Photography and the Travel Experience

Photography and travel are natural friends. A camera, or a camera-enabled phone, is practically required equipment for most travelers. How else are you going to show off to your friends and family on Facebook, right? 

But I propose photography can be more than just capturing memories to share with friends and family. I find that the pursuit of high-quality photos actually improves the travel experience itself.

At least this is the way I feel as a freelance travel photographer. Hunting down high-quality photography on my travels is more than just business, or a way to share experiences with family and friends. Pursuit of high-quality images has brought me to beautiful places in visually stunning conditions, helped me see details I might otherwise have overlooked, and even shown me things that are impossible to see without the camera. Consider some of these examples before your next travels to perhaps see things in a new light and with different eyes.

 

Ideal Lighting Conditions

Many photography enthusiasts have heard of the "Golden Hour": the hour spanning dawn and sunrise, or spanning sunset and dusk. These are magical times of day, when the light is soft and colorful for photography. But there is no reason to limit the "Golden Hour" to photography! Why not also enjoy your sightseeing in these ideal lighting conditions?

Tulip fields on Skagit Valley at dawn, Washington State

Tulip fields on Skagit Valley at dawn, Washington State

The still air of early morning often brings soft light, the clearest air, and the richest colors. All is quiet and peaceful. A touch of silky ground fog and morning dew can add a special touch as well. While crawling out of bed an hour before sunrise can definitely be a real struggle, early mornings are a great way to escape big crowds at popular sites, such as April's road-clogging Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in northwestern Washington State, and enjoy them in a more peaceful setting.

Sunrise over frosty park, Fort Warden State Park, Washington State

Sunrise over frosty park, Fort Warden State Park, Washington State

As the sun actually breaks above the horizon, golden rays cast long shadows through a scene simplified in silhouette. Nippy morning air helps wake me up and feel alive.

Pagoda on Xilang Hill, Yangshuo, China

Pagoda on Xilang Hill, Yangshuo, China

Sunset offers many of the same advantages of sunrise, but without the absurd early morning alarm clock.

Cologne skyline and Rhine River, Cologne, Germany

Cologne skyline and Rhine River, Cologne, Germany

Dusk is my favorite time to watch and photograph city skylines. I watch as the sky slowly darkens to balance with the city lights and illuminate building facades. Long exposures blur water and clouds into a silky abstraction.

 

Seeing the Impossible

In some cases, photography helps me see things I would otherwise never see. This is especially true with long night-time exposures and with high-magnification macro photography.

Star trails above Angels Landing lit by full moon, Zion National Park

Star trails above Angels Landing lit by full moon, Zion National Park

This moonlit scene in Zion National Park reveals the motion of the stars, made possible by a 6-minute exposure.

Detail of red rose petals

Detail of red rose petals

Macro photography allows close up examination of the silky texture on these rose petals, though a pocket magnifying glass can lead the curious to similar explorations without the bulk of a camera.

 

Noticing Details

Good photo storytelling requires looking for details. Big stories are usually built from a string of many details. I have found that the extra effort required to notice details often teaches me more about the culture and history of a place.

Detail of door from Ming dynasty architecture, Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing

Detail of door from Ming dynasty architecture, Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing

Guardian lions, or "Shi,” are found all over China, usually in pairs guarding entrances to buildings and parks. I found this golden one on a door knocker at Temple of Heaven Park. Curiosity and attention to detail not only help me find interesting storytelling photos, but teach me a bit about Chinese symbolism. Gold and red are key Chinese colors, representing the center of everything, as well as joy or nobility. The dragon on the arm of the knocker represents power and strength.

Blue Steller's Jay feather resting on False Lily-of-the-Valley, Olympic National Park

Blue Steller's Jay feather resting on False Lily-of-the-Valley, Olympic National Park

A cut red tulip blossom fallen into mud, Skagit Valley, Washington State

A cut red tulip blossom fallen into mud, Skagit Valley, Washington State

I love finding details like these. There is obviously a story behind each one, which compels me to speculate. Did the jay lose this feather in a fight? Why did this tulip in full bloom get cleanly cut from its stem and left fallen in the mud?

 

Photography Focused Travel

Much of my travel is focused on photography. I research ideal photo opportunities and plan my trips so that they take me to beautiful places in the most beautiful conditions. It’s great for my professional photography career, but it is also a real kick for my personal life, too! Research and planning help me discover sights I would otherwise never find.

Shiprock Rock and black dike ridge, New Mexico

Shiprock Rock and black dike ridge, New Mexico

St. Ciaran's Holy Well, County Donegal, Ireland

St. Ciaran's Holy Well, County Donegal, Ireland

Windmill in wheat fields, Palouse, Washington State

Windmill in wheat fields, Palouse, Washington State

Google Earth and topographic map reading helped me find these photo opportunities in New Mexico, Ireland, and Washington State. I love to pour over maps looking for clues to photo opportunities, like this windmill I found by driving to about ten different windmill symbols shown on an old Washington state atlas. Half of the windmills I visited were derelict, but this one happened to be in one of those simple photography settings I'm always looking for. Advanced planning to get me in the right place in the best conditions, coupled with following my curiosity once I arrive always pay off in both my photography career and my personal life. Photography and travel conspire together to create a good life.


Photos by author.

Brad Mitchell is a freelance photographer and writer based in Washington State specializing in outdoor adventure, travel, and natural history. His images appear worldwide in hundreds of books, magazines, calendars, brochures, websites, and other media published by Afar, Falcon, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Insight Guides, AAA, MSNBC, National Geographic, Northwest Travel Magazine, Seattle Magazine, Travel+Leisure, and many others.  Check out Brad's photos here and connect with him on Facebook here.