Last year, I dove deep into the world of outdoor travel photography. I reduced my camera equipment to a mirrorless micro 4/3 camera, a wide-angle lens, and a 70-200 lens and hopped on a plane. During those twelve months, I hit the streets of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. When I began my journey, my travel photography was pretty bad. However, one new technique changed everything, and it immediately enabled me to shoot more interesting photographs. The best part is, what I changed wasn’t an expensive piece of equipment, it was a simple but essential concept: place.
I want to challenge everyone who loves to travel to go beyond what you think travel photography is and shoot the places you visit in new ways. What do most people do when they travel? First, they look up some iconic buildings or settings. Next, they’ll visit those places. Lastly, they will take a photo of a building, monument, or town square that has been shot millions of times before because it’s the obvious composition that they see first.
However, that one shot shouldn’t be the end of your journey and connection with that place. In fact, it’s just the beginning. To really step over the threshold and into the realm of more thoughtful travel photography, spend thirty more minutes in that location. Observe it. Get familiar with it. Create a relationship with it. Now, try to capture this new connection in your photos. What I’m explaining is a concept known as “adding place.”
Place can be anything that enriches the connection of the viewer to the image. I mean it. It can literally be anything. Maybe you’re visiting a monument of Christopher Columbus in the Dominican Republic and the composition is really boring. After some studying and waiting, you notice a flock of pigeons who seem to frequent this very statue, so you incorporate them into your foreground. You’re adding place!
Let’s look at another example. Amsterdam is famous for the number of bikes there are in the city, even outnumbering the people that live there. So, instead of taking a basic shot of a side street, you patiently wait in the middle of the road (and risk your life) until some bikers pass by you for a nice addition to the photo. You’re adding place!
So, now you can hopefully see that place can be anything. Place can be interesting features, gardens, stories, history, facts, fun details, windows, cars, bikes, or long exposure lights. Place is anything that adds interest and information about the place that you’re shooting.
History can be a huge contributor of place in travel photography. In fact, some of the best photographs are usually the ones that have amazing stories behind them, and history itself is one really long story. So, when you learn about the history of a place, or a fun story detail, it’s always good to try to fit that story into the photograph.
Let’s look at an example. The center of Bruges has become a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its medieval architecture from the same time period. It was not destroyed during World War II after Hitler made a declaration that the city’s beauty be protected and not bombed during the war.
Now that you see the photograph and know more of the story behind the place, it may mean more to you than just some colorful buildings.
Your compositions also have a huge impact on how place is viewed in your travel photography. That’s right, just like you would construct a great composition of a mountain range, you must also construct an interesting composition of your travels if you want great results.
I’ve found that the easiest trick to include place into a composition is through a good foreground. If you don’t know what a foreground is, it’s usually a feature at the base of the photograph that draws the viewer into the image (usually shot with a wide-angle lens, but not always).
I had a field day with foregrounds in Amsterdam because it was so easy to get down low to the canals and create interesting compositions. First, there were obviously plenty of bikes to use as foregrounds.
But there were also boats that could be used as place foregrounds. Since Amsterdam is built on a canal system, there are plenty of boat tours and rental boats for tourists to use, so boats play a huge role in the city. This is another great opportunity to use this story as place.
Another example is this shot from Paris. While visiting the city of love, I could easily walk right up to the Eiffel Tower, the most iconic landmark, and snap a photo (which I did). However, I stayed there over an hour as the sun was setting to find an interesting element to add to the photo. It turns out that Paris has quite a few merry-go-rounds near some of its iconic locations. I found one to use that became my foreground and set the Eiffel Tower as more of a background element. This composition creates a very interesting balance between something that’s common in Paris with an iconic location.
Another composition tip you’ll find useful when adding place to your outdoor travel photography is the use of windows. I use windows a lot in landscape photography, shooting through holes in rocks or through leaves. It’s a great way to frame your subject more interestingly. However, it never dawned on me to use the same composition strategy in my travel photography until I spent an entire day at the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.
Spending an entire day at the Grand Place, I was able to shoot some of the most iconic buildings from multiple different angles. First, I found a very intricate doorway to tuck back into. I used the doors as leading lines, and then positioned the subject in the center of the doorway.
While I was taking a break, warming my frozen hands, and putting some much needed caffeine in my body to fight the jet lag, I noticed the tower of the same building through the Starbucks window next to the awning for the building.
Lastly, while exploring some side streets, I noticed some interesting archways that went down the sidewalk and framed the same building in another window!
This shows you that by just moving around and getting to know your subject, you can find multiple different windows that create dramatically different views and compositions.
You can also use natural elements as windows. For example, in Geneva, Switzerland I photographed this lighthouse through the natural window of the grass. I could have very easily shot this lighthouse with my 70-200 lens and it would have been fine. However, backing up and finding a more interesting natural window allowed me to frame this lighthouse with way more detail and place. The goal here is to make your viewer feel like they’re standing in the same location seeing exactly what you see.
What you will find when you become more aware of place in your outdoor travel photography will be more thoughtful and more prepared travel photos. Try spending thirty minutes at each location you shoot, and I guarantee you will be shooting better compositions and notice a lot more about each building, monument, or town square you shoot.
Fore even more on adding place to your travel photography, watch this video!
About the author: When David Johnston isn’t leading photography workshops and tutorials or hosting his popular photography podcast, Photography Roundtable, he can be found traveling the world taking photos to awe and inspire his viewers. David has a passion for sharing his knowledge of photography and has many educational offerings designed to help photographers improve their work. Visit his website at www.photographyroundtable.com.
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