As a travel photography instructor and international tour guide, I consider my job to help the participants of my classes and tours to bring home a more well-rounded and interesting portfolio of images, and I take this role very seriously.
My feeling is that the best way to accomplish this is to work from a shot list that helps to organize and track your photography. Briefly, a shot list is just that, a list of the images you'll need to capture in order to create a powerful, overall cultural portrait of a place. The idea is that this set of images will then provide the basis for more interesting slideshows, websites, books or portfolios, however it is that you're presenting your photography.
A shot list is made up of categories, some of the more obvious of which are Landscapes, People and Architecture, what might be considered the low hanging fruit. These subjects are ones that most photographers are on the lookout for and can recognize when the opportunity presents itself. However, I've come up with over 70 categories, 52 of which are highlighted in an iPhone app I created called My Shot Lists for Travel.
Now, you certainly don't need to pay 99 cents for an iPhone app to create a shot list, just simple paper and pen will do, an effective method used by photographers since the beginning. And I suppose you can work from memory, but mine isn't as good as it used to be so I need to see the list and be able to interact with it. I came up with the idea for the app, which is based on a class I teach called Capturing the Essence of a Place, because I was constantly taking a ragged piece of paper in and out of my pocket, trying to read my faded and doctor-like penmanship, and I realized that the iPhone was the perfect device to maintain a shot list. You can even use the free Notes app that comes with any smart phone to jot down categories and check them off as you complete each one, simple as can be.
So I'd like to talk about 10 lesser known categories, the fruit that may be considered to grow a bit higher or deeper in the tree, and not so much be more difficult to capture, but more out of sight and out of mind. Often times these are the images that make a good portfolio much better, one that's differentiated from the pack. Again, a shot list is supposed to remind and inspire you to bring back a series of images showing those aspects of the place you're visiting that are distinctive and unique to it, not one full of cliches and record shots.
Hint: None of this is cut and dry because the same image can often fit into a number of categories.
So here you go…
Agriculture: Images that exhibit agricultural scenes can provide partial insight into what the local economy is based on.
Details: Look deeply into the scene to capture the parts that make up the whole. Detail shots are often the difference between a good set of images and a great one.
Everyday Life: Show the locals involved in seemingly mundane and ordinary activities, just doing what they do on a regular basis.
Fashion & Style: The manner in which its people dress, whether in traditional outfits, uniforms, hats or other articles of clothing, can provide a look into what’s important to, or typical of, a culture.
Flags: Time and again, national pride is expressed by the simple display of a country’s flag. Look for city, state and regional examples, as well.
Industry: If the place you’re shooting has a particular industry it’s commonly identified with, seek it out.
Motion: Be aware of situations to slow down your shutter speed in order to show motion, especially if your subject could be considered a local icon.
Night Scenes: Capturing a city or other location after dark will give your viewers a completely unique sense of the place.
Transportation: Distinctive ways that people move from place to place—whether by man-made contraptions, beasts of burden or other means—should be a part of any portfolio.
The Underbelly: The reality of most places is that there’s a dark underbelly, and as disturbing or provocative as it may be, a complete cultural portrait should reveal that side, as well.
Research your shot list before you travel so you know what's iconic at the destination and which photo opportunities to be on the lookout for (and where to find them). Study what other photographers have shot in the same destination…not to copy them, but to get ideas and then to emulate their work, always with the goal in mind of putting your own spin on the subject.
If you'll work from a shot list I can almost guarantee you'll see the level and variety of the images you bring back go up several notches.