If you’re only going to be in a place once, how can you ensure that the images you get are unique and strong? Though it sounds a lot like the question of what makes an outstanding image, it’s really got a bit more of a travel bent to it. Though the macrolinear and causal nature of time (a topic for another article, if there ever was one) means that no single moment will ever be repeated again during our lifetimes, and thus every image will be unique – probable reality is that due to the difficulty in accessing the location again, we almost certainly won’t get the chance for a do-over. It’s not like shooting sunset in your own home town: pick a night, any night. So what can you do to increase your chances of coming away with images you’re happy with? Here’s my list of tips.
The basics still apply
The four core elements required to make an outstanding image – good light, a clear subject, balanced composition and a strong idea – are required regardless of time and place. Think of them as the four photographic commandments; I personally haven’t found a situation where they are violable and still result in a good image. Travel is no different. Even if the location itself, or the subject is novel to you, you need to keep in mind the possibility that it’s nothing out of the ordinary for at least some of your audience. And this means that having a relatively unique subject alone isn’t going to cut it. I can’t make it any more distilled than this: no light, no photograph.
Go in with an open mind
Sometimes, the most interesting images you’ll make on a trip are the ones you weren’t looking for. They sneak up on you as you turn a corner, and stop you long enough to whip it out and shoot one off. Often, you might not even think about these images again until you start reviewing when you get home; or, they may stick in your subconscious and form a theme for the rest of your trip – for example, with me it was old architecture in Prague, or details of boats in Amsterdam.
Observe first, shoot later
The more unfamiliar the environment, the more we’re likely to be overwhelmed in every sense; I find the first couple of days of shooting generate a lot of ‘false positives’ – we land up capturing things we think are unique because the subject matter overpowers our other compositional judgement; in the end, these tend to be weak because in our exuberance for subject, we’ve missed one or more of the four important elements. In fact, the majority of my final cut is produced on the last day, or at very least, the second half of the trip. My theory is that there’s an optimum amount of time to spend in a place; it’s before you get jaded and the differences stop jumping out at you, but after you’ve gotten over the initial shock of arrival*.
*The Japanese have a term that describes this perfectly: doki doki.
Look for the unique
Once the doki doki has passed, you should be able to think rationally again. Or at least objectively enough to figure out what it is about the place that’s a) different from home, but b) also different from everywhere else. Then, start consciously looking for these elements. That way, every single image you produce will have a visual cue for your audience that signals the place and geography. It might not be a single physical object, but one of many; taking the Japanese example again, we have vending machines, the script, explosions of seizure-inducing color, the food, etc. Conversely, it might well be the absence of anything distinctive at all that makes your image unique – photographs of generic American suburbia around the 1960s/1970s come to mind. (This is actually very difficult to do; I think perhaps the closest we get to ‘generic international’ is the main shopping streets of any major city, which are all dominated by the same brands – and that certainly isn’t at all interesting.)
Wait for light
This one is a no brainer: capturing the unique is one thing. Capturing the unique in great light is quite another. Hint: look for shadows. And if the time you’re there isn’t conducive, take an insurance shot anyway, but put a little flag in your mental folder to come back again later at a more suitable time of day.
Don’t use unfamiliar equipment
I too-frequently get emails from people asking if they should buy a particular piece of gear before a trip. My advice is always no: never take something unfamiliar into unfamiliar territory. You’ll probably have your hands full already trying to get around (especially if your language isn’t spoken) and figuring out how things work – if you’re going to add another layer of learning to that, it also increases the risk that you’re not going to come back with the images you want. It’s the same reason I’ll never take untested/ unfamiliar gear out on a paid shoot; there’s too much risk involved, and probably no chance of a second try. Even if you don’t have problems using it, there are always the questions of reliability, and missing shots simply due to unfamiliarity…
Go off the beaten path/ explore lots, carry less
If you don’t go, you can’t see it, and if you don’t see it, you can’t capture it. Simple, right? Beyond that, if you go where everybody else has gone before – it’s much harder to make unique images. I know from experience it’s very easy to get lazy and head back to the hotel early especially if you’re jetlagged and carrying too much gear. Never forget your sense of curiosity; I also find that for some odd reason, as a tourist/ explorer/ foreigner, I feel like I have more confidence than I would at home; perhaps because I know I stand out anyway, and people are going to just ignore you (or think you’re crazy, which is fine by me).
Don’t look at too many other images online before you go
See the bare minimum required for you to decide if a place is worth a detour or not; reality is that even if it doesn’t appear to be, serendipity will reward you with an image or two if you happen to go. In fact, some of my favorite travel images were shot in locations that wouldn’t feature anywhere on a guide. Partially that’s because you bring fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, but partially also because you go in with few expectations – which means you’re less likely to miss opportunities regulars would walk past. If you see too many images beforehand, it’s going to precondition you to look for certain scenes or subjects; even if you say ‘no!’ consciously, your subconscious is still going to be swayed – once we see things, we can’t un-see them. And if you’re preconditioned towards looking for certain images, then not only are you going to produce similar cliches to what’s already been done before, but you’re probably going to land up missing stuff.
Ask yourself, ‘what does this place mean to me?’
The end objective of any photographic trip is to come away with images that you feel are representative of both the place; in order to reproduce your experience with fidelity, you need to first be clear about what that experience was; what were the unique things that characterised your trip? If you manage to capture those, and hit all of the four critical photographic elements…mission accomplished. MT
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