Great travel photography should never be an exercise in box-ticking. It shouldn’t just be a series of familiar scenes, where you can put your tripod feet into the grooves of those who’ve come before you. And nor should it be about treating your subjects like they’re victims on a photographic safari.
The key to great shots, according to Gábor Erdélyi, is to gain a complete immersion in the world you’re shooting – to live it. After all, if you’re not part of the adventure, how do you expect those viewing your pictures to feel that they are?
For me,” Gábor explains, “the essence of travel photography is the joy of turning new experiences into lasting moments. The point is the adventure, the joy of discovery. All I want on my travels is two fixed dates: the departure and the arrival. I have a rough plan in my mind of what interests me, but I avoid classic tourist attractions. I ask locals about routes and paths, and I use as little public transport as possible. If possible, I go everywhere on foot.
“Travel photography covers many disciplines like portrait, nature, landscape and documentary photography,” he tells us, “so for me, recording my travels is more a state of mind. My trips take at least four or five weeks, and that means I can dive into the culture, and the atmosphere of a place. In effect, it’s the journey itself that’s the project – the photos are just echoes of an inner experience.”
Something that’s helped enormously with his travel projects, says Gábor, is moving to Sony mirrorless cameras. “The α7R III is my main machine.” he tells us, “It’s small and inconspicuous, and it’s light, too, which is vital when you’re on the move. In a two-month journey it really matters how much weight you carry with you each day. Because of the fold-out monitor and the super-fast focus, it’s a perfect travel companion, and I find the Eye AF focus mode especially useful for portrait my work.”
Gábor tells us, it’s the ease of shooting and customisable controls that are a huge advantage, that allow him to work faster and be more responsive to what he’s capturing. “I shoot in Manual mode,” he explains, “and I program the settings that are most important to me to the main buttons: so that’s ISO, the AF modes and silent shooting option, all of which are so useful for travel subjects.”
Gábor often uses his travel projects as an antidote to his regular professional work, for which he captures portraits, fashion and nude series for big magazines, and his approach to the two types of work is very different.
For my portrait work I continuously concentrate and prepare myself for each shoot, whereas with travel it’s completely different. Mostly, I don’t act as a conscious artist or organise my travels for a particular project. I rely on impressions and I enjoy the freedom that travelling and photography offer; spontaneity is really important to me.
On longer trips, Gábor tells us, there can be time for research, “my latest travel in Japan, which spanned three trips, lasted nearly half a year. Here I had time for research. The first experiences deeply impress travellers, so they can see only the surface.”
Despite his willfully unconscious way of working, there is an overarching theme in many of Gábor’s travel projects, he is “very interested in the relationship between the human and their environment – mainly the relationship between the living space created by the metropolitan man, the city and the people living in it. If I’m consciously looking for something, it’s generally closed subcultures.” For instance, “in Japan I was really intrigued by the alienated cities in the deserted countryside, and in the bath culture – the world of onsens.”
Shooting in this way, Gábor is always keen to make a relationship with the people documented on his travels, and avoid the impersonal results that can come from a more sniper-style street photography approach. “I’m much more interested in the people, and in that way I can more faithfully tell the story of them and their environment. It’s all about trying to get in touch with people while travelling; I want to initiate a conversation or to drink a beer together, but sometimes just eye contact is enough.”
In terms of lenses, Gábor mainly uses the FE 12-24mm f/4 G, FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM, and FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM which gives him “lots of versatility in framing, and top image quality. I also always like to have some fixed f/1.4 lenses with me for low-light shots, like the FE 85mm f/1.4 GM.”
It’s the result of this proper immersion in the environment, says Gábor, which takes the disparate subjects of travel photography and turns them into something coherently exotic; separate statements become a visual essay, telling the real story of the place and culture you’re experiencing, and placing the people you shoot in true context.
"It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are"