Travel photography

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New York City

After writing the article on why we photograph and fresh off the back of several overseas trips, I wanted to share a few thoughts on travel photography. It seems that like street photography, the ‘travel’ genre is almost a generic catch-all bucket for images that don’t fit anything else; it’s a bit of portrait, a bit of landscape, a bit of street, a bit of still life, a bit of architecture, and, well, just ill-defined.

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San Francisco

Not that genres require a definition, of course. Photography, and art, by extension, are always subjective and interpretative: what something means to one person may be very different to another. You could, for example, photograph nothing except the various modes of transport that go into getting from one place to another; or just the food; or just the people you meet, etc. Rather, I feel that sometimes one needs a greater objective so that the images produced are coherent and can stand together as a body of work. Better yet, they should be reflective of one’s experience and impressions of a place; personal biases in observation and style are very much welcome, otherwise every single image shot in that location would look like a Ministry of Tourism-sanctioned, politically-correct glossy.

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Fukuoka

I travel a lot. And I’m a photographer first and foremost. This means I shoot a lot, even more so when I travel; this is because I’m so used to seeing the city I live in that it’s difficult to find things I haven’t shot, and moreover, capture them from the perspective of somebody seeing them for the first time. The one thing I like about shooting in a physically different location is that there’s this wealth of fresh material; you are seeing every corner, every street, every place for the first time. For the jaded photographer, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

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Yangon

Some places are almost overwhelming in their intensity and material (Tokyo and New York come to mind, as does Kathmandu; all three rank very highly on my ‘great places to shoot’
list
); it’s usually the places that are the most different to what you’re used to at home. So for me, other Asian cities aren’t that different; I try not to, but I’m usually corralled by my subconscious into shooting the same way I would at home. Developing countries and ultra-developed ones tend to bring the greatest photographic returns (and sensory overloads) – perhaps this is why I enjoy shooting in Japan so much. On my last trip to the USA, over the course of three weeks – bearing in mind that I had full days of teaching or in transit for all but three days – I shot 7,700 images; my previous week in Tokyo teaching yielded about 5,300 – and I’d been there before, about five times. Compare this to the few hundred a month I usually shoot at home, excluding commercial assignments and camera testing.

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Melaka

Of course, shooting that much doesn’t mean that I’d keep that many; my final cut from the USA was about 250; Tokyo was 100. I use a new place as a chance to replenish the creative juices, which means often trying out things that might not work, or might not work without significant experimentation and iteration. Generally, I find that the first day of shooting in a new location yields almost nothing worth keeping; I put this down to a mixture of jetlag and being overwhelmed by the newness and differentness of things. In fact, it’s usually my last day that’s the most productive – by this point, I’ve checked off the major tourist traps and must-sees, and I’m relaxing with no particular objective or destination in mind, a camera in my pocket, and nothing but the sole objective of enjoying final day wherever I happen to be. Going back to the USA trip, about 50 of my keepers were shot on the last days in SF and NYC; as for Tokyo, it was about 30.

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Tokyo

Perhaps it’s this openness of mind that enables me to be receptive to my surroundings, and just see the different and unique rather than trying to force an image out of a less-strong scene that I’d probably have passed by back home. Images and compositions just seem to form themselves in front of my eyes, with little intervention required on my part other than to turn on the camera, frame, and record the moment. It’s this openness that brings me to what I think is the gestalt of travel photography: to use your technical and artistic skills to capture the essence of a place, in the way that you personally experience it. The ‘place’ can be a particularly charming street corner, or perhaps a city; it doesn’t really matter. After being there for a few days, you’ve moved past the point of initial sensory overload, but you’re still sufficiently conscious of them to notice the unusual; familiar enough to get a feel for things but not so familiar that they fall off the radar of observation.

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Hong Kong

I personally believe that the very best travel images allow the viewer to instantly identify where they were shot, without the need for a caption. (And of course the subject-independent fundamentals of what makes an outstanding image still apply, too.) This has changed a bit in the last 20 or so years as mass travel has become more accessible and media saturation has made images of and familiarity with foreign destinations commonplace; beyond that, there’s still some common social knowledge that allows people who’ve never been to Egypt to know that it has pyramids, camels and sand, for instance. So perhaps I need to qualify that a little: this works so long as the observer has a bit of worldliness about them.

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Geneva

In order to produce images of this caliber, one needs to go in with an open mind and the intention of conscious observation; it’s necessary to pick out the details, cultural cues and social idiosyncrasies that are unique to a certain place. Once you know what those are, it’s easy to look for compositions that include them. The trick is not to get bogged down in cliche; it’s too easy to shoot the Eiffel Tower and know you’re in Paris, but much harder to exclude it and achieve the same outcome. The next level is harder: how did you feel when you were there? What caused that feeling? And more importantly, how do you convey that in a single image – or sequence of images?

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Kathmandu

Sometimes simple things that are frequently overlooked – like the quality of light or texture of the streets – can be significant visual cues. For instance, winter light at any high latitudes creates intense blue skies, very long, directional shadows and a certain clarity that light in the tropics doesn’t have; yet at the same time, everything appears a little low-key because of those shadows. By contrast, the tropics are bright – so a low key image wouldn’t capture that feeling at all.

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Bangkok

Perhaps the most beneficial thing you can do for your photography is to take a trip with no pressure or objective other than to observe, enjoy and experience; photography is secondary and will come once you start seeing. That influx of fresh material, the change of location, the removal of photographic inhibition by being a tourist will be extremely conducive to copious experimentation – and this, plus practice, is what helps us to sharpen our vision. MT

If you’d like to learn how to make outstanding images in any situation – especially a travel/ urban setting – there are still a couple of places left for my Prague and Munich workshops in October this year. More details can be found here.

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Comments

  1. Rain S. says:

    Great article and words of wisdom on Travel Photography will definitely keep it in mind with my upcoming trip to Italy decided to pack light with Oly OMD with 17mm, 45mm and RX100 as compact backup :)

  2. the moment i saw the last pic.. i knew it had to be bangkok.
    I’m guessing the intersection at Bangkok Art & Culture Center?

  3. Wonderful shots and thoughts. Best Wishes – Eric

  4. Jamie Zartman says:

    I head for the Telluride, Colorado Balloon Festival tomorrow with X100S and FZ200, and your always well thought out posts will be on my mind. I particularly liked the march of the umbrellas in your Hong Kong photo.

  5. Words of Wisdom. Words of Wisdom. I still often struggle with the ‘gassy’ question, which camera do I bring when I travel to XXXXX. Then it becomes, which do I leave in the hotel room? Or should I leave it in my bag as a backup.

    • I have that all the time. And in the end remind myself not to bring anything more than I intend to carry, unless it’s a commercial job, of course.

    • Steve Jones says:

      I suppose if one has too many cameras that it becomes a problem to decide which to use. a solution might be to get rid of some of them….which of course creates a new problem. Which ones to dispose of? If I apply this thinking to myself my Leicas would be the first to go because I actually use them the least! But I just…. can’t… do it! It’s the lenses you see.

      • I think it’s a bigger question: accepting that you like gear for the sake of the gear, to some extent. I have no problem with that; or at least that’s what I use as the excuse for having three Hasselablads.

        • My life: How do I explain it to my better half? “Ummm… you see the leica’s that I have are for you. I know you are embrassed to see me taking pictures while you feel ignored and standing there without a book or any battery life on your phone. A leica allows me to shoot and keep moving. it is the least embrassing camera. … … Then their is my polaroid 100b, which is for us. When your friends come, they want pictures too right? So they get instant photos immediately that you can appreicate now – instead of appreciating them alone at home. … … Since I have all these cameras for you, and for us… … … would you just let me have the hasselblad for me? Huh? What’s that dear? You want to know what that is…… …. … umm… … hmmm… No that is not a 20 kg tripod designed for a 4×5 or 8×10 camera.” *cough cough* “Anyways, but honey… … I’ve been thinking I should get back into digital recently. And i think a digital camera is important so we can take pictures of us together. So… what should my next camera be?”

  6. Superlative photos, love the B&W Hong Kong one combined with wise words. Excellent. MM

  7. The composition and the values in your first two photographs are great. I would be curious to see those converted to black and white. In both photographs, color is not central and for me proves to be a distraction. It is the lighting that is interesting, particularly in the Radio City Music Hall photo. Of course, they are your photographs so you rightfully have all control and decision making authority, but to me both look ripe for conversion. The decision when to convert might make for an interesting post.

    Thanks

    Jack Siegel

  8. Thank you for writing this article. I like the part about best photo usually come on the last day of the visit. More relax.
    Also, always struggle with the same thoughts as you and others mentioned here on what gear to bring.
    For my upcoming trip to Scotland and London, just bring my 18-35 zoom plus a P&S. And relax to take photo. E

    • I don’t know if it’s being more relaxed or having the benefit of some cultural ‘absorption’, but there’s a definite improvement as time goes on – but I suspect after three weeks in a place, I might not be producing so much interesting stuff anymore :P

  9. Hello Ming,
    “my final cut from the USA was about 250; Tokyo was 100″.
    Now this is my biggest struggle, what to delete and what to keep. I like them all, but no one would be interested in looking at all of my travel shots. Besides, I hardly see them myself, as the database to getting to big.
    As for travel shots, I reckon that 30-50 interesting shots of any travel destination might be the right amount to keep it interesting, and as many times I tried to be firm and delete around 90% of what I shot, I cannot get my head around it and end up keeping them all.
    If at one day, you really ran out of writing inspiration, and that day may never come, maybe you can share your thought on this subject?
    I am always in favor of quality over quantity, but this one is my biggest struggle in my photography.
    Thank you and best regards, and as always your blog is highly appreciated,
    Frans Kemper

    • Agreed – there’s a bit of an ulterior motive for me though; beyond images that satisfy me personally, I also keep a lot of other material that might be suitable for stock or prints at a later date.

      I presume you mean something along the lines of an article on editing, or what makes an outstanding image? The latter has long been up, you can find it here

      • Thank Ming, I did read those articles, as I read most of them, but this is not exactly what I meant.
        How to have the nerves (judgement if you will) of deleting 90% and keep the interesting 10%.
        I am not a professional, so no need for keeping stock prints or anything else.
        And maybe this is more of an community issue so others can weigh in as well.
        Coming home with 1K+ (or more) shots, the first selection is quick, deleting those that do not pass technical quality control.
        Than some post processing and than…..indeed. Trying to get to a short quality album of the destination is a hard thing to do for me.
        I am curious about the opinions of my fellow photographers.
        Best wishes,
        Frans

        • Ah…I see. That is a different question…I shall give it some thought.

        • Tom Liles says:

          Hi Frans

          With kind permission, I’d like to offer an opinion:

          I have the same problem, though I’m still torn whether “problem” is the right word for it. My answer in a minute. But, I think you already cut to the quick of it:

          …but no one would be interested in looking at all of my travel shots

          There is a lot of meaning smuggled in with that line.

          1) So, are you making the travel shots for other people? Or not? I think this decides a lot…
          2) If so, how do we know who takes what from which image?*
          3) And how do we know how much or how little they want to see?*
          *[a: we can't! no?]

          I re-read Ming’s Outstanding Image piece, the above is a restatement of themes in the second bit of the second half, i.e., the lower bit of part2. Over the course of those two Outstanding Image articles, it seemed to me like item (6) and item (8) are all that really make the difference [when we're talking about photographers as competent as you are Frans].

          These are both out of your hands.

          My friend and hero, Roger, said all our pictures are co-creations. I see that Ming agrees. This seals it for me. You make the best technical image possible, with the strongest statement of your artistic intent. Then set it loose into the World and let the public decide. They have the final say; and you don’t know until you know. And these things are one off and final. The mistake might help toward the next try. It might not. We’re back to “who knows”!

          Seems easier just to do what you want. And this is my answer: I’m an unabashed egotist, solipsist and completely tone deaf to my own incompetence. If I am left with 100 shots after the “technique” cut and the “like? don’t like?” cut; then 100 go up [on my low, low standards]. No more editing or curation. More is better in my view; I like Flaubert and he said exuberance is better than taste. I believe it.

          So just do what you want. This is the crux, surely—knowing what you want.

          [Frans, your pictures are a pleasure to spend 10 minutes flipping through. I've said it before and I'll say it again: they're great. I like them, anyway. So I'd like to see more from you, not less---but this is just one opinion from a member of the public!]

          • Hello Tom,

            WOW, many thanks for the time and trouble to write such a long and appreciated reply.
            I will re-read it again, let it sink in, also re-read the Outstanding Images articles and come back with a real reply.
            I just did not want this unanswered for now,
            Greetings,
            Frans

            • I find that whittling things down to a really short album (top 3%) takes a few days; as you say, the first selection is quick, but photos that fall into the category of “pleasing to me, but not worth sharing” are harder to weed out—requires a break and fresh eyes.

              • Actually, that needs time – after a few weeks or months, you have the benefit of a bit of distance to help give you objectivity.

                • Definitely. But not too much time, or it starts to fall into the category of “do I reprocess?”, which you wrote that excellent article on lat year.

                  • Paul Stokes says:

                    I must say I agree with Ming on the amount of time needed to make selections. I do the immediate sort and discard of the technically imperfect or doubles that somehow found their way onto my card but then I tend to wait a few months before going back through them again. Sometimes this is pressure of work, sometimes it is because I have been out doing more photography and sometimes it is because I have gone away travelling and have no choice.

                    I believe you do need to distance yourself from the time you took the photographs because there is always a danger of the confusing the situation with the photograph, as in agh this isn’t what I saw, shot or tried to achieve. Maybe, but you still may have a great picture that you need to consider in isolation from its creation.

                    If you reprocess, you reprocess. Software changes/improves as does your ability to reassess what you did the first time.

                    • It makes me wonder if we should keep *all* the images for a little while in case we throw away something upfront that might grow on us later…

                      I’m against reprocessing because the intention and vision no longer matches: you don’t remember quite what you saw in the first place.

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Evening Todd, Paul, Ming,

                    If I can just play devil’s advocate for a moment…

                    …the benefit of a bit of distance to help give you objectivity.

                    So, you guys all sounded like you’re agreed that objectivity is necessary. Todd, you mentioned photos:

                    “pleasing to me, but not worth sharing”…

                    being hard to weed out and therefore, as echoed by Ming above, needing fresh eyes, i.e., time away.

                    But Ming let a line go there that perhaps betrays something:

                    It makes me wonder if we should keep *all* the images for a little while in case we throw away something upfront that might grow on us later…

                    Jumping comment entries, Paul, you expressed a similar [not the same but related] sentiment down below too:

                    I do wish I could be more ruthless with what I bring home instead of buying more storage

                    I have exactly this feeling. I bet you everyone reading does…

                    Anyway, two thoughts:

                    1) I’m not sure what we mean here by “objective judgement.” If we are just talking raw technique — technically makes the grade, or no, as laid out in 1,2,3,4, maybe 5, maybe 7 of Outstanding — then I understand completely. But then, we’re talking on the premise of having already, supposedly, done this cut. So what “objective” criteria are we talking about?

                    2) Notionally, I should be doing what Ming wondered about in the last quote of his ["makes me wonder..."]. I said I was an unabashed solipsist, and no cuts past the technical, and yada yada yada [as I do best!]… so keeping EVERYTHING should be what I do. But it isn’t. I’ll finish on that thought in a moment. For now I’m confused where you fellas come down on this? And it is an interesting point which I’d like to hear your views on—can something you thought didn’t make the cut ages ago, suddenly hit the spot a long time later? Don’t shout of course it can! at me: because if it can—then where does that leave the “objectivity” you’re at pains to honor and those editing skills we’re talking about?

                    This is just devil’s advocate, so please PLEASE don’t take it the wrong way. You are all titans to me!

                    Where I come down on this: I have no, nothing, zilcherooney interest in or attachment to photos that I took a while back but haven’t processed yet. The cut off is about a few days, or a few shooting batches [which might not be consecutive days]—whichever it happens to be. Any older than that: I bin the lot. True. Just sh-tcan it all. Get it out of my way. I’m not bothered about them and I know I won’t ever be. I only care about the ones on my plate right now. Anything missed, I’ll get again. If I don’t—that’s fate. And that’s my way.
                    A given in this is that I make sure to process my photos “hot off the camera.” Really, do it while the going’s good [as I say, within a few days]. If there’s something you really really rate or have hopes for, well no need for consciously trying: you’ll be processing the pics a.s.a.p. Barring a death in the family or etc., this is always the case. So I do post as close to the shooting as possible because I’m only interested in today; metaphorical “yesterday” is dead wood to me. [And will go on the bonfire.]

                    I might be the only person here who does this. And it might be that in another 6 months I’m going to be on here crying my heart out and lamenting how STUPID I was, I doubt it, but it’s not impossible. But I doubt it.

                    So my view [which I practice]:

                    i) cut on technical [as best as I understand] grounds
                    ii) cut on personal subjective grounds “like / don’t like”
                    iii) EVERYTHING that remains is publishable and gets published
                    iv) public may hate them, may love them—I made them for me so I don’t really care either way, i.e., I really really really care either way
                    v) onto the next batch, anything left behind gets burned. Never look back.

                    Well there it is. I’m sorry I can’t be more concise—but I won’t apologize for being sociable! :)

                    Have a great weekend guys. Cheers!

                    • I think it’s impossible to argue on i); ii) I’m not sure. There’s where the benefit of time comes in; one’s preferences may change after having time to both absorb the feel of the place and then view things in context.

                      I agree that processing relatively soon after the fact is important, especially if you envision the file requiring a bit of work to complete; but then again, if it needs that much PS…

  10. surely you must be coming to Australia…would love to attend one of your workshops here in OZ

    • The plan is Australia, New Zealand, Canada and a couple more US locations next year :)

      • grouse!!!look forward to it…must do Melbourne…i will look out for the workshops

      • New to your blog Ming and so happy I found it. Excellent substance in your words as well as your beautiful and powerful imagery. Please consider Washington, DC when coming back to the US (not sure if you’ve already been here for one of your workshops). The city has beautiful buildings and interesting neighborhoods that over a wealth of photographic opportunities. Either spring at cherry blossom time (@ late March) or late September/early October are great times of year to visit.

  11. Iskabibble says:

    Ming, have you traveled to India? Absolutely amazing place to be with a camera!!!

    • Yes. Food completely didn’t agree with my stomach. Once was enough.

      • This comment is surely off topic, but I had to laugh…. One of my relatives was in India many years ago in connection with a military outfit. For decades afterward he told stories about difficulty tolerating the food and special approvals obtained by the outfit for procurement of non-Indian food supplies because someone pursuaded superiors that the local food was making his colleagues and subordinates ill. Our family members certainly now enjoy Indian-influenced dishes prepared in our home countries and probably are guilty of having discounted his complaints as somewhat exaggerated. Now after all these years his stories have had a form of corroboration in a most unexpected place! ;)

  12. Now that you’ve been back to NY, do you still feel it is a 5/8? Ulterior motive alert! I live in NYC, grew up in the city and love the city, so was quite sad to see that 5 when I first read your “A concise city travel guide for photographers”… Anyhoo, just wondering if that changed at all. And if not, extend an invitation to shoot with me next time you are in town. It’s definitely not all about the tourists traps.

    New York, USA
    Photo friendliness – 5/10? Andrew’s hope: 7, gotta know how to approach, and in some cases not approach, the people
    Photo opportunities – 8/10? Andrew’s hope: 9, 5 boroughs of excitement, over 300 sq/miles, 8m + people… Radio City? meh…

    • That’s a good question. I have to admit I didn’t like NY anywhere near as much as I did SFO; can’t put my finger on why, though. I definitely didn’t have enough time to explore/ shoot on my own – literally one spare day to recover and spend time with the wife after the workshop – so cut me some slack on the Radio City shot…

      I could see revising it to a 7/9 though.

      • :) I actually like the Radio City shot, great light… if I could live in San Francisco I would too! Weather is better, more friendly (*cough* deadly earthquakes *cough*), generally a happier city, more “outdorsey”. So I’m with you on that one. But can’t get the Big Snapple outta my blood, love the varying seasons, the characters, the uniqueness that still exists outside of the tourist traps.

        I wish I could walk you around for a day or two… It’s how I feel every time I visit a new city, if I only had a day to spend with someone who had lived there for 40 years to show me what they love about their city.

        • Bah! :P

          Happier: I think you put your finger on it. New York seemed…rushed, harried, flustered, in a hurry. San Francisco was very relaxed.

          I’ll take you up on that day or two next time I’m in New York :)

          • I have no idea where you went or when, but I have photographed in New York dozens of times and I think it is very relaxed. You just need to go to the right places at the right times. Central Park can be a five or six hour session in early morning or late afternoon. I like Chinatown early in the morning, as well as SOHO. The west side (Chelsea) is also great, particularly the High Line. Also true of the East Village and the Bowery. Museums also provide great opportunities. Park yourself in the Met or MOMA (sculpture garden) for a few hours and photograph. Greenwich Village, particularly Washington Square Park, on a Saturday afternoon is a lot of fun–tons of phenomenal street musicians out. Walk along either river or in the financial district.

            Head over to Brooklyn and walk around some of the neighborhoods or shoot back at the cityscape. Check out Roosevelt Island–take the tram. Stay out of midtown and Broadway–although Broadway offers plenty of opportunities at night.

            And next time you visit New York, be sure to check out Dashwood Books in the East Village–33 Bond Street. A phenomenal bookstore dedicated to just photography books, including rare monographs–http://www.dashwoodbooks.com/about.cfm. I have no affiliation.

            The secret to New York is quite simple: Ramble at your leisure.

            • Per the date under the title – the city guide was written in mid-2012 before I’d been back to NYC, and even so, I still haven’t had the chance to ramble – I was there for the workshops on the last trip, and that was pretty much it. Wanted to stay longer but had to be back in Kuala Lumpur for an assignment.

  13. Reblogged this on Brian Frank Photography.

  14. Bah is that all there is to travel photography why on earth have I signed up for your workshop ;) . Looking forward to september and this just whets the appetite a bit :)

    • Easier said than done and all that. Besides, the workshop is about how to make outstanding images in any situation, not your philosophy as a travel photographer…

  15. Robert Powals says:

    Your shot of radio city music hall looks like a Edward Hopper painting. That is high praise

  16. in that 2nd pic of sf, did you do any post processing to it? esp. the foreground and the street lights? how did you make the street shines and the lights pop out?

  17. Paul Stokes says:

    I agree with you thoughts on travel photography and I think it is because I am able to wear a variety of hats, not at the same time, that would just be silly, but over the course of the trip. There is the street photographer, the landscape photographer, the architectural photographer and so on. They all have a chance to exercise their skills and predilections. At home if I go into the Botanical Gardens over summer it will be for the water lilies. If I go into the city it will be architecture or street scenes. They occur independent of each other and often days apart. When I am travelling overseas the opportunities are endless.

    I do wish I could be more ruthless with what I bring home instead of buying more storage.

    • Having to process it all makes you ruthless very quickly. Either that, or shoot film :)

      • Tom Liles says:

        Can I tip-toe in for:

        this

        and

        this

        I went to the Nikon salon in Shinjuku today to have them check the focusing on my D7000 and clean the sensor. An F6 was in the showroom—you mentioned this camera somewhere Ming, I knew the name [and that was all], sauntered over, looked at, picked up. WANT.

        The F2 you’d recommended to me as I live in Tokyo, film is plentiful, shooting film is good [e.g., comment above] and a meterless F2′d be good education in light. I did drop by Map Camera on my way back to the office, but was too scared to ask them to break that huge assembly of a camera out. So I just looked at it through the glass.

        I don’t think I’ll be on film anytime soon, maybe never, but, wow, seriously, that F6 = nice nice nice :)

        OK, please excuse the interruption –> tip-toeing out again…

        • The F6 has a nice feel, doesn’t it? Nothing like the modern Nikons, not even the pro bodies match it in my opinion.

          F2s can be had for relatively cheap – in the $200 range for a decent one, I believe – providing you don’t do something silly like try to buy a mint Titan.

          • Paul Stokes says:

            Stop this now. Someone came in with a lovely F2 and 50mm the other day while I was picking up some extra cards for the next trip and my GAS [Gear Acquisition Syndrome] kicked in despite the drugs and therapy and the money was almost out of my pocket and in the sellers before I realised what I was doing. I just went all warm and gooey. Almost a serious relapse. I can compare my film vs digital usage from three trips down to Antartica and it accelerated massively over the three as I transitioned from film to digital. For me using film now is for local shooting more than travel as that would entail travelling too far with too much equipment, something we are trying to avoid. Still.

            • Ahh yes…there’s something about those old cameras, isn’t there? Now if only they would make the digital ones the same way…oh wait, if they did, they’d be horribly expensive and they’d probably only ever sell one per person. At most two, perhaps. :P I solved the problem by putting a CFV-39 on the back of my 25-year old Hasselblad…

              • Paul Stokes says:

                This is certainly one of the interesting things about medium format and medium format cameras. It seems possible to retain much of the original camera and the qualities you have grown to love and update it for today with a digital back or an improved digital back or like the Alpa STC system where you build your own. Yes expensive and hardly conducive to street photography. I wonder what would have happened or even if it was possible to put removable backs on Nikons and then make a digital back for the F2 Titan and all the F series. We can dream.

                • Actually, I think the SWC might be very conducive to street photography. Relatively small, silent leaf shutter, no mirror, 28mm-equivalent 645 with the CFV mounted (22mm square without), easy to zone focus, and of course utterly wonderful to use. I’ll let you know, I’ve got one on the way :)

                  I’d love to have one of those Alpas for architectural photography, but the price is positively frightening – and that’s before even adding lenses or a back.

                  As for digital backs on 35mm film SLRs – theoretically possible – I believe eFilm was trying to do something similar a while back, but it bombed for whatever reason – the problem is that each SLR would require a different back, and triggering/ syncing the back might be tricky. Though there’s no reason why we couldn’t have a completely removable FF35mm back for say, an F2 – it has removable backs already – and the digital portion of a Leica M fits into a space not that much thicker than a regular M…

                  • Paul Stokes says:

                    I think though we may be talking lottery win money to develop something. Still as you point out the F2 has removable backs and Leica was able I guess do something similar to digitalise the M series. I guess Leica has a form they wanted to retain through its various incarnations while Nikon was happy [?] to create another camera. Certainly Nikon had many beautiful small[er] cameras which would have made great digital cameras. The F2 being an excellent example. What might have been. Still we might then have been moaning about Nikon as much as we seem to complain about Leica.

                    • Very much so. Sadly, as I don’t think there’s any point in doing something where the return EV is less than 1, I’m never going to win the lottery.

                      I’m not sure a digital F2 would have sold in the early days – it might now, though, given how comprehensively covered all of the other niches are. We may see one yet…

          • Tom Liles says:

            Oh, the F6 was amazing, Ming. Love at first sight. I spent a whole 15 minutes just fondling it. One thing: you mentioned you thought the F6 had the best screen for manual focussing out there—it just looked like the typical AF screen, or the one they had in the Nikon salon did: no split-prism, etc—were you talking about an optional screen for the F6? Anyway, you were telling me about hollow feeling cameras the other day, Ming; well after handling one of these F6es, I get what you mean. And the crazy thing is the F6 didn’t feel heavy heavy to me, either. A beauty. This same camera, the shutter, the finder, the grip, weight, layout, EVERYTHING, but digitized with the 12MP sensor of the D3/D700 in there, or even the 16MP sensor of the D4 in there? –> I’m selling every camera I have, EVEN THE SIGMAS, for that. No joke. I liked it that much.

            I had a cheeky go on a D4 too :)
            Well, I wouldn’t want to walk around with one around my neck all day. But, actually, that felt very very nice too. Completely and totally and utterly out of my price league. But real nice in the hand. And I admit, I perked my shoulders up a little when I was holding it—I felt a little more… legitimate. I actually think it just looks really cool, too. Maybe just me. Second hand D3s same price as second hand D700s now in Tokyo [or as near as dammit]. Just saying… [to myself]

            So Ming, on the F6, one model previous — the F5 — second handers are dirt cheap, here. Why is that? Was there a problem with them? I’m checking myself but thought I’d ask. I can’t see that you’ve owned one [not in the Camerapedia. That's a great resource all, if you haven't checked, take a look!], yes, I can’t see that you owned an F5, but you’re a pro photog—if anyone would know… The reason I ask: The F6 goes for over 230,000 JPY new; second handers in the ~150,000 JPY range. I can’t and wouldn’t pay that for a film body, even though the F6 made me think [my weakness: right with you Paul!]. BUT second hand F5s go for 200 to 300 USD. I’d definitely have a try shooting film if I could have a beautifully made, solid, camera, with these haptics, for that. Would jump at the chance.

            Also will keep an eye out for an F2…

            Ming has recommended F2s, Paul, and speaks of them highly. It sounds like you agree :) Aghh! what a hobby this is—I feel like I’ve been taken in by a cult or something, every last penny of disposable income I get now is either toward saving for the next something, or that something that I’ve been saving for now. I haven’t bought any non-camera related goods for over 5 months now! No shoes, no socks, no clothing, no films, no books: nothing. Just camera stuff. Madness.
            [but I like it!]

            • No, I’m talking about the standard screen – you’ll find it has a lot more ‘snap’ than the normal DSLR screens, which are optimized for brightness – you can’t have focusing contrast AND brightness. The K screen with split prism and microprism collar is even better yet.

              The funny thing is that the difference between F6 and D700/D800 isn’t that much; but somehow all of those little things add up in a big way. I have no idea why, other than I enjoy shooting with my F6 very much because it has soul; my D800E does not.

              As for the D4 – it fits the hand better than the F6/D800, but it also feels hollow in a way the F6 does not. Go figure.

              F5: it’s heavy and eats AA batteries for breakfast. Try an F100 or an F2.

              My personal expenditure went down to zero the minute I took up photography full time: it’s all business expenses now. :)

              • Tom Liles says:

                High 5 :)

                Seriously though, you’ve really got me considering an F2. I’m clueless with digital, and film is surely even harder; but it just sounds too good an experience to pass up. The search and the saving begins…
                [ah, thanks for the tip on the F5---as usual, the market, more or less, never values wrongly eh]

                • Doesn’t mean I’m spending any less though…

                  As for the F2…you can get a metered one (F2A) or unmetered – with regular prism – I think these are prettier, but curiously also more expensive and harder to use since there’s no meter. Depends what you prefer, I suppose. The chrome unmetered ones are very beautiful indeed – unless you can get a Titan…

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Yeah, non-metered is fine. I spent months shooting my wife’s D60 with a 50mm Ai lens on it = no metering. And I got pretty good after a while, but this is with the advantage of instant review and, most of all, the histogram. With those two, anyone could do it I think. I guess your old set up of meterless film or horrid metering but nice camera [we're looking at you Leica M8 and M9] with a P&S [Sony RX100 was it?] as a spot meter, etc., was a good way to do it. Can someone buy me a Coopix A or GR as my spot please :) ?
                    You can also get used sekonic meters for around 100 USD here. There’s a little pocket one which I thought would be good for my birthday [do I dare tell the wife what I want and risk the "camera stuff? more camera stuff? Again?? ire...]. I’m quite fond of the idea, just on a scientific tip, of having a simple light meter always on hand so when I’m curious about this ambient or that interesting chiaroscuro over there, I can fetch it and have a find out.

                    Ooh, I think the Titans are a little out of my league and, honestly, would be wasted on me when there are surely more deserving owners out there. No, an F2, if the mood takes me for film, would be fine.

                    It’s actually confession time: a few weeks after getting the Epson R-D1s, I was having such a blast with it — but was frustrated by its crop factor and hence the limit on realistic wide lenses and useable frame lines — I nearly bought a used Bessa R3A body. Shooting the R-D1s, I NEVER use the rear screen, always folded away, and for some reason, with this camera only, I don’t miss the need to chimp; it has a manual shutter cock, like winding film on and I LOVE that [I appreciate not everyone does]; the CCD sensor is pretty much the closest to film that’s possible (with a nod to Foveons) on digital—I like the look and would like to know what the real thing is like [why try and emulate when the real thing is right there for you?]. Adding it all up, I felt very confident that if I tried film [the cheapest way to have a full size sensor AND shoot RF] I wouldn’t be a total and unmitigated disaster. One thing stopped me: ISO selection.

                    I just don’t think I can do without this. I need to be a lot better at this hobby before I can wing a whole day [because I have a full time job, all the shooting opportunity I have is the am trip to work, my lunchime, and my nighttime commute home again] on one fixed ISO. I’d need a super-fast lens and an ND filter or two to cover the nights and the days on one ISO rating [say, 400?]… the NDs, okay that’s not big money, but, yeah, never mind Noctiluxes or that huge f/0.9 thing Canon once made, even Noktons are out of my wallet’s league, really [well they aren't, but at that price other things, not just camera gear, become possible and are frankly more attractive... a family holiday somewhere, for instance]. So yeah, locked in ISO =>

                    Hard to deal with if you started out on digital.

                    • I’m now using my eyeball even with film. Occasionally I’ll get nervous and whip out the VC-Meter II I keep in a pocket just to make sure – that might be the little one you were talking about? I’ve also got a vintage selenium-cell Minox meter, but unfortunately the photosensitivity has degraded – as is normal over time – and the scale only reads to ISO200…still, it has one thing none of the newer meters have: a little finder window and circular reticle to know what you’re aiming at.

                      If you stand develop, you can use whatever ISO you like (within a reasonable range, say +/- 2 stops) – the film merely uses up all the developer there is, until the image is as developed as it’s going to get. Why do you think I’m trying to find a stand development recipe for my usual chemical? The only problem is that it seems nobody uses DDX for stand development.

                      If you started out in the early days of digital before AUTO ISO, chances are you shot at one or two ISOs all the time anyway – base, and the highest you were willing to go. It’s still the same for film: I have an ISO 100 back for my ‘blads, and an ISO 800 one. Interchange at will :)

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      And the funny thing is, I NEVER shoot on auto ISO! The cameras I started on were all unusable past 800, and 800 was already past the line of decent quality. The Sigmas are, well, it really depends on what kind of light and shot it is; but when conditions are not conducive, I won’t even try anything past ISO 320 [with the caveat that I have gotten AA -- not AAA -- quality from them at 1600]. The DMC-L1 was, is!, terrible past 800. The wife’s D60 was my best but still, its 1600 was B rank at best. The Epson Rd-1s… well, actually, funnily enough, this bonkers little thing is pretty pretty good! Upto 1000, maybe 1250 [you can't select these directly, but using the exp. comp or equivalent all manual setting] fine.

                      At last I got a REAL high ISO camera [to my experience], the D7000—and they didn’t put AUTO ISO on the bloody ISO dial!!!

                      You have to laugh. Anyway, force of habit, equipment design foibles all contribute: I don’t shoot on AUTO ISO.

                      Doesn’t changing the ISO dial on a film camera change the meter behaviour though Ming? And — unless you’re on Hasselbald :) — once you change it, that’s a lock in until the end of the roll? But yes, I suppose it’s the triumph of the camera companies that they’ve managed to make film so intimidating for someone like me; but when you think about it 16Mpx on an ASP-C sensor [d7000] and, for Pete’s sake!, then 24Mpx on the same dimensions—that should really cause us to quake in our boots!

                      Then you have to find lenses that suit!
                      [which probably won't suit the next sensor architecture!!]

                      Film => INTERESTED

                      The prospective birthday present, the pocket meter, was a Sekonic L-208, Ming. I’ll have a check on yours—thanks for the tip!

                    • Try holding the button and turning the front dial instead of the rear. On my D800 that toggles auto-ISO on and off.

                      The D3 spoiled me and allowed me to shoot anything with impunity so long as I could see it. The ‘Blad has a very small working envelope; ISO 800 is about as high as I’d go with film and maintain quality – and even then, only on medium format. A good 35mm negative only has about 10-12MP of real information; plus there’s always visible grain. Medium format digital is even worse – you really can’t use anything above base ISO, and that’s overrated by about 1/2-1 stop.

                      Digital passed film a long time ago on sheer image quality. But it never did so on character, and given that photographs are merely interpretative representations of the world anyway, I think that character matters – certainly once you pass a certain point in terms of resolution, anyway.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      P/S Eyeball even with film…
                      :o

                      m(. .)m

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Morning Ming, morning all,

                      No, no AUTO ISO on the dial (front) for the d7000. I’m not sure how modern that addition to the Nikon functionality was, but I suspect its absence on the d7000 is either 1) the d7000 was just below the “pro” line and they kept this feature out, or 2) they hadn’t thought it up yet.

                      Is fixable by a firmware update, I suppose, but doesn’t sound very Nikon and we’re talking about a 2010 camera after all…

                      Thanks for the perspective on film. And thoughts on ISO… Just to link it back in to travel photos [fault is all mine there!] and even rope in weddings, AND bokeh too, didn’t you mention somewhere shooting a wedding in Nepal in NEAR PITCH BLACK conditions—d700 on high-as-you-dare sensitivity and a super fast lens wide open!
                      [a friend's wedding pics we're talking about here, just to remind everyone!]

                    • Hmm, it’s been a while since I’ve used one, so my memory of how the camera operates is probably a bit fuzzy. Why Nikon has to introduce the occasional neat feature (e.g. Central button on multi-selector to zoom into AF point on review) then arbitrarily include or exclude it on future bodies is beyond me. They find something that works…then make it worse.

                      Yes, D700 in Nepal with the 1.4G primes and candle light – I actually needed ISO12.8k most of the time to get a workable image and marginal shutter speeds for handholding (1/30? 1/40?).

  18. Ming,

    Interesting article. I personally find travel photography one of the most difficult areas – I find that I am too busy processing difference to process decent photos, or something like that!
    However, you raised one issue for me in this article. In general, your published photography, and your writing, is suggestive of an analytical and very deliberate photographer – composition, light, pre-visualisation etc are all used to produce some great images. And yet, your statistics on frame count and eventual keepers for NY and Japan suggest that you are hitting a shoot: keep ratio (or ‘shoot:like’, if you prefer) of around 40:1, and assuming your figure of 7700 does not include shots in teaching mode, that number in 3 weeks is presumably between about 0530 – 0730 am and 1800 – 2100 at night. This has me scratching my head: Assuming that you sacrifice minor human issues like food and travel time, this suggests an average of about 60 shots an hour: that’s one a minute every waking minute you are not teaching…
    What am I missing? And would you help this learning photographer by outlining your actual ‘shoot technique’ in this respect? Are you actually ‘snapping’ everything and anything in manic mode, and the results are still good because of your practice/experience, or is it more considered, but once a shot is on your radar, you hit motor-drive and take about 200 shots of the one good scene in 10 minutes? Whichever, you must have the constitution of an ox, to fit in the blogging and planning ahead for commercial work that pays in as well – bravo! (I have an image of you changing into running kit, and sprinting out of the door at dawn with the camera poised…)

    • Thanks Jan. Your analysis is right: my digital keeper rate is very low, about 2-5%. 60 shots an hour is low; I don’t spend that much time shooting. I can work a single ‘fertile patch’ for an hour and shoot a few hundred images. This isn’t because I’m randomly plugging away in the hopes of finding good, but because I’m very, very particular about perfection: if it’s not 100% right at either technical (optimum sharpness, focus point, exposure, etc) or compositional levels, I’ll bin it. There’s no point in keeping something 99% when you know you can produce better. No way you can become a better photographer otherwise. I find this 2-5% ratio about right in producing the right number of images, but still being able to balance out postproduction vs shoot time. It’d be lower, but there are some which I can keep and use for stock they might not be so compositionally interesting at a personal level, but still commercially valuable.

      As for my constitution…well, let’s just say I don’t sleep very much.

  19. Charlie Z says:

    Great thoughts on travel photography. The best example of travel photography for me has simply been National Geographic magazine.

    One question I ask myself when rating pictures is whether the appeal is due to the exotic nature or beauty of the subject, rather than good photography? A strange location (or beautiful woman) excites immediate interest with an image that can fade with scrutiny or time.

    PS: Good news on the SWC. It’s a bit wider than you like (24mm-ish), but is extremely versatile, ridiculously simple to use (as an HB shooter), small, only a bit ungainly, and works well with a 501 kit. The 150mm and SWC combo cover most of my needs and it is my “bury-it-with-me” camera. I’m curious to see how you use it.

    • Thanks Charlie. Agree on National Geographic – I think part of it must be because the photography’s great, part because it lets us explore vicariously, and part because of the subject matter itself. The test of their images is when they present urban scenes that are familiar to local readers: how do they see it? I remember they did a piece on Malaysia a few years back; I thought the images were decent but not that special, to be honest. So maybe context matters.

      As for the SWC – there’s a bit of a problem. The camera arrived and was defective/ not as described. They offered to refund or replace at first, but have since said it’s my fault, so I have no idea what’s happening next. I’ve since discovered two things – one, the viewfinder is completely useless at showing what’s actually covered in the frame, and two, it doesn’t work very well with the digital back because of cyan-purple fringing. This combined with the relatively slow lens and overrated sensitivity of the back means that I’m probably going to push for a refund.

  20. A wonderfully inspiring article, Ming. I concur completely. Almost all my best shots are from trips to countries I’ve never or rarely visited. Everything is new and one becomes so aware and in touch with the feeling of the city and one’s own experience also. That’s why I sold a lens to come to Prague!

  21. bobneary says:

    Great street shots of Tokyo and Hong Kong!

  22. Thank you for always crafting inspiring pieces!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Thein, well known for his street photography, provides us his take on Travel […]

  2. […] out of period/ situation props in the center of the good sight lines.  Unlike ‘real’ travel photography, there are no surprises, no spontaneity, nothing to really discover and figure out how to capture […]

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