For happy travels and successful snaps, Nori Jemil, author of new book 'The Travel Photographer's Way', highlights the key things to know before you go
All great photographs are the result of a few things coming together: the right time, right place and right conditions. And this might just be the great leveller in travel photography – it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, or how high-end your camera kit is, if the conditions aren’t right, you’re probably not going to get the photographs you’ve been dreaming of.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Mother Nature has the upper hand – or that creating wonderful images is simply a matter of luck and chance. There is a lot we can control before we even pick up our cameras. Being in the right place at the right time comes about through careful research and planning. If you’ve done the preparation, your chances of being in a dream location at the optimal moment are hugely improved, so plan ahead and prioritise photography when devising any travel itinerary.
Professional travel photographers do extensive research before planning a trip, including calling up tourism boards or scouting for locations via photo libraries or Google Earth. Their interest might even have been piqued by a chance encounter with a single photograph years before, and it could well be some time before a commission lands to make that dream destination and assignment a reality. If there’s time to dream, then reading around a location, learning a little of the language or discovering more about the cuisine that’s connected to it are sensory ways of preparing. As we’ve all found from our virtual travels during the Covid-19 pandemic, this ‘method acting’ equivalent of travel immersion means we can have an almost-lived experience of a place we’ve not yet set foot in.
It might seem harsh, but you should probably question your motives before even beginning to think about booking a ticket. If you’ve decided you want to recreate images you’ve seen elsewhere of people in remote communities, parachuting into a place that doesn’t know you, with a large lens and limited time, is not going to serve anyone well.
You might also want to consider how ethical it is to photograph in popular destinations. Instead of visiting a town that sees thousands of visitors every week, perhaps choosing somewhere with a little less footfall could result in a trip that’s transformational for you, as well as the community you interact with.
Are there peoples whose stories are seldom told, that might serve as more interesting subjects? It’s a fine balance to tread, but it often seems to be the case that towns and villages off the beaten track can be more welcoming and photographic subjects more amenable than those who’ve been at the centre of tourism for decades. You’re also more likely to come away with original images, rather than the usual Instagram fare – and that will increase your chances of getting published too.
Joining a group tour where photography isn’t front and centre might seem like it will take the strain out of planning, but you’ll be constantly on the hop, reacting when and wherever you can to what’s around you – passive and at the mercy of everyone else’s whims. It can be incredibly frustrating to be sitting on a bus as you pull out of a town just when the light begins to glow on a mountainous backdrop. Tour guides will want to keep everyone well fed and safe, so your poetic remonstrations on the ‘heavenly light’ will be politely ignored as it fades into the distance, with your distraught face pressed to the glass. If you do join a tour that isn’t dedicated to photography, look carefully at the itinerary and the amount of time allocated to each spot. If it looks like you won’t have room to manoeuvre, think at least about adding some days at the start or the end of the trip, or forego one or two of the group meals.
One of the best bits of advice I received at the start of my career was to stay in one destination for longer, to allow enough time for conditions to be just so. As you plan your journey, allocate time to bed down in one location – whether that’s a landscape for a series of sunsets or a town for the weekend’s festivities. Get to know your destination. Making a photograph should be a process of immersion – in a place for long enough to feel a connection, or by building relationships through conversation or time. It’s true for all travel, but fundamental for photographers – unhurried journeys will reap all sorts of benefits, so ensure slow travel is part of your itinerary whenever possible.
Natural light and the length of the day will vary with the season, as will weather patterns and the behaviour or prevalence of wildlife. Deciding on your photographic priorities will help you determine exactly when to go. Reputable travel photography tours are always organised with these considerations in mind, but do your own checks too.
Think carefully about who you choose to travel with. Of course, it’s wonderful to have your partner or a close friend along for the ride, and you’ll doubtless have no shortage of offers to accompany you when excited friends see you packing your kit for Kyrgyzstan! But travelling alone is what most working travel photographers prefer. It’s easy to be distracted when you are chatting away, and mostly impossible to ‘see’ what potential photographs are around you. Feeling your way in a destination is not about hitting the hotspots that everyone has photographed before you, but sensing the atmosphere, staying attuned to changes in weather or picking up local advice in a café while you’re having some downtime. Those chance encounters happen more frequently when you travel solo – there’s nothing like a lone stranger to attract hospitality and small acts of kindness. And it may well lead you down all sorts of exciting avenues you could never have planned for.
The best light is often when everyone else is having breakfast or dinner, and, while you’ll be happy to eat snacks on the move or wait two days for the weather to improve, your companion may not. Ensure any travel buddies know exactly what your plans are and work in time for each of you to explore at your own pace. Even better, travel with a group that’s dedicated to photography, as everything will be optimised for seeing places when the light is at its best. Be warned though – it can be difficult to take original images if you’re always side by side. Again, find time to head off on your own, to feel your way, and to find your subjects and compose shots without the pressure of someone looking over your shoulder
Many of us are inspired by new cultures and places we’ve never encountered before. For photographers though, going back to a familiar destination allows us to pick up where we left off, and removes any anxiety that we might have missed something important. You can prioritise where you want to go, safe in the knowledge that you’ve done your homework and photographed your key shots already. Time now to go off piste, and maybe even get a bit lost
Once you’ve decided when and where you’re going, it’s time to start thinking about exactly what you want to photograph. With the initial research completed, you can draw sketches, write out a shot list of images you’d like to capture, and previsualise the ‘hero shot’ – maybe a particular landscape or landmark that is the inspiration for your journey. If you can pre-imagine those photographs, it’s a simple matter to devise a specific itinerary that prioritises where you need to be and when, with time for recces, to wait things out or to practise.
Once those dawn or golden-hour locations are mapped out, with daytime visits to museums or markets when outdoor light is at its harshest, your travel photography itinerary will begin to take shape. And those gaps in between are where you allow for flow – to relax and be in the moment, opening yourself up to spontaneity and on-the-ground inspiration. Oh, and yes, you might also find time for some fine dining or culinary experiences! Alternatively, just make like a pro, and fill the tiny spaces of your backpack with oatcakes, protein bars and tangerines, just in case that heavenly light reappears.
This extract was taken from 'The Travel Photographer's Way: Practical Steps to Taking Unforgettable Travel Photos' by Nori Jemil, out 15 October, available to buy from Stanfords, Waterstones and other retailers (RRP £18.99).Pre-order now
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