Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why your needs for a Guerrilla travel photographer - and how to become a

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A Guest Post by Tony Page from Travel Signposts.

You know, as a Guerrilla Travel Photographer I often find myself thinking that some people who give us advice about taking photographs when we’re traveling need a reality check.

Okay, a lot of their advice is fine in an ideal situation, but the problem is we’re usually not in an ideal situation. There’s a lot of difference between the ideal when you’ve got plenty of time and the reality when you haven’t, and people don’t place enough emphasis on the latter.

Most of us are forced to be Guerrilla Travel Photographers by necessity. We can only fantasize about having all the time in the world to think about our shots, to wait for the right light, to choose different viewpoints, to have cooperative and colourful model talent, to try different technical approaches, all with a supportive crew behind us to carry our bags, bring us cool drinks, and mop our brow.

OK, I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean. In the words of an immortal Australian,

“Tell ‘im he’s dreamin’!”

For most of us, although we love taking photographs when we are on the road, it is not the only thing competing for our attention. Lots of us have significant others, children or friends who while appreciating our hobby, are not committed to it in the same way we are. So we have to take our chances when we can, “seize the moment” and take advantage of any opportunities that come our way. We have to be Guerrilla Travel Photographers.

Let’s have a bit more photographic how-to advice with an aggressively practical spin, that starts off with the assumptions that the light’s wrong, the subject’s difficult, we don’t have any time and we’re not using the latest and greatest gear. Sound familiar? Because that’s the likely reality for most of us.

And that’s what this post is all about …travel photography in a real world! In this and tomorrow’s post, I’ve put down a few guerrilla travel photography basics that I hope will start you thinking. And if you’ve got a few tips that will help, please share them in the comments. Good shooting!

It’s always worthwhile finding out something about the places you’re going to travel to before you leave home, whatever your reason for taking photographs. Obviously, you’d have to do more research if you were going to write a feature about the destination, but even if you are just travelling on holiday, getting some idea of the kind of things you might be photographing can be very useful and save a lot of time.

Where to Get Your Information

You already know the broad outline of places that you will be visiting, but you may have some flexibility as to the time. If so, it’s a good idea to check whether there are any festivals or special events going on at your destinations; these can often provide rewarding photo opportunities. Look up the local tourist boards on line, they often have calendars of events many months in advance, and travel websites frequently highlight upcoming festivals and other points of interest.

Even if you are not going on an organised tour, it can be worthwhile to check out tour itineraries covering the places you’re visiting: they will give you a good guide as to potential tourist sites and activities in which you may be interested. For Europe, have a look at Insight Tours, Globus and Trafalgar.

Gondolas near St Mark's Square, Venice. Visit the Tourist Office, it's just to the right of this shot. Photos like this from Travel Signposts give you an idea of what's available to shoot.

Get a Sneak Preview Before You Go

It’s also helpful to have an idea of what things look like before you’re standing in front of them. Get some ideas of what other photographers have thought was interesting by looking up your destinations on the big stock sites, like Getty or Corbis. Some travel websites also have galleries of photographs that can be helpful; for example, Travel Signposts has over 23,000 images of European and Mediterranean subjects designed to show you what places are really like, as opposed to simply glamorizing them.

I’m not suggesting that you copy these shots, but they will give you some idea of the different viewpoints and interesting features of your potential photographic subjects. This will really save you time when you finally get there, and as a guerrilla travel photographer, time is one of your most valuable commodities.

Before we get any further, let’s put another myth to rest. Some photographers seem to have a sort of macho belief that if you don’t use manual settings somehow you aren’t a REAL photographer. What a load of old cobblers! The only time I use manual settings is when I can’t get the camera to do what I want automatically. In many cases, I am quite happy to let the camera do the calculations while I concentrate on creating the image.

Fish outside a Bosphorus restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey. Canon Ixus 400, automatic flash.

Don’t Be Scared Of Auto Modes

Although a point-and-shoot camera is more limited when it comes to shooting modes, for example aperture priority or shutter priority, careful use of the various screen modes provided can help you get your shot. I rarely use only manual settings on my DSLR, tending to leave the camera on shutter priority for casual shooting, to minimise camera shake and freeze subject movement.

I also make use of the program mode; many people don’t realise how flexible this can be. With Nikon cameras and many others, if you don’t like the particular aperture/shutter combination selected, you can simply adjust the exposure value by dialling in the aperture or shutter speed you fancy and the camera will adjust the exposure accordingly. No need to switch to aperture or shutter priority at all.

Learn To Use Exposure Compensation

One manual control it’s useful to know about is how to adjust exposure compensation. On point-and-shoots, it’s often only reached by menu if it’s there at all, but in DSLRs it’s usually on a dial or wheel. I’ll mention some ways I use this later, but basically you set it to artificially increase or decrease your exposure to make up for mistakes made by your camera’s meter, when it is fooled by the light reflected from a beach or snow, for example.

Lagoon at twilight, Raratonga, Cook Islands. Canon Ixus 400.

White Balance: Don’t Chop and Change

As far as colour balance is concerned, while it is true that the auto balance setting on some cameras is not too accurate in mixed light, you won’t go far wrong in most circumstances you will meet when traveling if you just leave it on auto. Of course, it’s easy to make adjustments later if you’re shooting in raw format, and even with point-and-shoots, broad adjustments for example, for a cloudy day or tungsten light, can provide acceptable results. But if you start switching it around every few minutes you’re going to buy yourself some grief when you’re on the road shooting guerrilla style.

The great advantage of shooting in the studio is that you can control the light. Unless you’ve got a lot of time, you can’t pick and choose your light when you’re traveling. If I had to pick the greatest challenge I find myself facing while photographing on the road, it would have to be trying to create great images with the wrong lighting conditions.

The Problem with the “Golden Hours”

You’ve probably heard about the “Golden Hours”, the hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset, when the light is particularly flattering for photography. The problem is, there are an awful lot of hours in between when most of us will need to take some photographs! What’s more, if you’re shooting in Europe in summer, don’t forget that sunrise can be before 5 a.m. and sunset around 10 p.m. – that’s quite a spread.

Temple of Hatshepsut, Egypt: The pattern of the people is reminiscent of a Lowry painting, and retaining the intensity of the light captured the atmosphere - can you feel the heat?

Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out In the Midday Sun

Harsh, contrasty sunlight can be the bane of the travel photographer, but it’s no use bemoaning the fact that you should be shooting four hours later when four hours later you’ll be 100 km away. The same goes for dull weather; as a rule grey skies and rain make it more difficult to get interesting images, especially in cities with all those grey buildings.
Where you do have the choice, it is helpful if you can split your photo shooting into two sessions at the beginning and towards the end of the day to take advantage of the better light. However, for many of us on vacation that’s frankly impossible. That’s why we have to take our chances as guerrilla travel photographers!

At Noon, a Polarising Filter Is Your Friend

Harsh overhead light at midday is not all bad news, however. Polarising filters work best when the light is at 90° to the subject. Consequently, they are at their most effective in intensifying colour when the sun is overhead. So slap on the polariser, look for subjects with strong colours and create your compositions accordingly. Any shadows will drop out, of course, but think CSI Miami/Ken Rockwell vivid colour schemes rather than subtle shades and you won’t go far wrong.  And if you’re a point-and-shooter, it’s quite possible to hold a polarising filter in front of your lens (if a bit awkward), or just try shooting through your Polaroid sunglasses (that’s a real guerrilla photography tip).

Those deep shadows can also be used creatively to create striking graphic compositions. You can even do portraits, remember that great shot of Marlon Brando’s bald head coming out of the shadows in “Apocalypse Now”?

This post will be continued tomorrow on dPS where Tony will share another 4 tips for being a Guerrilla Photographer. Subscribe to dPS to be notified of part 2.

Tony Page is a professional photographer and writer. View his work at Travel Signposts. Tony will be launching a new eBook in the coming days and we’ll have a great discount for dPS readers (stay tuned on Thursday for details).

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