The Big Three
Techniques, Technology, And Psychology For Aspiring Travel Shooters

This picture of dye worker in a Moroccan tannery was taken from a nearby rooftop. Looking for unique viewpoints is important in travel photography, especially when it comes to commonly photographed sites.
Photos © 1999, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

Travel photographers are a unique breed. Some go to the ends of the earth to get pictures that tell a story of a faraway land. Others stay relatively close to home, documenting the pulse of a major metropolitan city--which might be a travel destination to faraway people.

Some travel shooters, like National Geographic deep-sea (and 3D) shooter Emory Kristof, spend months in the field working on a project, taking countless pictures. Then there are unique individuals who spend months taking only one picture a day--as was the case with National Geographic shooter Jim Brandenberg, who shot only one picture a day for 90 days for his stunning new book Chased by the Light (NorthWord Press).

All travel shooters, however, have three things in common, in addition, that is, to being addicted to traveling with their cameras and, as we used to say in the '60s, "a little bit out there." First, travel pros use time-proven photographic and traveling techniques to get great pictures. Second, they count on technology to help them capture and create the image they see in their mind's eye. Third, they use basic psychology when working with people to gain their confidence--without which photographing people is a "bust."

1. Techniques. Here's a look at just a few of the traveling and photographic techniques I, and many of my travel buddies, use as a travel shooter.

· Research a site. This "homework" reduces the number of surprises on site. Research includes checking out weather; transportation; common diseases (like malaria) with the Center for Disease Control (in Atlanta, Georgia); customs guidelines; photographic restrictions; baggage restrictions; local current (110v or 220v) and power outlet adapters; phone service (for calls and e-mail); and phone jacks for computer modems. Also, I check with the US State Department to see if it's safe to travel to a location.

Why are these strangers in a Moroccan market smiling at author/photographer Rick Sammon? He's scrolling through pictures he took of them on a digital camera's LCD panel. "Show and tell" with a digital camera is a great way to make friends in foreign lands.

· Work with local experts on site. Local tour guides and experts can save you time and money in the field. They might be able to cut through "red tape," especially when you are in a land where English is not generally spoken. And, they might be able to get you out of trouble. At the very least, local experts can be a "security blanket" when you are in a foreign land. When choosing a local expert, however, be sure to check his or her references carefully--with more than once source.

· You snooze you lose. Sounds funny, but it's true. If you sleep in or take a nap in the afternoon, you'll lose out on capturing the best light of day: "warm" colors (deeper shades of red, orange, and yellow) and long shadows. Shoot at midday and you'll get pictures with a "cool" bluish cast.

· Tell the whole story. When traveling, photograph everything you can: people, buildings, landscapes, and seascapes. Take wide angle, telephoto, and macro shots. Try to tell the entire story of your locations with pictures. Better yet, try to tell more than one story--so you can sell more than one story to different magazines.

Use lenses creatively. Try wide angle lenses for close-ups, as illustrated in this picture of door handles on a Moroccan palace. Also try telephoto lenses for landscapes--when you want to compress the elements in a scene.

· Consider color. A 1970s National Geographic how-to photography book, written by National Geographic shooter Al Moldvay, included this tip: Include the color red in the scene. That's good advice, followed by many pro shooters--which is why you see pictures of climbers and scuba divers with red caps (Jacques Cousteau's red cap was his trademark), red canoes traveling down rivers, and red tents on mountainsides. Yellow, by the way, is also a strong color--but not as pleasing to the eye as red.

So when you are composing a picture, look for color. The more colorful your picture, the more impact it will have. Kodak has a new film, Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100, that offers increased color saturation. It's designed for landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, and wildlife--but not for people pictures.

Naturally, black and white pictures can have great impact, too. So don't overlook this medium.

When on location, look for colorful subjects, like these slippers on display at the famous Fez tannery in Morocco. Want to increase the color saturation of a picture? Use a super-saturated film like Kodak's Elite Chrome Extra Color 100. You can also increase the color saturation of a picture in "digital darkroom" programs like Adobe Photoshop.

· The eyes have it. There's an old expression: "The eyes are the soul of the person." With this thought in mind, try to compose your pictures so you can clearly see your subject's eyes. One technique is to use daylight fill-in flash, a feature that's available on many 35mm SLR, APS, and even point-and-shoot cameras.

· Compose carefully. I'm sure you know all the old "rules" of composition: Don't put the subject in the center of the frame; don't cut a landscape or seascape in half with the horizon line; beware of a distracting background; and so on. When composing a picture, however, you just may want to keep the words of Ansel Adams, the most famous landscape photographer of all time, in mind. He said, "The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, and immaterial."

2. Technology. Being up-to-speed on the latest technological advancements is a "must" for a travel shooter.

For me, and for many of my travel photographer friends, some of the most important technological advancements are in the digital area. Or, as one pro shooter told me several years ago, "You're dead if you are not into digital."

No, I'm not speaking about high-end digital cameras. I'm referring to digital technological advancements for 35mm SLR slide and negative shooters. You see, for the money and convenience, shooting film is still the easiest and most affordable way to get a high quality original image into the digital darkroom--via desktop film scanners, drum scanners, and the Kodak Photo CD. Then, once in the digital darkroom, pictures can be easily enhanced--primarily working with Adobe Photoshop.

Now, I could go on and on, using all the following pages in this issue of Shutterbug, to recount all the pros and cons and the long debates over using Photoshop as a tool for creating better/new images. Naturally, we can't devote all that space to just one "hot" topic. So, I'd like to make this comment: I, and most of my friendly competitors, only enhance/change the color, contrast, sharpness, hue, and saturation of our pictures--or specific parts of our pictures.

So why is Adobe Photoshop so important to travel shooters? Because, thanks to this program, we now shoot differently--knowing that we can make great improvements, as well as subtle refinements, on a picture in the digital darkroom. Just one example: A picture of the Grand Canyon taken on an overcast day (lacking color and detail) can be turned into a picture that almost looks like it was taken at sunset. Is this form of digital enhancement cheating? I don't think so-- unless you add the long shadows of late afternoon, which is also possible. For those who do think it's cheating, consider this scenario: Is having the backing of a major magazine, which allows a shooter to stay on site for weeks or months until the light is just right, considered cheating? If you feel it is, then cheating includes using an 81A warming filter or special purpose film to achieve a desired effect.

Here's a look at some of the other important technological advancements for 35mm travel shooters:
· Improved slide and negative films, for sharper pictures with more vibrant colors and greater versatility in a wide variety of light conditions;

· Sharper zoom lenses, which cut down a travel shooters load;

· Wide angle zooms (17-35mm and 20-35mm), great for evaluating different compositions in the viewfinder when taking landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, and environmental portraits. (FYI: zoom lenses are sharpest at their shorter focal lengths.);

· More accurate in-camera natural light exposure and focusing systems, which translate into a higher percentage of good pictures;

· Daylight fill-in flash, said by many pros to be one of the most important advancements in traditional photography in recent years.
All combined, today's technological advancements make it easier than ever before to get great travel pictures--for pros and aspiring amateurs, alike.

3. Psychology. Being a travel photographer involves a lot more than having great gear and using effective photographic techniques. Photographing people, for example, involves a certain amount of psychology. You see, when you encounter strangers in a strange land, you can't just jump out of the car or walk up to them and start shooting. Rather, you need to spend some time getting to know them, and vice versa. This is easily accomplished, if you have the confidence to start up a conversation, alone or with the help of a translator. Ask about your subject's lifestyle, interests, hobbies, and so on. Share a part of your life with your subject. My personal getting-to-know-you technique is to show a picture of my son to my subject, which always results in a smile.

Then, after I've gotten the subject to like me, or at least accept me, I begin shooting, with permission of course. I shoot as fast as I can because I don't want to wear out my welcome. After I have finished taking my pictures, I bid my subject a fond farewell--promising to send a picture of our brief encounter.

Techniques, technology, and psychology alone do not make a great travel shooter. Two other important considerations are dedication and luck.