I just finished teaching a travel photography workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Santa Fe workshops. It was a good class, with great participants, perfect weather and lots and lots of things to photograph in and around Santa Fe. I do love that town; it is very art- and food- centric, its got two Whole Foods and the pre-trip scouting took me to wonderful places.
Travel photography is different than nature or landscape or wildlife photography. And not just because of the subject matter. In fact, what you shoot has little to do with defining the travel photography genre. Every where you travel you can see some form of wildlife, landscape or nature so it all fits into the Travel Photography subject category. There are two things that separate travel photography from all other types of photography: the fact that you are telling the story of a place and you are usually doing it hand held. Let me explain.
Remember that all photography is based on pretty light. Most of the time this means low light. Low light means slow shutter speeds. This is why nature, landscape and wildlife photographers use tripods.
In travel photography though there is often no tripod and if there is a tripod involved it is usually no more than a mini table top version, not a full sized one like one might normally use. This means that you are typically hand holding your camera. If you are hand holding your camera in pretty (low) light your shutter speed becomes very important- too slow and you are toast. You can’t hand hold your camera at a 15th of a second or slower and get an acceptably sharp image. If you think you can you are either a truly exceptional photographer, a corpse or you need to refresh your thinking of what a sharp photograph really is. When hand holding, shutter speeds of at least 30th of a second or faster are the minimum necessary to be get sharp focus. This is a much faster shutter speed than is typical with most nature photography with a tripod where I often shoot half second to four second exposures.
Since faster shutter speeds are necessary when hand holding you need to use more wide open f-stops. Nature photographers often shoot at f16 or f22 but travel
shooters often use f4 and f5.6. Remember, to get faster shutter speeds you need to allow more light into your camera therefore wider open f-stops. But with more wide open f-stops you have much less depth of field. This means instead of looking for compositions that have everything in focus from near to far you must instead look for compositions that are flatter with much less inherent depth of field.
Let me go over that one more time. Lets say that you want a composition with everything in focus. If you are on a tripod you can shoot at very small f-stops (f16 or f22) bring the foreground into just a couple of feet away and blast away confident that you will have enough depth of field to get everything in focus. You don’t care about your shutter speed because you are on a tripod. If you are hand holding instead then you do care about your shutter speed. If you try to set up the same composition hand holding as with the tripod using f16 or f22 you won’t have enough shutter speed. So you open up your f-stop and find that at f5.6 you get a shutter speed of 30th of a second. But now your composition doesn’t work because you no longer have enough depth of field. Assuming you still want a picture with everything in focus you will have to push back your foreground to being no closer than 25 to 30 feet away. On a tripod you can get everything in focus from 2 feet to infinity; handheld at f5.6 or f8 it will be closer to 20 feet to infinity.
Now you can soften the restrictiveness of all this by cranking up your ISO but you can only go so far. Shooting at f16 at 1/4 of a second ISO 200 will give you the same exposure as f16 at 30th of a second at ISO 1600. Whenever I am in low light I will raise my ISO to 1600. If I’m in really low light I will shoot at ISO 2500 or even 3200. I know not all cameras can go up that high and still get high quality images but I bet yours can go higher than you think. Even with a higher ISO your depth of field isn’t going to change much though. This is because when hand holding your camera most people will choose to shoot at a stop or two higher shutter speed than to close down their f-stop.
Did I lose you along this long decision path? I’ll review: travel photography usually means hand holding your camera.
This means you need a fairly high shutter speed. You can do this by cranking up your ISO (don’t go too high!) in really low light and opening up your f-stop (to f4, f5.6 or f8). When you open up your f-stop you lose your depth of field. This means you must look for compositions that are flatter (less depth of field needed) and that start farther away (their closest point is 30 to 40 feet away from you).
Basically, you are wearing a different hat when you are shooting travel, a hat you have to remember you are wearing! You can’t hand hold a classic nature, wildlife or landscape photography shot so don’t try. You are not wearing those hats, you are wearing a travel photography hat. If you keep this straight and you follow the thinking I have outlined above your travel shots will soar.