How to Improve Your Travel Photography on the Olympus PEN
I’m not a professional travel photographer. I shoot people, whether it be fashion or celebrities, the prime focus of my work is always the person or what they’re wearing. That being said, I do photograph all the places I go. Primarily for myself, but also for social media like Instagram and Twitter. But you know it’s funny, as a guy who makes his living from photography, whenever I go away on a trip, people always compare their own photos to mine. I often hear comments like “I’m not a professional like you”, or “I’m not using a professional camera like yours, so my pictures will be no good”. Seriously, it happens a lot, despite travel photography not being what I do for a living.
I travel a lot, I love it, it’s definitely one of the parts of my job I really take pleasure from. I never know where I’m gonna go next, or why. It’s what makes it exciting! I’ve just got back from a job in Lanzarote, and before I went, Olympus Magazine asked if I could write a short guide on how I use my camera to document my travels.
I suppose I have a different approach to a lot of people when it comes to my photography. I tend not to think about the camera in my hands. For me, it’s all about what I see, and want to capture. Rule #1 is to be interested and passionate. If there’s something you’re really not into, why are you taking a photo of it? The more interest you have in something, the more enthusiasm and energy you’ll put into capturing it. And that will show in the images.
It’s important to me to capture the moment, but understand there are some things you can’t get a good photo of, and that’s ok. Enjoy where you are and the things around you. Sometimes the memory of somewhere and how it made you feel, is far better than what you can get with your camera.
Don’t just machine gun hundreds of photos off at every given opportunity. You’re taking photographs, not a movie, so more than a few images from the same viewpoint is just a waste. It’s about moments, not minutes, and the more time you’re holding the camera up, the less time you’re spending on the actual experience of where you are.
As a professional, there’s always an element of pressure to achieve results. Clients are paying lots of money and expect you to fulfil the brief to a high standard. When you’re photographing for yourself, you don’t have that pressure, so relax. Remember, you’re not shooting magazine covers or PR photographs that tell someone else's story or vision. Your images should tell your story. That’s what will make them unique and memorable!
Whenever I’m on location, I’m always mindful of others around me, whether they’re colleagues, or even just passers by. This is even more important when travelling. There are so many different cultures in the world, and it’s always important to be respectful to others. You’re in their country, so act accordingly.
I suck at languages! I guess it’s a result of being English. So I try and learn thank you in every language I can (currently getting close to 30ish now). It’s not a lot, but if makes a difference. People are far more accommodating if you show effort and willing.
Understand that although you have every right to be there, and you want to get the ultimate shot, others have the right to be there and get the shot too. Be prepared to wait your turn, and treat people with respect. I’ve lost count at the amount of times I’ve seen old couples standing in front of an amazing scene struggling to do a selfie when I want to take a shot. I find the best solution is to offer to take the photo for them. They get a better photo, I get my clear scene. Everyone’s happy!
Try not to look too much like a tourist
If you can blend in to a scene, you’ll be in a position to get far more interesting images than if you stand out. There’s also an inherent security consideration here, as you’re less likely to be a target for pick pockets and thieves.
I was in Marrakech at the beginning of the year, and I was always going to look like a tourist there, no matter what, however, there are a few things you can do to help in that situation. Don’t stand around looking at paper maps. If your hotel has wifi, go online on your phone and download the maps for your area or where you’re going. If not, take photos of any maps you need. That way, you can make it look as though you’re texting, or changing the track on your iPod. You don’t want to do this for too long, however, as your phone can still be desirable to some people.
Change your strap. Most standard camera straps are heavily branded, and when new, scream ‘new camera’ to people from quite some distance away. I usually favour discreet leather straps, and where a camera on my hip, if it isn’t in a shoulder bag. And on the subject of bags… I don’t like bags that look like camera bags either. I suppose this is one of the main advantages of using the Olympus cameras. I can travel light, and take a decent amount of kit, without looking like I’d even have a camera with me!
If you’re travelling alone, sometimes you’ll find lots of people want to talk to you and offer you help or directions, in return for some money. This can get tedious after a while, so I will often walk around with my earphones in. I won’t have music playing, so I can still take in all the sounds and atmosphere, but it stops a large majority of people offering their services because they think I can’t hear them.
You’ve probably heard it before, but the best camera really is the one you have with you! I only use Olympus cameras. I love them for their size, ease of use, retro styling, and ultimately, their image quality. Currently, my travel camera of choice is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk II. It’s a truly amazing camera and being dust and spashproof means it can go most places without the fear of the elements messing with it. As part of my work with fashion bloggers, I’ve been using the Olympus PEN E-PL7 a lot lately, and as such, all the images in this article have been captured using that, which shows you don’t need to spend big money and carry heavy gear to get great images.
I always prefer to travel light. I usually take 2-3 lenses with me max. Obviously I make sure they’re the right lenses for what I’m doing, but there’s no point in carrying stuff you’re not going to use, especially if space is a concern. I remember one job I did in San Francisco, where I was able to travel with only hand luggage (I was only there for a day), and still have all the kit I needed to do the job. It made my life so much easier and less stressful to not have to get off an 11 hour flight and hand around waiting for a suitcase. If your destination is mostly going to be bright sunshine most of the time, you don’t necessarily need a really wide aperture (although always preferable if bokeh is your thing). Obviously primes are awesome, but it’s worth practicing quick changes. You wouldn’t want to miss an awesome shot whilst changing lenses. If dexterity is a problem, go for a zoom lens, which can make life easier. Different lenses suit different situations and trips. For example, if I was on safari, I’d want the longest telephoto lens I could get, but for casually walking around a city, I’d favour something much shorter. Try to avoid changing lenses on the beach or in dusty areas when possible. Sensors have got way better when it comes to dust, but there’s a limit to what they can cope with.
I can’t emphasise this next point enough…. take extra batteries and memory cards! This is something that’s second nature as a professional photographer, but it’s important. The last thing you want it to be standing in the middle of nowhere with a National Geographic worthy scene in front of you and run out of power or storage space! Batteries and cards are relatively inexpensive these days, so there’s no excuse really. Additionally, take a charger with you and the relevant plug adapter, so you can charge up overnight. I usually have a bunch of extra adapters and leads in my wash bag, so I don’t need to remember to pack them.
If you’re going to be going in the sea or in a pool, the Olympus Tough range is pretty awesome. Underwater housings can be ridiculously expensive, so this is a much cheaper alternative. It also doubles as a good camera for taking out drinking and partying at night as they’re pretty much indestructible!
Before you go about pressing the shutter, in any situation, it’s important to have a good idea of the type of image or mood you want to capture. I like to create images that portray things the way I want to remember them, rather than how they actually were. An example of this can be your position in relation to the sun. If you shoot into the sun, you’ll get a softer more dreamlike image with lots of lens flare by overexposing. Alternatively, you can create beautiful silhouettes by underexposing. If you have the sun behind you, you’ll get much more contrast and deeper colours. There’s no right way, so shoot things the way you want to remember them.
It’s important to remember, however, that when shooting into the sun, the camera will naturally want to underexpose your subject, and when shooting people with the sun behind you, they’ll have the sun in their eyes, which will cause them to squint. You can get around this with hats and sunglasses if you want them to be looking at the camera.
Check the sunrise and sunset times for where you’re travelling to, and once you’re there, get a rough idea of where the sun will be at certain times of the day. Doing this can help you plan certain shots in your head, so that you’re in the right place at the right time to make the most of that perfect ‘golden hour’.
I’m a big fan of thinking as little as possible about the camera in my hands. So more often than not, when it comes to settings, I’ll put the camera in aperture priority and then forget about it. Sure, I can work out the exposure in my head, but why bother if the camera will do it for me? Obviously, there are situations where what I want and what the camera does are two different things, and in that situation I’ll adjust accordingly, but my main focus is to what’s in around me, rather than what I’m holding.
As with any type of photography, all the basic rules apply (rule of thirds, leading lines etc), but don’t ever feel constrained by these. Sunsets for example are almost always shot with the sun centred left to right, rather than on the typical rule of thirds point of interest.
Understand where you’re going to display your images primarily. Think about which orientation will work best for how they’ll be seen. Instagram has no added support for non-square image uploads, so you’re no longer bound by a square crop if that’s your photos final destination. Thinking about all these things can help you to compose accordingly, so that your images look their best.
Try to keep things simple whenever possible. Sometimes an image can be cluttered when all it needs is one or two elements to tell the story. A clear blue sky and a palm tree is all that’s needed to evoke feelings of hot weather and beautiful sunshine. A wide angle landscape can depict the rugged nature of a place, but a telephoto lens can turn mounds of volcanic soil into geometric shapes.
I’m one of those annoying people who takes photos of their food and then Instagrams it. I then usually get friends and family bitching at me for making them hungry! I love food… that’s the most important thing. If I didn’t love food, I wouldn’t be sharing photos of the awesome things I’m about to eat. The thing is, I spend no more than a few seconds taking a photo of my dinner. I never let the photography get in the way of actually eating and enjoying the meal. Aside from anything else, it’s annoying to everyone else if they want to start and you’re doing a full on photoshoot. I’ll generally do two angles; one will be the usual, sometimes at a slight tilt, but essentially the angle I see the food in front of me. The other will be top down, either just my plate, or often wider with more of the table, to give more context. I prefer the 17mm f/1.8 lens for this. Restaurants are often darker than you realise, so the wide aperture helps with that, and also the wide angle allows me to get the images I want without getting out of my chair. The key part in my food workflow, is that as soon as I’ve taken the photo I want, I put the camera away and eat. I’ll Instagram it later, when my hunger is satisfied!
Wherever you’re travelling, and whether it’s for business or pleasure, the most important thing is to enjoy it and make the most of it. Photography is a great way to evoke memories of a place or experience, but it’s important to have that experience and create those memories in the first place. The compact nature and ease of use the Olympus cameras mean you can for the most part forget about them. Photography is not about technology and gadgets, it’s about things, people, places and experiences. These micro four thirds cameras give us the freedom to go anywhere, to see amazing things, without weighing us down… and always be at our fingertips to capture anything that inspires us.
5 Top Tips
- Research where you’re going - You’ll get great ideas for what to shoot.
- Go off the beaten track - Find hidden gems away from the tourist spots.
- Wake up early - There won’t be many people about, and the light is beautiful!
- Stop looking at the back of the camera - Review your photos later.
- Enjoy yourself - Seeing the world is awesome, as is photographing it.
Princesa Yaiza, Lanzarote
Although rated as 5 star L, it’s not the facilities that make this resort memorable, but the staff. From being greeted with a glass of chilled Cava on arrival, to being shown to our airport bound Mercedes as we left, everyone was welcoming and friendly. It made everyone feel right at home, despite being over 1700 miles away.
I love food, it makes me happy, and the food here did not disappoint! With a variety of cuisines to choose from, Princesa Yaiza has something for everyone. Particular highlights were breakfast by the sea at Isla De Lobos, Evening al fresco dining at Don Giovanni, complete with wine tasting from sommelier Heiner (who later paired his wine skills with that of a dance floor dynamo), and last but not least, Teppanyaki at Kampai, which was probably the most fun I’ve had with food in a long time!
All this, and being right on the beach made for a truly amazing stay… and I haven’t even mentioned the spa!!!
Timanfaya National Park & La Geria Vineyards
There’s much more to so many places around the world than most people realise, and Lanzarote is no exception. Much of the island is covered in a dense layer of black volcanic soil. This soil has enabled a thriving wine industry to be able to produce award winning white wine in conditions where it wouldn’t normally be possible.
The Timanfaya National Park is home to a plethora of volcanos. Although quiet, the area is still active, as demonstrated by the restaurant in the park which grills it’s food using only the heat from the ground below.