How to Shoot Great Travel Photography

How to Shoot Great Travel Photography

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photos by David Nicolas

1. OVERVIEW

Travel photography is a broad category that encompasses all the imagery involved in telling the story of a place. Landscapes, environmental portraiture, food, and architecture are all considered ‘travel’ photography.

Travel is in fact one of the most consistent and top-selling categories of stock. Images might be used by the travel industry itself (magazines, tour brochures, guide books, etc.) or by advertisers using aspirational imagery of sparkling oceans and sweeping vistas to sell their products (think retirement planning ads, or pharmaceutical ‘after’ images!). Regardless – these images sell year-round and in very high volume.

There is however an important double-edged sword to bear in mind regarding travel photography. On the one hand, this is truly stock imagery that you can create without a lot of muss or fuss – and it’s fun! On the other hand, because so many hundreds of thousands of photographers love to travel – and make their adventures the focus of their hobby or profession – the quality bar for travel imagery is high. You have a lot of competition, and snapshots will not suffice.

That said, pushing yourself off the beaten path, educating yourself on what sells, and finding a way to stand out from the crowd will result in great photography that will be personally rewarding – and could even end up paying for many trips to come!


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photo by Emiliano Granado

2. INTRODUCTIONS
We spoke to several buyers and photographers to ascertain which imagery is in demand, and how to create it. We found a lot of energy and passion on both sides of the fence – thanks to all of our experts for their enthusiasm and specific advice!

BUYERS

PHOTOGRAPHERS


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photos by Cedric Angeles

“It seems obvious – but I always recommend looking at existing photography of your destination on stock sites before going on your trip. You don’t want to rehash the same photography that is already saturated in the market, and you will know when you need to do more location scouting.” – Christina Micek, Freelance Photo Researcher

3. BUYER TIPS

  • Do your research. This is critical! Many photographers have traveled to similar climes as you, and you must offer a compelling perspective. Think of yourself as a photographer, prop stylist and location scout all in one– your scenes must be singularly beautiful and interesting. Your angles must be more interesting than the last guy’s.


  • Leave room for copy. Proper framing is a critical element of commercial travel photography. Buyers are selling something– through an editorial layout, or an advertisement for a Caribbean cruise company. And they’re going to need to put text in there. Think about this! As Christina Micek says: “I always need room for text somewhere in the photo, USUALLY AT THE TOP OF THE IMAGE.”

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photo by Emiliano Granado

  • Capture all orientations. As Whitney from Travel & Leisure says: “I would advise shooting everything both vertically and horizontally because you can never guess what the designer might need. I try to give my designers both options. I would advise zooming in and out.” 

  • Shoot more than one scenario when you’re at a great location. 


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 Cedric Angeles, for Travel & Leisure.

“I’m often looking for shots having to do with travel in general– airports, waiting, packing, flying, security, booking travel online, etc. These help illustrate more abstract stories.”- Whitney Lawson, Travel & Leisure

  • Record the little details too. It’s not just the beaches on Antigua that editors are looking for. They’re also interested in the nuts and bolts of the trip — the aspects Whitney mentions above, but also details of hotels, restaurants, and other micro-indicators of a broader experience or culture.


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photo by Emiliano Granado

  • Landmark structures are always worth shooting. Yes, there are tons of images of Mount Rushmore, but famous places are used again and again in editorial and advertising venues. If you can shoot it better, go for it. For example, here are the last seven searches Whitney Lawson did on PhotoShelter (they run the gamut):
  1. Nationals Stadium, Washington DC
  2. Sears Tower, Chicago
  3. Airplane Window
  4. “Four Seasons”
  5. New Orleans streetcar
  6. Restaurant DC
  7. St. Bart’s

“If I look under “Washington DC” in Photoshelter, I just get monuments and politicians. But if I were doing a story on DC, I would want more local imagery. Some of the cute neighborhoods.  If I type in “Washington DC Cafe,” there is very little there. I might need a charming street scene with a cafe – but it’s not there.” -Whitney Lawson, Travel & Leisure

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photos by David Nicolas


  • Shoot neighborhoods, and their existing charm. Local color exists– it’s up to you to go out there and capture it. Find a charming cafe, a local bartender, an existing tradition.

  • Meet the folks. When buyers DO include people in their images, they want them to be authentic – un-posed, and friendly. Talk to your subjects, make them comfortable.

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photos by David Nicolas

“Images can look contrived if there’s no genuine conversation between the photographer and the person in the photo. Strike up a conversation and get to know the person if you can – whether they are a local or someone also on vacation.” -Moya McAllister, Story Worldwide

  • Shoot lifestyle imagery in travel environments. As Moya says: “I would like to see a lot more untouched landscapes. And also, people enjoying themselves while traveling. There are not enough ‘travel lifestyle’ photos or photos of real people or native people in their environments.”

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“Travel a lot – especially to unusual places! And try to look for the unexpected.  Do your research, so you know what’s already ‘standard” or ‘covered’ about a particular place and try to give the magazine a new visual approach to a place, even if you are shooting the expected shot list.” -Moya McAllister, Story Worldwide



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 photos by Cedric Angeles

  • Shoot all seasons. This gets back to doing your research. There seems to be a glut of warm weather destination imagery — find not just locales, but seasons, that are under-represented – and include those in your plans.


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The snow is nice. Don’t be afraid of it. Photo by Cedric Angeles.



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photo by Cedric Angeles

“I would love to see photographers go to more out of the way places and unique destinations, and in all types of seasons. Getting winter or fall imagery is harder to find, for example.” – Christina Micek

  • Make it look like film. Face it– film lives the travel dream. It’s nostalgic and often soft, and generally feels more nuanced than digital. If you shoot digitally, learn how to edit your images to get the look of film.


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photos by David Nicolas

  • Food, food, food. Service, service, service. We heard this from literally every single one of our experts. Every location you visit has local food traditions – and restaurants, cafes, and beverages. Include these key cultural elements in your documentation of your destination.


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photos by Cedric Angeles


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  • Don’t be afraid to be quirky. Sometimes the best layout comes from an unexpected moment. Get in there.

4. PHOTOGRAPHER TIPS

  • Find something new. Again and again, we hear this from buyers and photographers alike. Magazines and advertisers are moving towards authentic and experiential imagery- they want readers to believe this place exists, with all its character, characters, and (beautiful) flaws.


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photos by David Nicolas

  • Experiment with your depth of field. Most of the photographers we talked to had a camera setup they always use for travel photography. Find what works for you. Most travel magazines appreciate shallow depth-of-field– make sure to shoot your images with different levels of focus; this can change the whole feel of an image!


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“I really like the backgrounds to be out of focus. I think this helps for travel imagery, it gives the images a palpable texture. I’ve actually blurred backgrounds in Photoshop on some digital files to make them look more like film.” -Emiliano Granado

  • Produce a range of imagery, in terms of tone. You can create a silly tone in a somber environment, and vice versa. Remember that the buyer is trying to create a certain feel with their layout, and the more options you give them, the better. Give them funny and kitschy, give them traditional and beautiful. As Granado says: “the buyers may not all agree that a funny picture of someone pigging out on a corn dog, for example, is appropriate for that article.” Well put.

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photo by Cedric Angeles

  • Produce a range of imagery, in terms of subject matter. Food, portraits, landscapes! You’re telling the story of a place, and a place is multi-faceted. Find what is special about the place to you, and let the story evolve. Wander about and try to shoot a bit of everything– remember there is no one set formula. If the location means something to you, if you have a clear perspective– it will come through in your imagery. You want the viewer to feel as if they are there with you, enjoying that local goat cheese.

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photos by David Nicolas

“When I go to a place I tried to capture it in a very natural way, try not to force it so much, half the time it really depends on the location, some places are just beautiful as soon as you see them some other ones you have to find  that beauty, let it evolve. Each place is unique  so I try to tell that story but giving little vignettes of that place.” -David Nicolas

  • Natural light, natural light, natural light! This is a biggie; your goal as a travel photographer is to show the best of the place. And that means showing it naturally. Why light a room when you can have natural light streaming in the window? When in low-light situations, use fills, use long exposures. Travel is about charm, and charm is not achieved with a strobe (unless you are very careful). This is the same for gels. Be very careful where you tread.

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photos by David Nicolas

  • Do your research. Know where you’re going! Cedric Angeles has some great techniques: “I usually watch films set in the specific place i am photographing. I also read books about the place, a guidebook, a novel or travel writings from any writers that I like. This gives me a good base in terms of what kind of imagery starts to form in my mind.”

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photos by Cedric Angeles

  • Make lists. Again, both a buyer tip and a photographer tip. If you’re on assignment, you’ll have a list from your editor, and if you’re not, you should make your own. Think of moments that will happen, faces you’d like to capture. It’s your perspective that you’re recording, so figure out what that perspective is.

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                     photo by Emiliano Granado

  • Find some friends. Be a local. Talk to folks! This is an invaluable tool to help you understand and shoot your environs better. You’ll learn about spots that are not in the guidebooks, and you’ll find interesting faces and customs.

  • Avoid the cliches. If you’re shooting something exactly like the aging postcard on display at the local gift shop, you’re wasting film or card space.

  • Sunsets? Everybody shoots sunsets, so know that the quality bar is very high and your shot must be differentiated. Search ‘sunset’ on any stock site and see what comes back. If you can’t beat what’s already there, it’s probably not worth capturing from a sales standpoint. On the other hand, if you can beat the existing inventory, do it!



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photos by Cedric Angeles

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“You can get amazing personal shots of sunsets, vendors, beaches…etc. Buyers would like to see a range in a travel portfolio, including interiors, portraits, still life, landscape, and architecture.  They want to make sure that a photographer can come back with the goods.” -Cedric Angeles

  • Be yourself. In the end, travel photography is very much about the photographer’s style and vision. Bring your own perspective, make yourself stand out. And don’t give up! Angeles, again, helps us out here” “Dont give up. Keep shooting, keep showing your work, promote your work, make sure people see it. Always make sure your work is being seen.”

5. SHOT LIST
Here are some ideas to get you started. These are truly just a jumping off point – we encourage you to find your own ideas and get creative – it will pay dividends in your sales!

Urban Settings:

  • Conceptual/Mood-setting Images: urban destinations can be associated with the moods the traveler wants to experience: excitement, energy, romance, culture, style, high fashion, party atmosphere, history, modernity, sophistication etc.
  • Neighborhoods, both well known and off the beaten path, ethnic and more typical
  • Districts, such as theater district, shopping district, etc-try to get a new point-of-view; include signage where appropriate.
  • Parks, recreation, outdoor amenities
  • Locals in these settings in different moods and times of day (positive /clean depictions are more saleable)
  • Major landmarks, artworks, and buildings– try to be unique in point of view and time of day.
  • Cityscapes
  • Restaurant exteriors, including signage
  • Restaurant interiors, including servers, customers and decor
  • Food and beverages in restaurants
  • Typical street or ethnic food /try to avoid flash and messy backgrounds/
  • Residents going about daily life
  • Residents having fun
  • Environmental portraiture of beautiful locals, or local characters
  • Local style and fashion
  • Store exterior and interiors, goods for sale- don’t stick to only typical tourist haunts and avoid cluttered photos; use signage where appropriate
  • Nightlife in general, in the streets and in establishments
  • Exteriors of clubs and bars, includings signage and neon lights
  • Interiors of clubs and bars
  • People dancing having fun inside clubs and bars (one case where strobe might be ok)
  • Close up detail shots of any and all of these locals
  • Typical vehicles or modes of travel, transit stations hubs– again, unique POV
  • Cultural events high and low, art, museums, music, theater venues
  • Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples
  • The clergy and rituals thereof

Beach Settings:

  • Conceptual/Mood-setting Images: beach vacation spots are often associated with the following moods or feelings desired by the traveler: relaxation, luxury, adventure, pampering, romance, exclusivity, play, sunshine, fun, surf, the beauty of the landscape, a sense of open space, colorfulness, party atmosphere, sexiness, togetherness, etc.. (*these must be very well executed since they will be purchased for their aspirational value*)
  • Bodies of water and waves should be shot at great moments and with good light to show off the best color and shapes.
  • Streets and villages, both typical tourist spots and off the beaten bath
  • Details of shells and sea life, well-composed, colorful, shot on the beach or underwater
  • Couples, families, locals, and tourists on the beach, should be aspirational and attractive
  • Environmental portraits of local characters and beauties, ethnic/native peoples
  • Beach chairs, umbrellas and towels — empty and waiting for the traveler
  • The beach with a beautiful companion, beverage, bird, flower, or food item in the shot
  • Specific hotels, interiors and exteriors, signage where appropriate
  • Bungalows, huts other unique places you can stay at beach locales
  • Food, especially seafood, tropical drinks, fruits before and after cooking
  • Local markets, street food, good composition, sense of the moment (color and light is essential here)
  • Beachfront cafés and grills
  • People in stylish beach wear, showing tans, nice bodies
  • People in scuba snorkel gear, people enjoying those activities
  • Local flora and fauna, both alone and including people
  • People swimming, floating, luxuriating in water, from many points of view
  • Surfing, Windsurfing, Paragliding etc. Catch the right moments, spray of water, good expressions, make it look, fun, skillful, or relaxed where appropriate
  • Dawn, dusk, candle or fire light on the beach
  • Cultural festivals, carnivals, musical and dance performances. Try to avoid canned events designed for tourists only.
  • Pools, Jacuzzis, hot springs, spas, restaurants, other hotel amenities
  • Show the unique service at high end establishments, using employees, turned down beds, shined shoes left at your door, room service, complimentary spa products in your room etc, etc.
  • Spa and beauty treatments, massages
  • Sandcastles, sand toys
  • Kids playing in the sand, etc
  • People playing beach games like volleyball and Frisbee etc.
  • Fitness, meditation and yoga may be appropriate in certain destinations.
  • Boats, boating, sailing, yachting, harbors: (*Be extremely careful not to clutter the frame with many masts and boats, poor color and contrast, ugly unclean details. We get a lot of these shots and most are uninspiring. Capture details, colors, clean composition, point of view on the boat including the prow and wake, both motion and calm. *)
  • Fishing, Fisherman, etc.
  • Watch out for the sky– avoid muddy, dark, or blown out


Countryside/ Small Town Settings:

  • Conceptual/Mood-setting Images: rural areas and small towns often create these types of feelings or ideas in the traveler: calmness, landscape, back to nature, tradition, retreat, timelessness, quaintness, warmth, friendliness, family, simple life, humanity, agriculture, animals, green, privacy, quiet, relaxation, solitude, beautiful vistas etc.
  • Impressive landscapes, mountains, waterfalls, valleys, towns etc. – composition and waiting for the right light is important here
  • The above with a person, couple, friends, or family included to set a mood
  • Farms, farming
  • Picturesque homes and shops
  • Environmental portraits of happy locals, salt of the earth types, and ethnic people where applicable
  • Local produce, artisanal foods and beverages
  • Details of tools, baskets, crafts
  • Stores and signage, local goods
  • Buildings and historic landmarks
  • Places of worship and ceremony
  • Rural activities, including horseback riding, canoeing, golf, hiking, biking hunting, backpacking, fishing, etc.
  • Farm equipment, quaint vehicles
  • Bed and Breakfasts, smaller hotels and lodgings
  • Details of the interiors of these places, pretty décor in the rooms, country amenities and socializing with other guests are often the appeal of these places.
  • Camping, campgrounds
  • Cookouts, campfires
  • Relaxing on the porch, hammock, grass, dock etc..
  • Local kitsch


Ski/Winter Sports Settings:

Many of the same shots for urban, small town or countryside areas would apply here. Mmore specific ideas also include:

  • Mountainous landscapes, distant shots of ski towns or resorts
  • Overall resort pictures
  • Ski lifts, both distant and close ups
  • Interiors of Ski lodges, hotels
  • Snow covered streets and other details of the town
  • Storefronts, restaurant fronts
  • Cozy interiors of ski lodgings, hotel accommodations, amenities, spas, spa treatments
  • Images of skiers and snowboarders
  • People in ski clothes hanging out, or talking outside
  • People in warm clothes gathered in lodges, fireplaces, warm drinks etc
  • Snow covered natural environment shots, and details
  • Windows covered with frost
  • Other winter sports offered at each specific resort, skating, tobogganing, cross country
  • Lighted night skiing

Remote Settings:
Again many shots from beach, small town, countryside or urban environments would apply here depending where you are. You could also shoot:

  • Sensitive depiction of local culture
  • Local ethnic groups, positively portrayed
  • Exotic creatures and plants
  • Unusual modes of transport
  • Local religious or cultural customs carefully depicted


Adventure Travel:

This type of travel photography can differ somewhat from the others in that you would also show travelers in the shots doing adventure sports activities (see magazines such as Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and Backpacker). Keep the shots dynamic and focus on showing high energy.

  • Backpacker from behind with a beautiful landscape in front of them
  • Climbers of all types on mountain and rock faces or ice covered cliffs that show unique aspects of that locale
  • Kayaking and canoeing
  • Running, jumping, hiking, trail walking, snow shoeing
  • Camping, snow camping
  • Activities relating to those above

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photos by David Nicolas


6. PARTICIPATE

Are you a buyer or photographer with extensive experience relevant to this category? We’d love to hear from you! Please email us with any additions to the Shotlist, Tips, or any other sections of this article.

We look forward to it!

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