Dear friend, when you’re traveling on the road and shooting photos I recommend trying to shoot a photography project. Why? It will give you a focus during your trip, and also yield you something tangible by the end of your trip!
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, TRAVEL NOTES. Subscribe to ERIC KIM NEWSLETTER to be notified once the book is available!
Here are some project ideas:
1. Shoot your whole trip only on 35mm film (one type of film)
Before your trip, load up on some 35mm film! If you want to shoot color I recommend Kodak Portra 400. For black and white film, I recommend Kodak Trix 400 film.
Generally my suggestion is to budget 3 rolls of 35mm film for each day of your travels. So if you’re traveling for 7 days, buy 21 rolls of 35mm film. For two weeks, 40 rolls of 35mm film. Realistically you’re probably only going to shoot 1-2 rolls a day, but when you’re traveling it’s always to have more film than less film.
The benefit of shooting only film while traveling: fewer distractions! You don’t need to worry about looking at your photos until the very end of your trip. Also surprisingly, traveling with film is actually better than digital because you’re not paranoid about hard drives crashing. And it’s okay to xray ISO 400 film at the airport scanners, it won’t damage or ruin your film (trust me, I’ve done this in India, Philipines, Vietnam, etc with no problems).
2. Stick to one neighborhood
For this project, only photograph one neighborhood you find interesting while abroad!
Generally I think it’s better to get to know one area or neighborhood very well instead of knowing many areas superficially. The benefit of sticking to one neighborhood is you’ll get to become a “local” at certain coffee shops, restaurants, and folks in the neighborhood will probably recognize you!
Do a project of that neighborhood and title the project the name of the neighborhood. Present a little mini photo essay or story on the neighborhood, and make it 15-20 photos long.
3. Transportation project
I’ve found some of the best places to shoot while traveling is on public transportation; the subway, the bus, and even at the airport, or anywhere in transit. Even while inside a taxi or uber!
You can do the entire photo project on “transit”. Photograph local commuters, urban landscapes, and portraits of people who you meet!
4. Document something personal to you
Ultimately I think the purpose of traveling should be for us to reflect on ourselves, our life, and to also better understand the rest of the world. But I feel the final goal is that travel can give us the space, quiet, and meditative reflective time to reflect on the following things:
- What do I wish to be my purpose in life?
- What relationship do I have with other people?
- What’s truly valuable to me in life?
When I traveled to Saigon for the first time, I learned Vietnamese, and I learned about Cindy. Cindy’s family fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, and having never been to Vietnam, I used it as an opportunity to better understand her Vietnamese-American culture:
Stay consistent to a single aesthetic for the entire trip
Another practical tip: stick to a consistent aesthetic for the entire trip, which means shoot the whole trip in either color or black and white.
I’d suggest: decide whether to shoot monochrome or color once you arrive at your target destination! Because you’ll never know until you get there.
If you’re shooting film, just take a small chance and commit to either black and white or film before your trip. Either way, treat it like a fun “creative constraint”.
Consider, if you watch a film and it shifts between black and white and color. Wouldn’t that distract you?
Another idea: you can shoot both monochrome and color during your trip but just separate them into two series or sets. Because having a different aesthetic will change the mood.
Travel photography composition tips
Treat your travel trip as a chance for you to improve and work on your composition as well as a chance for you to make interesting photos!
Some basic tips and guidelines to make better travel photos from a composition perspective:
1. Keep it simple:
Don’t show too much in the frame. Keep it simple by getting closer to your subject and filling the frame. As a practical tip, when you’re shooting, look at the background and the edges of the frame, and try to subtract distractions!
For example if you see a busy street scene, don’t frame everything. Find one aspect of the street scene you find interesting, and focus on that!
2. Hand gestures, body gestures, and eye contact
To capture more emotions and dynamism in your travel photos, don’t just photograph people just standing around, being static like statues. Capture people who are moving, using hand gestures, flailing their arms, tilting their body, or making different facial expressions.
So when you’re shooting on the streets, don’t click until you see an interesting gesture; either body, hand, or facial.
Another tip: also try to take photos of your subjects making eye contact with you and your lens, to create more intimacy in your photos!
Juxtaposition is the art of making a more powerful artistic statement by putting two elements next to one another which are both similar and contrasting at the same time.
Youth vs elderly: A photo with both young and old person in the frame
Modern vs traditional: (a photo of a Range Rover next to a traditional building, a photo of a youth with bleached hair next to a woman with a traditional head scarf, or kids on their smartphones next to older customs)
4. Pure aesthetic beauty
Your photos don’t need to have some super deep, overarching statement about humanity. Often making beautifully aesthetic photos are meaningful as well!
This means making photos when the light is good (sunrise and sunset), or shooting beautiful scenes, colors, shadows, shapes and forms.
5. Shoot a variety of photos
If you want to make a good photo series, have a variety of photos. Variety is the spice of life!
Have some closeup portraits, have some urban landscapes, have some environmental portraits shot a little bit further away which shows context and the scene, details of interesting things you find, and a variety of colors, textures, and subject matter.
For good inspiration, study great cinematography from directors like Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa, and see how they add variety to their photos. Study the angles they shoot from, the variety of angles (high angle and low angle), and the different scenes and times of day they photograph.
6. Triangle composition
A simple yet effective composition to practice when you’re shooting and traveling is the triangle composition. The basic idea is this: limit your photo to 3 subjects, and photograph them in a rough triangle shape.
A triangle composition will balance the frame, yet add visual intrigue and strength.
7. Layers and depth
Don’t just shoot flat and two dimensional photos. Capture more depth and layers in your photo by keeping your aperture at f8, and focus on what’s furthest away (around 5 meters). Try to put subjects in your scene at different distances — some of your subjects very far away, some of your subjects super close, and others in the middle ground.
8. Repetition and breaking the pattern
A simple composition you can do: try to find a certain repeating pattern or concept, and include one thing in the frame which breaks the pattern.
For example if you photograph a bunch of umbrellas that are blue, try to find an umbrella that’s a different color (like red). Or if you photograph a lot of dogs in a frame, include one cat that stands out, and breaks the pattern.
9. Off-center subject
If you’re photographing a single subject, don’t always center them. Put your subject either to the far left or the far right of the frame.
10. Show scale
Take some photos that show a sense of scale, by photographing from rooftops that make the people look very small. Or shoot from very far away, to make the subjects look super small, and make the buildings look big and intimidating.
On photographing clichés
Don’t worry if someone else has shot it before you did; you haven’t shot it before!
Just try to do it a little differently than you saw it before.
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