Like landscapes, each city and town has its own look and feel—a distinctive setting, architecture, or skyline; a famous local site; a particular kind of food or dress. There's always at least one thing that is unique. When covering a town or city, even a small village, you need to do three basic things at a minimum: capture a sense of place, which is usually a wide shot that shows the setting, skyline, or other view that gives a feeling for the whole; landmarks that the place is famous for; the life of its inhabitants. For the cityscapes and wide shots, as well as for the landmarks, it's a good idea to check out the postcard racks in your hotel lobby or at kiosks. They will quickly give you an idea of where the best views are and what is considered well-known enough to warrant a postcard.
Embarking on such photographic projects make me look for relevant snippets of history, social mores and art (for example, the occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese in the thirties, the Chinoiserie fad of the 18th century, fictional stories similar to that of Madam Butterfly et al). I also learned the aesthetic of the cheongsam (aka qi pao) in its various forms, and the beauty of Chinese calligraphy. I also scoured the internet for Chinese legends, poetry and songs/music that inspired the 2-3 minutes plots of my photo films; as I call these audio slideshows.
Unfortunately, due the language barriers I wasn't able to interview either of these two actors to gain an insight on their lives and background. They also seemed reluctant to allow me more than a few minutes to photograph them, either because they were waiting to perform (as in the top photograph) or just uncomfortable with the the attention of a stalking photographer (lower photograph).
Knowing how to use your camera is essential to success as a travel photographer because more often than not, it’s those spur of the moment shots that generate the goods. If you can quickly adapt to the surroundings and know what settings to change in a split-second in order to capture a moment, you’re in with a pretty good shot of becoming a professional photographer.
Content development complements your photography and helps you grow and earn beyond your photos. If you're a gearhead like photographer Colby Brown, you could write in-depth gear reviews, or publish post-processing tutorials like Elia Locardi, or write a how-to book like Nicole S. Young. If you enjoy travel writing, you could build a popular blog like photographer Chris Stevens, who writes travel guides and reviews popular hostels and adventure tours, complete with photos.
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.
The other challenge is to scout for and find the locations for the photo shoots; locations that provide a "badge" of authenticity to the resulting photo films. In the the case of The Girl of Nanjing, it was the water town of Qi Bao near Shanghai....and in the case of The Legend of Hua, it was the water town of Xinchang' at some distance from Shanghai as well...while the backdrop to The Songstress of Temple Street was Hong Kong's famous Tin Hau Temple and the Canton Singing House.
Setting goals and thinking about the reason you want to be a travel photographer sounds like a pretty easy step to skip but believe me, you want those goals to look back at one day. When you’ve had a bad few months without work, when you’re knee deep in mud because you took the term ‘getting the shot’ a bit too far…you want to be reminded of why you’re doing it.
Photographers for National Geographic spend a lot of time doing research. This helps us figure out what's there—what the place is about and what subjects we need to cover. Read brochures and travel books. Go to libraries, bookstores, or onto the Web. Talk to friends who have been there. Pick up travel information at the country's embassy. Find whatever you can that is relevant, and devour it.
You cannot always ask permission, of course. If you are shooting a street scene or a wide shot of a market, you can't run up to everyone and ask if it's OK. In general, people do not mind this sort of photography—it's only when they're singled out that they get uncomfortable. But not always. Be sensitive to the scene in your viewfinder. If people are getting nervous, ask permission or move on.
Make use of people to give your images life and scale. If the facade of a particular building appeals to you, the picture may be that much better if you show people walking in front of it. They will give it scale and also let viewers know what sorts of people live there, how they dress, and the like. An outdoor café may be more interesting crowded with people than empty.