Travel photography: How to take great travel photos

In these snap-happy times, great travel photography is rarer than ever.

Travel photography has never been more popular, more prevalent or more pertinent than it is now, thanks to the liberty unleashed by the likes of the iPhone, Instagram and Facebook. But, in this digital day and age, when everyone can be a photographer, what makes a truly great travel photograph? 

For starters, being able to take photos with phones and "sure-shot" cameras has bred a generation that is far less discriminating, according to Tony Amos, one of Australia's most respected professional travel photographers. Too often, people take endless photos without putting any thought or imagination into setting up the shot.

Ultimately, behind every great travel photograph, there is one constant: a great travel photographer. Someone who does their research, always carries the sort of device that can "make" (not "take") a photograph, and is sufficiently flexible to catch that unexpected, unguarded moment.

To paraphrase legendary US photographer Elliott Erwitt: Nothing happens when you sit at home, so always carry your camera ready to shoot what interests you. All the technique in the world weighs less than an ability to see. Follow the crowd, then turn in the opposite direction.

No wonder Alia Naughton began to feel nervous as she and her husband, Kevin, sat in the back of the airconditioned limo taking them from Abu Dhabi airport to the luxurious Qasr Al Sarab resort, deep in the Arabian desert. All she could see was sand. How do you make sand interesting, she asked herself? 

As the winner of the inaugural Traveller Big Picture photographic competition, the pressure was on. Yes, she had won a trip for two to a wonderful destination. Yes, the prize included a four-day private master class on travel photography from professional photographer and lecturer Amos.

But Naughton, a 61-year-old retired piano teacher, also knew her best photographs from the trip would be published both here and on traveller.com.au. Of course, Naughton (her first name is pronounced Ullya: it's Lebanese) need not have worried, as you will see from the 10 images that appear on these and following pages.

"When I got there and we did the camel trek and the sunrise desert walk, it just blew me away. The shapes. The textures. The colours. The softness of the sand. The quietness of the desert. You could hear the silence. It was just so amazingly peaceful."

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Her days, like those of all serious photographers, began at sunrise. "That and sunset are obviously the best time of day to shoot in the desert. I'd take photos until about 8am, when it got too hot to continue." Then, after a leisurely breakfast, she would meetAmos so they could compare the photos they had taken that morning. 

A lot of their time was spent talking about exposure. "Tony shoots a lot of interiors in his work, so we experimented with different stop levels shooting out of windows, getting the light right so both the exterior and interior are exposed properly."

They also concentrated on composition: "It's amazing how two steps to the left, or to the right, can make a big difference on the composition."

Although she has been taking photographs since she was 10, Naughton only became serious about her hobby when she joined the Castle Hill RSL Photography Club, NSW, in 2003. Since then, she has been on several photographic holidays with friends from the club – to shoot the aurora borealis in Alaska and winter in Yellowstone National Park and Canada – as well as holidays with her husband when she has spent much of the time taking pictures.

But this trip was different. An intense, four-day opportunity to work one-on-one, getting advice, tips and critical feedback from one of Australia's leading travel photographers. "Tony would often say, 'You could have moved there to take the shot, or tried that angle, or cropped it this way'," she recalls.

Apart from photographing in and around the resort, one of the highlights was visiting Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on the way back to the airport. It was Naughton's chance to put into practice some of the tips Amos had given her about shooting interiors in natural ambient light.

So, what does she now think makes a great travel photograph? "You have to look for something that is unique to that place," she says. "Keep the image simple – not crowded and busy. And have a focal point that draws the viewer in."

As for Amos, he says "a good travel story needs broad pictures of the environment, great pictures of people that give some sense of their existence, and interesting detail pictures that tell what people are living with in terms of transport, food, interiors".

"The art is in constant vigilance, scanning the environment and anticipating, so you're ready to shoot things as they are happening. In travel, you rarely have the opportunity to say, 'Can we do that again?'."

Digital photography has obviously revolutionised travel photography. For a professional such as Amos, "the great upside of digital is that I don't have to worry about X-ray machines trashing my film, and I don't need to carry different types of film". 

Where Naughton, the amateur, and Amos, the professional, differ is in their approach to including people in their travel photographs. Mindful of cultural sensitivities, Naughton always tries to ask permission before she takes someone's photograph. But Amos says that a simple request sometimes gets in the way of a great image, altering reality, so that the subject ends up "staring straight into the barrel of your lens".

"You're not stealing someone's soul when you take an image," he continues. "If someone is conscious of you taking their image, and they make it clear they do not wish to be photographed, then you don't photograph them. If I am definitely in someone's personal space, I always ask if it's OK to shoot them or any of their property.

"But there are ways of including people in an image without getting in their face. The travel photographer should always beware of putting themselves so much into a situation that the subject is reacting to them, rather than behaving naturally."

ABOUT TONY AMOS:

EXPERIENCE

A professional photographer for 30 years, with work published internationally. Taught a master class at the Australian Centre for Photography. Now publishes online travel magazine mrandmrsamos.com with wife, writer and Traveller columnist Lee Tulloch.

TRAVEL KIT

Nikon D700, Df, 17-35mm 2.8 zoom, 24-70mm 2.8 zoom, 80-200mm 2.8 zoom, 24mm pc shift lens, 85mm f 1.4, gitzo carbon-fibre tripod, cable release in a Tenba bag.

FAVOURITE TRAVEL SUBJECT

The next one.

BEST-EVER TRAVEL PHOTO

To be decided when I retire.

ABOUT ALIA NAUGHTON:

EXPERIENCE

Has taken photographs for 50 years, but only seriously for 15 years.

TRAVEL KIT

Nikon D3s, Nikon D700, 70-200mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8, 16-35mm f3.5.

FAVOURITE TRAVEL SUBJECT

People, landscape, food, culture.

BEST-EVER TRAVEL PHOTO

Winter landscapes of Yellowstone National Park. Of course, the image that won me the Big Picture competition [of a religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India] has to be up there, too.

FIVE TOP TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

1. Take only as much equipment as you can comfortably march with. If you're taking a long walk through very fine sand dunes, as we did, carrying too much equipment might blunt your critical faculty and enthusiasm. 

2. Conversely, don't just rely on a small point-and-shoot. It can only do so much, has a very slow lens, and probably has a shutter lag time that means you won't "capture the moment".

3. Take time to stop and look around, assessing the situation. Remember to look back in the direction from which you came.

4. Find a good place to park yourself, which has an interesting space to frame up with, allowing you to shoot people and things as they move through.

5. Always be courteous and polite with people.

- Tony Amos

FIVE MOST-COMMON MISTAKES

1. Not checking your equipment before you leave the hotel. You should never be caught out with flat batteries, insufficient card space, or no lens tissue or cleaner.

2. Holding your camera with your left hand over the barrel. It's unstable. Feel how much better it is with the fork of your thumb and forefinger under the barrel. Now push your left elbow into your ribs and squeeze the shutter at the end of a breath.

3. Keeping the camera constantly up to your eye as you walk around. You need to put it down, look around you, think about what the best frames are, and the best ways to use them.

4. Allowing yourself to become the centre of attention. Once you do that, you've altered the reality and no longer have an objective position from which to shoot. 

5. Overprocessing in post-production. Yes, you can do anything with Photoshop, but you should try to make your image as true as possible to what you saw, without exaggerated colours, contrast or texture.

- Tony Amos

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitabudhabi.ae

GETTING THERE

Etihad Airways fly twice a day non-stop from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, in partnership with Virgin Australia. Etihad also fly daily from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi. Phone 1300 532 215 or visit etihad.com.

STAYING THERE 

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, Dhabi. Phone +9 71 28 86 20 88 or see qasralsarab.anantara.com. Rooms start from $389 a night, subject to a 10 per cent service charge and 6 per cent tourism fee. The hotel is 90 minutes from Abu Dhabi city with a hotel limousine service available. Activities include dune fat biking, camel trekking, desert 4 x 4 drives, falcon and Saluki show, horse riding, desert sailing.

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