Getting paid to travel the world and capture incredible images of people, animals and landscapes is many people’s dream job, but it’s also one of the most competitive and challenging. Travel photographer Graeme Green gives his practical advice and insider knowledge for improving your photos and getting ahead.
1. Go the extra mile
Life as a travel photographer often means getting out of bed (if there is a bed) when it’s dark and cold. I’ve gone out taking photos while wiped out by illness or after getting no sleep on the wooden floor of a hut. There have been long trudges through snow, sand and swamp, and exhausting journeys on dusty tracks. The unexpected or disastrous often happens. Life on the road is hard to predict, but you still have to get the photos you need.
A big part of the lifestyle’s appeal is getting to travel to remote, often wild and fascinating locations, meeting new people and having experiences you just can’t get at home – but it takes effort and time. Early starts, tough journeys, and long, hard days in difficult environments are all part of the job. There might be times when you don’t feel like taking photos, when you just want to rest, but missed opportunities always come back to haunt you. You never know what you might miss.
2. Make a plan
One of my favourite ways to photograph is just to walk, to explore a city or a location without an idea of what I’m looking for or where I’m heading to. You never know what scenes wait just around the next corner for spontaneous photographs.
But sometimes it really pays to plan, especially if you need to get specific shots for an assignment. Think about what you’re trying to achieve, whether it's a close-up or a wider picture of a whole scene. If you’re photographing a festival or event, you need to take into account what time it will all kick off. If you have one, ask your guide or fixer for details on where exactly things will happen, then plan ahead to make sure you’re in the best possible location.
It’s especially worth looking around at where the light is coming from. It’d be frustrating to be present at a dramatic moment only to realise you should be on the other side of the room.
3. Always be ready
Whether photographing people or wildlife, great photographic moments often pass by once and then they’re gone. You need to always be ready and alert to the action. That particularly means spending time getting to know your camera, experimenting with elements such as shutter speed.
With some photos, you’ll want what you’re photographing to be sharp and clear, whereas others might look good with a blurry suggestion of movement. Also consider focal points and depth of field; what you want to draw the eye to, and whether you want a person or animal to stand out or to be part of it’s environment.
You want to get familiar enough with your camera so that you can make changes quickly, almost instinctively. The last thing you want to be doing when something unmissable happens is struggling to find the right settings.
I usually test my camera in a location ahead of time, while there’s nothing happening, to make sure I have something close to the right settings if and when something does occur.
4. Take your time
Time and patience are often the key elements that make the difference between a good photo and a great one.
You can come across a building that’s going to look brilliant in few hours, when the light hits it right, or you might find a composition you like but it takes a while for all the key features, including people, to line up in just the right way. As tempting as it can be to take the photo as it is and move on, it pays not to accept compromise and to wait for the best possible picture.
Working in Morocco, I found plenty of compositions that I liked a lot, but it sometimes took an hour or more of waiting to get the photos I was really happy with, with people passing by at just the right moment.
5. Get in the thick of the action
Great photographs really give the viewer a sense of a place or people. They trigger their curiosity and make them want to know more.
With adventure travel photography, you need to capture the action and take people there. Whether it’s biking in Vietnam, snowshoeing in Japan or trekking in Mexico, people looking at your pictures have to feel that sense of adventure and excitement. You need to get in the thick of it.
If you’re spending time with local cultures, you need to communicate a sense of local character, how people live and the surrounding environment. If photographing a sombre religious event or a chaotic carnival, your photos need to capture that atmosphere.