The Masterclasses by National Geographic Traveller (UK) returned in March 2023 with a series of three hour-long, expert-led online sessions for aspiring travel writers and photographers.
In each of the photography sessions, the panel of industry experts discussed their best practices for finding narratives and human stories and offered practical advice on bringing the right gear and using light effectively.
These 10 pieces of advice can help you improve your travel photography, from building your portfolio to using your gear optimally and delivering a lively, engaging narrative.
1. Creating content you want to be paid to produce
When you’re starting out with photography, a portfolio showing your personal interests is the best way to demonstrate your experience and ideas. “Editors are interested in your vision, and nothing shows your vision more than the photographs you take on your own initiative,” said travel photographer and regular National Geographic Traveller (UK) contributor Ben Roberts.
Building an online presence can be a good way to get your images out there. “You have to create the work you want to get paid to do,” advised Holly-Marie Cato, photographer, director and Leica ambassador. “Show your journey, show what you’re doing. I was doing that on Instagram.”
“These personal projects will help you develop your name and give you a way to communicate with editors, people in the industry and other creatives,” said Tristan Bejwan, a professional photographer who’s shot portraits for many major UK publications. “When you focus on creativity and your own voice, the work comes, you don’t need to chase it.”
2. Finding a narrative
Our panel advised that taking snapshots isn’t enough to get noticed by publications. “As I became a better travel photographer, I understood that story is everything,” said Tristan. “Instead of just finding the pretty pictures, you want to try and piece together the narrative. Shooting a coherent story is the difference between being good at taking pictures and starting to get commissions from travel magazines.”
Holly-Marie also stressed the importance of providing context to your images. “Write, write, write, whether that’s journaling or just in your notes app. All these small practices can become photo essays.”
3. Persistence is key – from pitching to shooting
Our experts agreed that persistence is the key to improving, and taking lots of photos is the best way to enhance your work. “The best way to shoot a good picture is to shoot loads of bad ones,” advised Tristan. “A fear of failure holds you back more than a lack of creativity. If a picture is bad, it doesn’t matter — you learn how to take a better one, move on and keep growing.”
Holly-Marie suggested there’s always room for improvement in your work. “Go and revisit the work you’ve done, revisit the stories you think are finished,” she said. “As you experience more of the world, as your reference point grows, so does your appreciation for work that you’ve missed.”
4. Never underestimate the importance of preparation and knowing your gear
Packing the right gear and knowing all your equipment is essential when setting out on a trip. Award-winning travel photographer and writer Yulia Denisyuk said that “preparation is key to everything. Before going on any trip, be very comfortable with where everything is on your camera — that way, you can give yourself as much time as possible when you’re out there on assignment”.
She reminded us to always be prepared with extra batteries and spare equipment when out on a trip. “If you’re shooting in cold climates, extra batteries are really important because they’ll gets drained really fast.”
5. Take the right gear for you
Each of our experts have their own go-to gear to take on a trip. This varies depending on their assignment, location and focus. Whether this is landscapes, portraits, close-ups or all of these, the amount of gear they take to a destination varies from person to person.
For Dikpal Thapa, an award-winning travel photographer from Nepal, taking all his gear is important. “I like to travel with all my gear — both bodies and all my lenses,” he said. “They’re heavy, but I don’t want to miss anything when I’m travelling — I want to take as many pictures as I can without regretting that I didn’t bring all my lenses with me.”
However, Yulia said that lighter is better. “A lot of the work I do revolves around people. I want to be approachable. For me, less gear means less-intimidated subjects.”
Working out the best gear for you will ensure you feel you are getting the best opportunities to capture your best shots while on a trip.
6. Know what you want to shoot before you travel
Before setting out on a trip, our panel recommended you have a clear idea of what you want to shoot. Ben Roberts, a documentary and travel photographer and regular National Geographic Traveller (UK) contributor, emphasised the importance of bringing a sense of place to your travel stories.
Award-winning food and travel photographer Simon Bajada agreed that researching before a trip is crucial to providing context and a sense of place. “I always research the traditions and culture before I go,” he said. Simon suggested using local guides while on location: “Guides can be really helpful and get you into situations you might not otherwise get into.”
Greg Funnell, a UK-based photographer, recommended speaking to local people when searching for context for your images. “Never underestimate the power of hiring a local fixer — they’re worth their weight in gold, and you’re employing somebody locally. Reach out and try to find people who live in the places you’re travelling to.”
7. Remembering the human element
Our panellists agreed that having human stories as well as a sense of place in your images will help engage potential audiences. “People are interested in people,” said Ben. “If you don’t have strong portraits in a travel piece, you’ll lack the human element.”
Capturing the human element is important to Dikpal. “Photography for me has always been about connecting with people, having different experiences and capturing those experiences,” he explained. “I want to evoke certain emotions, certain curiosity in my viewers so they want to go to that place and experience it.”
According to Simon, getting this human element means breaking the barriers. “A genuine smile is the greatest asset,” he said while showing images of subjects he’d got to smile.
8. Using light effectively can make a world of difference to your photography
According to our experts, learning how to use light and capture light is key to developing your photography. “Gear isn’t as important as how to see light and how to capture light,” advised Yulia.
This advice was echoed by Simon, who demonstrated the contrasting impact of light on similar scenes. “Understand light. It’s such a critical part of beautiful images,” he said.
Choosing the right time of day to shoot can make all the difference to your photos. “If I’m photographing a food story, I’ll make sure that my food reservation in a restaurant is lunchtime because you get natural light. I’ll also always ask for a table by a window,” explained Ben.
9. Don’t be afraid to view your own imagery with a critical eye while travelling
Editing doesn’t wait until after the shooting, as our experts explained. “The editing process starts right there on the job,” said Ben. “Be honest with yourself about what’s a good picture and what’s not.”
Simon advised being patient with the process, and the importance of reviewing your shots to help you improve. “Whatever the vision is for your shoot, don’t deviate from it. Wait it out, don’t be distracted by the lure of what’s round the corner,” he said. “Halfway through the shoot, review the current imagery and decide on what’s missing. The right balance of details, portraits, landscapes, etc.”
10. Be prepared to make changes after shooting
Finally, our panel reminded us about editing photos after travelling. This is an important last step to make sure the images are finalised and ready to be published. “Whether you use Lightroom or a different photo editing program, try to find a colour grading palette that really works for you,” suggested Ben.
He also emphasised the importance of shooting raw files, to make it easier to edit them later. “Always shoot raw files because these will give you more latitude to find the details in both the shadows and the highlights without degrading your image for when it goes to print.”
Recordings of all session are available to buy here.