© Carol Clemens
Get the picture
10 tips to help you develop your travel photography
Get the Picture Slideshow
For most of my life as a travel journalist and photographer, I lugged a hefty case of cameras and lenses, and a lead fabric bag stuffed with 50 36-exposure rolls of Kodachrome. I was Quasimodo.
Digital changed everything overnight. My beloved Kodachrome, which corralled so many memories, is itself a memory. I keep an unshot roll on my desk as a talisman. But so is the lugging and some prime bugaboos that limited the way we shot when we travelled.
If the fundamentals haven’t much changed — light still passes through a lens to register on a sensitive surface — information storage has, and how: a memory card smaller than my thumbnail contains more images than my 50 spools of Kodachrome combined.
And what used to be film speed is ISO and it’s through the roof. Now it’s so fast, you can almost capture a panther in a coal mine without needing a tripod.
So we gallivant insouciantly: aim and shoot. The ingenious micro-whatevers do as much as you want. I retain control of my speed, aperture, depth of field and white balance, a tiny percentage of the camera’s capacity.
If the shot still isn’t right, you fix it on Adobe Photoshop or a similar rehab program. Sensing the danger of taking this too seriously, celebrated Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson draws the line at five minutes per image.
We’re pretty much free to take the tech for granted and focus on larger issues. We might even wonder what it is that makes us want to pursue more than memories. Is it that this singular art — the mode of self-expression available to everyone — calls up our visual soul?
Herein is a modest gallery of road images dedicated to the wisdoms: when the pictorial eye (discriminating between what looks good and photographs well) strikes gold, run for it. And make a point of being in the right place at the right time.
Aim high — or low
The Technicolor geology of the Salta region in northern Argentina needs no help at all. In late afternoon sunlight, it burns. Compose landscapes with care, balancing earth and sky, with a powerful bias to one or the other: yes, splitting the frame down the middle is a bore. In this case, the cloudscape is a beauty, but it still gives way to the surreal hues of the panorama.
Ultimate light occurs on rare occasions when sun and storm share a conflicted sky. (When I come across these conditions, I’m usually stuck in a condo tract or passing a sewer project). Here an autumn storm swept over the Dordogne countryside in rural France. I’ve darkened the image to further dramatize its tempestuous elements. For this kind of image, you train yourself to watch the weather to the point of an enduring a meteorologist.
Catch the light
Some people scoff at “pretty pictures” in this tortured world, but the beauty and grandeur of an eye-popping sunrise or sunset stand as irrefutable evidence of the music of light. My approach has always been to spot-meter for the brightest elements in the image and let the rest fall where it may. Here the mist of dawn rises from a valley floor in Bariloche, Argentina’s alpine answer to Banff.
An understated Parisian sunset looking over the Seine, Pont-Neuf and Eiffel Tower seems an impeccable memento of the City of Light. (Is that Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in the Bateau Mouche?). All you have to do is show up at the right time. That’s the beauty of it: so easy, and so good for the soul you want to run off for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
Beat the crowd
I love capturing archeology, ancient stones that whisper across the centuries. I love ruins — maybe a form of narcissism. I’ve taken chase from Egypt’s pyramids to Cambodia’s temples of Angkor, but here’s one closer to home. Aglow with the day’s first light, mist wafting overhead, Peru’s Machu Picchu seems ready to spring to life again. Minutes later, it does — with a bazillion tourists in red plaid shorts. What to do? Beat them to it. From the town of Aguas Calientes, the tourist hub for Machu Picchu, catch the 5:30am bus to make the 6am opening of the gates. Or overnight adjacent to the archeological park at the exclusive Sanctuary Lodge (sanctuarylodgehotel.com) run by Orient-Express: a double room costs $975 a night, but the shot can be worth it.
Expect the unexpected
Ready the camera for the unexpected. A young man was offering free hugs on Calgary’s Stephen Avenue. When a young woman gleefully took him up on it, the moment clicked. Warms up the city’s ice-slick image, doesn’t it?
On our street on BC’s Saanich Peninsula, a baby California quail, only a couple of days old, toppled to the pavement from a grassy embankment. My wife and I witnessed this and went to the rescue. The tiny creature was dazed, but unharmed. While my wife cuddled it in the palm of her hand, and the bird’s mother and siblings huddled watching, I ran for my camera. This was the important thing: recognizing the special moment. Then Missus Quail and the brood scurried off into the brush.
An eye for an eye
Paris is no stranger to romance and on any stroll on any rue or pont, smoochers are perfecting the art of affection. Spying this smitten young couple deep in their moment, I shot an intensely voyeuristic sequence of four images culminating in a kiss worthy of Rodin. This is where the zoom lens struts its stuff. I chose this image because it represented the moment in which the young woman picked up on me. I sensed a deliciously conspiratorial intimacy in her glance. This is the camera as hunter of life.
Know your tools
A pelican in take off on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez illustrates nature’s grace. Digital’s high ISO allows both a super-fast shutter speed to stop the action and a depth-of-field with the subject in focus.” Digital’s high ISO allows both a super-fast shutter speed to stop the action and a depth-of-field with the subject in focus.”
Enjoy the ride
Flying nowadays is no one’s pleasure, but for the camera, the upside’s up there. The view from the clouds is so frequently breathtaking. I shot this image flying over the Peruvian Andes at sunset. Trick of the trade: know your flight path and what it might offer. Book a window seat on the side of the aircraft with the sun behind you. Set your camera at a high speed and with a modest depth of field. For storytelling purposes, include a wing in the frame. Yes, you’ll require lots of luck, but when you disembark, your travel shoot would have already begun.
Be detail oriented
The five-peaked mountain of Wutai Shan in China’s little-travelled Shanxi Province is one of the country’s four Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The chanting throng sends out waves of spiritualism that might leave a Western materialist spinning. This close-up tells a story of extreme endurance: a pilgrim on foot makes a journey of several thousand kilometres. He prostrates himself every few steps, a demonstration of reverence. His journey can last a year or longer. It can wipe away a lifetime of sin. The camera says it’s all in the hands.
Is this cheating? Making such a shot in the wilderness might call for years of tracking and a lens the size of a cannon. But no, the bird of prey, a ferruginous hawk seemingly taking flight, is actually poised on the arm of a Vancouver Island raptor trainer. I interpret birds and animals as I do people, aiming for portraits.
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