Travel (hand held) Composition

Posted by on Apr 18, 2012 in Articles | No Comments

Inside a fish tank

In my previous post I wrote all about the technical side of travel (hand-held) photography- low light, high ISO, more open f-stops, faster shutter speeds, smaller depth of field, etc. All good stuff and important to understand and use next time you are out hand holding your camera.

For this post I wanted to tell you about a strategy of professional travel photographers for getting great shots. It is unlike anything you do in any other genre of photography but it is a very successful compositional technique. I call it the ‘wine in hand’ strategy of travel photography.

When we are out taking pictures we spend most of our time looking for things to photograph. It is like we are looking for targets, aiming our lenses at them and then pressing the shutter to shoot them. We then go out and look for more targets. But there is a different way to go out and get your pictures. Instead of looking for targets try looking for backgrounds instead.

What? That doesn’t make sense! I am supposed to look for a background and then what? Wait for a subject to walk by? Really? Are you nuts? Perhaps but not this time.

Most genres of photographers can’t do this because there are not enough subjects wandering around to make this strategy effective. A flower photographer isn’t going to find a nice stream and wait for a flower to grow next to it. A wildlife photographer isn’t going to look for a nice meadow and then wait for a bear to walk through it. And a macro photographer isn’t going to find a nice stalk and wait for a spider to come along and spin a web.

But a travel photographer can find a great background and wait for a great subject to wander past because just about any where you go in this world there are lots of people and one is likely to come on by. My friend Bob Krist, the National Geographic photographer,  tells about waiting at a cafe across the street from his selected background and watching for a subject to wander by. Hence the ‘wine in hand’ name. Nature photographers have a compass in their hand, a travel photographer has a glass of wine.

Old Orchard Beach

I told my class in Santa Fe about this technique the day after they stumbled around mostly unsuccessfully trying to chase targets. They all went out, found a good situation with a great background and then simply hung out until someone came by. They got really nice images by just being patient and not wandering around. Find a background and wait for your subject.

I used this strategy when photographing the pier at Old Orchard Beach on the coast of Maine. The scene was easy to find- anyone would’ve stopped to take that picture but I waited for the girl to come into the scene to make the image more than just a picture of the pier. All it took was a bit of patience.

Red fox

You can use this strategy with wildlife photography if your subject moves in a predictable, repeating pattern. Think about a bird returning to the nest or a mammal returning to a food source. Or…when photographing at Triple D Game Farm…think about one of their animals repeating his movements as he is rewarded with little pieces of meat.

For the red fox picture I saw the tree and the snow on the roots when I first got into the compound where the fox was going to run. I wanted the fox to be next to the tree looking out so I set up that composition based on this background and waited for the fox to be in the right spot. I didn’t follow the fox around with my camera I simply set up the composition, locked it in and waited for the subject to appear. When it did, presto!

So go out and instead of chasing targets, look for great scenes, great backgrounds and then stop, find a wall to lean on or an empty chair and wait. Then wait some more. Eventually just the right person or car or wagon or animal will come by and you’ll get a great shot. Remember, the goal is not to get a lot of good shots but instead get a few great shots.

McLoon’s Wharf, Maine

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