The Traveling Photographer Column on Photofocus.com
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The Traveling Photographer: Photographing the Unknown

Travel photography, by its nature, is full of unknowns and new experiences. It crosses many genres of photography such as street, portrait, landscape, nature, wildlife, food, and architecture. Differing skills and equipment may be necessary to get the photos you envision taking while on your trip, depending on circumstances. It can be overwhelming to someone just getting started in photography, and even at times for those of us who have done it for a while.

Recently I found myself embarking on such a new adventure, to photograph something I had never photographed before—a very, very fast flying bird, the bald eagle. My experience with photographing birds has been minimal, and I would never consider myself a wildlife photographer, although I have shot wildlife during my travels. Photographing bald eagles has been on my photography bucket list as long as I can remember so I decided it was time to take the plunge. I joined Scott Bourne and Robert O’Toole’s workshop to photograph eagles, as I knew with their combined experiences we would tackle the challenges of the Alaskan wilderness, and Robert and Scott would provide helpful photography tips at the same time.

The trip was a great success. I got some really good photographs, met nice people, and spent a week in absolutely gorgeous scenery. I got good photographs because I have learned through the years that even though I may be shooting different types of images totally new to me, there are photography basics that carry me through whatever I photograph, whether I am shooting super fast diving, flying birds or people on the streets of Havana.

Photography Basics

There are no big secrets as to my “Basics”. They are very “basic” and are probably already known to you. I have noticed though that my fellow travelers many times forget about the basics, for one reason or another. So here is a refresher on some things to think about when embarking on your next new adventure.

  1. Bring the equipment necessary to shoot the types of images you are traveling to shoot and know how to use it. That sounds straight-forward, but acquiring new equipment may mean spending a fair sum of money which you just don’t have in your budget. You can rent equipment or buy used gear from reputable sources. You can also research lesser priced alternatives. For example, I thought I needed a gimbal tripod head to attach to my tripod, to photograph flying birds. I discussed gimbal heads with a friend who is a wildlife photographer, and she suggested I buy a Sidekick which would attach to my existing ball head and effectively create a gimbal head. I had never heard of a “Sidekick” before. It is lighter weight than a gimbal and less expensive. I did buy it, and it worked like a charm.
  2. Research and understand the techniques you may have to use during your upcoming trip to take the pictures you want to take. Make the time to practice them before you leave, particularly if they are new to you. I practiced photographing brown pelicans near my home before my Alaska trip, with particular emphasis on focus tracking. You might consider joining camera club outings or meet-up photography groups to practice and improve your skills, adding to your experiences.
  3. Wear the right clothes. If you are going somewhere new, you may not be aware of what you will need to stay comfortable. Read books and articles, visit your local outdoor stores, and talk to friends for clothing suggestions. It is hard to take pictures if you are freezing, wet or chasing away the bugs. For example, if you are going to a bug or mosquito infested area consider buying bug resistant clothing. Ex Officio is known for its “Bugsaway” line. If you may be walking in or near water, you may want to wear Neos overshoes over your shoes or boots. They take up a lot less space in your suitcase than knee-high rubber boots.
  4. Know when to strike out on your own and when it is important to join a photography tour or workshop, or hire a local photographer. I would never have gotten the photos I got on my recent trip to Alaska if I had been on my own. We needed Robert’s experience together with the boat captain to get us to the right place at the right time so that the wind, the tides and the light were in our favor. Even though I would have researched my destination ahead, I would not have understood how the wind and tides would have affected my photography.
  5. Be an artist. Consider elements of composition and direction and quality of light, no matter what you are photographing. Shadows in the wrong place detract from your photo. Always pay attention to the location of the sun. When I was photographing the bald eagles the sun was right behind me and my shadow pointed to the birds.
  6. Wait, watch, and capture “special” moments and subtle nuances. Don’t just quickly point and shoot a subject. I see this happen many times when a photographer gets excited in the moment, seeing and experiencing something new. Once you have decided upon your composition take quiet moments to observe and contemplate the scene, striving to understand patterns of light or behavior. Wait for a visual climax.
  7. Move around. Change your perspective. Shoot low. Shoot high. In Alaska I packed my telephoto lens away now and then, and literally laid on the ground, shooting close with a wide-angle lens. My bald eagle photograph at the top of this post is a prime (as in 35mm prime lens) example.
  8. Don’t forget your flash. I am a photographer who prefers natural light, but even natural light needs a little help at times. The image to the right is the first bug I ever photographed up close with a macro lens. I used a flash off-camera, handheld to the side, dialed down a couple stops. Shooting macro, early in the morning, the extra light was necessary. I followed my basics, watched the bug’s behavior, and waited for the shot. Yes, a little bug has a personality of its own. Even though I was photographing a subject I had never photographed before, using techniques new to me, I followed the basics and got a good shot.
  9. Read my Photofocus articles on Tips to Improve Your Travel Photography and Photography Tips To Improve Your Images.

Remembering basics, when you are confronted with photographing a brand new subject, will increase your chances of bringing home some good photographs. Then there is the element of luck–dramatic light, interesting behavior, or a once-in-a-lifetime event. Basics and luck are a perfect recipe for some dynamite photographs!

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