Why Great Travel Photos Start At Home

I was in Bangalore last month to visit our office and interview another round of candidates. Apparently keen for a first hand experience of ‘Delhi Belly’, Brei joined me a week in for a holiday. This was her first trip to India an we decided the fiercely traditional state of Rajasthan, which translates as the ‘Land of Kings’ would be a great introduction to this diverse country. Not to mention a chance to take some great travel photos.

Jaipur, the state capital, is a potent combination of manic activity, stunning vistas and intense heat. We stayed a couple of days before weaving our way into smaller towns until we got to the desert fort of Jaisalmer. The Golden City, so named because of the sandstone that was used to erect its fort and surrounding dwellings, is the only remaining occupied fort in the world. It’s a wondrous maze of fragrant laneways filled with spice sellers and antiques from neighbouring Afghanistan.

India, Jaisalmer - A desert sheep herder.
A desert sheep herder.

Jaisalmer, India - A camel passes over sand dunes at sunset.
A camel passes over sand dunes at sunset.

I’m feeling increasingly constrained by trips where only a few days are spent in any one location. Without bedding down in an area it’s difficult to become familiar with the local community – let alone their culture and traditions. This often has the effect of strangling those very same elements out of any photography.

To date, more by necessity than design, I’ve had to get by with a low level of immersion into the places and people I photograph. I travel fairly frequently but the schedules are dictated by my job. While this facilitates access to great photographic opportunities, it leaves me with only a few afternoons here and there to take photos.

The result is that I’ve become fairly proficient at maximising potential photographic opportunities into small windows of time. Below are the steps I take to try and take great travel photos, on a schedule:

  1. Compensate for lack of time onsite by researching good locations ahead of your trip. As with any photography trip this starts with an idea of the type of photography you want to focus is on. I had hoped to capture portraits that captured some of the history and tradition that is so palpable in the people of Rajasthan. To do that it became apparent that we would be better off in the backwaters of the state. The major cities are increasingly westernised or are beginning to parody theIr traditions for the sake of tourist dollars. We plotted a route that took us to as far as we could get form all that in the week we had.
  2. Looking at local photography sites and blogs can offer invaluable advice on what to expect when you get there.
  3. Inspire yourself with documentaries of the area you are visiting. The more you understand the culture the less likely you are to make any cultural faux pas when taking photos.
  4. Try and focus on a particular topic or community that fascinates you. Their is no disguising passion, just taking photos of people because of the possible photogenic upside is unlikely to result in the deep connections with your subjects that will resonate in the photography.
  5. Don’t stretch yourself too thin. Staying in the same location is vital from a social and technical standpoint. By not moving around constantly you will encounter the same people time and time again and increase your chance of bonding with them. Walking the area will give you a feel for where and when the light is good as well as which locations would make good backdrops.
  6. Find a fixer. Arriving somewhere new means you have very little social proof in the community. Finding a local who can help you make contact with your prospective subjects and translate is vital to quick progress. The fixer could be a local photographer who has solid foothold in the community or, in less travelled areas, it could be the taxi driver or hotel owner. Once you have this fixer tell them exactly what you want, even showing them photos and be ready to pay for this help. It will pay you back tenfold in saved time.

Following the above process can be arduous and you will likely spend more time preparing for your trip than photographing it. But hopefully it will give you the time onsite to explore your creativity rather than search for opportunities. I’d love to here how you go!

India, Jaisalmer - A labourer creates pots for tourists
A labourer creates pots for tourists

India, Jaisalmer - A boy peers at me in a crowd and the wife of the local tribe leader.
A boy peers at me in a crowd and the wife of the local tribe leader.

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Jaisalmer Trip Snapshot:

Location: Jaisalmer, India
Duration: 3 days
Gear: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105mm

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