Travel Photography Ideas (a day on Kudaka Island, Okinawa)

Travel Photography Ideas (a day on Kudaka Island, Okinawa)

When people ask me what kind of photographer I am, they’re expecting an answer like “I’m a portrait photographer,” which would be true. But I’m also a landscape photographer, a food photographer and more than occasionally a nature photographer too. Yes, I earn almost all my photography related income shooting portraits, but I love to shoot all kinds of pictures. The one thing I don’t really do is sports. I would if I could earn enough to make the equipment I’d need worth my while, but here in Okinawa, that’s not likely to happen, and I’m okay with that. 

The one kind of photography really love to do is travel photography. The name ‘travel photography’ is a bit misleading because if you live in an awesome place like Okinawa, you don’t have to travel very far to shoot awesome travel photos. But it doesn’t really matter how far you have to travel to take the pictures. My idea of travel photography is taking pictures that would make a person want to go visit the place you shot. 

In this article, I’ll feature some of the shots I took on a trip to Kudaka Island in Okinawa, which, lucky for me, is only a 45 minute drive and a 20 minute boat ride from where I live. I’ll use each photo to articulate one or more take-home points about travel photography, explain why I think each image “works” photographically and elucidate some of the challenges I faced in capturing each one. I’ll also write briefly about the post processing. 

I should note that I didn’t bring my really good camera and lens kit (which at the time was a Canon 5D Mk2) because the trip involved riding around the bumpy roads on an old rented bicycle. In travel photography, the best camera is often the one that is the most practical and I wanted something lighter, so I took my tiny little cropped sensor Canon SL1 (or 100D) with its two ultra-light kit lenses. Were the results as good as they would have been with the full-frame Mark II? Not a chance. The images are grainier, the colors neither as subtle nor as deep and the dynamic range is considerably narrower, but the pictures were good enough to be featured on Okinawa travel websites and blogs, and that’s good enough for me.

Point #1: Use a wide lens to capture epic foregrounds in context.

In this photo of a local sport fisherman casting his line from a rocky shore above the waves at Cape Kaberu was one of the first I took on the island. The man is tiny in the shot, which is really about the choppy water swirling around the craggy cliffs, but his presence adds a certain energy and lends perspective to the scene. The challenge in this shot was to frame the fisherman so that his head didn’t intersect the horizon while also capturing the rocks and water in the foreground. This took some walking around and required me to half-squat to get just the right angle. The next problem was waiting for him to raise the rod above his head, which made for a better image than when the rod was held parallel to the ground. He only did this every so often, so I ended up waiting with my finger over the shutter button, ready to snap. I took a few snaps each time he raised the rod and when I thought I had enough, reviewed them to make sure they’d worked out.  

The wide lens let me capture a lot of scenery, putting everything in context, and all the elements add something. Wide lenses are great when you want to keep everything in focus because the depth of field is so broad. If it’s bright enough to shoot with a small aperture (i.e. high f-stop number), this effect will be even more enhanced. In scenes in which you are shooting a bright sky along with a dark foreground, you’ll need to expose for the sky and bring up the shadows in Lightroom or other software (this point is landscape photography 101). The real challenge in post processing this image was bringing out the gentle line between the haze over the ocean and the clouds in the sky. I used the de-haze function in Lightroom on the sky in at low settings with a gradient filter parallel to the horizon to do this, and I think the effect worked. The line may be a bit too pronounced, but I’m happy with the result.

I also want to draw your attention to the horizon. Note that it is dead level (tweaked in post to remove any tilt) and it does not run across the center of the frame. Centering the horizon is somewhat of a rookie mistake, although I admit to having done it purposely from time to time. Some might say the horizon in this shot is too close to the top of the frame. Maybe so, but to frame it that way I would have had to back up farther and I would have compromised the composition of the cliff and water at the bottom of the frame. Also, the fisherman would have been smaller in the frame than he already is, so I thought it best to use the image as is. 

Point # 2: Find a point of interest close to the camera

After leaving the craggy cliffs of Cape Kaberu, we headed along a coastal road to Upama beach, famed not only for its place in local folklore but also for its star-shaped grains of sand. I wanted a unique picture which really captured the spirit of the beach in a way that the more typical shots along the beach could never accomplish. The blue sky, the clouds amid the faint haze, the reflections of the sun on the water and the froth of the waves all helped tell the story, but just pointing the camera at the water and shooting into the sun wouldn’t do it justice. I knew I wanted a low angle close to the waves, so I went looking for a rock, a log or perhaps even a shell I could use as a point of focus in the immediate foreground. After a bit of beach combing, I found this lone rock right by the water’s edge. Unfortunately, it was in a place that didn’t make for a beautiful image, but that was not problem because being somewhere between the size of a baseball and a football, it was easy enough to move to wherever I wanted it.

Settling on a gravelly patch of beach where the limestone had been weathered away over eons by the motion of the waves, I focused on the stone and framed waves, the ocean and the horizon. This was shot at the 50mm on my 18-50mm zoom lens at f/11 to give it the greatest depth of field I could. Shooting directly into the sun, the shadows were dark, so I boosted them in post. I also brought down the highlights of the image (but not all the way) to keep the brightness of the sky within limits and to bring out the details of the clouds. I also used a brush tool with the highlights boosted slightly to enhance the sparkle on the water, as well as a brushes with different color temperature and saturation settings on the water and the shore. This helped to bring out the earthy tones of the foreground and set it gently against the aqua hues of the water.

This shot would have worked even if the camera were not pointing directly into the sun, but the advantage of centering the sun is that the reflections it makes in the water create leading lines that take the viewer right into the frame. The shadows this kind of backlighting creates can be too intense for some “cheap” cameras to handle. However, modern cameras are getting better at boosting shadows without producing an unnatural HDR (high dynamic range) look. When shooting raw, as I always do, you have a lot of control over highlights and contrast. The rather squinty feel and slightly underexposed foreground captured the mood of the beach perfectly. 

Point #3: Separate foreground, middle ground and background

In just about every photograph that is not a shot of a two-dimensional surface, there will be some depth in the frame. It really helps some images to frame them in such a way that there is a clear separation between foreground, middle ground and background. In this image, the foreground is the foliage at the bottom of the frame. This is out of focus and this is a desirable effect because while establishing depth, it helps push the viewers attention away from the foreground toward the middle ground, where a man is standing on a rocky cliff. The cliff is the featured element the photo, and by placing it near the center of the frame, I’ve made this obvious. Behind the cliff is the shore of the main island of Okinawa, which is both slightly out of focus and slightly softened by the haze in the atmosphere. Allowing both the immediate foreground and the distant background to be softened makes the point of focus look much sharper than it really is.

This is an important point. I’ve had a number of people (who are not photographers) comment on “how sharp this image is.” It is no sharper than any other images in this set. The difference is perceptual and photographers who can learn to separate the middle ground from the foreground and the background using both focus and framing can enhance the impact of their images.

Processing played a significant role in this image, as it almost always does. Raising the shadows globally did not bring up the featured cliff enough, so I used a brush in Lightroom with both shadows and exposure significantly boosted. It was hard not to spill over the lines of the cliff, so I used an eraser brush with a fairly low diffusion setting to clean it up. I also brought out the highlights in the foliage in the foreground, which I felt would accentuate the desirable out of focus effect.

The last point I want to make is about lens choice. I shot on the longer of the two zoom lenses I brought with me, at about 200 mm in full-frame terms (55-250mm on an APSC sensor). I didn’t zoom in or out all the way because I wanted a lens wide to capture enough of the foliage at the bottom of the frame to create foreground (see point #2) and I also needed to bring the far shore closer, an effect accomplished by a long lens. I took a few variations with different framings and zoom settings and this is what I chose.

Point #4: Use contrasting colors to set subjects apart

There are really two subjects in this photo, the orange and the old Okinawan house. I would say they are both equally important, though only one is in focus. If the orange in this image had not been a bright, contrasting color, it would not have been a “keeper,” even with all the techniques I employed to bring out its best features. The yellow hue of the orange contrasts nicely with the green foliage and the fairly lifeless grey of the old Okinawan house in the background doesn’t oppose the orange, allowing the fruit to dominate. This helps the creaky structure look even older than its hundred and some years. I used a global slider in the “HSL” panel of Lightroom to enhance the exact color of the orange and slightly muted all colors other than green. I raised the brightness of the orange by centering a very gentle radial filter around it with lots of feathering.

I should note that the color contrast is only a part of what makes this image work. The stark in-focus, out-of-focus gradient also helps to make the main subject really pop out. I achieved this effect by working at the minimum focusing distance for the lens/camera combination, knowing this would produce the shallowest possible depth of field. It was dark, under the trees and the sun had gone behind a cloud, which allowed me to open the aperture up, all the way, which on this kit lens was f/5.6. I was shooting zoomed in to about 135mm, which on an APSC sensor with a 1.6 crop factor made it a bit longer than 200mm would appear on a full frame. I was able to just get the closest part of the organge in focus, allowing the edges to be soft.

Point #5: Use long lenses on close subjects to avoid distortion

Not all travel photos are shots of the outdoors. Some of the best reasons to travel relate to the incredible foods you can sample only where they are served. This photo of a bowl of Kudaka Island’s famed seasnake soup was taken using only the light from the window (without a curtain). I shot at 50mm on the lens, making it about 85mm in full-frame terms, which allowed for good compression, little distortion and a very narrow depth of field.

It was important to focus on the single piece of sea snake in the liquid because that’s what the story of the image was all about. Letting everything else go soft really helped to draw the eye to that point of interest. The problem was that the depth of field was so narrow that it was easy to miss. I was also shooting at 1/125sec shutter speed, which is not quite fast enough to conform to the very important reciprocal rule, which states your shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of double your lens length to capture a clean image without camera shake. Those two matters combined meant I had to take a lot of shots, 27 to be exact, before I got what I wanted.

But the effort was worth it. The effort is almost always worth it to a true photographer, who I define not as a person who gets paid to shoot (as I sometimes do) but a person who just can’t seem to put down his or her camera. Of course, I put down the camera to eat, but you know what I mean.

I hope this has been helpful to you. It is my fond hope that you’ll take some of my advice and apply it to your shooting the way I’ve applied all the advice I’ve gleaned from other blogs, videos and my own experience. And remember, these are not inviolable rules. They’re just suggestions to help you improve your game.

Happy travels!

Paul Sean Grieve

I am a professional designer, photographer and author living and working in Okinawa, Japan.

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