Develop your creative eye with Marion Payr
Join Marion Payr as she heads to the Tyrol mountains armed with a Nikon Z 6II to photograph the iconic Haflinger horses. Here, she shares her tips on how to develop your creative eye and stay open to the unexpected
I believe travel photography always comes out of a passion for travel, and the way you approach it is a very personal thing. Creative travel photography sounds complex, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m not a technical photographer and I don’t plan much. For me, the art is to show a place with its magic but still keep it close to reality. I think it’s all about being open to the unexpected and having confidence in your own way of seeing things.
I always look for something that portrays the natural feeling of a place, while also telling a story about the region. When Nikon asked me to work with the Z 6II, I knew I wanted to photograph the Haflinger horses. I’d never been to this part of Tyrol before. I usually prefer to take time in a new place but, in this case, we only had one morning with the horses. Under time pressure it’s even more important to work with a system like the Nikon Z system, which makes it easy for me to work with the light and stay spontaneous.
Train your eye
Training your eye to look at things differently is the best way to start developing your own creative style. I'm not a photographer by training at all — travelling came first for me. When I started taking photographs, I had a full-time job and no camera — so I began walking to work, taking photos along the way with my phone.
Every day was different. Life would be different: there’d be different people on the street, different things happening. I’d fill the weekends with visiting local places that I’d never been to, and I discovered so many new things about my hometown!
Try it. Walk instead of taking the car. Look for the hidden reality of a place, and you’ll find a lot of cool things that haven’t been photographed before. Or go to popular spots and see if you can photograph them in a different way, rather than from the same old angle everyone’s seen before.
It’s cool when you notice yourself seeing things. It can make you incredibly happy that you have been able to train your eyesight and your vision in this way. You'll be like, ‘Wow, I can see things that I probably wouldn't have been able to see before!’
Same place, different light
A tip I really like to give is to visit the same spot at different times of the day and in different seasons, so you can see what the light does to a place. Take the time to notice how changes in the light make you feel.
Shoot the same location at different apertures and ISO values, and experiment with different camera settings. It can be surprising how different apertures and shutter speeds change the outcome of your photo. See how you can capture depth of field or movement and get creative. Take the time to look at your images and analyse how your choices change your images.
With the right camera you discover new possibilities with light: you can push ISO up to places that a smartphone could never reach and take full control of settings like aperture and shutter speed. That way you can shoot in almost any situation, for example in the beautiful early light right before the sun rises.
I discovered that I love mornings this way. Not because I'm an early morning person (not at all!), but because mornings have a certain atmosphere: the waking up of nature, the waking up of the city, of people. There’s a softness to the light in the morning and there is backlight.
Cameras trump phones, always
Light is magical, but it's also challenging. I think of photographers as being like gold diggers looking for that one gold nugget. I only work with natural light, and what time the sun will rise is the only element I really plan around on a shoot. But you can’t learn about light by shooting on your phone because the software in the phone doesn’t let you control the camera settings — it does everything for you.
When I transitioned from a phone to using a camera, I found that shooting in manual mode is a great way to learn about working with the light. You can watch YouTube tutorials, but it's different if you experience it for yourself.
Your way of envisioning the world in a photograph will always be yours, and it will change as your experience deepens. And that’s the best part about photography — it lets you create while also enjoying the process.
Explore the magic of backlight
Backlit photography only opened up to me with the camera because phones cannot capture it in any decent way. When you start using a camera, you begin to see that things look really different when there's light coming from behind. You’ll see what it does to the edges of a person, or the edges of a tree.
When shooting a backlit scene, I always use a very wide aperture, often f/2.8, and I always have something in the foreground that will be nicely hit by the backlight coming in. That can be a person, an animal, a building — whatever you like to take photos of. Other than the aperture, you don't need to worry about complicated settings when you’re shooting backlit subjects. ISO 100 will be sufficient in most places. I also try to make sure that I overexpose the background by focusing on the right exposure of the foreground. This way I can get that creamy, glowy look that makes backlight so intriguing!
Follow your intuition
For me, photography has to be intuitive. For that to work, I need to trust the camera – it has to be easy to use.
We were shooting these horses at sunrise, and that's a moment that passes very quickly. I mostly shoot in single-point AF, and I used that for every shot in Tyrol. When shooting moving subjects like wildlife, it’s essential that the autofocus is reliable so you can capture the magical moments: those often happen in a fraction of a second — and the Nikon Z 6II helped me catch them with ease.
Aside from the AF, one of the biggest elements that makes the Nikon Z 6II such an intuitive camera for me is the EVF: it really helps me with adjusting my settings even before taking the shot because I can see exactly how the image will turn out. In Tyrol, the light was changing all the time, and I could see exactly how the camera was reacting and what settings I needed to change.
Master one technique at a time
I take a long time to learn new techniques, and once I’ve learned something I do it all the time, and I think that’s OK. You don’t have to use all the possibilities that the camera offers: find the one that works best for you, and don’t be shy about using it again and again before you challenge yourself further.
With the Nikon Z 6II, I'm really looking forward to learning a bit more about the new autofocus options. Ray Demski, who was also shooting in Tyrol at the time, really inspired me about the way the Nikon Z 6II continuous AF modes let you track subjects perfectly while you focus on your composition. It might make my shooting even more intuitive!
Trust your vision
Composition-wise, I think it's cool to just experiment and don't follow too many rules. You might know or want to learn about the rule of thirds or leading lines, but it’s easier to shoot more intuitively and just react to what's happening in front of you.
One of the coolest things I did when I started out was to go on a shoot in a group. Different photographers walking along the same path, but everyone is seeing something different. It’s a great way to gain confidence in your own choices. If you take the time to look back at your photographs, your sense for compositions will develop and so will your confidence in the way you see things.
With the horses, I really wanted to show how they are allowed to just roam free. In the winter they are in their stables, and then they’re let loose in the spring. They can go wherever they want to and they roam across this crazy, huge, expansive mountainous area.
I think the shot below which shows the two horses looking so small against the mountain backdrop with the backlight conveys this. There’s not much happening in the frame, but I think it really shows the sense of scale and freedom.
Love the element of surprise
I never pack my camera away on a shoot because you can never be sure about when you’re done with the photos!
In Tyrol, I really felt like everything came together — the light and the scenery — it was all perfect. And then, on the way down from the mountain, I took the shot of my husband (who often models for me) by the lodge. It was completely spontaneous, and I really like it.
Often I don’t hold back when I see something unique and special. Like the photograph through the window frame in the Tyrol lodge: we were having breakfast at the time and I wasn’t shy at all about stopping the conversation so I could take that photograph. There was just something about the light and the shadows!
That’s why I always have my camera ready and at hand. At moments like this, it also helps that the Z system is smaller!
Stay versatile with a zoom lens
Capturing those unexpected moments is the main reason I like to use zoom lenses. For me, a 24-70mm is the perfect zoom. The NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 was the only lens I used in Tyrol — it’s an incredible piece of glass and lightweight enough at the same time.
I want to move around when I’m shooting. I like to run back and forth and lie down on the ground if I have to, so a lightweight system is crucial for me. Thanks to the advanced image stabilisation of the Z system, I can easily shoot handheld with long shutter speeds — which means I can leave the tripod at home when I travel.
Sometimes I use a 14-24mm lens, especially if I do indoor stuff with hotels and want to convey more of the space. And I like the 70-200 focal length if I’m shooting landscapes when I would like to frame something that is further away.
Take your time
I'm not a person who has this imaginative vision before I go somewhere. I get my inspiration from being there, so I think perhaps the most important tip I have for creative travel photographers is to take as much time as you can in a place. If you’ve been training your eye to see, this is your chance to reap the fruits of that and show how you actively experience where you are. Value what's happening in front of your eyes.
For me, a photograph works when it reflects how I felt in a place. Of course, it's hard to know what's happening on the other side of the photo — people will have different feelings about it — but I firmly believe that if you put more energy into something it comes through in the result.
What does your creative travel photography look like? Find a spot you love and use Marion’s tips to capture what that place feels like to you.
Nikon School tips to shooting with backlight:
- When you’re shooting with a Nikon Z series camera, it’s easy to capture the kind of great backlit images that Marion shot in Tyrol.
- In automatic or semi-automatic exposure modes, your camera will always try to give you an exposure that is technically accurate across the frame. High-contrast situations like backlight make this a little more difficult, as the darkest and brightest spots are extremely far apart in terms of luminance — but using Aperture Priority mode can help.
- In Aperture Priority mode, the camera will set the shutter speed for you. Setting your aperture as wide as possible (f/2.8 if you’re using the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S that Marion used) will give you a shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh.
- In order to get the really sunny, creamy look that you can see in Marion’s shots, you might have to use the +/- exposure compensation button to overexpose your background slightly and brighten your subject as required. This will let you attain a luminous and dreamlike background. The +/- exposure compensation button is on the top of the camera, next to the ISO button, and it’s easy to reach with your right index finger as you hold and turn the front dial to brighten or darken your exposure. The Nikon Z 6II will let you see how your changes affect the image (in the EVF or on the monitor) even before pressing the shutter.
- If you’re shooting fast-moving subjects in Aperture Priority mode, try using Auto ISO as well, and lock the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second. That way your camera will increase the ISO when needed and give you crystal-clear backlit images of your subject moving around, instead of dragging the shutter speed which will lead to motion blur. You can lock the shutter speed by going to the camera menu and then: photo shooting menu/ISO sensitivity settings/minimum shutter speed.
- If you’re learning to shoot in manual mode, as Marion advises, taking control of one key setting at a time can help you feel more comfortable with your technical decisions. Nikon’s superb metering technologies and semi-automatic modes—like Aperture Priority—can help you get the results you’re looking for even in difficult shooting conditions. You’ll find you’ve mastered the manual mode in no time!