Phil Douglis, How to make travel photos communicate, photo tips


Travel Writing > Travel Articles > How to make Travel Photos that communicate

How to make Travel Photos that communicate - PHIL DOUGLIS

Musician playing the flute on the beach at Nosy KombaThe great majority of travel photos are made as personal souvenirs and mementos of trips, or as a visual catalogue of places visited. But your photos can also express ideas to others about the places you visit in your travels. They can interpret the things you see and experience, so that others will be able to better understand them. Travel photographs can say something about their subject, not just show what someone or something looks like.

In this article, I'll share with you ten travel photos I recently made on a 40 day visit to Africa and South America. I tried to express some ideas with each of them. I'll explain my approach, and point out why I feel each of these pictures represent an attempt to communicate, not just illustrate.

All of these pictures were made with a Canon G2 four mega pixel digital camera. This enabled me to see what I had captured an instant after eachshot, a tremendous advantage when communication is at stake. The G2 allowed me to re-shoot my subjects until I was satisfied, which is the single most
important advantage of digital photography over film photography.

My first, and probably most important, suggestion is to ask yourself what you are trying to say with each picture before you make it. That will determine what choices you will make in light, space, and time to create a visual message.

For example, I wanted to begin my portfolio on Africa with a picture that would symbolize, rather than describe, African life. A Maasai shield is unique to Africa. It is an icon for a way of life that is still flourishing. Its design and coloration represents a traditional form of African art and design. Within hours after embarking on our Kenya safari, I found some shields on display at a roadside souvenir stand. I progressively moved closer and closer until I had filled my frame with shields. I then shot a series of images, gradually emphasizing the bottom row of shields over the top row. The bottom row of repeating shapes and rhythms carries the eye through the image, becoming the subject of the picture, while the top row provides background context.

Maasai Shield

View Maasai Shield Picture >>

Light is critical. It abstracts, reveals, and ultimately can define meaning. This shot of an African carving, which I made in a Cape Town craft shop, features shadows that create a sense of mystery ­ one shadow even repeats the face of the carving, ever so softly. I was attracted to this carving primarily by the play of light and shadow on the background, and how backlighting abstracts the carving itself. This picture expresses the mysterious origins of African costume and customs, beautifully symbolized by the play of light on this carving.


View African Carving Picture >>

A still camera is a time machine. It can capture a moment and freeze it forever. When I travel, I look for things I can lift out of their time continuity and preserve as a message. The expressions of these Cape Town children have created just such a moment in time. Someone had given them Polaroid pictures of themselves, and they were expressing their joy through song. I shot several pictures of this scene, and chose the one with the most variety in body language and expression. To me, this message is all about
jubilation, in a city that has had more than it's share of sorrow.

Cape Town Sings

View Cape Town Children Picture >>

I also seek out subjects that I can contrast with something else to create an incongruity. For example, in this shot of a guard making a notation on the porch of the former home of author Karen Blixen, just outside Nairobi, Kenya, two people stare out at us from pictures. Yet one is within a picture
within a picture ­ a poster on the wall of the house identifying it as a museum. The poster provides context, telling us why the guard is there. The face looking out at us from the poster is quite similar to the guard's face, yet it's scale, headdress, coloration, and function are quite different. The
greatest difference of all is that the face in the poster is not alive ­ its a photograph. The guard, at least at the moment I took this shot, was very much alive. Now he, too, has become a part of a photograph. I enjoy making such incongruous pictures that ask questions and demand answers of their viewers.


View Guard Picture >>

The previous photo also functions as portraiture. Portraits are a wonderful way to express ideas about the people who live in the places I visit. On the remote island of Nosy Komba, Madagascar, I made this portrait of a mother with her children. What makes it special is that this woman has incongruously painted a design on her face that is unique to her culture. And her children are not just any children ­ they are twins. Notice the contrasts within this portrait. Each of the three people reacts in different ways to the presence of my camera. Each child is dressed in a different color. The mother, touching both of her children, looks at us, while her children are looking elsewhere. A portrait should tell a story about the people it portrays. It should show who people are, not just what they look like. I think this picture is successful at doing that.

Mother and Children

View Portrait of a Mother with her Children >>

While on Nosy Komba, I also came across a musician playing a flute on the beach. The sun had cast him into shadow. I used light in this case to abstract my subject, taking away all detail, and making him into a
silhouette. Instead of seeing what he looks like, we can now concentrate on what he is doing. When I look at this picture I can almost hear the music. Once again, less becomes more. Abstracting a subject with light has helped communicate the point at hand.


View Musician Picture >>

Details can express much meaning. Many travel photographs are made at a distance from the subject. They result in unselective images, without concern for individual details. When I shoot, I am constantly moving in. Each time I move forward, unnoticed details become visible. In Namibia's Namib Desert, I photographed the Weltwitschia, one of the oldest and rarest plants on earth. This one is about 500 years old. By moving in, I reveal rhythms and textures in the detail that make the viewer want to reach out and touch a piece of living history.


View Weltwitschia Picture >>

Colour in itself can also convey a message. I always look for subjects that make colorful metaphors for a country or community. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, there is an old neighborhood called La Boca, settled by seafaring Italian immigrants. They originally painted their homes with leftover paint used on ships. These homes made a vivid, and unique backdrop for my shot of one of the dozens of cats that roam La Boca.

La Boca Cat

View La Boca Picture >>

Many of my photos are deliberately designed with a strong diagonal flow, leading the eye from one corner of the picture to another. Whenever I frame my photos, I try to anchor something in one corner, and then either move the frame, or wait for subject movement, to give the picture a diagonal thrust.
In my shot made on Rio's Copacabana Beach, I placed a hill in the upper right hand corner, and then waited for someone to enter the frame at the lower left. The long diagonal line of people implies that the flow of bathers may never end. And that's what this picture is all about ­ lot's of people having fun on a beach.

Copacabana Beach

View Copacabana Beach Pitcure >>

Every so often, a number of these techniques can be combined within a single photograph, helping communicate a message in a unique and memorable manner. Such was the case one evening in Kenya's Amboseli National Park. We spotted a herd of elephants in the distance, foraging for food. We drove our
vehicles down a long road, hoping to intercept them. At the very same time, the sun was beginning to set. In my mind, I envisioned a picture of elephants moving past me, their hides tinged a golden red by the setting sun. And that's exactly what happened. The herd took about ten minutes to move past our vehicle. Only towards the end, did the rays of the sun hit them as I had pictured in my mind. This pair, trotting past us head to head, tusk to tusk, is in perfect rhythmic step. One of them seemed to
incongruously smile as it came by. I stopped motion, freezing a foreground tusk just before it would have confusingly overlapped the trunk of the elephant behind it. I was close enough to them (using a converter lens that gave me the equivalent of a 200mm telephoto) to stress the detail of their
massive and muddy hides.

Instead of showing five elephants, which I very easily could have done, I include only two. Later, I cropped the photo into a long horizontal shape, intensifying their horizontal movement. I left more open space in front of them than behind them, leaving room for their implied forward motion. I also cropped out the sky ­ this picture was not about the sky, but about foraging ­ one elephant has even lifted its trunk to its mouth. I include a lot of grass, because it is major food source for all of these elephants. In the end, however, it is the color that contributes the most to this message. Poachers and population pressure are gradually decimating the elephant herds of East Africa. I fear that such sights as this may eventually become only a memory. The light cast by the setting sun not only enriches and warms the color, but it serves as a symbol for what could be a symbolic sunset for many of Africa's great elephant herds.


View Elephant Herd Picture >>

(Phil Douglis has directed workshops in photojournalism and photo-editing for corporate professionals over the last 35 years. He is a regular columnist on photojournalism for Communication World Magazine, published by the International Association of Business Communicators. This year, Douglis also begins offering individual instruction in the basics of digital photography and photo-editing. He welcomes your questions and comments at You can view a collection of his recent digital travel
photography portfolios at:


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