So I’ve been thinking about this blog post and putting it off because I didn’t have an angle, a theme or a cohesive idea to pull it together. As with a lot of my writing it just needed time to brew, like a good pot of French Press coffee. (Four minutes with 200 degree water and fresh ground Starbucks coffee, preferably a darker roast like Sumatra (my current fave) or Italian roast.) After a few days, I realized what’s really been rattling around in my head – the differences between travel photography and home turf photography.
A little while ago I wrote about The Art of the Do-Over and how that takes some of the pressure off getting the “perfect” shot. And in the Are We Blind article I showed two shots of the same waterfall separated by about a year of serious shooting. Knowing that you can easily go back to a location and get the shot you missed is an immense comfort. You can control the light by watching the weather. You can control the time of day you shoot. You can control the equipment you have with you. And last, you bring your experience and knowledge to the shoot; you know what you’re after and you know the location from having shot it before. All really fine circumstances, but travel photography is different.
Travel photography is loaded with pressure. With angst. Will I get that iconic photo? Will I be able to document what it was really like to be in this place? Will I just get “tourist snaps”? Will I find some hidden wonder no one’s ever shot before? Will I get up for the perfect sunrise? Will I have enough memory cards? It’s a crazy, anxiety producing time for a serious photographer, even when it’s supposed to be relaxing. Oh the things we do to ourselves.
There’s an old adage that says familiarity breeds contempt, but I try not to let that happen. Familiarity can also breed ideas and a level of comfort with the area that the travel photographer doesn’t have. My biggest hurdle on vacation is not being familiar with the location. Oh sure you can use online maps and specialized programs like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, but they can only do so much. Like when you drive and drive to reach a sunset location only to find the river in shackles provided by the Los Angeles water department. Or when you get up before the sun and drive to what you think will be the perfect beach only to find there’s a huge fence and the gate is locked. Yeah, that kind of thing. Being a native is a tremendous advantage in any setting and I can see why photographers hire guides to help them find the best locations. But I’m on vacation, not a photo shoot and I have to be mindful that my husband has different ideas about fun and relaxation. Learn to let it go if a shot just doesn’t come together perfectly. If a location doesn’t turn out to be as good as advertised. If you have to make do with something other than your ideal. Let. It. Go.
And then there’s the weather. You’re only going to be in that spot for a short amount of time so you take what you get. Hopefully it’s something you can manage and work with instead of against. I ruined one whole vacation’s worth of shooting by fighting the light instead of managing it to advantage. Clouds don’t show up for your sunrise…find something else. Too much cloud cover for your sunset shoot? Harsh light all day? Wind? Rain? Snow? Freezing temps? Ah the joys of travel photography.
That’s when flexibility is key. I’ve heard it said that the best way to get good images is to have a shot list and plan them in advance. All well and good except that you’re planning with in a finite box of perfect conditions. Ha! We all know Mother Nature’s sense of humor and unless you have a lot of time and an unlimited travel budget, chances are you’re not going to get the shot you envision. That’s when the ability to see photographs on the fly comes in so handy. I did that pretty well on my last trip to CA and tried to do it on this one. Experience and a solid foundation of good photography practices will be something to lean on in times of trouble. Think of it as your fallback position. Fallback onto solid, traditional compositions and subjects that are dictated by what you see, not what you want to see. Remember what I said about letting it go? This is when you do it. Be flexible and let it go if you can’t accomplish it.
So along with setting a shot list that you can be flexible about, it’s important to set expectations, too. Study the weather. Look at the elevation. Check out the terrain. Know where the light is coming from. Go to your favorite photography forums and see what threads have been posted about where you’re going. Post your own thread asking for advice. Check out blogs from local photographers or pros who have been to the area. Oh what did we do before the internet? Seriously, it’s so much easier now and so there’s no excuse for not being prepared when you get there. Just knowing what the typical day is like where you’re going is a huge advantage. This will help you visualize ahead of time and you won’t be surprised about what you find. Think of it as sending an advance team.
After years of bringing the kitchen sink with me on vacation, now I travel with minimal gear. It’s rare that I find myself wishing for something I didn’t have. But what if you do need something that you didn’t bring? If you are lucky enough to be in an area that has a decent camera store, you might be able to talk your way into a quickie rental. Or if you’re traveling with other photographers who use the same brand, you can always beg or borrow. Mostly though understanding your own photography is your answer. Analyze what you use, really use, not just own. Think about what you want to produce while you’re on vacation and pack accordingly. On this trip I brought an older telephoto lens because I don’t have any new Olympus tele-zooms. Having gotten decent results with it before, I thought it would work. Unfortunately the camera out-resolves it and I didn’t get a single useful image with it. Maybe I should have brought the one I have more experience with, but I brought the 180mm because I so rarely use it. And vacation is not the time to be learning or perfecting techniques. Work on that when you can have an easy do over.
What about fun? What about relaxing? What about enjoying a place without having to photograph every inch of it? Knowing when enough is enough is so important. I’m not a street photographer and so my instinct to bring a camera with me into town to get breakfast is weak. Sure I thought of doing it, but I didn’t because that’s my time. My relaxation time. My time to just sit with my husband, laugh, eat and find the course of the day. Being with a single-minded automaton is a real drag and who wants to be that person? Putting the camera down and experiencing a place is sometimes more important than snapping away. Sometimes the camera is a barrier to being, just being in a location. More than once it’s happened that I come away from a place without a sense of it…I was too busy looking through the viewfinder.
Oh jeez that was rambling, wasn’t it? Here’s a summary to better prepare for a “once in a lifetime” location –
- Study the location remotely – weather, light, terrain and choice locations are all available online to help you get a feel for a place
- Be flexible – chances are the perfect conditions will never present themselves and you have to be able to envision good photos on the fly using what you see, not what you want to see
- Bring gear that suits your style – don’t try to break out of your zone on vacation, bring equipment that enhances your viewpoint not what disrupts it
- Fallback to the familiar – can’t make the original images you want, fallback on tried and true techniques and compositions; imitate the masters, they earned that title, find out why
- Work with what you have – if you can’t get to a spot or find conditions different from what you expected, exploit what you find and work it hard, let go of your preconceived photo
- Put the camera down for a while and really feel what it’s like to be where you are and with the person beside you – don’t let the camera be a barrier to fun