Travel and street photography can be tough genres to master and even harder to generate income with. There's a tremendous amount of competition in these fields, and creating images that stand out requires finding a way to connect viewers to the scenes you shoot. Many novices and even experienced amateurs get so involved in trying new tricks to make that connection that they forget one of the most basic principles: a photo needs a subject. That's an easy trap to fall into in these two genres, where there's often a lot happening in a scene.
So, how do you solve the problem and break the cycle of shooting mundane, uninteresting travel and street shots with no real point of interest? It's a two-step process: 1) identify the subject and 2) isolate the subject. Step one is a matter of learning to pay attention to what caught your interest when you raised the camera. Granted, this can be pretty simple if you're shooting a tourist attraction, but keep in mind that everyone's shooting those subjects. Look for something that everyone hasn't already seen.
When you know your subject, there are several ways to accomplish step two, isolating your subject so that a viewer's eyes are drawn to that point in the image. Let's look at some of the most effective methods:
This is probably the most well-known way to isolate a subject in a photograph. It involves using a wide aperture setting to create shallow depth of field in the image and making sure that the subject is in sharp focus while the background and/or foreground are blurred. It can be effective in street and travel photos, but it's important to consider whether you need more in the image to tell the whole story. With that word of caution, the method is fairly simple: Keep some distance between your subject and the background, open up your lens aperture and focus carefully on the subject. If you're using autofocus, lock it in on your subject, then re-frame the shot. Take a look at the image at the top of this article for an example.
Framing the Subject
This method is very effective and you'll find many opportunities to use it in these genres. All that's needed is something to partially or completely surround your subject, to isolate it from the other elements of the scene. Doorways, gates, shadows, alleyways, bridges, buildings, trees, and a virtually unlimited list of elements will be there for you to use in most scenes; it's up to you to get creative with them.
Leading Lines – Real or Implied
Another easy method to use in these genres is the concept of leading lines. Look for ways to use real or implied lines to “point out” your subject. Real lines shouldn't need any further explanation; roads, cracks in walls or sidewalks, the sidewalks themselves - again, there will be plenty to work with in many scenes. Implied lines are a bit harder to find, but extremely effective: something or someone pointing, movement toward the subject, or one of my personal favorites, the line of sight of people in the shot.
Last, but not least, you can simply use a large area of what's NOT the subject of your photo to emphasize what IS. While the concept of negative space may be a little difficult to grasp and is one of the most argued elements of composition, keeping it in mind while you're framing up your shots may help you create compositions that isolate your subject very effectively when there's not much to work with.
Other Rules of Composition
I've skipped over several of the basic rules of composition, such as the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Mean, simply because those rules should be second nature to any serious photographer, as well as the knowledge of when to break them. Nevertheless, you should be using them to isolate your subject in street and travel shots if you want to create images rather than snapshots.
Practice these methods for isolating your subjects and you should see a marked difference in the impact of your photos in a short time. Here's another hint: Don't use your own judgment, or the word of your family and friends to evaluate your photos. Get your images out there in front of a more discriminating audience. I highly recommend opening a KeepSnap account and uploading your best street and travel shots, where they can be purchased by viewers. The account is free, so you have nothing to lose but your insecurity!