Give me a break
Heading off on a short city break this summer? Keen traveller Geoff Harris shares some tips for getting the best possible shots in a short space of time
Geoff Harris provides his top tips for getting the best shots on a city break
The world has really shrunk over the past couple of decades, and thanks to competition between budget airlines, flying to Rome or Barcelona can be cheaper than getting the train to London, Manchester or Aberdeen. City breaks have never been more popular, and most AP readers will want to take along at least some of their camera gear for photo opportunities. However getting to that wonderfully photogenic European city, or a picturesque British town like Oxford or Durham, is the easy part. A far bigger challenge is taking high-quality shots which will stand the test of time, especially if you’re only there for a few days. To give you the best possible chance of success, I’ll be sharing some hard-won tips and insights over the next few pages, while also recommending some lightweight camera and lens combos and accessories to ensure you don’t bust your luggage allowance, or your back.
Once you’ve decided where to go for a city break, it’s important to be clear about your goals, as well as be realistic about the amount of time you’ll have for photography. If you’re content with a few nice ‘record’ pictures, there’s obviously going to be less pressure than if you hope to put together a panel for a photographic society/camera-club award, or take images good enough to sell or enter into a travel competition. Sure, you may have quite modest goals and be pleasantly surprised at how well your images turn out, but it’s good to think about your motivations in advance.
That decided, you then need to think about who you’ll be going with. A solo trip or camera-club jaunt usually means you have carte blanche for photography, but chances are you’ll need to compromise if you’re going away with
your partner, family or friends. Asking tired travel companions to hang around in the heat while you try and get just one more shot of the Colosseum with an uncluttered background is likely to fray tempers – add young kids to the mix and it can be a nightmare. Then there can be arguments about where to go, as not everyone will be interested in schlepping out to ‘that bridge on the edge of town which is supposed to be great for sunsets’. As we’ll see later, a good way around this is to get up early, while your travelling companions are still asleep. Rising at stupid o’clock might seem a bit unfair when you’re supposedly on a relaxing break, but serious travel photography ain’t no holiday (and you can always kip after lunch).
Careful packing and research
None of this will be a big revelation to experienced travellers, but the next job is even more important – to think carefully about what you’re going to shoot, and what you’re going to shoot it with. Unless you’re familiar with the city, doing some research before you go is absolutely essential on a short trip. As some of the images here will reveal, I was in Rome recently for the first time. Frustratingly, my hotel was out in the suburbs, so I was pretty disoriented when the shuttle bus dropped me off by the Circus Maximus. Because I’d done my research and had a checklist of must-get shots, however, I quickly got my bearings without wasting time trying to find the tourist office for ideas.
Major cities like Rome or Paris will have
been photographed to death, so doing your research also lets you see what other photographers have tended to focus on, giving you the choice of aspiring to the same quality or trying something completely different. There’s nothing wrong with ticking off the essential classics, and indeed, many photographers like to do this before trying something different, but you shouldn’t run out of time. Remember the old saying ‘garbage in, garbage out’. In other words, make an effort to look at what other great photographers have come away with. Turn to Charlie Waite’s book on Venice, for example, rather than a lot of oversaturated snaps of St Mark’s Square in Google Images. Your hit list should then help you to decide what camera and lenses (e.g. wide or telephoto) to take along.
I confess, I’m a terrible overpacker, and have paid the price in terms of aching muscles. Worse still, weighing yourself down with too much gear can actually put you off from taking photos in situ, particularly in extreme temperatures, and can annoy travelling companions. So, be realistic about what you need to take. See the Kit List on page 12 for some city break essentials, but no matter where you go, it’s nearly always a good idea to take along a simple filter like a polariser, a prime lens for portraits (these are often lighter than zooms) and a lightweight travel tripod for creative long exposures in low light. Optional extras, like flashguns or a video harness, might be best left at home, but it comes down to what you intend to shoot. Check and recheck before you leave; you don’t want to find out on the plane that
The joy of serendipity
Once the city break starts, you’ll want to make the most of your available shooting time. As mentioned, getting up at the crack of dawn can be an ideal way to get shots at the blue hour, or in that lovely early-morning light, without having to disturb your companions or battle the ubiquitous selfie-stick mob. Pack for low-light shots the night before.
Even with powerful image stabilisation systems, long-exposure shots in low light nearly always benefit from a tripod, particularly if you go slower than 1/15sec. To avoid camera shake as you jab the shutter button, remember to use a remote release, whether cable or Bluetooth, and if all else fails use the camera’s self-timer. Reduce the ISO if necessary during long exposures, and if focusing manually in low light, it’s more accurate to check this by zooming in to critical parts of the scene with live view, rather than peering through the viewfinder (you can also use focus peaking on mirrorless systems).
Long exposures are also great for ‘ghosting’ crowds or traffic trails, creative effects which can add character to otherwise done-to-death locations. Prior research will have also told you whether interesting and photogenic special events, like carnivals or processions, are taking place during your stay.
Last but not least, walk, walk and walk some more. Walking around even the most heavily photographed tourist attraction often enables you to see it from different angles. I remember seeing a photography workshop all lined up on the Rialto bridge in Venice with tripods, taking exactly the same shot. Nothing wrong with this technical lesson, but they all got... exactly the same shot. Walking and exploring also opens you up to serendipity: chance discoveries and encounters that can yield some fantastic pictures. Try and work out your schedule and shot list so you get to spend some quality time in a location, rather than charging around and getting stressed out.
Walking around also means you can interact with the locals. Although this is something less-experienced travel photographers can find difficult, it’s often the locals who give you unique pictures. Even if you can’t speak the language, don’t be afraid to go up to somebody interesting and gesticulate that you’d like a photo. As Martin Parr observed, if you are positive, friendly and don’t appear embarrassed, they’ll often agree. The worst that can happen is they refuse, and there will always be someone else around that next corner.
‘Walking and exploring also opens you up to serendipity: chance discoveries and encounters’
Leave time in your schedule for long exposure shots at the blue hour, before sunrise or after sunset
As well as being AP’s deputy editor, Geoff is a keen travel photographer who loves city breaks as much as longer-haul trips. In 2016, he reached the finals of the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year with a travel image (before joining the staff of AP).
Don’t forget modern architecture – this is the stunning Metropol Parasol in Plaza de la Encarnación in Seville
Don’t rule out more exotic city breaks: Fez in Morocco is less than three hours from many airports you’ve left your tripod base plate or battery charger at home.