Joel Wolfson is a fine art and nature photographer who conducts photo workshops worldwide from his native Southwest to Italy, France and other locales. His roster of notable clients include Newsweek, Elle, Seventeen, Houghton Mifflin, and corporate clients such as Apple, AT&T, 3M, United Airlines and Pillsbury.
His technical articles on digital imaging have been translated for use in more than 30 countries. Yet he is best known for his artistic images and unexpected views of everyday places around the globe.
Tips and Techniques from a pro by Joel Wolfson
Part 1 of 2
In my last article I covered the equipment side of travel photography including how to get your gear to your destination and back safely along with the images. Now I’d like to share some tips and techniques I’ve developed from years of taking travel photos.
Although the images are from my overseas travel you can certainly apply these to domestic travel too. One of the biggest challenges of taking travel photos is the fact that we are usually limited on time in any one place. We don’t often don’t have the luxury to shoot under ideal lighting, or wait for the right time of day, weather or other conditions.
There are a number of ways to increase your rate of successful images in light of these challenges. I’ve also included lots of tips in the captions below the photos.
Whether you prefer to be spontaneous or you are a meticulous planner, learning something about the region you’re going to will help your photography during your travels. If you are attending a well planned photography workshop then you will have far more time to concentrate on your images without having to worry about finding locations, navigating in unfamiliar territory, or even waste time trying to find good lodging, meals, etc. If traveling on your own, having done some research ahead of time can help quite a bit.
Why are You Shooting That?
My goal with every image is to tell a story or convey an emotion or try to show the viewer what it was like to be there. If you make this your goal with every shot you come back with a much higher percentage of great photos. Simply firing the shutter numerous times without thinking about what you’re shooting only yields a larger number of bad shots. Instead think about what compelled you to bring the camera to your eye in the first place and do what you can to convey that.
New Gear for Your Trip
We often use a big trip as a motivation to buy that new camera, lens or tripod. If you’re going to do this, do it long before you go and become thoroughly familiar with it until using it is second nature. Do all this prior to departing for your trip. Otherwise it may prove to be more of a hinderance than a help in coming back with great images. This is particularly true of a new camera. If you don’t have the time then hold off on the purchase- your success rate will be higher with equipment you know well.
It’s All About Light
For this photograph in Tuscany I scouted a great vantage point near my hotel when I arrived and went there for sunrise the next morning. Because I was there for several days I was able to go out on a number of mornings to get just the right combination of morning mist and sweet light.
Without light we can’t make photographs. Let’s first consider the type or quality of light. Sweet light is that magical warm golden light when the sun is coming up or setting. Almost everything looks better in sweet light.
Even though you may only be in a particular area for a day or two, scout around and find an interesting location in your area whether it’s a landscape, architecture, town market or something else. Take a look around for possibilities on angles, lenses you might use, etc. You may even get some great shots during this process but the idea is to find out if your subject will be lit to make use of that golden light of sunrise or sunset.
Bring a compass or use an app on your iPhone to figure out where the light will be that evening or the next morning. Remember that if you’re not willing to get up before the sun you’ll miss half your potential opportunities for sweet light.
Also try to plan your days around simply being out and about early and late to increase your chances of being able to use sweet light.You may not be able to do this every day of your trip but if you make a point of it, you will more than likely come back with some some shots you love.
Technology can help too. I use an app on my iPhone that tells me where the sun is at any given time of day and date for any location in the world.
This is a garden in an old estate and one of the locations we go to on our Villages of Tuscany Photo Workshop. We arrived late in the day for the nice light. Here I took advantage of that special sweet light one gets in Tuscany, combined with using the exaggerated perspective of an ultra wide angle lens and making use of diagonals to lead the viewer through my frame. This is also an example of side lighting (see Direction of Light) below.
Direction of Light
Every great photographer pays attention to the direction of light. Ask yourself where the direction of light is relative to your subject. Side light? Front light? Back light? Is it the best for my subject or should I change my orientation and change that direction of light? Do these grape vines look best lit from the front or should I move around and kneel down below them with light coming through?
As a rule, front lighting is the least interesting, side lighting is more interesting and back light is the most interesting (and challenging) of all. We generally need frontal lighting for landscapes so this is why we seek the best type/quality of light which is around sunrise or sunset.
One of the reasons we offer photo workshops in Tuscany and Provence is that those two places have a special quality of light that has attracted many of the greatest artists in the world for centuries. Essentially there is a lot of extra sweet light in the afternoon- much earlier in the day than you would see it in most other parts. A little hard to describe so I’d just recommend going there yourself!
The Italian village on the Sea (left) is an example of front lighting, For the Tuscan church image (middle) I used light from the side coming through an open door and the vineyard in Le Marche, Italy (right) shows my use of back lighting.
What About Midday Light?
Although we’re thankful for sunny days when we travel, if you take away the golden light hours, most of the day is full of boring flat light with harsh shadows. There are still plenty of opportunities for capturing great photos.
If shooting a broad scene look for some nice clouds in the sky and wait for them to move so you can frame them for a nice composition. If there are no clouds then try to use that vast area of blue as negative space to accentuate your main subject.
Along with this, look for a different perspective and/or vantage point. Try different lenses and think about other ways of augmenting the image with something as simple as using a different aspect ratio/format such as a panorama, vertical or square. If there’s nice contrast, tone or texture in the scene think about using black and white, and even try extreme or different angles or lenses. It can’t hurt to think about and try several different treatments of the same subject. It sharpens your visualization skills so you can see a final image in your mind’s eye as second nature.
I found a vantage point where I used a fisheye lens and the corner overhang of a building as a frame to mimic the shape of the piazza (main square). The solid blue sky provides negative space to make the tall clock tower stand out. Combined with repetition of shapes and forms it makes for an interesting photo even in midday sun.
This is an area of Tuscany where I love to take my workshop participants. It’s called the Crete Senesi and always has wonderful opportunities for photos, any time of day. Although shot before optimal time of day the lower clouds mimic the shape of rolling hills. The upper clouds with dark sky provide a nice frame and by using black and white the texture, forms, and contrast are accentuated without the distraction of color.
If the sky isn’t that interesting you can always look for a subject and composition where you minimize or eliminate the sky.
Both of these images I captured midday. By looking around and paying attention to the light I made use of the architecture and got spot lighting in these scenes. I also used other elements such as the plants and color and texture of the walls to create more compelling photos.
Another idea is to go the opposite way from a broad scene and shoot smaller parts of a scene, perhaps architectural details or close-up shots.
In the middle of the day I was checking a seaside town for our Villages of Sicily Photo Workshop. There weren’t really any good opportunities for broad village scenes so I focused on the colorful paint used on the homes and building with this architectural snippet. I just made use of rectangles and color.
I was checking out a winery and vineyard for our Sicily workshop. It was mid afternoon and due to the lackluster sky and background I chose to tell the story of the vineyard at harvest time with a small detail shot of just one bunch of grapes on the vines.
If you don’t like the light outside go inside. You can shoot inside a church or cool little shop or create a portrait of someone inside.
This church is very popular and always full of people. Rather than get frustrated by the swarms of people I went to a less crowded area where people were lighting candles. I put my camera on top of a pew to keep it steady for a long exposure. With the 5 second exposure I created a sense of motion and told a little story while showing the beautiful interior.
If it’s Stormy or Overcast – Be Patient and Ready
Stormy days can be great for landscapes or broad scenes because you can get some really dramatic skies or even rainbows. Just be prepared for inclement weather with a raincoat and a way to keep your camera dry. Be patient because when there are stormy skies you might get some great spot lighting or a bright scene against a dark background.
Another stormy day, this time in Scotland. I was walking in the woods to avoid some of the rain but kept poking my head out to look at the sky, knowing these conditions could produce a rainbow. I not only got a rainbow but was able to frame a castle in the background illuminated by the momentary sunshine.
Don’t figure the day is a bust if it’s just plain gray, overcast or raining. It provides another type or quality of light: diffuse light. That’s a great time to get some moody shots, eliminate harsh shadows, or shoot photos of people.
In this first part of my two part series on travel photography I’ve offered some tips and techniques I’ve learned and used over the years to deal with different lighting conditions and weather we inevitably encounter while traveling.
Part 2 will look at shooting at night, markets and food, thinking outside of the box, and photographing people.
You can see an expanded version of this article on my blog with different photos, more tips in the captions, and a new section on composition.
Check out Part 2: