After posting a few photos on my social media from a weekend trip to Cuba, friends came to me with questions about how I was able to get such ‘up close and personal’ photographs in this short amount of time. This inspired me to share my process and some personal suggestions as to how you can get better travel images from your trips abroad.
Let’s start here and I’m going to be real with you. If all you have is a smartphone and you really want to take excellent photos: it’s not impossible, but consider getting a nice camera. Not to say that the latest iPhones don’t have good cameras, but they will not allow you to get the quality and depth you will want from a DSLR camera with a quality lens. A decent camera could run you anywhere from several hundred dollars to thousands if you want to get fancy, so if money is tight, consider renting one for your trip—the better your camera and lens setup are, the better the quality your photos will be, and the more serious your subjects will take you. These photographs were all shot on a Sony A7 II with a Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and I was extremely happy with the outcome. The A7 II is a pro camera with a phenomenal color profile and the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is a standard range for portraits and scenes with beautiful depth of field and excellent sharpness… but it ain’t cheap (and I promise I wasn’t paid to give it a thumbs up).
2. Travel light and fit in
I like to be inconspicuous—it’s not usually the best idea to lug around a big camera bag filled with lenses and accessories: it can be heavy and also catch unwanted attention. All you really need is one or two lenses max with a nice range and an extra memory card and/or battery. It’s also good to not bring too much attention to whatever you’re wearing, including jewelry or other expensive looking items. This may sound obvious, but the more you dress down or look like the locals, the better they will respond to you and the less of a target you will be. If you’re a lady cakes, it may be smart to stay conservative with your attire.
3. Tell a story
Whether you’re a professional or just intending on posting your photos on social media, coming back with images that tell a story will be much more enjoyable for your viewers. So, instead of only taking selfies in front of monuments or landscapes, consider photographing all aspects of your trip: your hotel room, its view if it’s nice, your meals, people you encounter, souvenir shops, still life, street performers, lifestyle, landscapes, interesting or unique cultural experiences you come across, etc. Broadening the subject matter of the images you shoot will be much more interesting for your fans and you’ll learn a lot more from the experience altogether.
4. Go deeper.
If you’re in a touristy city or neighborhood, consider leaving the main sites and finding areas where the locals hang out, live and work. Go to other towns nearby. Wander into places or alleyways (that don’t seem threatening) off the beaten path and try asking locals to give you recommendations or to take you into obscure neighborhoods so you can capture typical scenes and more authentic moments. If it feels right, go into shops or homes; ask the owners if you can hang out and take some pictures. Maybe get your nails done or hair cut at a local salon if you want to photograph the shop. On my trip to Havana, I wandered through several gated doorways looking for interesting subjects and, with some luck, I stumbled upon a colorful outdoor gym where some guys were working out, an impoverished brothel, and a boxing ring where a group of kids were practicing. Getting images like that would be impossible if you didn’t put yourself out there to explore deeper. Just be careful and know where your limits should be drawn.
5. Be confident and fearless
Being confident goes especially if you’re a woman traveling in a place that may feel male dominated and where you really have to hold your own. The key is to remain cool, collected and to not care what people think. Handicaps lie in fear and in worrying about people’s judgments or of getting rejected. You will probably get stared down or shooed away at some point on your trip, and that just goes with the territory, but with owning it lies great power. If you are confident and brave, while still remaining kind and caring, your subject will feel comfortable with you and give you the power to direct them, should you want to. When you have conviction, it’s easier to move people to more aesthetic backgrounds as well as encourage them how to pose, without being obnoxious or invasive. With that said, it’s important to feel out your limits and not overstay your welcome.
6. Connect with your subjects
Talking to my students over the years, it seems that one of the challenges that often comes up is shyness and fear of asking people to pose. It’s normal that going up to strangers may seem uncomfortable, but if you turn the fear into excitement and just realize that people don’t bite, it will be easier, especially if you manage to truly connect with your subjects. Smile, laugh, flirt if you have to, be silly or act stupid if you think it’ll ease up the interaction. Be genuine and genuinely interested in what they might be doing. Ask questions if you’re able to communicate adequately. People are immediately attracted to or put off by others’ energy, so you’ll want to have the kind of vibe that makes people comfortable around you. If you are entering into impoverished areas, be compassionate and empathetic towards people’s needs. Try to always ask your subjects if you can photograph them, unless you are going for a candid moment and if you have gifts, food or small change, consider giving your subjects something in exchange for taking their photo. In some countries, this is expected. Also, you should show them the photo(s) you just took and tell them how wonderful they look. Overall, genuinely connecting with your subjects is most important if you want to get deeper images.
7. Get creative and be prolific
Shoot, shoot shoot and don’t stop at one photograph and at one perspective. If you have the time and available memory, why not take several photos of the same subject? I like to play with composition, angles and pose, so that I walk away with options. The same scene can be shot in infinite ways, and you can only do better if you try different perspectives. Get creative: look for reflections, shoot through things, shoot from above, from below, turn your subject into the light or away from the light, shoot wide, shoot close. Working your creativity will serve your images and will teach you to become an overall better photographer.
8. Be aware, patient and passionate
I could not stress this one more: the best photographers are those who remain aware and patient. Keep your eyes wide open at all times, your camera ready, and be a committed observer of your environment. Go the extra mile for your photography. Watch what people are doing closely and their interactions, look up, look down—you never know what is right under your eye that you don’t quite see, and also, wait for things to happen. The famous National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry, gave me this insight a long time ago: if you find a beautiful mural or an attractive landscape, but nothing interesting is going on right then, then wait for it to. Stand there for as long as you can take it until something worthwhile takes scene, and if you’re not happy with that, then wait some more.
9. Follow the light
Light can make or break a photograph. Broad sunlight is typically going to be harsh and offer dense shadows, which could be exactly what you’re going for or could ruin everything. There are no solid rules in my opinion about when to shoot or not shoot, but there are definitely ways to interpret and follow light appropriately so that you can capture what speaks to you most. Of course, sunrise, sunset and diffused light can be softer and more attractive, but don’t get discouraged if you can’t shoot during those times, there’s always a way to produce excellent imagery with the given conditions: it’s just a matter of trial and error and paying attention to what works best for you.
10. Editing and retouching
A good photographer knows that sometimes it takes another set of eyes to edit photos. Consider showing your first batch of selects to one or several people and get their opinions. Sometimes, we tend to fall in love with a photograph because of the memory we had while taking it, but it may not necessarily be the best shot. If there’s something I’ve learned from top photo editors, it’s ‘less is more’ when making edits, and only show your best work: your photos are just as good as the least compelling image.
Secondly, if you have a photo editing software such as Photoshop, Lightroom or any others, they can be your best friend. A photograph straight out of the camera can definitely be wonderful, but a little bit of doctoring can go a long way. Perhaps in a photo you took, the light was just too harsh and there weren’t many great colors around anyway, so consider popping the image into black and white and see what you get! Or, saturate the colors a little to make a photo pop. Crop in if you didn’t take the best composition, and maybe try several different crops to see which looks best. Nowadays, you can download plenty of filter presets for Photoshop or Lightroom which can also allow you to stylize photographs in one click and give your images a different feel. With that said, be careful to not overdo it, sometimes over-Photoshopping or intense presets can downgrade the professional quality of an image.
11. Have fun!
Overall and most of all, have fun! Photography is not meant to be stressful or scary and traveling is supposed to be liberating and enjoyable, so please make the most of your trip and don’t worry too much about getting the world’s greatest travel photo—Steve McCurry is busy doing that for us all! The people you connect with and the wonderful moments you share are what are most important, in my opinion, and the photographs are merely physical means to remember them.
I’d love to see what you capture… if you feel inspired, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
To see more of my work, check out my website www.EricaSimone.com