Secrets to Great Travel Photography

Bob Krist has a dream job. He’s paid to explore the world with his camera and the results appear in magazines such as National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, and Islands. He was voted  “Travel Photographer of the Year” by the Society of American Travel Writers in 1994, 2007 and 2008.

If you can’t attend one of his travel photography workshops, you can learn from him via DVD or book. Here’s an interview I did with Bob in 2010 about how to capture the kind of images that make him one of the most sought-after travel photographers in the business.

Your images are like paintings. Does it require thousands of dollars and decades of experience to achieve that?

No and yes. It doesn’t require a big investment but it does take practice. I use DSLR cameras a notch or two above entry level: Nikon D90s and a D300S. They both shoot high-definition video but the second D300S has a better interface and a place to plug in a mic.

I don’t like to carry around a big, heavy camera and I don’t need nine frames a second. Also, when I’m traveling overseas, I want to look as innocuous and anonymous as possible. When you have a gigantic professional DSLR around your neck with a giant bulb on top, you stick out. I’d rather look more like a tourista than a journalist.

How much practice does it take to start producing really good travel photos?

You don’t need the 30 years I’ve been at it, but the more you practice with a camera, the better you get. That’s the crux of the matter. People invest the machine with all this power but it’s really just a matter of learning to use it. I’ve taught a lot of workshops over the years and the main thing that stops people from getting better photographs is that they don’t know their current equipment well enough to forget about it. You can’t do that if you’re constantly upgrading.

It’s hard not to get caught up when they release a camera that takes twice the megapixels as yours and high-def video 30 feet underwater.

Photographers have always been susceptible to gear lust because you’re out there alone and you want to make sure your stuff competes. So we buy into a lot of the marketing hype. After digital cameras were introduced, we needed to update every time a new model was released because they were so awful in the beginning. Manufacturers had to iron out a lot of bugs. But we’ve plateaued. It’s not a mature technology but it’s an adolescent anyway. My cameras will probably suffice until I drop dead or retire. I don’t need much more.

What’s the secret to photographing cities?

One of the problems with shooting in cities is that they only have so many skyline views you can access. If you could be like Spiderman and jump from rooftop to rooftop, you could get unique images. But you can’t, so you’re often stuck in the same classic spots everyone else shoots from.

Unless you can talk your way up to the top of a building, your best bet for getting images that stand out is to shoot in nice times of the day like twilight or sunrise or to take advantage of different types of weather. You’ll get a much more memorable shot if it’s snowing hard in Salzburg than you would on a bright summer day. So I usually look for light quality. I’ll get the classic views under my belt then look for interesting details like reflections, or one stanchion of the Eiffel Tower shot with a real long lens.

What about photographing people on the street?

Street scenes are tough because everyday life is chaotic and you’re shooting through that chaos. Every once in a while, there’s a moment where the ballet of the street comes together, but taking interesting pictures of everyday life is one the hardest categories of travel photography because it’s so mundane. I just came back from Buenos Aires where I was on assignment for National Geographic Traveler. It was early in the season so people were bundled up and there was not much going on in the streets. It was really hard to find a good shot.

How many shots should we expect to trash in order to get a winner?

People always ask me how many shots I take to get a good one and I say as many as it takes. You never ask poets how many words they write to get a good one. I tell people not to worry how many bad shots you’re taking, just don’t show them to anyone! Don’t worry about your batting average. When we were shooting film, that could get expensive and bulky but now it’s just chip space and disk space. Just keep shooting.

(Originally published in The City Traveler, an online travel magazine I co-founded)

For samples of Bob’s photography or to contact him, visit his website.