7 Tips for How to Approach a Photo Walk

A peaceful view of three men relaxing in the sunshine at the end of a long verandah at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China.

Whether you’re in the landscape, exploring a modern city, sampling the simple delights of a country fair or soaking up the atmosphere of some exotic locale it’s always a good idea to be prepared to vary your approach towards making photos. There are lots of ways to do so, here are just a few to keep in mind.

1. Open With A Vista

Wide-angle lenses can be used to help place the viewer in a particular place and time. They’re often used right at the beginning of a motion picture to provide an overview of a location. An interesting and evocative opening image will entice the viewer to want to move closer and learn more.

This photo was made in the beautiful Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing, China. Despite the hordes of local tourists that visit this popular location, timing your visit either early or late in the day should provide you with ample opportunities to find quite spaces. But, be aware that you’ll need probably 3 hours to properly explore this large and photographically compelling site.

While you should try to visit both locations, I much prefer The Temple of Heaven to The Forbidden City. It’s more interesting, more colorful and offers more variety to the enthusiastic photographer.

I walked around and through almost the entire complex, partly due to the fact that I lost my bearings near closing time. One of the quieter views I discovered was this dreamy scene of three local visitors taking a break in the sunshine on a cold winters day.

While an interesting architectural structure, the verandah draws your eye towards the three gentleman and acts to accentuate the feeling of three dimensional space within the borders of the two dimensional photograph. Employing a wide-angle lens simply accentuates this process.

As an aside I love to explore the notion of duality (i.e., opposites) in my photographs. Notice how the two gentleman in darker jackets have their backs to the camera, while the man in white is facing the camera and is being framed by this companions

What a shame the terrible noise characteristics associated with the Leica M9 CCD Sensor excluded so many low light photography opportunities.

2. Embrace Wide-Angle Perspective

As well as allowing you to encompass more of the environment in question wide-angle lenses can also be used, to great effect, up close. After making a few general overviews of the location consider moving in close, with a wide-angle focal length, and explore the scene from a more dynamic perspective.

The relationship between subject and background is a key element of image design. By varying your camera to subject distance, both actual and through the illusion created through the use of different lens focal lengths, you’ll be able to alter depth of field and the perception of space between the subject and the background.

The above image was made in a swanky hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. I employed a 24 mm focal length lens on my full frame Leica M9 camera, in addition to a shallow depth of field, to emphasize the foreground table and light source. 

I had to sell my Leica M9 camera, not all that long after buying it. I had several issues with the camera, one of them being the really quite terrible noise performance from it's CCD (i.e., Charged Coupled Device) sensor. With the above photo as a case in point, I was able to reduce the noise in Lightroom, but with an unacceptable loss in sharpness as a consequence. I know more sophisticated methods to reduce noise, but published this image, without any kind of noise reduction, for your perusal.  If you're viewing this image on a desktop or laptop computer click on the image to see it nice and big, and you'll see what I mean.

An attendant cleans the interior of a church in Kolkata, India

3. Vary Your Viewpoint

Perspective is such a wonderful and so often under utilized tool. Exploring perspective through variations in viewpoint (e.g., worms eye and birds eye) can greatly increase the emotive qualities of your photographs and your ability to tell a story.

I was in Kolkata, India and wanted to get access to what I was told was a beautiful church. Unfortunately the outside of the church was marred by scaffolding, due to renovations. I was approached by a man who told me the church was closed but that he could help me gain entrance. I told him I’d love to make some photos inside. He led me into the church, which was not locked, and I proceeded to make some pictures. I didn’t make too many as I was without a tripod and the light levels were very low. I made this photo back in 2011 on a Canon 5D Mark II camera at ISO 1600. Back then that was a pretty high ISO 

A feather, delicately positioned between rocks, lies in a shallow pool of water on Squeaky Beach in Wilsons Promontory National Park, Australia.

4. An Eye for Detail

Keep an eye out for detailed studies of interesting elements within the environment. Moving in close and highlighting these elements may be a key difference in the way you explore the environment.

The photo of the feather was made at Squeaky Beach in the amazing Wilsons Promontory National Park in South Eastern Australia. It’s one of my early DSLR images, made in 2006 on a Canon 5D camera with a Canon 180 mm f3.5L Macro lens. I very much like the line of the feather as it runs diagonally through the image.

While I forget this chaps name I remember him well. You can see the compassion and intellect in his gaze.

5. Photograph with Care and Respect

Always be on the look out for ways to photograph those you are with and for interesting ways to photograph folks you meet. 

To be successful portraits need to be emotive and expressive. Most of all they need to be made with care and respect for the subject of your photo. Your photos are as much about you and the relationship you form with the subject as they are about the people, things and places you photograph. Your photographs very much explore and showcase those connections.

This portrait is another relatively early DSLR image made with my Canon 5D camera and Canon 85 mm f1.2 lens.

I made the photograph with my subject being illuminated by verandah light. That is to say they were out of the direct sun and underneath a verandah. I employed an aperture of f1.2 to produce the exceptionally shallow depth of field evident in this most expressive portrait.

Brother and sister volunteers at Maldon Fire Brigade in Maldon, Victoria.

6. Environmental Portrait

Environmental Portraits, where your subject is pictured in relation to the environment, is a great alternative to the traditional portrait. The secret to creating a great environmental portrait is to ensure that, while you’re including more of the surroundings, you must ensure that the face remains the most important element within the image. It is, after all, a portrait!

The way to do this is to employ a wide-angle lens and move close, often to around 1 to 1 ½ meters from your subject, to ensure their face remains large enough in the frame. The second thing to do is not to allow them to block the background. To do this place them significantly off centre in your composition.

I photographed these two young people at the Maldon Fire Station in Central Victoria, Australia. It’s another relatively old image (December 2006) so I’m not completely sure of their relationship to each other, but I believe they are brother and sister. After asking permission to photograph this handsome couple I asked the young lad to take the position over by the fire truck. I even suggested how he might rest up against it. His body language was perfect. When it came to the sister I said something like "now why don’t you show me who the real boss is". While doing so I crossed my arms over my chest as a way of encouraging her to mimic that body language.

I like the final result as it talks to the relationship between these siblings as much as it seeks to describe the look of two young volunteers at a country fire station.

A calm and friendly dog pokes his head through a car window to greet passers by in the seaside town of Húsavik in Northern Iceland.

7. - Where Ever Possible Tell a Story 

Now I don’t want to overstate this point, but it needs to be said. The story doesn’t always have to be obvious, nor linear. It can be suggested. Likewise an image that’s based around a theme (e.g., environment, love, loneliness, lust, domesticity) or explores symbolism or metaphor can be particularly compelling.  

What’s more the story, much like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. It’s simply a matter of making beautiful images that are interesting enough for the viewer to look more closely and search for meaning.

The photo of the dog was made in Húsavík in Iceland. I made it shortly after embarking on a fun whale watching cruise. (I spotted a blue whale, but it was quite some distance off the ship). As you can see it’s a magnificent animal, but seemed to be a little sad. I felt that the half closed window and the cool blue color of the car seemed to contain it, both physically and emotionally, from the promise of freedom beyond. Almost certainly it was missing its owner and likely wanted to get outside for a bit of sniff around.

Next time you’re out and about on a photo walk, whether it’s a self-initiated stroll or a more formal group-based event, try to introduce somewhat of a structure to your approach. I’m all for working intuitively, but varying your approach in the ways I’ve described will help prevent you from coming back with a whole lot of near identical images.

Alternatively you could come back with twenty great photos that look almost the same. From an editors point of view, that likely means you got one.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru