How do you take better travel photographs? Start by taking the advice of a seasoned travel photographer like Graeme Green. This British photographer, journalist and travel writer has spent the past 15 years travelling the planet, from Cambodia to Mexico to Botswana, capturing remarkable images and reporting stories for international newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, National Geographic, Wanderlust, The Times, South China Morning Post and New Internationalist. No less an authority than the legendary photographer Steve McCurry has said that “Graeme Green has an eye for capturing cultures with a particular sensitivity. He gives a vibrant testimony of the world we live in.”
Adventure travel assignments have seen Green paragliding with birds of prey in Nepal, cycling across Burma, freediving in Thailand, climbing volcanoes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and motorcycling across Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. He has spent time photographing some of the most fascinating and colourful creatures on the planet, including mountain gorillas, lizards, lions, monkeys, eagles, elephants, bats, penguins and more. In short, he knows how to get the shot he’s after.
Those are Green’s advices on how every traveller can improve their travel photography.
How important is time of day?
For landscape photography, it’s essential. Early morning and late evening often means the soft, color-lifting light that can bring a landscape to life. Photos in the same place in the middle of the day could be flooded with white light or haze, which looks horrible.
The same goes for cities; the backstreets of Havana or Oaxaca look great in early morning light, which brings out the colors of walls and buildings and creates interesting shadows. But “time of day” is about more than just light. The life in a city or country changes throughout the day. A local market might be at its liveliest in the early hours of the morning; turn up late and you’ve missed the whole thing. The same goes for specific times people go to pray or to round up their animals. A bit of research helps you be in the right place at the right time. Those early starts and late night walks with your camera also mean you get to see a side of a place many travelers might miss. For photographing wildlife, many animals are most active at particular times of the day, so it’s essential to think about to give yourself the best chance of getting the animals or behaviors you’re interested in.
What is the best way to shoot a portrait?
There’s no ‘best’ way. It’s always about your own creative approach. But when I teach clients on photography tours or give advice to people getting started in travel photography, I always recommend communication and making a connection. If the person you’re photographing is anxious, confused or scared by you and your camera, it’s likely that that will show in their expression in your picture. Take time – even if it’s just a few moments – to get to know someone and put them at ease, and they’re far more likely not to look awkward in your picture.
People around the world are usually very open to helping a friendly stranger get the picture they want, but less so with someone who hasn’t even bothered to say “Hello.” Don’t just think about the person in the picture, but everything else in the frame. The background can make or ruin a photo. Another person could be a distraction, for example. Showing a few details of where a person lives or works in the background can add a layer to the picture in a way that a background you haven’t given any thought to won’t.
More than posed portraits, though, I like to take photos of people that reflect natural moments in their life. That sometimes means capturing unguarded moments on streets or in a market or temple. But most of the time for an assignment, I spend a few hours or days with a person or group of people, and that means developing a relationship, explaining what I’m doing, and then spending time together. I try to become “invisible’”, or at least not to impact on what I’m trying to photograph, so people act naturally and don’t pose. Those pictures that show something real about a person’s life somewhere in the world are the ones I find more satisfying than posed portraits.
Should I learn to use Manual Mode?
Definitely. I rarely use my camera on ‘Auto’ mode. A camera might choose a shutter speed that makes sense for the light conditions, but doesn’t factor in a fast-moving person or object, so your picture comes out blurry. Relying on ‘Auto’ will often mean missing the mark or not taking the best possible picture.
Understanding shutter speed, aperture and ISO, and how all three work together, is vital to getting photos exactly how you want them. It also means more creative control, whether it’s giving a slight blur of movement to a moving animal or bird, or selecting the exact point of focus where you want the viewer’s eyes to land.
Get to know your camera’s settings before you arrive somewhere. The last thing you want to be doing when that once-in-a-lifetime photographic event happens right in front of you is to be messing around with dials and trying to figure out what settings you need your camera on. Few things in life are more frustrating than a great photo that got away.
Do I need to travel with a tripod?
I pack a tripod for every trip. It’s useful anytime you’re expecting to spend time photographing landscapes, for making sure you have still, sharp pictures and to work with lower ISOs. A tripod also allows creativity and experimenting, such as long exposures. But I also really like to travel light. Travel photography often means hiking up hills to remote villages or trekking through jungles, where an insanely heavy backpack filled with gear can be a real pain. I really enjoy street photography and can spend hours walking around cities. In those situations, less gear, light cameras and no tripod works for me.
Is Post-Processing a good idea?
There probably aren’t many professionally taken photos in magazines or newspapers nowadays that haven’t had some degree of processing done in a computer, usually on Lightroom or Photoshop. But digital tech has opened a Pandora’s Box, and a lot of photographers go way overboard, so their pictures look instantly artificial and, to my eyes, pretty horrendous.
Our visual reality is being skewed. I think a lot of audiences are now seeing those overworked, hyper-real images and think that’s “good photography,” and that less manipulated pictures are less impressive. It’s just not a road want to go down. I want my photos to represent the real world and to look like what I actually photographed. In all the years I’ve been travelling with a camera, I’ve found the world has no end of incredible sights to photograph, without needing to add a layer of “fairy dust” to a picture.
Anytime I’ve been judging a photography competition or, as an editor, looking at pictures people have sent in for magazines or newspapers, if I see a photo and immediately notice crazy levels of saturation, weird lighting effects or other common mistakes, I lose interest in that picture and often that photographer. Heavily edited pictures might get “Likes” on Instagram, but they rarely make it past a serious newspaper or magazine editor.
For me, the best editing doesn’t hit you over the head as soon as you look at a photo; good editing is the editing that you don’t see, editing that improves a photo, rather than smothering it. I also just don’t like the idea of relying on post-production, this idea of taking an imperfect photo and saying “I can fix it later” on the computer. It might work for some people. But it would destroy the pleasure of photography for me.
For more on Green’s work, prints, talks, tours or commissions, visit his website: https://www.graeme-green.com/