How to take better TRAVEL PHOTOS
New York — Mention the words "travel photography" and most people think of the innumerable ads that show bronzed young couples walking hand in hand along pristine Caribbean beaches. Or, on a more personal level, those fuzzy shots of Dad saying "cheese" while stiffly posed by the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty . . .
But to see the work of travel photographer Lisl Dennis is to learn that the medium can far transcend advertising cliches and records of loved ones awkwardly sharing the viewfinder with landmarks. Her landscape shots take on the look of abstract paintings; her imaginative portraits, sometimes showing no more than the back of a head sporting a vivid Guatemalan cap or a child's grubby feet standing behind strewn rose petals, zoom in on the heart of a culture.
Even her photographs of the usual tourist spots are compositions that are anything but usual. Her view of Waikiki Beach is not one of palm trees and sunbathers, rather it consists of a stack of bright yellow surfboards against an azure sky and graceful white sail. At Giza the famed pyramids are secondary to a wall of Arabic graffiti and the black silhouettes of veiled women in the foreground.
When not an assignment for magazines, often with her husband, Landt Dennis, as a writer-photographer team, she advises amateurs on how they can achieve artistic results of their own. Every summer she conducts two workshops on travel photography in Santa Fe, N.M., and is the author of "How to Take Better Travel Photos (HP Books, $7.95), a handsome manual in which her own photos and the experiences behind them are used as case studies.
Between assignments, relaxing in the cozy, electric New York apartment that serves as the Dennis's home base, she mulls over the question of whether or not good travel photography is within the reach of most amateurs.
"If you mean good from a technical standpoint, the answer is yes, absolutely, " she says. "The cameras today are so fully automatic that, from a technical standpoint, it's tough to go wrong. What technology has done is put the amateurs on the doorstep of getting creative travel photos."
She began her workshop uncertain whether that next step in photography could really be taught, she admits. "But I was fully astonished to see that after three days of hard work everyone had improved by at last 50 percent. It left me convinced that, while not everyone can learn to take great photos, they can certainly learn to take better ones, photos that will bring back the taste and feel of a place long after the trip is over."
To the aspiring photographer who is serious about achieving memorable results , she recommends an equipment package that adds up to a serious investment. At minimum that means two camera bodies and three lenses providing wide-angle, normal, and telephoto lengths, a tripod, and a flash unit. Ideally, she says, two of the lenses should be a 55mm macro that allows for close-up shots and a long-focal-length zoom that can make near and far objects appear closer together.
Once students in her workshop have mastered the technical aspects, they tackle what Ms. Dennis considers to be the most difficult aspect of travel photography -- photographing people. "That gets into the confrontation aspect of photography, and can make one feel very insecure indeed," she says. "A landscape will stay still for you, but when making portraits you have to deal with people of all backgrounds, all races, colors, and creeds, some who don't speak your language, and some who may be quite suspicious of you and your camera."
Ms. Dennis admits to having felt insecure herself, particularly in Hong Kong where her attempts to photograph vendors in the marketplace were met with a shower of hurled nuts. During most encounters, however, she has found that a direct, friendly approach eventually pays off, something she stresses to students when describing how some of her best portraits came about.
One of them is a beguiling shot of a brilliantly dressed Guatemalan girl, a picture she has title "The Prima Dona." After learning that women of Nebaj, Guatemala, are famous for their colorful handwoven garb, Ms. Dennis made an arduous five-hour drive up twisting mountain roads to photograph them. But when she got there, she found that young girls would agree to be photographed only to giggle and run off before she could press the shutter.
On the way back to the car she came across the most elegant girl of all, one sporting an elaborate tassled headdress and layers of jewelry. After finding a blue painted wall to serve as background, she got her subject to pose just long enough for the one exposure.
Nearly all of her stunning portraits have required getting people to agree to pose in a certain way or to allow her to put them in a photogenic setting. Most have been highly cooperative, giving credence to her conviction that a photographer's own fear of approaching people is the biggest obstacle he or she will face.
Other obstacles that confront the travel photographer are monotonous landscapes, foul weather, or a lack of people to photograph. For Lisl Dennis such unfavorable circumstances are a test of creativity, one that she invariably passes with flying colors. While on assignment to photograph a bike tour through Denmark, she was momentarily dismayed to find that she and her husband were the only ones on the tour. How was she to convey the essence of the trip without other cyclists to photograph? The dramatic results she came home with were achieved by tying a flower to the bell of her bike and integrating the adorned handle with scenery along the way.
"When you pick up a camera in a foreign country, you're taking on that environment in a very deliberate kind of way," she says. "Often what goes with it is a territorial imperative, a willful approach to getting photographs based on preconceived notions of what the environment should look like. That usually makes for an unpleasant experience and not very good photos. I try to help people understand that they have to relax, to work with and not against what they see."
In her workshops ms. Dennis gently but firmly steers her students away from the usual generic shots of sunsets and couples on the beach and toward developing a personal style. Part of her own style is to zoom in on detail -- a geranium planted in a Swiss hiking boot, the striped tail of a Caribbean rainbow fish, a Portuguese window -- small items that make a cultural statement in a way a panoramic landscape often does not.
To encourage style in others she asks students to expand their definition of what travel photography is. "I try to get them to discover what really intrigues them about a place. Should they do a portfolio on children, architecture, industry, shadows, or light and dark? I try to help people to focus their travel photography on what is particularly meaningful to them."
Because Mr. Dennis believes that a good portfolio of travel photos can be assembled without traveling very far, she also encourages students to seek photogenic subjects in their own towns. She recommends checking out local events such as festivals, happenings that can yield as much color and excitement as those in more exotic places.
When one does embark on a photographic trip, she advises preliminary research on just how photogenic the destination is. That means finding out more than if the place is beautiful. Does it have the specific elements such as varied topgraphy or people in native dress that one would like to photograph?
Ms. Dennis finds it ironic that although travel photography is the medium's most practiced form -- Kodak estimates that it accounts for 70 percent of all pictures taken -- it is the least respected and understood. "Even with all the current hoopla about photography as an art form, travel photography as a field is still stuck in the 1950s. Academics regard it as something amateurs do on their vacations and therefore as something not be taken seriously. But because it is the domain of the amateur, it is the 20th-century form of folk art, our era's quilt."
She is also quick to remind elitists that travel photography, along with portraiture, is the oldest form of the medium. "Travel and photography have been wed right back from the very beginning. Photography was invented at about the same time the Grand Tour came into vogue. The wealthy dilletantes who could afford the new equipment rushed off to photograph the pyramids and Katmandu. They were the first travel photographers."
Travel photography today, she believes, has the same artistic potential as any other form. "That's especially true if you consider what travel photography encompasses," she says. "I've been trying to define it for 10 years and haven't been able to yet. There's no limited definition because it can be people, architecture, industry, costumes, cuisine, sports, crafts -- everything, really."
Considering those possibilities, it's time to get Dad away from the Washington Monument.