Getting into Travel Photography: Find the Details

By Jordana Wright

As you travel, little things—colorful murals, regional fabrics, mosaic floors, or local flowers—help embody culture and define sense of place. Focus your camera toward these elements and you’ll discover that they are the spices that flavor your experience.

Look at a photograph with an interesting texture and it might give you the impulse to touch it. Examine a photograph filled with pattern, and your brain may start to extrapolate that pattern or perceive movement in it. Both sensations are common and heighten the connection between photograph and viewer. We have an innate level of comfort with what we can touch and visually understand, so images with texture and pattern draw us in and make us pay attention.

Photographically, textures and patterns are one and the same, and you can expect to photograph them in much the same way. I'll refer to them simply as Patterns and you’ll know I mean both.


1. Toadstool Geologic Park, Harrison, Nebraska ISO 125; 1/1600 sec.; f/7.1; 28mm

When photographing Patterns, gear is probably the least important part of the equation. Patterns as a subject won’t dictate what lens to use—instead you’ll find yourself choosing a lens based on the scale of that particular Pattern. If you wanted to photograph the Pattern of sandpaper, you’d need to use a macro lens or even a microscope to draw out the dimensionality of the grain. If you wanted to photograph the Pattern of a dry riverbed, you could use any lens, from a wide angle to a telephoto, depending on the scale you were trying to show (Figure 1).

2. Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands. ISO 100; 1/250 sec.; f/5.6; 85mm

If you wanted to photograph the Pattern of a mountain range, or the repeating Pattern of waves cresting across a coral formation from above (Figure 2), you would best isolate the landscape to the area of the Pattern with a longer focal length. Determine which lens to use by deciding what the boundaries of your frame should be to most effectively highlight the Pattern before you. Try out multiple options. See what works for you.


Many times, the most obvious or comprehensive view of a Pattern is the overhead, or flat, frontal view. When photographing floor tiles, cobblestones, a brick wall, or peeling paint, you’ll get the best sense of the overall Pattern when the front of the lens is parallel to the Patterned surface (Figures 3 through 5). From this perspective, it should be relatively easy to get the full Pattern in crisp focus regardless of the aperture and resulting depth of field (DOF).

3. Mosaic Tiles, Temple Emanu-El, New York. ISO 640; 1/60 sec.; f/2.8; 50mm

4. Chicago, Illinois. ISO 400; 1/100 sec.; f/5.6; 79mm

5. New Orleans, Louisiana. ISO 100; 1/160 sec.; f/5; 41mm

6. Marvao, Portugal. ISO 2000; 1/160 sec.; f/5.6; 85mm

Things get considerably more interesting when you shoot a Patterned surface from an angle. Moving the front of the lens to a 45- or 90-degree angle from the surface can instantly produce a more dynamic image by creating greater perspective (Figure 6).

Angled shots will help draw out dimensionality (Figure 7), a sense of endless repetition (Figure 8), and perspective through converging lines (Figure 9).

7. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. ISO 100; 1/125 sec.; f/5.6; 85mm

8. Forest Hills, New York. ISO 400; 1/60 sec.; f/1.7; 50mm

9. Met Breuer, New York, New York. ISO 2500; 1/125 sec.; f/7.1; 18mm

When shooting Patterns from an angle, you can either keep the full depth of the image and Pattern in focus using a narrower aperture in the range of f/8 to f/22 (Figure 10) or imply the continuation of Pattern through the depth of the image with a shallower depth of field by way of a wider aperture like f/1.4 or f/2.8 (Figure 11).

10. Indianapolis, Indiana. ISO 200; 1/100 sec.; f/10; 73mm
11. Minneapolis, Minnesota. ISO 100; 1/200 sec.; f/4.5; 22mm


Mathematically, a Pattern is the exact replication of a value, or a formula. Patterns require rules and exactitude. In art, the concept of Pattern is much broader and encompasses three distinct categories: Repetition (one object repeated over and over), Motif (a recurrence of multiple objects or elements in a predictable order), and Rhythm (a recurrence of multiple objects or elements in a varied or unpredictable order). For artistic purposes, the key is to recognize that Repetition (Figure 12), Motif (Figure 13), and Rhythm (Figure 14) are equally important for creating compelling images.

12. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, California. ISO 100; 1/160 sec.; f/2.8; 50mm

13. Los Angeles, California. ISO 500; 1/30 sec.; f/3.5; 20mm

14. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. ISO 160; 1/1000 sec.; f/3.5; 20mm

Fortunately for me, the dropper of calculus and flunker of statistics, this isn’t math. We’re seeking beauty, not exactitude. Search for Repetition, Motif, and Rhythm in the world around you and you’ll certainly find beauty across any photographic genre from architecture to nature photography. Once you begin to see Pattern everywhere, experiment with interesting ways to frame and highlight it.

You can frame an image to highlight a break in Pattern (Figure 15), focus on Patterns or conflicting Patterns that seem to move, vibrate, or disorient (Figure 16), or utilize Pattern to create a sense of harmony or dissonance. Patterns with leading or converging lines can demonstrate to viewers how you want them to move through the image.

15. One open window breaks the repetition. New Orleans, Louisiana. ISO 400; 1/100 sec.; f/4.5; 20mm

16. Granada, Nicaragua. ISO 160; 1/125 sec.; f/5.6; 85mm

Patterns can present a new way of looking at something that many would dismiss as ordinary (Figure 17). They exist in light and shadow (Figure 18) and often feature important cultural motifs that will help support a sense of place in your images (Figure 19).

17. Hailstones on a glass table, Paris, Illinois. ISO 100; 1/250 sec.; f/3.5; 50mm

18. Santa Monica, California. ISO 125; 1/1600 sec.; f/7.1; 28mm

19. Ronda, Spain. ISO 100; 1/400 sec.; f/5.6; 85mm

Excerpted from The Enthusiast's Guide to Travel Photography by Jordana Wright and used with the permission of Rocky Nook.