The truth about travel photography in 2015 is that the quality of the images produced is often less important than the person that shot the images. You could say, and many people do say, that the travel photography world has been sold out to the highest bidder. Many of the world’s top travel photographers are no long exploring, no longer searching for new and exciting places to shoot, but going where the money is. As such, many “travel photographers” have now become “corporate/marketing photographers”.
The third image is of Jinru Lee; a student and part-time model in Georgetown (Penang Island, Malaysia). It was made in late August 2018 under the sweltering sun of Penang, and inside the Cheah Kongsi Clan House Temple on Lebuh Armenian. I was in Penang to photograph the various Hokkien operas during the Hungry Ghost festival, and took the opportunity to set a photo shoot in its streets for a forthcoming audio slideshow (aka photo film) titled "The Phantom of the Opera".
Above all, work the situations over. Never be satisfied with your first view of a place or the first frame you snap. It's always possible—and usually likely—that you can come up with something better. Why else would painters make sketches? Get closer, then get closer still. Try different angles, different lenses. Wait for the light, wait for the crowd, wait for a bird to land on the tree branch. Never be in a hurry to get somewhere else. Tell yourself that nothing is more important than getting the best you can get out of the situation you are in. Once you've exhausted every possibility you can think of, you can start working on the next one.
For example, a product review I did in December of 2014 led people to the product on Amazon via an affiliate link. That product sold extremely well, and people also bought other things well they were shopping. That affiliate link earned me a pretty penny. Of course, that’s not always sustainable. In January and February I earned $300 and $400 respectively from affiliate sales. In March, I only earned $50.
When you travel, saving money is often the exact same as earning. Quite often, exchanging a couple images with a hotel for a free room or a tour company for a free tour is totally worth it. In fact, when I was in Southern Africa, I did this a lot. Safaris are expensive, so I’d create a couple images for a company to use for their marketing purposes in exchange for a free safari. It really is win-win.
The more willing you are to travel at a moment's notice, the more opportunities you can access. Day jobs will limit travel, so will mortgages and car payments. Photojournalist Lynsey Addario recently wrote about being 7 months pregnant while on assignment in Gaza. I deeply admire her bravery and commitment to her work, but I imagine many photographers aren't willing to make such compromises. Consider your lifestyle, and how much time you're willing to spend away from home. As for myself, I'm a long-term digital nomad traveling with a suitcase and a backpack and an open mind. Being available and flexible has made a monumental difference to my career.
Get lost. Wander down alleys. Sit in cafés and watch life pass by. Don't eat where the tourists do, but where you see locals. Just set off down a street and see where it leads. Look around the bends, over the rises. Get away from the crowd. I find that if I meander away from the tourists and tourist sites, away from what is too familiar and comfortable, it's much easier to adapt to the rhythm of a place, and to be more observant.
If you’re interested in a professional mentoring program, I offer monthly subscriptions that include creative challenges, assignments and feedback in order to improve your photography. Mentoring also includes direct access to ask as many questions as you want about anything related to being a travel photographer. Email me at [email protected] for further details.
Whatever kind of landscape you are shooting, think about what the essential qualities are—and not just the visual ones; think about how the place makes you feel, what kind of emotions it stirs in you. Then look for ways to get those qualities and feelings onto film. Is it a rocky, violently wave-washed coast or a bright and sandy one? If it's the former, you want to show waves crashing against the shore, probably in stormy weather. Blue sky and sunlight are more appropriate for the latter unless you want to show the desolation of a resort beach in winter.
When you are photographing buildings, statues, or other monuments, think about what they represent before you shoot. For example: There's a large statue of Vulcan outside Birmingham, Alabama. You could make a perfectly nice image of him standing on his hill on a sunny day, but such a picture would not say a lot about who Vulcan is. A photograph on a stormy evening, with perhaps lightning in the background, would. Cannons on a historic battlefield might look better in fog than in bright sunlight. Get the idea of the subject, then think of the weather, light, angle, etc. that best communicates it.
Aga Szydlik is a professional culture photographer and a doctoral candidate based in South Africa. She tells us that her journey with photography started with Muay Thai (the famous Thai fight style) which she documented extensively. Based in Thailand, she able to explore South East Asia, onwards to Indonesia and South Africa. She is enthusiastic about alternative processes, analogue photography, Lomography and salt/albumin prints as well as mixed media.
It's best to ask permission if you want to photograph someone, especially if you are working in close. Engage them before you pull out your camera. Learn at least how to say "hello" and "May I make a photograph" in the local language—just showing that you've made a little effort helps. Explain to them what you want to do and what it is about them that made you want to make a picture. If approached in an open and friendly manner, most people will be agreeable—many are flattered that someone has shown an interest in them and what they do. In places where there's a lot of tourism, you may run into people who are tired of being photographed—many tourists are not courteous enough to ask permission, and local people can come to feel abused and exploited. The only way to overcome this is to spend time with the people or to go to parts of the place less frequented by tourists.