Setting goals during a travel photoshoot, or any photoshoot for that matter is very important. It can really increase your chances of creating amazing images. But, travel photography is so spontaneous sometimes. You might ask “How can I set goals?” You can. You already do. However you should do it more consciously and with more purpose. I’ll tell you why.
NOTE: This article will give you a good idea of just some of the stuff you can expect from my course Behind The Scenes Travel Photographer Of The Year.
Every shoot has a goal
Everyone’s overall goal during any shoot is to make a great photograph. This is extremely general, but a goal nevertheless.
Above is the result of a simple, but slightly more specific overall goal during a travel photography shoot. This is a place where I happened to camp. My overall goal was to show the dramatic beauty and the power of nature through my image. Even a slightly more specific overall goal like this leads you to set other, smaller goals to achieve it. Those smaller goals here were:
- To take advantage of the light. It definitely makes everything look dramatically beautiful.
- To find the best framing that combines the most distinct of the triangular peaks (power of nature) and that light.
Goals can also be very specific. I had a few such goals in mind in the case of the Romanian Shepherd photo in my Travel Photography Course, which I mentioned in the beginning. I needed to fulfil most of those goals to make the image work.
You'll see the explanations of all of my decisions in depth in the video version of the course. (You can learn more by clicking any of the links to the course on this page)
Below was a similar situation, in terms of needing to fulfil several goals. I saw boys doing backflips at sunset in a lagoon in Vanuatu. The overall goal here was to communicate the incredible beauty of that split moment. In that place.
But, to make the image really work, I had to fulfil the list of the smaller specific goals below.
- Find a perspective very close to the water, right amidst the action.
- Take advantage of the setting sun, golden light.
- Silhouette the figures. This would add a strong graphic sense to the image (more visually appealing this way).
- Capture the boy mid-flight, as he’s doing a backflip. Much of the magic is in that frozen action.
- Catch the splashes. They make the shot look more dynamic, more fun.
So you see, there are always goals when we shoot. Whether it's a very short and general list, or a longer and very specific one – all photoshoots have goals. Even if you're not fully aware of those goals.
How do you set goals during a travel photography shoot?
As you might have already gathered, the goals are always dependent on what you want to communicate. The overall goal is basically what you want to communicate.
Sometimes you might want to communicate a sense of a literal story. Other times it might be more about the mood, the atmosphere.
A sense of a literal story
Here’s an example of setting goals to communicate a more literal story. It's a scene of boy climbing a tree during a hunt in the forest. That’s what I wanted to tell the viewer about. To create that sense of story is my overall goal.
Here are my smaller, specific goals.
- Find the right perspective. Emphasise that he is climbing. Getting above really did the trick here.
- Capture the moment where it’s clearly visible that he’s climbing. The way his hands clasp parts of the tree communicates this well.
- Make sure the slingshot can be seen clearly. This is the clue that he’s hunting.
- Get the intense, focused expression on the boy's face. I want to show that his task isn’t an easy one.
While I was shooting, I was constantly thinking of these goals. I’d mentally tick them off when things would fall into place. The story would be communicated most effectively when all the smaller, specific would come together.
A sense of mood and ambience
Even if your goal is not to communicate a sense of a literal story, the idea behind the goal-setting is still the same. Think of what it is you want to communicate first. Then, the goals come from that.
In this case, I had driven to a mountain village. It was foggy and getting dark. For me, there’s always a sense of mystery with fog. And darkness can feel a bit eerie.
My overall goal was to communicate the atmosphere, the mood that I felt – mystery, eeriness.
My more specific goals were:
- To find a subject. I couldn’t just shoot fog and darkness. I drove around and found this scene, which, was potentially perfect.
- Stay at a distance and hide the details. This enhanced the sense of mystery.
- Choose a perspective that allows me to keep the subjects separate from each other. If the people in this photo were close together, forming one large mass, it wouldn’t have been as visually interesting.
- Include the cross into the frame. For me, it adds a little to the eeriness. There are crosses for the dead along roads and of course, in cemeteries.
Again, as I’m shooting, I’m mentally ticking off the goals. A new goal came to mind when I saw a child running. I wanted to capture the moment of the child in the middle of the run. This was a bonus and added a bit more life to the image.
How to Increase your chances of making great photos
It should be getting clear that setting the right goals is a big step to great photos. To set the right goals, it’s important to identify what it is you aim to communicate. What’s the story? What’s the mood? What's the atmosphere? In some cases, you might want to communicate one of these things more than others. In other cases, you might want to communicate all of them at once.
Your intentions should be clear to you. You need to be purposeful and conscious of what you are doing. Very, very rarely does leaving things to chance produce an amazing image.
So, know what you want to communicate. Set your goals to achieve this. Be intentional and purposeful about them. Find the angles. Wait for the moment. Take advantage of a lighting situation. Etc.
A fluid process
Life would be simple if everything always went to plan. But, travel/documentary photography, or photography of real life is a fluid thing. When you’re not setting up a shoot, you’re at the mercy of your circumstances.
An important ingredient to getting great photos in travel photography is the ability to adapt. The story behind the following photo is a good example of this.
A drive through the desert in Mauritania led me to a group of nomads. I thought they were family. They were transporting water containers with donkeys through a small sandstorm. Epic scene. As soon as I saw it, I instantly set goals for myself.
- Show the sandstorm, the tough climate.
- Communicate the feel of discomfort caused by the sandstorm.
- Show humans and animals battling through rough conditions.
- Portray human–animal relationship/dependency.
I asked the man if I could take a photo. I could. But, he asked if I’d be able to take him, his son and some water containers to his home. It turned out that the group wasn’t his family. He was simply using their donkeys for transportation.
I agreed. However, unexpectedly, some of my goals went out the window. The group split up. The man quickly unloaded the water containers, grabbed his son and started to walk towards my car. A totally different scenario from what I anticipated. I needed to quickly adapt – to reset some of my goals.
- I could no longer show anything to do with animals, but I could still show the sandstorm and the tough climate.
- The feel of discomfort could still be communicated too. The boy is looking down to avoid the sand blowing into his eyes. The turban of the father is moving with the wind.
- It’s visible that there’s sand in the air. It was clear that here were humans battling through rough conditions.
- Instead of the human–animal relationship, I could show the bond of a father and son, as they faced the elements.
You see, some of the key elements remained. But, I had to adapt and to reset some of my goals on the go. If I didn't, I'd probably just end up frustrated and empty-handed. As I've said, when you're dealing with real life – you're at the mercy of your circumstances. You need to be fluid, flexible, ready to adapt and to reset your goals.
How to improve your goal-setting
Since setting the right goals is often the key to a great image, can you improve your ability to do this? Absolutely – with experience and a deeper level of understanding. Experience and level of understanding that comes from shooting is one thing, but that’s not the only way.
Experience and understanding can also come from looking at photos. Even more so, from closely analysing them. I do it all the time. I look at my own photos and analyse what I did right and wrong. I also look at the photos of my favourite photographers, and I analyse them too.
The importance of learning from the work of others is why I’ve created the course I've been talking about. In it I show you my photos and I analyse them in great depth in front of you. Every little detail and decision is explained.
Even if you don't do the course, make a habit of closely looking at the work you like. But, look at it with a critical eye. Try to figure out what the photographer aimed to achieve, based on what you see and feel in the image.
Goals during a travel photography shoot are very important. When you gain the experience and develop a deep level of understanding, you know the right goals to set. If things change, you’re capable of resetting those goals and adapting, to still make the most of a situation. Ideally, you want to accumulate enough in the knowledge bank to handle as many of different situations as possible.
Ultimately, setting and resetting goals effectively means that you can communicate better through your photos. Those images that communicate something strongly are usually the ones which we remember. They're often the ones which we consider strong, great, even amazing.