TravelTraveler Magazine

Travel Photo Tips From the Masters

Who doesn’t want to be a travel photographer and earn their keep by exploring the world and capturing its essence for the rest of us to see? I know I do.

I was lucky enough to sit in on one of Traveler‘s photo seminars, led by award-winning photographer Jim Richardson and the magazine’s director of photography, Dan Westergren.

Even though I am immersed in the wonderful world of travel every day as part of Traveler‘s digital team, I discovered I had a lot to learn when it came to taking magazine-worthy photographs.

Though Jim and Dan believe in the importance of technique, they stressed that “the secret is in how you look at the world, not in how you turn the dials on the camera.”

“Interesting content trumps interesting technique every time,” they said. Half the effort is getting there.

Here are a few tips from the masters on how to get in the right frame of mind when you’re making pictures in the world:

Be comfortable with your camera and yourself: Don’t broadcast self-doubt. Learn your camera. If you are comfortable with your equipment, you can focus on relating to your subjects. Your confidence in yourself will instill confidence in them.

Tune in to the local frequency: Get a feel for accepted norms and expectations wherever you are. Adjust your manners to local custom. Find the local bulletin boards or chat up a store owner. Find out what’s going on, where, and how to get in on it.

Dress appropriately: Fit in with the social scene. Wear a costume if you’re shooting at Mardi Gras. Dress for church if you are going to church. It is one of the most visible ways to show respect for local sensibilities.

See the good in bad weather: It’s a cliche, but it’s true—rain, snow, and fog transform the world and lend it a unique mood and beauty. But make sure to go prepared: a simple baggie works wonders for keeping a camera dry.

Move in close and make friends: Don’t act like a spy. Put away the telephoto lens and become part of the moment. Successful pictures of people are almost never achieved from across the street.

Try the local food: Share a snack or a meal, but also share the customs. Seasoned National Geographic photographers have a rule: take at least one bite.

Understand the social contract: Your subjects are giving of themselves, and you are getting. Don’t abuse their gift. Build a relationship with a person first, even if it’s for 30 seconds, and then take the picture.

Challenge yourself to see things differently: Get in the middle of things. Climb up on top of something for a different view. “Dance around a tea cup”—find a scene that appeals to you and photography it from every conceivable angle.

Give yourself an assignment: If you have a reason for taking the pictures, you’ll feel more comfortable and your subjects may enjoy contributing to something worthwhile. Giving yourself an assignment may contribute some valuable focus to your endeavors.

And, last but not least, try, try, try: Shoot one good picture. Then find another way to shoot the same scene. Then find yet another way. Dan Westergren claims three times is a charm.

Want more? Attend one of National Geographic Traveler‘s photography workshops on Creativity with LightMastering Travel PhotographyNature & Landscape, and People & Places