If we are to define iconic travel shots as the broad, symbolic images that establish the mood of a place, then cultural shots are the images that fill in the details and tell the rest of the story. They bring the viewer into the location and offer them an intimate perspective of life itself, as it exists everyday for the people who live there. In that sense, they are the journalistic approach to travel photography.
Cultural shots are images of people doing anything: working, walking, eating, exercising, interacting, participating in festivals and events, etc…. They can also show the non-human elements that surround and illustrate daily human existence. They are often shot from the viewpoint of an observer rather than from the viewpoint of someone who is actively engaged with the scene. Cultural shots portray a way of life, and while there are not hard and fast rules about what makes a good cultural shot, they generally communicate the traditions and lifestyle of a place in a way that reflects your own ideas and excitement about that area.
Capturing cultural shots requires a quick, finely tuned eye, efficient technique and the uninhibited willingness to shoot whatever sparks your interest. By the nature of these types of shots, they require you to tread off the beaten track and explore the backstreets and out-of-the-way corners of the world. The further away you go from the tourist filled areas of a location, the more likely you are to find yourselves in the middle of untainted, uninfluenced real life situations, and it’s these places where you’re likely to capture your most intriguing and engaging cultural images.
The first lesson for the travel photographer is to always have your camera ready, or at least conveniently accessible. The world moves by quickly and if you can’t get your camera to your face within seconds, then you’ll miss many opportunities. The second lesson is to always keep alert. Being a good travel photographer mans keeping your eyes open to everything around you. Learn to notice the excitement in the mundane and the inherent beauty in the ordinary, and train yourself to see those things on the fly.
The simple tasks that people do in their everyday lives can produce great imagery, but you must be willing to dive in and draw them forth with your own creativity and photographic technique. Lastly, allow yourself to be comfortable taking pictures in foreign places. Carry yourself and your photographic process with confidence, and treat your camera as an extension of your personal and artistic self, instead of an object to be self conscious of.
With my own cultural photography, I often concentrate on the physical competence of the human form and how it carries forth with practiced routine. Picking olives or sealing bottles of olive oil, when done enough times, becomes a graceful activity. Think about what you do well and imagine the well-practiced motions that your body goes through when completing that task. Although you might not consider your everyday tasks as candidates for good photographs, through the eyes of a competent travel photographer, they very well might.
I also look for examples of how people interact with the landscape and the environments around then, whether they’re actively engaged with the scene, or merely passing through it. The juxtaposition of a human figure in motion and their relationship with the static background of the world around them can be a powerful composition.
Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. He just published his latest eBook, Making The Image- A Conceptual Guide to Creating Stronger Photographs. Follow his own blog at danbaileyphoto.com/blog, see his daily updates at facebook.com/danbaileyphoto and follow him on Twitter @Danbaileyphoto..