I’m elbow-jockeying with legendary travel photographer Peter Guttman, zooming in on an iceberg frosted in amber light. We’re two miles off the coast of Greenland on the Disko II, a ship chartered by Norwegian Coastal Voyage (www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.us/), exploring the world’s largest island.
Earlier in the year I’d taken another NC V ship to the Svalbard archipelago and got hooked on the arctic. The landscapes seem prehistoric, in summer the golden hour stretches to four hours, and remote villages are rich in culture — a travel photographer’s dream.
But that’s not enough. “Most people think travel photography is about creating a guest register of all the places they’ve been,” Guttman says. “We know you’ve been there — we’ve seen the photos. What we really want to know is why.”
It’s a question I’ve had to answer for a different assignment each month over 10 years and across 100 countries. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Work at home
Think the pros just show up in an exotic locale and stumble into beautiful moments bathed in golden light? Think again.
“Cruising around aimlessly for photos is a waste of time,” says Jim Richardson, who has shot dozens of features for National Geographic. “Know the specific subjects and activities you want to shoot. It not only focuses your work, it also helps you know what to ignore.”
Before I head out on assignment for Modern Bride or Men’s Journal, I make photo wish-lists detailing how I’ll get that shot of the tattooed paddler beside the Bora Bora overwater bungalow, or listing the prime weeks in May to photograph whale sharks in Utila. I cull shot ideas and logistics by poring through photo books and travel guides, and doing endless Google image searches.
2. Pack wisely
Your kit should include a main and backup camera body (with built-in flash), an f/2.8 wide-angle in the 20mm range for tight work, a 50mm f/1.2 for low light and portraits, and an 80-200mm f/2.8 for wildlife and scenics. And bring an inexpensive,lightweight tripod.
3. Get a new view
The greatest peril in travel photography is also the easiest to avoid — the cliche. When I asked adventure photographer Cory Rich how he freshens up familiar subjects, he said, “I shoot 360 degrees around my subjects, and then I hold the camera up overhead and shoot down. When I’m done with that, I lie on my back and shoot up at them.”
Peter Guttman has another trick. I watched him set his battered Nikon on autofocus and self-timer, then clip it to a rickety tripod. He extended it out over the bow of the Disko II as it crunched through ice for a shot of the ship that only a puffin could take.
4. Love the weather
While other travelers cursed the flat gray light haunting the early part of our Greenland journey, Guttman and I embraced it. “Studio photographers pay good money to get this diffused light,” he said. The trick is to forget about landscapes and minimize the sky. Focus on portraits and details.
The best-kept secret to bad weather? The blue hour, those 15 minutes after sunset when color has left the sky. Grab your tripod, set your shutter speed between 8 and 15 seconds, and capture your subjects (glowing with warm incandescent lamps) against a velvety sapphire curtain.
5. Break the Ice
No doubt about it, photographing strangers is tough but rewarding. “Don’t pretend you’re a spy,” Richardson says. “Put the telephoto away, pop on the wide-angle, and introduce yourself.”
Greenlandic’s not your first language? Find a passenger headed home on your outbound flight, order cocktails, and practice. “Haluu. Jad-imik ateqarpunga.” “Hello, my name is Jad.”
Digital photographers have a never-fail icebreaker. Show your new acquaintances photos you’ve taken. Allow them to take pictures of you and of their friends. You’ll cross that invisible border between passive observer and active participant — and your photos will be the richer for it.
6. Be Patient
A great photo has a combination of three things: a main subject, a background, and an elusive something Richardson calls a grace note. Rarely do you find them all at the same time.
In the village of Itilleq, beside a skyblue house, I found the head of a musk ox from a recent hunt. It was compelling on its own, but I wanted people in the picture. So I waited, worrying about the other photos I was missing. Then I remembered what Richardson said once when I asked him how long he’d wait: “I’m pretty impatient. If something isn’t happening in eight or nine hours, then I’m gone.”
It only took an hour. A couple of boys came over. “Qanoq ateqarpit?” I asked. “What is your name?” They laughed at my linguistic butchery and laughed even harder when I let them photograph me next to the trophy. Would they mind posing? I lay on the wet grass as they hoisted it. Main subject: ox head. Background: blue house. Grace note: two boys. I had my shot.
7. Stay home
Is a Greenland cruise or African safari out of your budget? Do you put your dreams of being a travel photographer on hold? Hardly. When I asked Guttman — who’s worked in more than 200 countries — his favorite place to photograph, his answer surprised me: “The U.S. has the greatest diversity of landscape on the planet — from the Rocky Mountains to the Everglades, from volcanoes to icebergs,” he said. “If you want to find some world-class travel photography, walk out your front door.”