Don’t compromise. If travel photography is what you really want to do – and I mean really what you want to do – you’ll need to be 100% committed to getting the shot. If you’re the type who likes to visit vibrant and colourful parts of the world but be back at the bar in time for a cocktail, or a leisurely perusal of a menu, forget it.
If I’ve learned one thing in the past two years it’s that the business of getting good travel images is not simply about capturing an image of a location, however well composed and technically correct the shot might be. Successful travel photography is actually about capturing more than that; it’s about being single-minded about conveying something of the intrinsic spirit of the place.
David Alan Harvey, the veteran Magnum photographer, always tells his students, “Don’t just shoot what you see, shoot what you feel.” It’s advice that’s always at the forefront of my mind when I’m tramping the streets looking for the next shot. How can I get across the emotional impact of this place? What is it about Porto or Hanoi or Krakow that will remain in my head long after I’ve moved on? Because whatever it is goes a long way to defining what that makes that place unique.
So often, on a practical level, this process of converting what you feel into something that can be captured and shown to others requires you, the ever hopeful photographer, to go well beyond the extra mile to get the shot. From my own experience it begins with a hunch about how the light will fall at a certain time of the day. Then I begin to imagine or try to visualise how that different light will accentuate particular features in the frame, how it might create a particular mood that could render the scene not only visually striking and informative but also trigger a kind of recognition in the viewer’s mind: yes, I can see why he took that photo!
I chose the shot of Porto above to illustrate this point. It’s a popular site known as the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, whose terrace offers a marvellous panoramic view of the city rearing above the Douro River. My initial visit was on a torrid afternoon with the sun blazing down on an expanse of white and grey concrete. Beyond the terrace the city itself seemed to be flinching under the fierce heat, all colour drained. I didn’t take a single shot. Instead I worked out precisely where the sun would drop six hours later and tried to visualise not only how the city would look in a warm horizontal cross-light, but also how that light would – hopefully – emphasise anyone enjoying the view. Because I came to understand within five minutes of arriving at the spot that the shot was not actually about the view, rather it was about enjoyment of the view. It was about what happens when you travel. I knew that at sunset people would assemble at that very spot to watch the city bathed in sunshine, drawn by the desire to experience the moment. The challenge, I decided, was to try to encapsulate that moment – to convey something, some idea of what it felt like to be there.
Which is why I returned that evening, slogging my way back across the city and up the hill to the terrace. By the time I’d finished, after going on to shoot several time exposures of the city itself after sunset, most of the bars in Porto were shutting up and I was only too happy to grab a cheese sandwich from a late-night supermarket on my way back to the hotel.