct and sensitive. Not because you’re camouflaging yourself or appropriating another culture, but because you’re showing respect for the people you’re visiting. A woman may want to wear a headscarf in places where it’s expected.
Be in the moment. For many photographers, the entire reason they travel is to take photos. But don’t forget to acknowledge the people and the place that you are visiting. Every once in a while, put down your camera and just appreciate where you are.