Hello again, everybody. Here is Part 2 to my earlier post on travel photography:
A huge part of my experience is always the people I meet and many of them I end up photographing. People will always look good and natural in your pictures if they are comfortable with you photographing them. This is a law of nature. Whenever I travel anywhere, I learn enough of the language to get by, and one of the phrases I always find out first, is how to say “may I take your picture?” I had to get by with a simple point at my camera and then a thumbs up/thumbs down approach in China where I could for some reason not remember a single phrase, but elsewhere, I have found that simply trying to talk to people in their own language impresses them and endears you to them and makes them ever more comfortable with you.
Never try to secretly snap pictures of people. It annoys most everybody and they usually see you anyway. Also, people seem to have a fascination with homeless people and beggars. Sometimes they are interesting people, but it’s exploitative to take pictures of them (especially if you neglect to leave them any money) and will not lead to the best photos. Instead, go for the baker or the painter or the farmer who lets you walk out to his plot or workshop or bakery and check out what he is doing. Talk to them, try to find some common grounds in communication (you may be surprised how many people happen to speak a little English) and engage with them. When you are comfortable, ask them if you can take a portrait. Always show it to them on your camera’s little screen, if you are unhappy with it point out to them what is wrong, and then do it again; when your subject is comfortable, you only end up needing to take a few frames for a great shot. The other thing that getting comfortable with your subject allows you to do is get close. Legendary photographer Robert Capa’s declaration rings true in every photographer’s head and it should in yours too, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Fill the frame and your photos will look full and beautiful. Finally, if you want to be nice ask them for their email address to send the picture. I always find myself emailing a bunch of pictures to the people I have met along my trips.
Along with the mindset I am trying to communicate, always, always keep your eyes open and looking for the unusual and, when you find something to photograph, an unusual way to shoot it. Climb on top of stuff, lay down on the ground, look around corners, through holes in walls, you never know where you can find a beautiful composition. Also, use light. This is difficult to communicate in such a short piece, but light is the foundation of photography. Simply, the best light will be at sunrise and early morning, and late afternoon around sunset when the sun is low in the sky, casts nice shadows and has a warm tone to it. Always be conscious of shadows and highlights on your subject and watch for harsh shadows when shooting outside during the day. Simply turning something or somebody a little bit can change the whole image. If you are unsure about what is best, take a few frames in different positions and decide later which you like the best.
Besides manipulating yourself and your subject, you can manipulate your camera to get interesting effects. Most people have simple point shoots that do not offer much control, but they do have some and higher end models like Canon’s G11 are quite versatile. Generally speaking, try to keep your on-camera flash turned off. These flashes give a very poor results. Instead, if you’re in a dark room, set your camera on a table or hold it tightly against a wall to keep it still and take your shot without flash and you may be surprised with your outcome. Try blurring your pictures. Try playing with your focus and depth of field for really cool effects. Many cameras you can fool into focusing at a specific distance by aiming it at something that far away, pushing the button half way so the camera focuses, and then pointing it at your subject. Use this for when something extends away from you, like an outstretched arm or a boat or a really cool wall.
Finally, these are your vacation pictures. You want to actually be in them. However, try to go beyond the simple stand in front of something and click. And think about where you’re taking it. Get a picture of you in front of the Great Wall, but then do something cool, buy some local garb walk out of the tourist zone, and take some pictures there.
Let loose, seize the day and you will be surprised by the beauty of the pictures you bring home.
India, 2011. Take pictures that tell the story of your travels. They might not be the most exciting pictures in the world, but things like the traffic in which I sat every day in Kolkata this summer were a big part of my time there.
Tibet, 2007. Likewise, take pictures of you and your friends, they will be your favorite souvenirs-and they’re the cheapest. This is my friend Max meditating at an holy, ancient glacial lake in Tibet.
India, 2011. Look for the little things, it’s all in the details. Look for nice color compositions, like the bright red chili peppers in the sun against the cool turquoise of the doors.
Tunisia, 2009. Another detail shot. Always look for the little things, I saw this feather lying there and thought it might give me an interesting way to show the worn ground of this 500 year old mosque in the middle of the desert. I like the contrast between the new feather and the old ground. I did, however, attract a crowd of mosque-goers while laying on the ground sprawled out trying to get this shot right and I don’t think some of the older men there appreciated it. There is often a fine line between taking pictures and being sensitive. I don’t know if I would take this picture again.
India, 2011. Again the people you meet. I was wandering the Chor Bazaar in Mumbai, known as the “thieves’ bazaar” because it’s where all the stolen stuff in Mumbai ends up for sale and spotted this guy with his bright red hair with some goods for sale in front of him. I asked if I could take his picture, he agreed, and I snapped 2 frames and showed them to him. Never, take more than a few frames of someone you randomly meet-imagine if someone asked to take your photo and started snapping away 20-30 pictures.
Tunisia, 2009. While my bus stopped for gas in a small desert town in the south, I decided to take the time to explore a bit. Muhammad was sitting with some friends on the side of the road and as I approached he motioned to me to come over. “As-salaam aleikum” (peace be upon you) was all it took it for us to become friends for a moment.