Luke Ballard didn’t begin his photography career as a globetrotting travel photographer. Like most of us, he ventured into the industry as a portrait and wedding photographer. Twenty years later, Ballard has gained worldwide renown for his stellar work and workshops. He’s photographed in 120 countries and counting, so he’s learned a thing or two about travel photography.
In this B&H Event Space lecture, Ballard discusses the elements of a memorable travel photograph, the process he follows to capture unique travel images, and the key ingredients for becoming a successful travel photographer:
The Elements of a Memorable Travel Photograph
1. It is correctly exposed. Yes, you can fix exposure in Photoshop to a certain extent, but the best photographs tend to be those that are correctly exposed at capture. Don’t be afraid to take test shots to get your settings just right.
2. It correctly uses white balance and color balance. Pay special attention to the colors in your images—they should be natural, but striking.
3. It is properly composed. Travel photos aren’t exempt from accepted standards of composition such as the rule of thirds, so keep those principles in mind as you compose images.
4. It is free from distraction. Check your scene carefully for any unnatural, distracting elements, such as a piece of trash or a clump of dawdling tourists. Remove what you can, hide what you can’t remove, and use long exposures to make moving tourists disappear.
5. It has meaning to you and to the viewer. Travel photography is storytelling; it’s about documenting a given area’s people, culture, and geography. Know what story you want to tell before you click the shutter.
6. It is different than other photographs of the same subject or location. Don’t settle for capturing the same old shot of a tourist attraction. Figure out how the icon is usually photographed and force yourself to be creative and do something new.
“It needs to be something a little bit different, something a little bit special,” said Ballard. “I know that I am not the first person to photograph Machu Picchu, but I’ve got to be the first person to photograph it the way I’m going to.”
Ballard’s Photographic Process
Ballard’s photographic process can be broken up into two categories: before travel and on location.
1. Research. After Ballard nails down a given trip’s itinerary, he performs detailed research to learn all that he can about the place(s) he will be photographing. Any useful information goes into his handwritten journal, which he carries everywhere. He includes information such as maps, contact details, permissions, weather expectations, and sunrise and sunset hours, as well as his itinerary and photographic goals. To get this information, Ballard reads books and online articles, calls travel agencies, and—most notably—talks to locals.
2. Have achievable photographic goals. Even a vague photographic goal like a loose theme (e.g. circles) will provide more of a foundation for building solid images than no goal at all. Ballard often goes so far as to sketch out image plans as he envisions each shot, which allows him to ensure that he is generating new content.
3. Make the necessary preparations. Before every trip, Ballard finalizes his itinerary (leaving space for flexibility), upgrades and organizes his camera gear, and prepays his accommodation or transport fees as necessary. He also packs his camera bag chock full of cameras, lenses, and other gear, which he then skillfully obtains permission to carry with him on the plane.
1. Observe and evaluate. Walk around and watch what everyone else is taking photos of and how they are taking them. Do something different. In terms of composition, determine the ideal lighting for your photograph and consider how best to use your foreground.
2. Take a test shot. Ballard often takes his test shot in automatic mode to see how his camera interprets the scene.
3. Re-evaluate your settings and photographic goals. Is everything working together in the way that you hoped? Are any elements in the image distracting? Is your exposure correct? Ballard often finds that his most common problem is tourists, which he fixes handily by using long shutter speeds.
4. Set-up the final image. After Ballard takes a test shot and re-evaluates his photographic goals and settings, he pinpoints the additional gear that he will need to create his ideal image and makes the necessary adjustments.
5. Optimize exposure. For most travel photos involving still scenes—especially landscape photos—the lower the ISO and the slower the shutter speed, the better. Remember the saying, “f/8 and be there,” or if you’re from Australia like Ballard, “f/8 is your mate.”
“The slower the shutter speed, the more vibrant your photograph is going to get, the more data the camera is going to be able to capture, the more color is going to really just pop, and the more light is coming in,” said Ballard. “Moving water is going to slow and mist, still water is going to become reflective [and] anything moving faster than the shutter speed is going to vanish.”
6. Use the rule of thirds in composition. While it is certainly possible to create stunning images by breaking the rule of thirds, it doesn’t happen often, so make breaking the rule a rare exception. Following the rule, remember to create two thirds of positive space and one third of negative space and place the focal point or points in the key areas of the frame.
7. MacGyver. If obstacles stand in your way to getting the best shot, move them (with discretion). When you have a vision, be resourceful and make it happen.
“Think about what else is around you,” said Ballard. “Quite often I’m using duct tape from my bag to prop up trees or branches out of my way so that I can get a better shot. Leave your environment how you found it, but you know, play with it a little bit.”
8. Remove distractions. As mentioned earlier, there’s nothing worse than when some detail in an image draws the viewer’s gaze away from your intended subject. If you can remove a distraction, then remove it, but if that isn’t possible, simply adjusting your perspective to block the distraction from view will do the trick.
9. Ensure that you love it. After Ballard has taken a photo, he studies it long and hard to determine whether he is crazy about the shot or if he should re-evaluate and re-shoot in a different way. If you don’t like it, chances are, viewers won’t either.
10. Ensure that it is different. Have you taken the same old photograph that everyone takes, or have you pioneered something new?
“Something completely different is going to make it memorable. It’s going to make it work,” Ballard said. “If I can get away from the group, if I can get away from the tourists, if I can get away from what everyone else is doing, the chances are, I’m going to get something different. I’m going to get something that’s pretty striking.”
How to Become a Successful Travel Photographer
1. Travel. It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning. Travel photographers must travel. Even if your travel only consists of driving to the next city, go.
2. If you can’t travel, photograph your hometown. Not everyone can afford to travel as often and exotically as Ballard, but everyone can afford to explore their own home city. Once a week, take two hours, decide on a particular photographic goal, and go on a photo-walk. Figure out how to shoot your city’s icons in a fresh new way.
3. Always be ready to take the photo. If you aren’t ready, having practiced for long hours with your camera to learn proficiency, you might miss the perfect moment.
4. Get up early. While Ballard does enjoy a good sunset, he’s particularly fond of sunrise when everything is “fresh,” right down to dewy blades of grass.
“Anyone who thinks sunset is better than sunrise just doesn’t want to get out of bed,” Ballard said. “Real travel photographers get up at 3am. Professional travel photographers do it on a Monday.”
5. Find locals. To capture the pulse of a location, photograph the people who live there.
“Every city in the world has a culture, has a vibrancy, has a vibe, has a feeling, and we can get that from people in our photographs,” Ballard said. “Not tourists, we don’t want tourists. We want the locals.”
6. Don’t stop learning and take photos every day. Read books and watch tutorials on photography every week. Look at others’ photographs as often as you can. Practice taking photos every day, working toward proficiency and eventually, mastery.
“Take photos every day,” Ballard said. “Wander around. Explore your neighborhood. Explore everything and try new things. Look at other people’s photos and sort of say, ‘Okay, what are they doing that I’m not?'”
For those interested, Ballard carries the following gear with him on nearly every trip:
- 2 Canon 5D Mark IIs
- Olympus Tough TG-320
- Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L
- Canon 24-105mm f/4.0L
- Canon 180mm f/3.5L
- Canon 50mm f/1.8
- Canon 100-400mm f/4.5L
- Cable release
- 3 batteries
- Multiple memory cards
- 2 portable hard drives
- Hoya variable ND filter
- Cokin graduated ND filter kit
- Hoya circular polarizing filters for all lenses
- Canon 580XEII Speedlite
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Manfrotto LED light panel
- Duct tape
- Lens pens
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