FIRST OF ALL, THERE ARE NO RULES TO TAKING A GREAT TRAVEL PHOTO besides making sure the lens cap is off the camera. Just like there’s no way to learn to take better photos besides taking more photos. Some people can make their way from departures to arrivals and never take a single photo of a trip, but you wouldn’t be here if you were one of those people. Here’s a short list of tips that even I have to remember when I’m on a trip.
A PHOTO IS A MEMORY. MAKE AS MANY AS YOU CAN. Maybe you’ll remember that moment for the rest of your life. But maybe you’ll come across that photo you took and find yourself pulled up short by the rush of that memory, long forgotten, coming back to you. Call that a gift, and you won’t have it unless you take the shot. This is the view from my hotel on Moose Factory Island near James Bay, just after I’d taken the water taxi there at the end of riding the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosonee. I ended up having the best night’s sleep of my life there, which for me is a memory worth savouring.
IF SOMEONE OFFERS TO TAKE YOU SOMEWHERE HIGH, SAY YES. The most majestic vistas are usually found at places where most people don’t go. Every day on Instagram photographers share their “rooftopping” pics – shots taken from the top of skyscrapers, and usually from where they shouldn’t have been. I’m not saying you should trespass and hang from construction cranes to get that shot, but you can get close without breaking any laws. Just after checking in at the Loew’s Hollywood, I was offered a tour of the hotel that ended up on the helipad, where I took this shot looking across to the distant towers of downtown Los Angeles.
TAKE A WALK. Sometimes its worthwhile to blow off the itinerary or leave the tour group for a little while and go for a wander. You’ll get a better sense of the place and the people you’re visiting, and sometimes you’ll chance on a scene that isn’t available on a postcard. We had stopped the car at a gas station while driving across Prince Edward Island when I decided to stretch my legs and wander down a dirt road nearby. That’s where I saw this magnificent scene of two fields under a deep blue sky cut in two by the road to the sea. It summed up that trip better than any other shot I took that week.
THE BEST CAMERA IS THE ONE YOU’VE GOT. I was at the end of trip across British Columbia on the Rocky Mountaineer, at the top of Sulphur Mountain looking down on Banff in the valley below. I’d put my camera bag down and was taking in the view when I was overcome by the urge to capture the setting sun behind the blue mountains and the half-buried shimmer of the Bow River. But I didn’t feel like pulling out my DSLR from its bag so I slipped my phone from my pocket and took a couple of quick snaps. I gave this one a quick edit and posted it online, where it ended up getting shared for months on Instagram and Twitter.
GET CLOSER. Sometimes you want to capture a stirring vista from a mountaintop, but sometimes you want to take a shot that feels like the moment and the place, as you experienced it. The best way to do that is to get up close with your camera. It cost me a hundred pesos to get this mariachi band to move to a nice spot in the central square in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, but of the dozens of shots I have, this one, taken as close as I could get without joining the band, was undeniably my best.
NEVER SAY NO TO THE ICONIC PHOTO. Of course you could buy a postcard. And of course someone might have taken a photo of the Grand Canyon during a majestic sunset, while you’re only chance was under a bright noontime sun surrounded by other travelers. Don’t get bent out of shape about it – your photo of Niagara Falls is a record of your first glimpse of the place, and it’s worth adding to the mountain of other shots. I have seen a hundred great shots of Machu Picchu, spread out between two mountain peaks in the Peruvian Andes, but my own shot – taken with a cheap plastic Holga camera the moment I arrived at the top of the path – will always be more significant to me.
A TRAVEL PHOTO CAN BE A PORTRAIT. You see a lot of fantastic things when you travel, but you also meet a lot of interesting people. Maybe you’ll remember their name, or maybe you won’t, but they’re as much a part of the stories you’ll tell as the scenery, so try to take at least a couple of photos of them – seeing your shots months or years later might help you recall your time you shared with them. George Small and his son Trevor took me out on James Bay on their boat, and this portrait helps me remember the hunting stories they told me as we headed out of the mouth of the Moose River, and the immense silence under the heavy sky when we hit the open water and cut the engine, drifting on the tea-brown water.
PHOTO AT TOP: Stuart Forster at Lake Louise, Alberta, 2017
Photos and story © 2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved
These are some handy tips for people looking to improve their photography.