Article by Jenn Gidman / Images by Mike Gulbraa
Mike Gulbraa has been taking pictures since he was 10 years old, a hobby that became his full-time career in 2009 when he launched M&M Photo Tours. Now he takes groups and private tours (photo societies, corporations, and families) to capture iconic images all over the world, as well as holds domestic workshops at national parks and other well-known destinations.
"As a travel photographer, you have to leave the kitchen sink at home," he says. "You can't bring all of your gear. That's why I love Tamron's zoom lenses: They tend to be smaller and lighter, they're very sharp, and they provide better coverage. On our recent trip to Tuscany, which we do every year, my main lenses were the Tamron SP 24-70mm VC and 70-200mm VC lenses. They're both perfect for street photography (which I did more of in my recent travels to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia), as well as for the types of photos I took while in Italy, including landscape and architectural pictures. I've always been a believer in the best glass possible, and these two lenses blow others out of the water in color reproduction, contrast, and sharpness."
The Vibration Compensation (VC) feature on both lenses also helps Mike keep his images sharp. "The VC is always on when I'm handholding," he says. "I could be in a crowded market in Shanghai or Istanbul or Rome, where there's always movement. For example, the floors—especially wooden floors—are always shifting; that tiny bit of vibration can cause your images to go a little soft. And with the 24-70 and 70-200 lenses, I'm getting at least a full stop more handheld than I was with previous lenses."
Read on for some of Mike's tips, illustrated by his May trip to Italy, to get the most out of your own travel photography.
Always be ready to go. With travel photography, it's not like you have the same time you do when you're setting up for a sunrise or sunset or waiting for a whale to breach. There's so much going on around you, so you need to have an autofocus system that's very responsive and accurate.
It's also why I travel with zoom lenses like the 24-70 and 70-200. If I need to back off a bit to get the whole scene, the 24-70 is great; if I want to isolate a few people in the scene, I'll zoom in with the 24-70 or switch to the 70-200. I also don't chimp, or check my LCD after every picture I take: I always have my camera set to the highest frame rate possible and shoot three to seven frames to ensure I'm capturing all of the action, the expressions, and whatever else is going on.
Wait for the right light. When we visited the Trevi Fountain, the city had cordoned it off for restoration work. There was a bunch of tape and rope on both sides of the fountain, which is why I decided to take this picture straight on. It was a really sunny day, without a cloud in the sky; just a few minutes before I took this photo, the sun was beating down on the stones and it was ridiculously hot and bright. I thought if I took the picture right then, it would be hard to work with later.
Then, out of nowhere, a cloud came in and diffused the light I was working with. I liked that the center bottom of the picture was illuminated, so I could get some details in the figures, the horses, and the water, while the elements that surrounded it were softer, which hopefully would draw the viewer's eyes to the center of the image. I took this photo with the 24-70 and was very happy to get that color variation in the marble, with the grayish color in between the pillars and that yellowish tint off to the sides. Someone else in our group used a different lens with a similar focal-length range, and the color in that image just blended together. I was really impressed with how well my 24-70 handled such sensitive lighting.
Present landmarks in a different light. Everyone's seen photos of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but I wanted to show more of a sense of scale by capturing an image with this couple standing in front of it. You often get distortion when shooting with a wide-angle lens, which I hoped to avoid. I took this picture wide open at 24mm, and you can see minimal distortion on the couple if you look really closely, but the lean of the tower was reproduced very accurately; it wasn't a gross exaggeration of the tower's lean, which I've gotten with other lenses at 24mm.
That one side of the tower is the one you usually see in pictures and on postcards, but I headed around to the other side, where you can see La Fontana dei Putti (Fountain With Angels) in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles). I played with the depth-of-field here to see how well I could reproduce the exterior of the tower and still maintain the detail of the fountain statue in the front. You can see the lean of the tower going from left to right as you move your eyes from the statue to the top of the tower; again, it's not an overexaggeration of the tower's lean.
Capture ancient man-made structures against the natural lines of the landscape. Pitigliano is one of my favorite places to visit in Tuscany. It's also called "Little Jerusalem" for being home to a robust Jewish community over the centuries and is known for its Etruscan caves and wine. The town is built on tufa cliffs, with the carved right into the limestone.
You can go directly into town and wander around to get closer shots, but I wanted to get this picture from down in the valley. Again, I wanted to see if I could use the 24-70 to capture an image shooting up with minimal distortion. I love that the clouds were rolling in on the left, while the other side was nice and clear so that the tower could really pop in that blue sky.
Near Montalcino is the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, which used to be a Benedictine monastery and dates back to at least the year 814. Again, I wanted to see if I could get a picture without distortion of that tall, skinny cypress standing so straight next to the bell tower; I was able to do so shooting wide open at 24mm. I also wanted to show the texture of the grass: It was blowing hard in the wind that day, and while it would have been OK to capture a photo in which the grass came out soft and shimmery, I wanted to capture a sharp image that showed the individual blades, which I was able to do nicely with the 24-70.
Zoom in on the details. There's an old cathedral in Montepulciano we go to often so we can photograph the beautiful stained glass there. For this image I took with the 70-200, it was morning, with the sun at my back; the light coming in through the window was soft and diffused.
I've taken this picture with practically every lens I've owned, but when I saw this one on the LCD on the back of my camera, I thought, "Wow, this is going to be good." Everything in this image is so fantastically sharp edge-to-edge, and the color reproduction was so great that I was flabbergasted. Three things stand out for me: the sharp detail of the halo; the awesome reproduction in the green leaves of the pillars off to the sides; and the texture, tonality, and detail in his robe and his hands. Other lenses I've used have blended the robe's bluish-grayish green so it looks like it's almost one color; in this image taken with the 70-200, his robe is distinctly different colors on each side. You can also see how prominent the veins in his hands are.
Show locals at work and at play. When I'm traveling, I always try to portray the daily life of that culture, whatever that culture is. In Tuscany, for example, the Tuscan people and places are very mellow and laid-back—they're soft and go with the flow. They're also very colorful. Because the camera doesn't see what the eye sees, I try to edit my images so the viewer can see what my eye actually saw. If the fields are a really deep green or the inside of a gondola is really colorful, for example, I'll make sure my editing expresses that.
This photo I captured of a gondolier had a funny story behind it. It's difficult to get a shot of the inside of the gondolas because there are typically people sitting in them; when the boats are empty, they're usually moving back and forth in the canals. There was a couple trying to chase down this one gondolier, and they had run ahead of him to a boat landing. The husband lost his footing, however, and went into the canal with all his gear. When the wife reached out to help him, she fell in, too. I went over and helped pull them both out while other people kept taking pictures.
The gondolier they were chasing for a picture must have seen that I dropped my stuff to go help this couple, because when I went down to the next bridge to try to get a good picture, he stopped for me and posed. I was standing with my back up against a walkway bridge wall; I had to crop the image really tight because he was coming out of a walkway arch, and there were buildings and walkways off to the right as well. I was able to get the details of the inside of the gondola—you can see how well the reds, blacks, and golds reproduced, as well as all the various textures.
Look for leading lines and patterns in both landscapes and cityscapes. One of the things I often try to do is find a way to anchor my landscape photos so the viewer's eye is drawn in to the image. When I was exploring the fields of Tuscany, I spotted this patch of cypress trees, and I played with the composition in several different ways until I came up with this final version, with the group of trees slightly off-center and to the left. To me, this composition best expresses the nature of the field and the rolling hills, as well as balances the greenery and the horizon line without too much sky. Plus, the wispiness of the sky complemented the trees, since cypresses are wispy-like trees themselves. Again, the Tamron lens picked up exactly the colors I wanted: You can see all the shades of green and blue, as well as some patches of yellow in there—it didn't just all bleed together.
I was similarly attracted to the setup of one of the canals I photographed in Venice. I edited this one slightly differently than I usually do by applying what's called the "poster edge technique." This technique emulates the effect and texture of the rough edge you get if you tear a piece of paper, without changing the color reproduction. But I mainly love the lines of the canal and of the wrought-iron fence along the water, as well as the colorful boats and buildings. It shows how you really don't know where each canal goes, so you have to follow it and see. Around every corner is another canal and another experience.
To see more of Mike Gulbraa's work, go to www.mmphototours.com.