Sunday, June 9, 2013

Travel Photography with a Twist

I've traveled to over 40 different countries in the world and seen different cultures, people and ways of life.  Every time I visit a country, whether for the first or tenth time, I find myself drawn to  watching people and enjoying the differences that each culture brings to the table.

When planning to travel to a destination I typically do some research into what’s available to photograph using the Internet to find photos and reviews of the “famous” places to know where to go and where to avoid.  I also use this time to find different or non-standard photos of the area to get a feel of other possibilities.

My travel photography reflects my photography interests rather than typical holiday snaps of family standing in front of famous buildings.  My thought is that, I have thousands of photos of my beautiful wife and two gorgeous daughters, so why do I need more of them when I’m travelling?  They don’t need to prove that they’ve been to a place, so unless I find something that I want to include them in, I typically don’t.

Travel Equipment

When packing for a trip I have a few guidelines that I try to follow:
  • As I have a family, I tend to try and travel light taking as little equipment as possible.
  • My go-to camera for travel is my Canon G12 due to size. If I take my Canon 5D MKII or my 1D X I’ll take my “travel lens” the 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Lens
  • I’ll take three to four 16GB cards if I know that I can buy more if needed.  If I’m not sure if I’ll be able to buy more cards, then I take as many as I have (but keep them in several places in case of accidental loss or theft).
  • I always take an external flash, or two, as I can’t stand straight flash due to it’s ability to make everyone look like a criminal.  The external flashes allow me to bounce flash off ceilings and walls to create nice big soft light.  I’ll take two flashes because I like to have one for backup as well as to use it as a master flash for off camera lighting. Canon flashes come with a small holder that can be used for off camera lighting.
  • I take a spare battery for my camera and a spare set of AA batteries for each of the flash units I take.  I also bring along chargers for both the camera and the AA batteries.  If I need to save space I’ll ditch the AA battery charger and buy AA batteries at the destination.
  • In general I don’t take a tripod as I have found other ways to steady my camera.  Sometimes I’ll take a gorilla pod that can double up as light stand for off camera lighting.
  • If I’m travelling locally I’ll take my DSLRs with a few lenses, wide, normal & telephoto.
Due to various public incidents of theft at airports with checked in baggage I always carry my camera and flashes in my hand carry, but pack everything else into my check-in luggage.  This way I can also take pictures in the airport and on the plane if I want to.

When arriving at the destination I have my list of go-to subject matters that I shoot which covers: People, Streets, Buildings and Landscapes.  With all of these subject matters I also look for opportunities to shoot abstract images.


People to me are the essence of travel.  There are times when the absence of people provides the essence of a place, like a deserted island or mountaintop, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Capturing local people is always on the top of my list.   I especially like older people for two reasons (1) they are generally friendlier and (2) their faces create wonderful images full of emotions

I photographed the gentlemen above in Turpan, Xinjang, China, which is a mainly Muslim area in North West China. He was one of two men over 100 years old and who made an income from people wanting to photograph them. The way he dressed was common in that area, but his face was priceless

I met this old man at a parasol making factory, in Chiang Mai which is the northern part of Thailand. I post processed the image to give a contrast of a hard life (the grunge look) with the happy face he had. He was genuinely happy and it came out in watching him make the parasols.

I love this above shot of the old man in a park in Hangzhou, China, which is located close to Shanghai. He was sitting there watching me watching him and didn’t mind me taking a photograph of him. The circular doorway helps to frame him nicely in the image. This photograph is actually a composite of two images as I couldn’t get the whole doorway in one frame. I took two photos quickly to capture the whole frame and them pieced them together in Photoshop – I used the brown lamp post as the divider which help hide the join.

When travelling I always suggest looking behind you every now and again, because more often than not you’ll be surprised at what you see. When I lived in the Philippines we used to travel every year to Donsol in the Bicol region to swim with the Whale Sharks. Much of the time is spent talking to friends and waiting for the guide to spot the sharks so you can dive in and swim with them. On this occasion I looked to the back of the boat and saw this great shot of the outlook shielded from the harsh sun and creates a strong image for the trip.

Sometimes you can find images using different view points. I was talking to my friend when visiting a church in Legaspi City when I saw the reflection of the church and Mayon volcano in her sunglasses and took the picture as an alternate to a straight on shot of the church.

I like to capture the mood of the places that I visit and what better way to relax at the beach than with a beer. As I was sitting talking to my friend, Michael, he raised the bottle to his lips and created this strong image of cool refreshing beer with blue skies and ocean behind him. In this case it wasn’t hard to convince my friend to pose for a few shots and reward him with a few cold beers in return!

The thing I love about photography guidelines is breaking them. This photo not only creates a great memory of time spent with friends at the beach (I seem to do that a lot!), but leaves the viewer asking what the girl in the middle is pointing at. This is great for sparking conversation about what is going on in the image.

I love walking around streets wherever I go (see Street Scenes below). I like to capture people do things, but in this case I saw a man looking after his grandchild who was sitting in a Styrofoam box with the words 2 Yuan (the local currency – about USD0.15). The grandfather was more than happy for me to take a photo of him and the child.

American Football

Girls Lacrosse

Although I currently live in America, I still consider myself a tourist/foreigner. As part of travelling I look out for unique things about the country I am visiting and each country seems to have sports specific to them. Where I live school sports are intense and American Football and Lacrosse are two sports that I had not seen before. Look in newspapers for local sports happening or ask your hotel for information about local sports in that area.

I enjoy watching different performances when visiting a country and capturing these wonderful events. I never thought someone could do so many tricks with hats until I saw this acrobatic troupe in Shanghai, China. The great things about performances is that the lighting is typical very good and you don’t need to a flash. Just remember to reduce exposure by about 1 stop to stop the camera from over exposing because of all the dark parts of the stage.

I’m a terrible at finding frames to use when travelling, which is why that’s me in the boat rowing. My wife took this photo and used the trees to frame the children and me in the boat.

Sometimes it makes sense to pay a professional to take your photos for you. In this case it was my daughter who was skydiving and I wanted to capture the moment. This was a great time to pay the professional for risking his life and not mine!

Street Scenes

Where people are the essence of travel, streets give you the fragrance of a place.  The streets of any city, town or village provide an insight into the history, culture, religion and values of the place you are visiting. 

A word of caution here: each place you visit will be different and it’s important for you to understand how safe the streets are in terms of crime as well as transportation.  An example is Shanghai, where the streets are very safe in terms of crime but are a nightmare in terms of avoiding being hit by cars, bike and motorcycles.  Always be aware of your surroundings and don’t get caught being so engrossed in taking a photo that you’re not aware of what’s going on around you.

Local artists, no matter if it’s mime, art or music, always get my attention, as they provide an insight into both traditional and modern forms of art. 

Night markets in Thailand are an amazing experience for all your senses, from the smell and taste of local foods, to the sights of people and produce and the sounds of local buskers. The man here seemed to have made his own kind of guitar with pickups and a built in microphone on the top to sing into. People always amaze me with their creativity.

This photo was taken in Cambridge, UK. When I can I will talk to the artists to find out more about who they are and what they are doing. The man’s name if Dicky Deegan who plays an amazing instrument call the Uilleann Pipes, which is an Irish bagpipe and has an amazing sound that alternates between sounding like a typical bagpipe to a clarinet to a flute.

Singapore is an interesting place, but compared to other Asia cities Singapore’s streets are relatively sterile. I came across this lady playing a hang drum in Orchard Road and was mesmerized by the sound of the instrument. The great thing about modern day DSLRs is that they also record video and capture the sound of the instruments as well.

Graffiti is not typically associated with Asia, so, when living in Shanghai, we found out about a wall in the middle of the city dedicated to graffiti artists I had to visit.

When we arrived at Moganshan Lu we found a European in action and watched for a while as he went about his art form.

It was interesting to see people passing in the street stop and be mesmerized and intrigued by this art form.  Cars and taxis would stop on the street for a while and watch the artist. 

Seeing people’s reactions to different situation on the streets give you a good sense for what’s normal and what’s different.  In this situation people were all intrigued by what was going on, whereas I saw a man in New York walking around on his hands, and people didn’t even turn their heads to look!

I also like to capture tools of the trade when I see people at work. In this case it was the paints and spray cans being used. In other cases I will take close ups of the instruments, cooking utensils, dance costumes etc, to capture more detail.

Streets are great to find great backdrops for family shots and portraits. This is my youngest daughter in Moganshan Lu with one of the graffiti designs. You can see more photos here

I like brick walls for backgrounds and different types of brick and finish give a wonderful variety for portraits. I often have my family pose in front of brick walls to pose for portrait shots – even when we are on holiday!

When I’m indoors visiting an attraction, I’m always looking for ‘different’ shots. In this photo we were visiting an aquarium in Shanghai with some friends and people were taking photos on automatic mode with their flashes creating horrible reflections in the glass of each of the aquariums. I turned around and saw my friend’s daughter staring at the Jelly fish, creating a wonderful silhouette. Had I used the flash it would have been a horrible picture. By turning off the flash I was able to capture the translucence of the jelly fish, the deep blue of the water and the intrigue of the girl looking at the jelly fish.

Crowds are excellent for street travel photography, as they provide a snapshot of a moment in time of so many different people.

The shot above was taken in Cambridge, UK and is a popular tourist destination. In European countries, I often find people sitting around like this. Old people talking, children playing lovers hugging or whispering to each other. They make for intriguing photos that often lead me to question what is going on in the photo.

When in Shanghai, China, during Chinese New Year, we didn’t see many people sitting around, rather there were just throngs of people sightseeing, queuing for food, shops etc. Just walking through this is an assault on all your senses.

A common sight in China is seeing clothes hanging on bamboo poles outside of the building. Every time friends came to visit us they were intrigued to see this. From living in China for a while we knew that Chinese people think it’s important to have clothes dried in the sun rather than artificially by machines. When seeing something that’s different to your own way of life, don’t just take a photo, but try and find out why it’s different. Who knows you may discover a better way to do something.

Although I like to take pictures or ceremonies which reflect the culture of where I am visiting, I also like it when I stumble upon ceremonies with a twist. In this case this married couple were taking photos in the middle of Shanghai and took a number of jump shots in front of an Apple store, which I personally haven’t seen before.

Similar to local artists, I like to walk around the streets and find local businesses or workers in action.

This is a photo of a husband and wife business who business is fixing leather goods. The street is their shop and the sign in front is their advertisement.

Here’s a photo that I call “bring your child to work day”. This man’s job was sifting sand to get rid of stones, which he did by throwing a shovel of sand against a wire mesh. It was hard work and his son was fascinated by what his father was doing.

The tricycle is a main inner city form of logistics transportation in Shanghai, China. There are many tricycles that carry a wide variety of goods, and in some cases in unbelievable quantities. Sometimes there the quantity is so large and/or heavy that the drivers have to push the tricycles

I love taking photos of food in the street, mainly because I know I’m going to eat some after I’ve taken the photo - never before though, as I may forget to take the photo!

When taking street food photos I like to get both a wide shot to capture the environment and then a close up to capture the detail of the food.

Apart from the food and environment I also like to capture the action of preparing and cooking the food.

Whenever possible I also try and capture the ingredients and color of food.

Of course, when we come across strange food, like this 4 pound hamburger you just got to get the family shot!

Buildings and Architecture

I’m not an architecture expert and typically don’t have a lot of interest in photographing buildings for the sake of it.  I do have some excepts though:

Reflections: I think that buildings always look better with a reflection in them as it creates a sense of reflecting on the history of the place.

Reflections of buildings in water are not common, but create a pleasant experience when photographed properly.

The above photos are of Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, China. The first one is a typical shot of a tall building. After taking the shot I turned around to go into another shopping mall and saw the reflection on the building in the windows of the shopping mall. Having the Louis Vuitton logo in the shot gives a very different interpretation to the building shot.

I like to capture buildings that are different sizes from what I consider ‘normal’. In this photo from Shanghai China, you can see the Jin Mao Tower on the left and the Shanghai World Financial Tower on the right. The buildings in front are all about 30-40 floors tall, giving a good idea of how tall these buildings are.

As I’m not a big fan of buildings I typically find a few postcards of local famous buildings, find out where they were taken and try and replicate them. I know this doesn’t sound very inspiring, but as I said buildings don’t excite me. My only tip here would be to find the place where the postcard shot was taken and then walk around to see if you can find a better angle.

One of the things I do like about buildings are the details which I find capture a lot more character of the place I’m visiting than taking a picture of the building as a whole.

I am a sucker for sunsets and buildings lit at night, and cities around the world have great skylines which light up at night. I don’t travel with a tripod very often so I have found other ways to steady my camera up against windows, on walls and even on lampposts.

The Bund sits on the west side of the Huang Pu river that cuts through the center of Shanghai, China. It’s a collection of old buildings each which have an interesting history from before the second world war. Each night it is lit up ‘to perfection’. I haven’t found a better series of synchronized lit buildings anywhere else in the world. The above picture was taken at a New Year’s eve party from a window in the Hyatt on the Bund that overlooks the Bund. The camera lens was pressed flat against the window to ensure that I didn’t move. I also bracketed the shot at -2, -1 and 0 stops and chose the -2 stops image above as my favorite. Taking night time shots means that you have to take control of the camera by switching off the flash and forcing the camera to underexpose

Nighttime skyline photos are best taken while there is still some light rather than being pitch black like the previous image - unfortunately I can’t control the fact that New Year starts at midnight ☺ The above image is another view of the Bund in Shanghai with the Pearl in the front. Getting up high at sunsets in cities makes for a wonderful experience, although I recommend that you get there at least 1-2 hours earlier, as it is a popular time for people to relax and celebrate the end of another day.

This is a photo of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  I had two problems to deal with taking this shot:
  1. The buildings are very brightly lit and it took me a while to adjust my exposure until I felt I had the right settings.
  2. I didn’t have a tripod, wall or window to set the camera on.  Fortunately I had stopped down the exposure to get it fast enough to allow me to brace myself and the camera to get this shot.

When visiting tall buildings most people tend to spend their time looking out at the skyline and the horizon. Whenever I am on a tall building enjoying the scenery I take time to also look down and see if I can find anything interesting. In this case the patterns that the various circles created along with the people caught my eye and spent some time composing the above image

I have an affinity towards abstract images so looking for abstract art in buildings when travelling is part of my go-to travel shots.

Many tourists visiting Thailand at one time or another will visit a temple and will be drawn to the mystique of the experience. This shot was taken, after feeling very hot and looking up in the sky for any sign of clouds, only to see the moon, blue sky and the red & white building all aligned perfectly for a shot (P.S. I need to remember to look up more!)

I fell in love the first time I saw the roof of St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori Parish Church in Manila, Philippines. I knew I wanted to photograph it and went to visit the site several times to get this image. The strong red of the roof against the deep blue sky with the strong angles make this one of my favorite simple images.


I have to confess that if there is one area of photography that I suck at it is Landscapes. I don’t seem to be able to translate the amazing vast beauty that lies in front of me into a picture that satisfies me. That said I do have two things that I have learned about landscape photography when travelling.

I recently went skiing with my family in Whistler, Canada. Whistler is about outdoors, skiing and big mountains. Because I was skiing I took my Canon G12 camera with me, so that I wouldn’t damage myself or my equipment when I fell down. One day we sat down for lunch at the top of the mountain and I was in awe of the view from our seats.
I tried several shots wide open to capture the awesomeness in front of me but was disappointed with each image. I then decided to try and take a series of shots and stitch them together in Photoshop. Because of the snow I set my camera to manual and overexposed by 1 stop. This meant that every image would be exposed the same, which is much easier to put together later in Photoshop. The result was the above image which is the first image I have taken that has come close to the original image I saw eating lunch.

The other thing I’ve learned to do is, when you’ve found something that you want to photograph, to walk around and change your point of view. The above two shots of Mayon Volcano, in Legaspi, Philippines are taken about 100 yards from each other on the same day. Although the volcano is similar the foreground completely changes the feel of each image. Not only did I change my point of view from a location I also changed the height of each shot. The river bed was shot on the bank of the stream standing up to try and capture the winding stream. The bed of flowers was captured at knee height to create a solid pattern of flowers and create a more dynamic shot.

As I’ve mentioned earlier I enjoy experiencing sunsets, and travelling around the Philippines let me experience some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever experienced. I try to capture activity as well as the sunset to add another dimension to my photos.

This photo was taken at Donsol in the Philippines after a great day swimming with Whale Sharks, which is the main tourist attraction in the area. During the sunset this banca boat pulled up and the men got to work unloading the dive tanks from their day’s work. I walked around until I caught the men in the sun to create a stronger silhouetted image.

One of my favorite destinations for sunset watching is Boracay Island in the Philippines. It’s almost impossible not to get a great sunset shot their! This shot took a mixture of luck and patience. The luck part was having so many boats on the sea at one time. The patience part was waiting for the boat to just get past the sun.


As I mentioned above in the abstract building section, I have an affinity towards abstract images. No matter what or where I’m shooting I’m always looking for abstract images. I don’t necessarily look for abstract images that reflect the place I’m visiting, but every now and again I find a few that do capture part of the place’s essence.

This was taken at a skating rink in a shopping mall in the Philippines. My wife loves shopping and I love the air conditioning so it’s a win-win situation. I saw this group of people looking down at the ice rink and the sun came out and the ceiling skylight created a nice pattern to highlight them against. I played around with the white balance back at home and ended up setting it to Tungsten to create this blue affect.

Looking down frequently reveals nice surprises. This image was taken in the Science Museum in Shanghai, China, and I was fascinated by the fact that people would feel comfortable lying down on a carpet in a public indoor space. Whenever I look at the crowd in this image I end up asking questions about when each of the people are talking/thinking about.

I often find abstract images in patterns of shapes. In this case it was a tray of uncooked dumplings, which I love to each (once cooked!) and also, I found out, create a strong pattern in a photo.

Colors also create strong abstract images. This photo was taken in a park near Nelson, New Zealand on the south island. This is a place where spring water flows up from the ground creating an amazingly colorful and peaceful scene.

As mentioned in reflections in buildings above, I like reflections and find that they can create wonderful abstract images of places I visit. This image was taken from my bedroom window of the reflections in the building across from the hotel I was staying in.

In this article I’ve covered what I look for when traveling to different countries. I pack light and focus a lot of attention to people and street scenes, which I believe are the essence of any place I am visiting. Although I may not be strong in architecture or landscape photography, I deal with this subjects in a more abstract manner. Lastly I’m always on the hunt for good abstract images. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article. As always you can contact me at with any questions or comments.