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10 Common Mistakes Aspiring Travel Photographers Make And How To Avoid Them

Eiffel tower reflection in camera lenses

As you can gather from the title, this post relates to travel photography. However, I want to note that travel photography is a broad topic and so for most part, the mistakes that I’ll discuss here are actually made by the majority of those of us who are in the beginning of our journey into the world of photography, regardless of the genre we’re involved in.

Because I wanted to go into some detail and to provide some visual examples, we’ve decided to split this post up into two parts. Without further ado, here’s part I and check back for part II tomorrow.

1. Having misconceptions about equipment

The two main misconceptions that we most often have about equipment when we’re starting out in photography are:

  • The latest, greatest gear results in better photos.
  • The gear you have is not good enough because your images are not. In other words you blame the equipment.

A camera doesn’t take the photo, nor does any piece of photographic equipment. Photos are made by you – the photographer. Sure in some very rare cases you might have a technical issue with a camera body or a lens, but for most part that’s not the concern. Most of the essential photographic gear is better than good enough these days, it has been for the last five years or so (with the development of affordable digital SLRs), one just has to know how to use it to its full potential.

My advice here in short is – forget about chasing the latest, greatest stuff. Get out there with what you have, figure out how to get the most out of your equipment, learn when to use one lens over another, when to use a tripod and of course, learn about the basics of photography – setting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. This might seem like the most obvious advice imaginable, but somehow so many aspiring photographers still think that it’s all about the equipment you have, there’s just nothing further from the truth.

2. Not Researching

When I refer to research, I simply mean gathering as much information as possible about the place you’re traveling to. The best time/season to travel, the DOs and DON’Ts, the modes of transportation – these are the necessities, that we must find out about before every trip in order to have a smooth experience not only as far as photographing, but traveling in general.

Beyond the necessities, when photography is the main focus of your trip, it’s worth finding out as much as possible about what’s visually special in the place you’re going to. Sometimes this isn’t going to be obvious, you might have to dig a little, but when you do, a great number of photographic opportunities arise.

I’ve chosen to include the image above because the story behind it is a good example of what even simple research can lead to. The photo depicts a Namboodiri boy (priest caste) chanting the Vedhas (which can be described in short ancient Indian bits of wisdom) in a traditional Vedhic school in the town of Thrissur. This place (the school) is not a major attraction, it’s not something that the regular visitor travels to Thrissur for, but to me it provided an incredibly interesting photographic opportunity. Despite the fact that I would have never just wandered in there by random chance, as the school is isolated from the main town, it wasn’t at all hard to find it or gain access to shoot there, it was simply a matter of knowing that it existed.

The reason I knew about it is very simple – I researched and by this I don’t mean that I did something complicated and difficult. I went into the tourist office and chatted to the staff there, telling them that I’m a photographer and that I’m keen to see anything that’s visually interesting and unique in their town. After “picking their brains” for about an hour I got a few bits of useful information and the traditional Vedhic school was one of the places I realised I just had to check out.

3. Not looking beyond the main attraction

A lot of travel destinations have “must see”, “must photograph” main attractions. Sometimes we get so obsessed with getting an image of these attractions that we fail to see the subjects around them which could be equally or even more photographically interesting.

I’ve been guilty of this numerous times in the past and so these days I consciously force myself to look at what else there is to photograph besides the obvious. Sometimes this might even mean that I stay at a place for an extra day or two. I photograph the main attraction and then discover the lesser known yet still photo-worthy subjects. This is how the following image came to be. It was taken in Bromo National park.

During my first couple of days I shot what everyone shoots there – the Bromo volcano and the neighbouring mountains, from different viewpoints. On the third day, rather than make my way to another viewpoint from which to photograph the volcano and mountains at sunrise, I decided to purposely focus my attention elsewhere. I rode around the area on a rented motorcycle and noticed the spectacular scene of these horsemen walking in the fog through the surrounding volcanic desert.

4. Not being aware of light

Not being aware of light means that you simply shoot whatever you see in any given lighting conditions without giving much thought to the whole matter. Your results might have impact on the viewer every now and then and they might sometimes reflect what you want to say and how you feel about what you see, but more often than not that won’t be the case.

Being aware of light means that you know there are different kinds of light and that the way your image looks will greatly depend on the light you shoot it in. This of course also means that you can make a conscious effort to photograph in the kind of light which will reflect what you want to say and how you feel about the subject you’re photographing.

Let’s look at a simple example.

The landscape in the image above looks beautiful, vibrant and dramatic because it is lit by the golden light during sunrise. I made a conscious decision to photograph in this kind of light because I knew that it would bring the colours present in this scene to life and it would basically “beautify” everything.

The light enabled me to create an image that reflected what I wanted to say – how beautiful Transylvanian countryside is, as well as to communicate the excitement which I felt. Had I photographed the same scene without considering light, I could have very well ended up with something much less dramatic. I would have likely just photographed the landscape the first time I saw it and that was on an overcast day, when the light made everything look rather grey and drab.

5. Avoiding artificial light

As we get a little more familiar with light and begin to develop an understanding of how it effects our photographs, a lot of us tend to move away from using artificial light, especially flashes.

The reason most of us do this is because we don’t have enough knowledge about artificial light. It’s true that the on-camera flash should indeed be avoided at all costs, but it’s not the only available artificial lighting option and avoiding artificial light altogether means you’ll never see what you can achieve with it, which in my opinion is a big mistake.

The artificial lighting tools that I consider a great addition to any serious travel photography enthusiast’s kit are an off camera flash in a softbox and/or a reflector. The reason these tools are great is that they allow you to control the light or to manipulate it. This opens one up to a whole range of creative opportunities or even opportunities to make photographs in situations where it would be impossible to do so otherwise. The following image is a good example of this.

The only reason I could make this shot was because I had the artificial light from an off-camera flash in a softbox “assisting” the light from the fire, which on its’ own was no where near strong enough to allow me to make the kind of photo I wanted.

Without getting into too much more detail because of the constraints of a blog post, I will say that artificial light is a very exciting topic. If you’re interested in learning more about it, particularly portable, artificial light in the form of an off-camera flash and a reflector, you can check out my eBook “Seeing the Light”, which was featured on DPS a while a go. Find out more about Seeing the Light.

6. Forgetting about communicating from within the frame – composition

When we travel, the new, exotic sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming or they can get us so excited that we easily forget that with an image we’re not only capturing memories, but can also communicate what we want to say or how we feel about the subject in front of the camera. In other words we forget about the way we frame the shot, about composition.

It’s happened to me plenty of times during the early stages of my own photographic journey, particularly on my first trip to India. When I arrived in that amazing country there was just such a myriad of incredible characters and places, that excitement took over and I got a little “trigger happy”. I pointed the camera in the direction of anything and everything I found interesting, snapping away without ever considering what my photos would say and how they would be perceived by others.

When I returned and saw those images more objectively, I realised that only a small percentage of them was any good. A few times I managed to get strong shots on instinct and luck alone, but in most cases you’d see people’s vital body parts “cut off” because of how I’d frame the shot or there would be too much irrelevant visual clutter in the frame, making it unclear just what in the world the photo was actually about.

Eventually I learned that sometimes before pressing that shutter button it’s important to pause, regroup, get your thoughts together and consider what you actually want to say and communicate from within the frame of a photograph and how to do it in the best possible way.

7. Thinking that photos which capture dramatic or interesting moments are lucky shots

The image at the top of this article might seem like the result of pure luck, it’s easy to believe that I was simply in the right place at the right time, but that isn’t entirely true. I’m not denying that luck can play a big part when it comes to making these sorts of images, but it is certainly not the only factor. The more experienced photographers will usually tell you that great “images of moments” are created when luck meets preparation. Image #1 is the result of such a “meeting”.

I was prepared because I had a rough idea of what I wanted to photograph – I researched and I became familiar with the location. I knew that I’d find interesting characters like this Saddhu (Indian holy man/ascetic) in the area where I took the photo and I understood which scenes had the most photographic potential. The scene of those pigeons taking to the air is something I had observed several times before; they were always in the same spot every morning, because one man would always feed them at this time – I wanted to somehow work them into my image.

All that I needed to make the shot that I had envisioned was for all the necessary elements to align. You could say that I got lucky because of the way they did align. I must admit that there’s no way I would have imagined that the dog, (which I think adds a lot to the image) would appear in the scene like that. But ultimately it is because I was prepared that I was able and ready to take advantage of the situation when luck came my way.

8. Not taking enough photographs

What’s “enough” is of course subjective. My meaning of “not enough” is not doing any of the following; exploring different angles and viewpoints, photographing a person in action at different stages of that action, experimenting with the settings (exposure, ISO, shutter speed) and possibly even with different lenses.

One thing that I and most of the experienced travel photographers have learned through at times painful lessons is that it’s always better to take more photographs than what you need, for the simple fact that if you’ve got a photo-worthy situation, you’re not necessarily going to be able to recreate it or come back to it ever again, so make the most of your chances.

The examples above should give you a better understanding of what “enough” looks like.

I actually took much more photos than what you see here, but you can get the idea of what I was trying to do through the images that I’ve provided. I explored the scene photographically from different angles and captured the woman’s movement through different stages.

By doing this I gave myself the chance to create one or even a couple of images that I was particularly happy with.

The image to the right is the one that works best for me.

9. Not interacting or connecting with people when making portraits

Photographing people can be a daunting task and the interaction is often what a lot of us shy away from. It’s certainly possible to make powerful, candid portraits with a long lens without having any interaction with the subject whatsoever, but limiting ourselves to this technique means that we’re not giving ourselves the slightest chance to create something really special.

Sometimes the interaction and the connection the photographer makes with the subject are obvious in the photograph. There’s a certain trust and openness that often come out in the way the subject gazes through the lens. But the benefits of interacting and connecting also go beyond the obvious.

When the photographer establishes rapport with the subject, it means that he/she is no longer just a random passer-by, but someone who the subject sympathises with and this very fact can lead to the creation of photographs that would otherwise be impossible.

The story behind the above image demonstrates the point rather well. The man in the photo is a sulphur miner who works at Indonesia’s famous Ijen crater. Over the few days I spent at this place I actually became friends with him.

Because of our friendship we were both comfortable with the idea of me following him around and taking photos as he made his journey to the crater. In a sense the photographic process became a collaboration; I’d sometimes ask him to slow down or to look in one direction or another as I was making photos and he gladly went along with my requests. When I recognised the perfect setting for a portrait (that dramatic mountain backdrop) I suggested that my friend take his usual cigarette break there rather than a few hundred meters ahead. Our “collaboration” allowed me an extra level of creative control over the scene and led to a more powerful image, but it’s not necessarily something I could have expected from a person with whom I didn’t interact or connect with before and I certainly could not have expected the same if I simply made the photo using a long lens from afar.

10. Not leaving the group

This applies more to people who go on group tours on group photo workshops. While such ways of traveling certainly have their benefits, there are also undoubtedly some disadvantages. Here are those which I find to be most significant:

  • It is extremely hard if not impossible to get intimate with the subject. The fact that there’s a whole group of people looking at or photographing the same person can feel rather confrontational and overwhelming to any “normal” person.
  • Usually you don’t have the freedom to be spontaneous because you’re not the only one making the decisions. While I’m all for planning and being organised, sometimes spontaneity can provide a great creative spark and leads to some unexpectedly special images.
  • Your experiences are less personal, not necessarily only because you’re following the group, but because being around other people inevitably influences the way one sees and experiences things.

Despite these disadvantages I’m not saying that one should never travel in a group altogether. What I am saying is that it would be really beneficial to set aside some time for yourself, to have your own, personal experiences in order, to make photos that resonate closely with you. How much time you set aside for yourself is up to you, but even a quick wander around the town in which you’re staying/stopping can lead to fascinating experiences and worthwhile photographic results.

I’ve chosen to include the above image because in some ways it embodies the beauty of just wandering around and searching for interesting photographic moments by yourself. It’s a photograph of a simple, subtle you could even say quiet, everyday-life moment and it’s interesting precisely because of that. It’s not something that I could have ever captured while traveling in a group – the child would have either run off or would have run towards the group out of immense curiosity. The very essence of what made the scene work – the quietness and subtlety would have been very quickly destroyed.

If you enjoyed this exploration of the topic of travel photography – check out Mitchell’s eBook – Transcend Travel: a Guide to Captivating Travel Photography.


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