Travel Photography
Basic Tips For Every Trip, Near And Far

Originally photographed in color, I turned this portrait into a sepia-toned image in Adobe Photoshop. Toning or tinting all the pictures in series gives the collection of pictures a distinctive look and feel. The image used was taken in a train station in Rajasthan, and reminds me that great photos can be found just about everywhere. (Canon EOS-1 V, Canon 70-200mm at 200mm, Canon 550EZ flash, Lumiquest flash diffuser, Kodak Ektachrome 100S.)
Photos © 2001, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

It's that time of year when many of us are gearing up for our summer vacations. Some folks will go to the far sides of the planet, others will stay close to home. But, no matter where we go, Shutterbug readers have one thing in common: we'll take lots of pictures that document our experience--from our own unique perspective.

I love to travel and I love to take travel pictures. I've been doing it for 20 years. I've learned a few things over those two decades, and I've made all the mistakes there are to make. For the relative newcomers to travel photography, I thought I'd share some of my favorite on site techniques. (I'd list my mistakes, too, but that would take up most of this issue of Shutterbug.) To illustrate my tips, I'll share some of my pictures from a recent trip my wife/assistant, Susan, and I made to India this past December. It was, by the way, one of our best trips ever!

So, let's get started.

Focus On The Eyes
Two of my favorite photo expressions are, "The eyes are the windows to the soul," and "The camera looks both ways; in picturing the subject, we are also picturing a part of ourselves." If you keep these two expressions in mind when photographing people, you'll get better pictures, because you'll establish a relationship with your subject, even if it's only for a few seconds. And speaking of the eyes, if they are not in focus, you have missed the shot. Completely.

Keep It Clean
A single grain of sand or grit in your camera's film chamber can scratch an entire roll of film. A hair in the chamber can create a black mark on a picture. A fingerprint on your front or rear lens element can make a picture look soft. Therefore, it's very important to keep your camera clean at all times. I always travel with a camera cleaning kit. I keep a lens cloth in my pocket at all times and wipe my lens clean constantly during a day of shooting. Please don't underestimate the importance of keeping your camera clean.

There is a big difference between taking pictures and making pictures. I made this picture by working with the camel driver for about half an hour. I asked him to ride back and forth on the sand dune in Rajasthan while the sun was setting. (Canon EOS-1 V, Canon 70-200mm at 200mm, Kodak Ektachrome 100SW.)

Take Pictures And Make Pictures
There is a big difference between taking pictures and making pictures. One example. A cover of National Geographic last year had a picture of a Cuban boy leaning out of a car window wearing a red scarf. That red scarf made the picture. Do you think the boy was wearing the red scarf before meeting the photographer? Another example: on my trip to India, I wanted a great picture of a camel on a sand dune at sunset. Well, I worked with the camel driver for about half an hour to get the shot. I asked him to ride back and forth many times so I could get the camel perfectly framed with the setting sun. So, when you look through your camera's viewfinder, think about how you can make a picture better. Me? I often take a picture first, grabbing a grab shot of the scene. Then, I make a picture of the same scene by including a prop or giving direction to my subject.

Be Prepared
When I talk about being prepared, I mean getting prepared at home with all your camera gear, travel documents, destination information (web search engines are great for getting info), proper clothing, and so on. Before you leave home, pack your gear and play travel photographer at a nearby location. Shoot some film. Have some fun. Imagine you are on location. Evaluate your pictures. See what you have done right and where there is room for improvement. Get prepared at home and you'll be prepared on site. Speaking of being prepared on site, take as much gear with you in the field as you think you'll need. Don't get lazy and leave that long lens or tripod in the hotel room. If you do, you may be sorry that you missed that once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Learn how to see the differences in light values, and expose for them, and you'll be on your way to properly exposed pictures. To get a good exposure of this lake palace in Rajasthan, I took a spot reading off the bright side of the building, and then set my exposure accordingly. If I had taken an average meter reading, the bright side of the building would have been overexposed, ruining my picture. (Canon EOS-1 V, Canon 17-35mm lens at 20mm, Polarizing Filter/nik Color Efex Pro! Plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Kodak Ektachrome 100SW.)

See The Light
Our eyes have a dynamic range of about 11 f/stops. Negative film can "see" less than that and slide film even less. So, it's very important to realize that what we see (when it comes to lighting) will not be recorded exactly as we see it. Keeping this in mind, it's helpful to have graduated filters (which can darken the sky or foreground, depending on how you use them) handy to reduce the contrast in a scene. Using a flash for daylight fill-in flash can also reduce the contrast range. And of course, reducing the contrast range in a scene often means only including a part of the scene in your picture. "See the light" and you'll be on your way to better exposures.

Get A Guide
I admit it. I'm guilty--as guilty as most of my fellow travel photographers. We often take all the credit for our pictures. In reality, some of the credit should go to our guides, who take us to the best picture locations at the best times of the day. Personally, I've found a guide to be invaluable, and I tip them accordingly. Get a good guide and you'll get good pictures.

Tell The Whole Story
When traveling, imagine that you are doing a story for a travel magazine, whose editor wants a wide selection of people, landscape, cityscape, wide angle, and close-up pictures. Try to tell the whole story of your trip. I try to do this, although people photography is my specialty. Sometimes, I have to force myself to take a cityscape, which is a good thing.

Close-up pictures help you to tell the "whole story" of your travels. Sure, you can use a macro lens, but try shooting close-ups with a wide angle lens. You'll get more in the scene and more in focus. This close-up of carvings on a temple was taken in Khajuraho. (Canon EOS-1 V, Canon 17-35mm zoom at 35mm, Kodak Ektachrome 100SW.)

Don't Forget The Fun Shots
Sure, it's fun taking serious travel pictures and working hard to get the perfect shot. But hey, don't forget to take lots of fun shots, too. They will bring back great memories of your trip, even if they are merely snapshots.

India, Anyone?
Planning a trip to India? Photo Adventures Tours, based in Atlantic Beach, New York, specializes in photo treks to India. You can reach them at (516) 371-0067. Also, one of the best ways to travel around India is by train. Check out a train called the Palace On Wheels ( It will take you, in grand style, to great places for great photographs.