Making your travel photography more than snapshots

When I travel I love to make photographs of the things I've seen and experienced. Everyone does. If you're seeing a city for the first time, it's likely you'll go to the major tourist spots and take pictures, and if you're lucky you'll end up with images just as pretty as what you saw in the guidebook. That's nice, but why end up with the same photos that everyone else has seen? Having your camera always at-the-ready and being willing to press the shutter when you're not in the "tourist zone" can let you bring home some images that you might really cherish (and may be able to sell to someone, too!)

My lovely wife and I went to Amsterdam recently for a long weekend. It was our first trip to that city, though we've traveled a lot in Europe and other places. It's not at all uncommon that we make these sorts of trips in the late-fall to early-spring period, for two main reasons: a) that's often when we are the least busy with other work here at home, and b) that's when many of our destinations aren't packed with other tourists. The nice aspect about that second part is that crowds are smaller (if there are crowds at all) and it's possible to get a little more sense of the local flavor because most of the people you're seeing and dealing with are locals.

Obviously, the many canals are a big part of what you'll want to see in Amsterdam, plus that cool old-world architecture that much of western Europe decided to re-create after 1945. So, how do you make that look appealing in the dead of winter?

The season may not be as much of an impediment as you might think. It actually helps the views in wintertime that the trees haven't filled in, which would obscure the buildings. We overheard one couple saying that you can't actually see much of Amsterdam's old town in the summertime because all the greenery hides the old structures.

A great way to minimize the effect of grey winter skies is to keep your camera ready at dusk, when the skies get much darker, allowing the buildings to really take on a nice character and presence. I love shooting after the sun has set; look for another post on that soon.

One measure I use when I'm thinking about making a picture in some new exotic spot is to ask myself whether I would want to take a photo of the same scene if I was seeing it in my home town. One of the notable buildings in Amsterdam's old town is City Hall, but when we were there it was all covered with scaffolding during renovations. For me, I really liked the graphic quality that this lent to the scene, and while it may not scream "famous European city" this photo of the building front is one of my favorites from the trip.

For your own memories you're going to want to have that overall photo of the castle or monument or whatever, but how do you make photos that might really reflect the experience you had on your visit, or more importantly, make photos that a potential client might want to buy?

I think maybe the best way is to really take an accounting of what sort of experiences you're enjoying and having, and try to reflect that. One really nice feature of Amsterdam, as well as many other European cities, is their outstanding and ubiquitous use of bicycles to get around. Every street has dedicated bike lanes (which are obediently respected by cars and pedestrians alike) and there are bikes chained up everywhere while people work and shop and live. It's fine to show people riding them, but that can pretty easily fall in to the realm of a snapshot. So instead I tried to play with the shapes of bikes, and also the tones that are created by the many shiny metal surfaces.

Here's another technique you can use... shoot with a long lens. Instead of just keeping that wide lens on, put on a telephoto (or zoom in if your camera doesn't have interchangeable lenses) and look for the interesting details that you run across. Doing this lets you focus on some of the interesting details and architectural features that can make a city unique and interesting.

Take some time to get away from the main square and the big shopping streets as well, and you'll often find very interesting venues to shoot. I love old buildings, particularly in places where they've had a long time to settle and get added to and express a little uniqueness. You can't really see the quaint little sidestreets when you're on one of those guided-bus-excursions, so try to step away from the herd a bit and see what kind of houses and shops that the locals frequent. That's the reason you travel, isn't it? To get a sense of what it might be like to live in another land, and to experience something different from what you do at home. It's nice to photograph the palaces and museums, but keep an eye out for the truly local flavor, and if you get pictures capturing some of that you'll end up with images that mean a lot more to you — and to others — when you get back home.

Almost all of these images were made with a Nikon D5000 camera, using the Nikon 18-200mm zoom and also the Nikon 12-24mm zoom lenses. The "rose on the escalator" photo and the photo of the bike seats by the water were made with a Lumix FX-500, all available from B&H Photo. I urge you to help support this blog by using the link at right to get your gear from B&H, the largest camera store in the world.