Travel Photography: Inspiration & Proper Preparation Lead to Great Photographs – by Joseph Roybal

July 26th, 2012

Joseph Roybal is a Denver, Colorado based photographer specializing in travel, landscape, and documentary style photography that captures the essence of a country or culture. Part one of his blog, “Combine Your Photographic Inspiration with Summer Travel“, was posted in May. Following up on that theme, part two is entitled “Travel Photography: Inspiration and Proper Preparation Lead to Great Photographs”. As the title implies, it provides a few tips on how to capture the right moment when inspiration strikes and also encourages us to take that all important first step.

Travel Photography: Inspiration & Proper Preparation Lead to Great Photographs – by Joseph Roybal

Travel and photography go hand in hand. Formerly large and difficult to carry tools of the trade are now readily available in portable sizes: small point-and-shoots, quality camera phones, and micro 4/3’s. This has opened the doors of opportunity to photography like never before. No longer do you have to transport bulky equipment to create stunning and interesting imagery. All you really need is inspiration and a bit of preparation to create a well thought out plan of where you are going, how you are getting there, and what to bring on the road. After all, photography is a journey that has no end, with many interesting and exciting vistas along the way.

This second post picks up where the first, “Combine Your Photographic Inspiration with Summer Travel”, left off; with the theme of travel and photography and the aim to combine the two. The first post was focused on travel prep and what goes into a trip when starting out from ground zero, to planning everything from airfare and insurance. This post aims to inspire those that are ready to go, and give us that last little “push” to get us going.

1. Inspiration
Every time you take your camera out of the bag, your motivation is quite simply the desire to capture an image. It could be anything from a family portrait to a mountain peak shrouded in clouds. It is this dedication to documenting the world around us that drives us to pursue photography and persevere through the challenges presented, including finding photographic inspiration on your travels. Be prepared to go to extremes to meet your vision. Setting out in the middle of the night to capture a sunrise (in subzero temperatures), hiking into the Amazon to photograph an undiscovered waterfall, or stepping out of your comfort zone to assimilate with the local community and customs. It won’t always be easy, but you will leave your trip knowing you left no stone unturned in your pursuit of a memorable image.

2. Listen to Your Instincts: Shoot from Your Subconscious
All too often we set out with a preconceived idea of a particular photograph we want to capture. However, this can limit the images we might be able to produce. While having a vision and an idea of what you want to shoot is important, it is equally essential to remain open to your surroundings and allow for serendipity in both your travels and your photographs. You never know what opportunities will arise. Listen to your instincts and give yourself the freedom to deviate from your plan when the circumstances call for it. I cannot count the number of times I have come home with an image that was not at all what I had originally intended. But it turned out to be better than anything I could have planned for ahead of time. The key is being prepared when these instances occur. Let me share a personal example of this.

While traveling in Turkey a couple of years ago I was walking down the street of a remote village looking for something “authentic” and finding that all of the images I was taking were forced and unoriginal. I realized this and stopped, collected my thoughts and asked myself, “What am I trying to show? What does Turkey mean to me?” I happened to glance up and took the picture below immediately, without over-thinking the image. It has become one of my favorite photos to date as it displays color, culture and what can come from being prepared. The lesson? Have your camera bag easily accessible and ready at a moment’s notice, as there really is no such thing as luck. As the Roman philosopher Seneca stated, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

 3. Assimilate & Respect
One of the most important concepts to keep in mind while traveling and working within a foreign culture is to slow down and work from the heart. Become familiar with the customs before you pull out your camera. Just as you would not walk into a neighbor’s home and go straight to their pantry without asking, photography is sometimes considered similarly rude and intrusive. When you first arrive at your destination leave your camera in its bag, or even back at the hotel, and simply walk around. Take in the sights, the atmosphere, the smells, and learn what the area has to offer for your photographic journey. Observe locals working at their food stalls, interacting with friends and neighbors or just buying groceries. Then identify anything that speaks to you, as only you can shoot what you are truly passionate about. For example, if you thrive on candid street photography you will want to capture these moments undisturbed. But remember to respect individuals and their privacy. Gage the situation and be mindful at all times. If you want to add to your portraiture portfolio, ascertain whom you might be able to ask for their photo while you explore the area. Give the person time to get comfortable with this idea and come back the next day for the shoot. Keep the photos relevant to telling a story.

My biggest piece of advice to any photographer traveling to another country is to assimilate into that culture as much as possible. Before you go, read about local customs and traditions. Find out if it is customary to be invited in for tea, or to be guided around a neighborhood by a local resident.  Many times we as Westerners become fearful when faced with these unexpected situations, but refusing these offers of hospitality can be perceived as an insult, which will limit your ability to create authentic photographs.

Several years ago, while traveling in Egypt and exploring the Coptic part of Cairo, I came across an older woman who introduced herself and asked if I would like a tour of her neighborhood. At the time I was a younger and less experienced traveler and reluctantly agreed to her showing me around. The entire time I was too nervous to fully enjoy the experience. This encounter was a one-in-a-lifetime authentic photo journalistic opportunity as she walked me through alleys, engaged neighbors and street vendors and spoke of the history of the area she had lived in from birth. She pointed out the home where she was born and raised and still lived in, and told of how the city of Cairo has changed over the years with the influx of tourists and also the difficulties with the government. At the end of the walk she asked if I would like to come into her home and meet her family over tea, which I declined, regretfully. I was just too afraid and too nervous. It had not crossed my mind that I was already 5,000 miles from home, in North Africa, and in what we already consider a rough and not-for-tourists neighborhood. I knew that being offered tea was customary and yet I still refused, apprehensive of taking another step out of my comfort zone. I regret my decision to this day, knowing that she was comfortable with my camera and me. Who knows the photos I could have come home with, not to mention the personally enriching experience I missed out on.

These are the situations you cannot create; rather, you must adapt and go. Though you must listen to your instincts and stay safe, know that just as we are curious about other cultures and people, this interest is reciprocal and should be appreciated, respected, and shared.

4. What’s in Your Bag?
Your camera bag and tripod are easily the most important tools on your trip. These tools need to be a) well organized for seamless access to your equipment, b) not too cumbersome when you no longer need its contents, and c) light (pack smart). When organizing your bag, it is critical to have your camera centrally located for fast access. A cross-body bag with lumbar support will help evenly distribute the weight. The bag can also double as a shelf when changing lenses, batteries, etc.  Only take the lenses you need, speedlight with off-camera capability, extra memory cards, spare batteries, lens pens/cleaning supplies, an air blower, a light source such as a head lamp, an umbrella, and a snack/water-you never know how long you might be out.

The tripod and head assembly absolutely must be considered as a vital piece to the puzzle. Do not skimp when putting these together. There’s an old saying, “the poor man pays twice,” which I can certainly attest to. Nothing is more frustrating than spending thousands on a trip and realizing later your images are blurry from a poorly constructed set-up. Be sure to overshoot your weight needs on both the legs and head. If your camera and lens are roughly 12 lbs. collectively, do not buy anything rated around this. You want to be able to add weight to stabilize your gear if necessary by hanging your bag from the tripod in heavy winds or utilizing a rock bag. A three-piece leg construction is going to be more stable and solid than a four, yet will be a little longer when collapsed. Carbon fiber will also absorb vibrations better than aluminum and is lighter for packing. 

I personally use a Mountain-Smith Tour FX bag, Vanguard carbon tripod and arca-style head set-up with a custom manufactured L-bracket from Chris Hejnar. I find that this combination works perfectly for my needs as I can quickly swing the bag around, grab my camera and click it in place on the tripod in a matter of seconds. I love the room and space in the bag, which also features a bright yellow inner lining, allowing you to see your gear in low-light conditions. The Vanguard line is a solid performer and they make very sturdy and stable leg and head combinations to fit a variety of budgets.

5. Board the Plane
Remember, the best photographs come from passion so tap into what interests you. Spend some time thinking out a plan and figuring out what inspires you. Then, leave the travel agencies behind and go where your inspiration takes you. This is your photographic journey and it should be boundless. Go out, enjoy the unexpected, and most importantly: keep shooting.