One key to taking travel photos that give a strong sense of place is getting interesting detail shots. Pictures that focus on the finer points of a scene help the viewer feel like they are there and help you remember how a place felt, smelled, and looked.
A mix of detail shots and images that show the wider scene can help bring you back to that moment, and can show off a place in a way that goes beyond what the travel guidebooks and postcards will show. The details are the interestingness in the sea of travel photos.
It can be easy to overlook detail shots when you’re in a new-to-you place. When everything around you is new, it’s all interesting. Honing in on the smaller details that make up your experience may not come naturally.
So how do you find those little bits and pieces?
It may be easiest to get used to looking for details closer to home…someplace that you already know well and can take the time to seek out interesting details. There’s no reason to think of photographing places as something that’s specific to travel. (In fact I think that the places around you are the most significant to document. But that’s a future post.)
The first thing to look for is good light. Good light can mean different things—strong light and shadows, soft, flattering light, directional light. (And turn off your on-camera flash. It’s not doing you any favors.) All sorts of mundane objects look interesting in the right light.
Look for interesting objects or groupings, or patterns that might look good when isolated.
Get close. And then get even closer. Fill the frame with your subject, or even just one part of your subject.
Put the subject off-center, even cutting some of it off. There’s an interesting tension to a photo that shows only part of an object.
Isolate objects to make them stand out, using a shallow depth of field or composing the photo so there’s nothing distracting in the frame.
Take pictures in places that may not seem like obvious spots. Your hotel room. Inside a train, bus, or taxi. On the subway platform. Out the window of the car (assuming you are not doing the driving). In bathrooms. On escalators. In parking lots. In alleyways. At a food truck.
Take a lot of pictures (and remember that you don’t have to show them all later).
Don’t worry about looking or feeling like a tourist with your camera out or when you’re taking a picture. You’ll have the photos forever; the self-consciousness is only momentary. (Plus, that self-consciousness goes away the more you shoot in public.)
Think of your travel photos as a set that together tell the story. The details provide as much atmosphere to the experience of viewing them as the grand photos of the famous sights. You’re not going to forget what the Statue of Liberty looks like, but you probably wouldn’t remember the particulars of your hotel decor without photos, and those things can be very evocative.