Do you want to know how to get the most out of your camera and create great images? Seasoned travel photographer Anita de Villiers says rule number one in travel photography is to lighten up on equipment as lugging heavy gear can ruin the experience, and make you conspicuous.
She also believes the travel photographer has to be a jack of all trades, and photograph subjects as varied as landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, culture, portraits and people. Never latch onto your viewfinder and lose the bigger picture. And stay sensitive to the textures, colours, light, aromas, sounds, moods and interactions wherever you are.
1. Less is More
Unlike a painter, a photographer starts with a full canvas and has to exclude those elements that do not contribute to the composition. By cropping in-camera and selecting to include certain elements of a wider scene that had an abundance of information, this picture is simplified and its message enhanced.
The human figure is a strong element in any composition: the sailor attracts the viewer’s eye first, determining the dominance in the picture. However, his positioning breaks the rule of thirds, thus creating tension that is heightened by the tightly stretched ropes. Text is another strong element in any composition, and the bold name of the ship ensures informal balance between these two visually commanding elements. The sailor also gives perspective on the size of the vessel and a suggestion of the great journey ahead. Taken some years ago in the Richards Bay Harbour, this image to me embodies the spirit of travel to distant places.
2. Take Time to Compose your Landscape
Travel and landscape photography are like salt and pepper: they go together. But simply pointing your camera at a beautiful landscape can leave you disappointed with the results.
The human eye can see many more gradations of light than the digital sensor can capture and our brains tend to select and only see those elements that appeal to us, while ignoring unappealing detail. The camera however, captures the good, the bad and the ugly.
Spend time at a scene, see it from different angles and during different times of the day. By positioning yourself, select those elements you want to include, as well as a centre of interest that can anchor the composition: this can be a figure, a tree or any other striking feature. Because the golden hours are usually the best for landscape photography, a tripod is essential to avoid camera shake and to allow you to bracket.
Invest in neutral density graduate and polarising filters to control contrast. Most of all, become still and feel the essence of the particular landscape: is it the ruggedness, the tranquillity, the vastness, the sparseness or the abundance that appeals to you? This is what you want to show in your image. In Namibia’s Sossusvlei, light, shapes, colours, patterns and textures fill the canvas, inviting the photographer to play and create.
The late afternoon sun lit one side of this dune while the other was in deep shade, allowing me to create this minimalistic image.
3. Capturing a Culture
Photographers travel far and wide to find cultures that have withstood the march of modernisation and westernisation. The age-old fishing traditions still practised by the Tonga people at Kosi Bay are as authentic as any travel photographer could wish for. Built and maintained by local families, the kraals are used to trap fish that provide their daily protein.
Photographing from a high dune with a focal length of 200mm that would not distort the perspective, the aim was to demonstrate the scale of these kraals built in the shallow waters of Lake Makhawulani. In relation to the entire image, the minute figures of the two fishermen underscore the veracity of the perspective. Layers of colour and lines are the two design elements that contribute to the effect of this image.
4. People & Portraits
Photographers hold different opinions on how to approach capturing the faces of a culture. Whether you prefer posed portraits or spontaneous interaction, these encounters ask for an informal social contract built on respect. Choice of lens, direction and quality of the light, background and most of all rapport with the person you are photographing, are all important aspects.
While visiting the remote Bushmen settlement of Grootlaagte in Botswana, I found the children were more than eager to be photographed and they lacked any of the affectedness many people display when in front of the lens. This shy girl caught my attention and, with everybody’s eagerness to be photographed, I decided to fill the frame with their young faces, using a shallow depth of field and selective focus to draw the viewer’s attention to her. Using fill-in flash gave me just the right quality of light and also added catch lights to her dark eyes.
5. The Story in Stone
The story of a culture is written in its architecture. Knowledge about a building’s background can provide the photographer with a rich subtext for inspiration and interpretation, as is the case with the West Coast village of Jacobsbaai. Strict building regulations stipulate that all houses must adhere to the traditional West Coast architectural style typified by features like white walls, shuttered windows and outside attic stairs.
Using shape as the strongest design element, this close-crop is a composition of triangles and rectangles that at once anchors, simplifies and lends balance to the image. Exposing for the white walls without losing the detail that lends texture, and including foreground interest in the green foliage, were two other photographic considerations. A bonus is the repetitive pattern of the pots that lends a feeling of rhythm to the image.
6. Make it Personal
The best souvenirs are pictures that include yourself or your travel partners (and they don’t add weight to your luggage). Happy snaps are good, but the challenge is to also capture the mood and ambience of a place. Consider the scene and determine whether the addition of a figure as a centre of interest would enhance the picture. Try to capture a spontaneous moment, because nothing kills ambience like a posed photograph.
This is what I tried do when photographing the desolate desert plain of the Messum Crater in Namibia. The intimacy of the moment and the isolation of our camp in this vast landscape is what I hope to have captured.