There are really two kinds of travel pictures. The first are the quick snaps which don’t require much thought or planning. These pictures make up the vast majority of travel photographs, yet they do little more than prove that we were in a place.
The second kind of travel pictures are emotive. These are the shots that photographers take time to think about, plan and execute. No longer does the picture simply state, “I was here.” More than that, emotive pictures pull viewers into the experience, demonstrating not just what it looked like but also what it felt like to be there.
Through the years I’ve learned that you can reliably capture emotive images every time you travel. It does take a bit longer, but for me the time investment is worth it. Spending time deciding how to photograph a location helps me fully appreciate the travel experience.
With this post, I’ll take you through some of the things I’ve learned about photographing emotion in people and places. I’ll also discuss how you can add your own interpretation of a scene during the shooting and editing process.
Capturing emotion in photographs of people
People are usually pretty easy to photograph in a way that evokes emotion. When I look at the image below, I remember the joy which absolutely overflowed from this man when we gave him our walking sticks at the end of the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
It’s important to think about framing when photographing people. To take this picture I crouched down and shot upwards at him with a wide angle lens. The upwards angle along with his confident pose convey a message of strength despite his need for walking sticks. If I had shot him without bothering to crouch down, he’d have appeared small and the message would be very different.
While this man was naturally wearing a smile, most people tense up in front of the camera. This is particularly the case in cultures where there aren’t too many cameras around. Make sure to allow your subjects time to relax as you take multiple snaps. You should always take multiple pictures when shooting portraits – the first shot is often a throw away. The Nepalese woman below thought it was so ridiculous that I took 5 shots of her that by the time I snapped the last frame she had an ear to ear grin on her face.
When trying to capture emotion in portraits it’s vital to get the timing right. A great way to set up your DSLR when you’re first starting out is to set your focus to AF-C (Nikon) or AI-Servo (Canon) and use continuous shooting mode. With this setup, your camera will continuously focus and fire the shutter until you lift your finger off the shutter button. This is a blanket, “shoot everything” approach that takes a lot of the guesswork out of shooting portraits. You shoot everything, then pick the best of the bunch later. Unfortunately, with this setup you tend to lose some level of control because the camera decides when to fire the shutter, not you.
That’s why I normally prefer the standard single shot mode. I lock focus by keeping my finger depressed halfway on the shutter button. I’ll fully depress the button when the moment is right. Although I end up with fewer shots, the overall quality is higher because I control the exact moment that the shutter fires.
Good light matters when shooting people. Indoors, try to capture your subject in an evenly lit, relatively bright area. Shooting near a window helps a lot, so long as the light isn’t overly harsh. Light fades with the square of the distance (twice the distance means 1/4 the light) so moving just a little bit closer to a light source can work wonders with helping your subject stand out against the background.
Outdoors, avoid harsh light like direct sunlight. Shoot in the shade and use diffuse reflected light to illuminate your subject. This type of light occurs when sunlight reflects off everyday things like the ground and nearby buildings. For a really dramatic effect you might also try using backlighting as I did in the image above from Istanbul. Just be careful not to hurt your eyes while looking through the camera. To take this picture I held the camera above my head, adjusting the vantage point to add an extra element of emotion.
Capturing emotion in landscapes
Emotive landscapes are always a challenge because you can’t control the scene. The landscape is fixed and you are entirely dependent on the elements to provide you with quality lighting. Check the weather and sunset/sunrise times, and plan to shoot when the light is at its best.
The key with landscapes is to show your viewers something they can’t easily see on their own. This means you need to put in the effort to find and capture something unique. Wake up a little earlier, brave the elements a little longer, walk a little farther. Put in the effort to find a beautiful place, then have the patience to wait for good light. Emotion will pour through.
Try to find high ground or open areas when you arrive in a new location. Landscapes don’t need to be rushed so take your time and enjoy the process. Use a tripod with a shutter release cable to get the sharpest, highest quality pictures. Always shoot landscapes at your base ISO of 64, 100, or 200 depending on your camera model. Shooting at your base ISO ensures your camera will pick up the maximum level of detail and dynamic range of which it’s capable. If your DSLR camera has mirror lock up, use it. This forces the mirror to get out of the way before the image is recorded, minimizing camera shake.
Small apertures are best to achieve the greatest depth of field. Most modern lenses offer optimum sharpness between f/8 to f/11. Anything wider blurs the image due to lens aberrations. Anything smaller and the image blurs due to diffraction. Sharpness isn’t everything, though – sometimes I’ll shoot up to f/16 if I need to get everything in focus.
Think about what to include in the frame and equally importantly, what to omit. I took some time finding the right spot in Istanbul so that the trees and towers were visually balanced in the shot below. I also zoomed in enough so as not to include peoples’ heads – I was surrounded by hordes of people when I took this shot.
Explore your own artistic preferences so that you can compose your landscapes in a way that’s uniquely you. Personally, I try to present initially uncluttered, easily digested images that hold layers of complexity for those who want to look deeper. The image below looks simple on first inspection. Looking closer, it’s divided equally into thirds of land, water, and sky, each of which has a distinct color palate of blue, red, and pale yellow.
Putting in extra effort for your photography pays off both artistically and in the travel sense. I walked 3 extra days in Nepal to see Tilicho Lake (above). It’s an experience that will stay with me forever, and I have the picture to remember it by. I woke up at 2am to hike to this spot in the dark so I could see it at sunrise.
To get the shot below, I stood out in a blizzard with winds gusting to 50mph. The beach was empty; the beauty was tremendous. I love that photography motivates me to see things that no one else will because it’s too cold, too windy, or too early in the morning. Putting in the extra effort means I not only get pictures that I’m happy with, but I also get to see some of the most amazing scenes on Earth with my own eyes when just about everybody else is somewhere warmer, more comfortable, and presumably far less beautiful.
Finding emotion through editing
Editing plays an integral role in bringing out emotion in all of my images. My goal is to emphasize what is already there. Usually I try for small edits – minor changes in brightness, saturation, and contrast. Sometimes I admittedly go over the top if I feel the image will benefit.
I don’t try to create emotion via editing; instead I prefer to find the emotion in the scene itself, then I’ll use postprocessing to showcase that emotion.
It’s easy to overdo photo editing. Digital nastiness of all sorts occurs when an image is overedited – noise, moire, posteurization, etc. But sometimes editing is the only way to recapture the emotion you felt when you were there. Let me show you an example where my camera failed to capture the feeling of being there.
First, the unedited example:
The above shot from Torres del Paine in South America is not at all how I remember this experience. I remember this place as being just stunning, not flat and boring as the picture suggests. It was at the end of a long day of hiking to get to this spot, after a week’s worth of traveling with my late friend Artie who passed away just 10 months later from brain cancer at the young age of 26. My memory of this experience is probably influenced by those events, and I wanted a picture that would remind me of the awesomeness of this moment.
I rarely edit to this extreme amount. The edited version, while perhaps not visually accurate, is far more accurate in how it represents my feelings when I was standing in this location at Torres del Paine in South America with my good friend Artie.
Below is another example shot where editing can overcome the limitations of a camera. Shot in Vladivostok, Russia, this is a 56 megapixel HDR composite panorama. I shot it this way because a normal image could not have offered the resolution, dynamic range, or field of view necessary to capture the feeling of being there. Even with a 17mm wide angle lens, I couldn’t fit the entire scene into one photograph. Thus the camera was not inherently able to capture the feeling of the moment.
So I shot 9 pictures instead of one, then I combined them all during the editing process.
This composite image captures everything, including all the details I felt were necessary to show what it was like to actually be there. In many ways this is a bleak and lonely image. The vantage point was up on an isolated hill, far away from the lights and warmth of the city. This was at the end of a month in Russia after completing the Trans Siberian Railway, and I did feel slightly lonely after that month surrounded by a language and culture which I love and appreciate, but hardly understand.
I always edit with a goal in mind. I ask myself, “what do I want to portray with this image?” In this way I make changes towards my end goal, not just arbitrarily to see if it looks “better”.
- Consider your angle and framing
- Setup your camera for portraits
- Find and use good light
- Take multiple pictures
- Put the effort in to find something unique
- Check the weather and sunrise/sunset times in advance
- Use a tripod and the highest quality settings for your camera
- Edit with an end goal in mind
- Edit for a feeling, not just a look
- Remember that overediting lowers the quality of your pictures. Small adjustments are key.
I hope this article helps you find and photograph emotive scenes in your travel photography. Do you have any other tips? I’d love to hear in the comments below!