Tips from a Pro: Don’t Settle For the Ordinary With Your Outdoor Photography


Lechwe, a species of antelope, in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It looks like it was lit by flash, but that’s because of the low angle of the morning sun and the reflection off the water.
All Photos © Blaine Harrington

As a professional travel photographer, I can’t be limited by what a location is known for. And if you’re aiming for photos beyond the ordinary, neither can you.

Let’s play word association for a moment. If I say “Paris,” you’re likely to think of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Elysées. London? Big Ben, the Beefeaters, perhaps the Tower of London itself. And while those landmarks are undeniable subjects, they are only part of the story we want our photos to tell.

Early last year I started planning a month-long trip to Botswana and South Africa, part of which would be spent leading a photo safari. From the start I knew that my photography would include much more than wildlife. It’s my business, and my pleasure, to explore and experience beyond the obvious subjects suggested by a location. As a practical matter, I have to photograph much more of what a destination offers and deserves; as a personal matter, it’s often what’s best about my job.

The Bo-Kaap quarter of Cape Town is known for its brightly painted houses. I’d shot first from across the street with a wide-angle lens, but the image showed cars on the street. When I switched to my 16mm fisheye I got the color, shape, and impact I wanted, with no distractions.

Crates of freshly picked grapes in a vineyard near Stellenbosch, east of Cape Town, in an image that benefits from my 16mm fisheye’s view. South African wine dates back to 1659, and today South Africa is the world’s ninth largest producer of wine.

The 100-meter bungee jump at Orlando Towers, a decommissioned coal-fired power station in Johannesburg. I’d photographed the station in 2008, and between my visits they’d turned it into a recreational adventure center. It was a nice surprise. I got to take a lot of pictures, and I jumped too!

My 11-day Botswana safari would be 100 percent centered on wildlife, but my plan called for spending at least as much time in South Africa. I’d been there in 2008, and it was time for me to catch up with this vital and vibrant country and to take pictures that would showcase its energy and enterprise.

I chose Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town as the locations I needed to explore. Johannesburg is practically the commercial capital of sub-Saharan Africa; Pretoria is a notable tourist attraction with museums, gardens, and a zoo that’s considered one of the 10 best in the world; and Cape Town is a beautiful city that’s on many lists of the world’s great destinations.

I set a goal of photographing both the traditional and the modern. I did my research homework and knew pretty much what to expect, but because I’m always hoping for surprising pictures, I’d allotted time also for the unexpected and the serendipitous.

The trip went well, and I came home with about 14,000 images. The ones you see here are from an early edit, but I think they’re good examples of what results when you have the goal of looking beyond the obvious to capture the spirit and energy of a place.

The LED-illuminated Nelson Mandela Bridge connects two areas of Johannesburg. This shot was on my list of photos to get, and I spent about an hour out there because weekend traffic was so light I had to wait for approaching headlights. I like the nice vertical wide-angle look I got with my 14-24mm zoom at 17mm.

I did a lot of documenting of great food on this trip. This was an easy shot because of the open shade of the outdoor dining area at the sushi bar in the Nobu restaurant in Cape Town. I could have used a flash to show more of his face, but I wanted the picture to be about the food and his presentation of it.

I made this photo of part of a group of thousands of lesser flamingos from the Rovos Rail train that was taking me from Pretoria to Cape Town. They alert the passengers that the flamingos are coming up, and the train slows, but I still needed 1/4000 second, hand-holding my 200-400mm lens.

I took this in the Maboneng Precinct of Johannesburg. Maboneng means “place of light,” and this is the kind of picture you dream of getting: a single image of beauty and energy that sums up the feeling of a hip, urban area. I’ve always been able to get pictures like this because I always have a feeling of curiosity and wonderment. I’m really happy doing this job, and people often sense that and respond.

I’m always confident that I can get exciting, colorful pictures of whatever I find along the way on my travels. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for that confidence is the fact that I’ve never gotten into the habit of shooting only what I know best, or find easiest, or expect to see.

A selection of Blaine Harrington’s images can be viewed at his website,