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Horses in the Camargue, France - © Harry Skeggs

How to take inspirational travel photos: top tips from a professional

08 Min Read

Capturing those memorable moments and admiring your images long after you’ve returned home can be such a rewarding part of travel. We sat down with award-winning photographer Harry Skeggs, who has journeyed from the misty Ugandan jungle to the stark wilds of the Arctic Circle, to get his top travel photography tips.

How did you first get into photography?

I studied art history at university and saw myself as wanting to be a painter. I then picked up a camera while abroad. I came home after six months exploring Brazil and when I shared my photos, I felt that I hadn’t really managed to convey what I’d experienced on my trip.

This inspired me to learn more. Through a lot of trial and error I slowly began to improve. I started to enter competitions and within a few months, I’d won my first accolade. Getting recognition for my work felt amazing and made me realise there was a future for me in photography. I took it from there.

Can you share your experiences on how best to capture the natural world?

I’m a huge animal lover and, for me, it’s all about personality. Shooting an image is one thing but capturing an animal’s personality is quite another. Like the cheeky laughter of a hyena — think about the animal’s quirks and traits.

This requires time and patience to get to know the animal. You’ll then discover not only the character of that species, but that of the individual, too. Think about taking a shot that communicates those individual idiosyncrasies.

Stallions of the sun - © Harry Skeggs
Stallions of the sun - © Harry Skeggs

Do you have any tips for capturing motion?

You can evoke a sense of motion many different ways, but before you get started, previsualize what you’re trying to do. You can have a motion blur, where you follow your subject with your camera keeping your subject in focus while deliberately blurring the background to evoke speed and direction. Or try using a high shutter speed to freeze a single moment. This can be made easier by setting your camera to burst mode, which captures a continuous series of shots after you’ve pressed the shutter.

Be really clear with yourself and work out what you’re trying to do, before you do it. You often don’t have time to make adjustments if you miss the moment. You’re not going to hang 30 photos on your wall, you’ll only hang one — concentrate on that one shot.

Some of the best moments in travel are the connections you make along the way. How can people reflect this in their photography?

If you’re photographing people, I think it’s important to talk to your subject and really spend time getting to know them. Even if there’s a language barrier, you can still show genuine interest and gain their respect, which will shine through in the final image.

With animals, it’s about time. I’d rather spend four hours with a single cheetah than photographing as many animals as I can. The more time you invest, the less they see you as a threat and start to relax. You’ll then begin to see them interact with other animals too, which they only do when calm. You might see them playing with their cubs, or asserting their dominance in their pride, for example.

Last light of the Huli - © Harry Skeggs
Last light of the Huli - © Harry Skeggs

Some places have been photographed many times, what’s your suggestion for finding a new angle?

I’m a big believer of always taking the postcard-perfect photo. Once you’ve taken that classic shot, the pressure is off and you can start to experiment. I’m also a big believer in finding a new perspective. Get up high and look down. Or get really low and look up. We’re so used to seeing the world from a set height. You’d be amazed, lying on the ground, at how different everything can look.

Think about giving your subject context too. Take the Taj Mahal for example. You could shoot it from a nearby street, with all the hustle of daily life in the foreground, giving your image a real sense of place.

Framing the shot just right can make all the difference, do you have any tips?

For me, the biggest weakness in a composition is distraction. Our eyes are designed to pick out distractions so the fewer you have, the more your eye will linger on the subject and engage with it, creating a clean, powerful and dramatic shot.

Take wildlife photography, for example. Most animals live in visually busy environments, surrounded by grasses, twigs or thick jungle. You can frame your subject to simplify the surroundings, by cropping out distracting foliage, or using a long lens or wide aperture to soften the focus on the background — on a camera phone, this is often pre-set as the portrait setting.

Wing and a prayer - © Harry Skeggs
Wing and a prayer - © Harry Skeggs

What advice do you have for people trying to get more creative?

If you do things by the book, you’ll end up with lots of repetitive images. Whenever I’m looking at a subject, I think how has this been photographed before, and how can I do something completely different? Nine times out of ten, it won’t work, but when it does, it’s really exciting.

If you’ve taken one shot, don’t keep taking hundreds of photos like that. Change your angle, perspective, lens — keep trying different things. Be really critical and ask yourself, what can you do better next time?

What are your thoughts on equipment?

Everything I’ve been talking about is relevant whether you have the latest DSLR or a camera phone. The real difference at the end of the day is simply how big you can print it. Smartphones now are more powerful than my first DSLR.

No-one should feel limited by equipment. For example, I don’t use a lot of expensive big lenses as I’m a big believer in getting close to my subject instead and use a 35mm or 85mm prime lens, which is a similar focal range to an iPhone. It’s so easy to miss a shot if you’re fiddling around with lenses. There’s a well-used saying that resonates with me: the best camera is the one in your hands.

Hellfire landscape - © Harry Skeggs
Hellfire landscape - © Harry Skeggs

It’s easy to return from a trip with an overwhelming number of images. What’s your advice for picking out the best?

I do strongly suggest you do a bit of editing as you go along, during long car journeys or at the end of each day. But, once I return, I do tend to leave it a little while.

I find that, as images can be so entangled with the emotion of the experience, you can get very emotionally attached to an image. However this might not be, artistically, your best shot. Revisit a few months later and you can judge better what makes the most successful image.

And you know what? It all depends on your output. Are you looking for something to hang on your wall, enter into a competition, or just share your experience with family?

You might have captured an amazing moment on a trip, but the final image isn’t quite right. What’s the best way to edit an image?

For me, photography is about capturing your world view, and you can use editing to tweak what your camera sees to what your eye saw in that moment. To do that is very simple, you just need to add a little saturation, contrast and depth — most camera phones allow you to do this, as well as easy-to-use editing software like Adobe Lightroom.

You don’t need to overdo things. Our eyes pick up on over-edited images very easily. Before you decide to finish, I suggest stepping away and coming back later — you’ll often find you may have gone a bit too far. Also, compare it back to what you originally took. Your eyes should naturally pick it up if it’s oversaturated.

Song for a whale - © Harry Skeggs
Song for a whale - © Harry Skeggs

Can you tell us about the moment you captured a shot that has really stayed with you?

I’m not sure I can pick a single moment, so I’ll give you a top three.

Photographing mountain gorillas is one. You have the trek to reach them, which is difficult and hot and slippery and spiky. But when you arrive, you can look eye-to-eye with these creatures. They are so human in so many ways and you can really see their emotions and personality. There are no bars and they’re free to interact with you how they want, sometimes moving within touching distance and when they rumble, you can feel them in your chest.

Second, I’ll pick taking underwater shots of humpback whales while snorkelling in Tonga. The whales come here to calve and their offspring can only hold their breath for a few minutes at a time, while the mothers only need to surface every half hour or so. The young kept coming up to play with me, with the curiosity and playfulness of giant puppies.

Usually in the wild, if young go anywhere near a human, it’s a danger point and I’d move away. But here, there was a trust like nothing I’ve ever seen. The mothers would roll over every now and again, looking up from the deep to keep an eye on their calves, and allow us to continue swimming together. It was all on their terms, too. I swim much slower than a whale, so if they wanted to leave, they could simply move away.

And lastly, I was kayaking in Svalbard, past a small iceberg and as I rounded a corner, I noticed a polar bear on the back, just a few feet away from me. These huge animals are pure size and power, surviving in this incredible inhospitable environment. It was an exhilarating, hair raising reminder that the unexpected could be right around the corner.

And finally, where next?

First, I’m heading to Antarctica, and then Alaska, Canada, and then Camargue, in France, for the wild horses.

Itineraries inspired by Harry’s shots

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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