Travelling as a photographer

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There’s a big difference between travelling for photography, and taking photographs while travelling. I think it all boils down to priorities: is your priority photography, or travel? Or are you like me: photographing gives you a reason to travel, and forces you to observe and thus enrich your experience?

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I still remember my first long haul international journey. It was from Melbourne, Australia, where my family had migrated, to Kuala Lumpur – our hometown. I was eight; it was quite an experience – those were the days when they didn’t really check how much luggage you brought on, kids and the curious were still allowed to visit the cockpit and talk to the pilots, and flying was still an adventure. People made an effort to be civilised, wear nice clothes and not fall asleep on their neighbour’s shoulder or demand to go to the toilet four times an hour from a window seat. I’m 100% sure that photography didn’t figure into things at all back then; we probably have two rolls of film from a four week trip. (These days, assuming I’m going to bother shooting film, two rolls might last me a day or thirty minutes – depending on the light and the location.)

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Fast forward twenty years, zip through my time in the consulting firms and the start of the low-cost travel era, and we – or I, at least – am now at the point where airports and airplanes are necessary evil that one must endure to get from one place to another. It certainly isn’t fun anymore. Perhaps flying an average of 120 sectors a year for several years killed it for me, or perhaps it was the overzealous and paranoid security – not just at airports but everywhere else, too*. Packing for normal air travel has turned into something akin to hardcore outdoor travel: you weigh and debate the merits of every single thing that you might possibly bring along, because you know that the scales at check in are going to be calibrated against your favuor – no matter what your bathroom scale might say otherwise. I had a keen outdoorsman friend who would cut the labels off his clothes to save weight; now it seems a lot of people do it to avoid paying Air Asia obscene excess baggage charges.

*During a recent trip to Jakarta, pretty much every building had metal detectors and security guards stationed outside; cars were examined with mirrors on poles. Seriously: do any of them actually have any training? Can they tell the difference between a Quaife LSD and a fission core? How can they determine the contents of my heavily padded camera bag are safe by merely patting it down with their hands? Frankly, as a regular traveller, the false sense of security worries me far more than anything. It’s too easy to have something go very wrong after being lulled into complacency.

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Even though cheap tickets, proliferation of long haul and short haul routes, interesting city pairs and new hubs have opened up more destination options than ever – and we’re seeing far more tourists too, even comparing places I’ve visited repeatedly during the same seasons for several years – I personally feel going away is feeling less and less special. Beyond the airline and security imposed restrictions, globalization has meant that the downtown core of most major cities looks exactly the same; I think it’s actually possible to find a location in every one of these places that is so devoid in visual and cultural cues that if you photographed it and showed it to a random person, they’d have no clue which country – let alone which city – you were in.

This is really quite sad, and certainly makes me re-examine my rationale and objectives when I’m on the road – assuming they’re not obvious ones like commercial assignments or teaching. Firstly, the most obvious thing to do is be both a bit more disciplined and a bit more open to serendipity. This might sound somewhat conflicting, but bear with me for a moment. Discipline: resist the temptation to bring more. I wrote an article in the early days of the site on the benefits of one lens/ camera to go; the specific model might have changed, but this holds true now as much as ever. How much do we really need? As much as I want to bring a bit of everything just in case – especially to a location I know will be photographically rich – the reality is that I’m probably better off bringing something safe, familiar and reliable, but boring. That way, the equipment doesn’t distract: it does its job of capturing the image, and gets out of the way the rest of the time. This applies not just to shooting envelope but also reliability and weight – it’s getting harder and harder to get away with a full camera bag as carry on, and there’s simply no way anybody in their right mind is going to check that kind of thing in. 5kg is a joke – unless you’re going with one lens, or a mirrorless system. Modern security and weight restrictions certainly make travelling with film something of a challenge – one or two passes through an X ray machine might be fine, but if you’ve got a lot of sectors to cover, from experience convincing them to hand check 50 rolls of ISO 100 film is not so easy. Exposure most certainly adds up.

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By a similar token, if you are choosing to make a trip to focus on one aspect or style of photography, then it’s probably important to pack something that helps you focus on that. I’m on the fence about the ‘one chance’ mentality: part of me believes that if you have the gear you probably should use it; it doesn’t make pictures sitting on your shelf, especially when 400mm could make the difference between getting that shot of bigfoot or not. But similarly – I like to pride myself in being able to make a picture under almost any circumstance, which means falling back on one’s skills as a photographer to engineer a composition that works regardless of the angle of view. I fight with myself before every trip when deciding what to pack, but in the end there’s always something that I brought but didn’t use (or could have really done without).

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I’m going to swing through 180 degrees here and come back to serendipity: if you’re not open to randomness, new experiences or just going wherever the road takes you, you’re also not going to be in the right place at the right time to get a shot you didn’t plan or expect. I think this is probably one of the biggest reasons why we travel to photograph: to see and shoot something beyond our normal expectations; to challenge ourselves to find something unique in a place where others have already been. In the modern age, it’s perhaps the closest we get to conquering something: putting a visual stamp onto a place that we can call our own.

I know I’m a very logical and ordered person: I’ve been accused of being binary and rigid as a result, which I don’t deny. (It also means that I’m good at planning, execution and dealing with contingencies, but that’s another story.) When I travel, I usually have a fairly good idea of where I want to go and what I want to see; but after finding that the most rewarding and pleasing images have been when I’ve just been in a place without an objective, I’m increasingly just turning up and following my feet – and my nose. Perhaps it’s that lack of destination that makes you more receptive to (and thus more observant of) the journey – and ultimately, isn’t that what travel is all about? MT


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  1. These photos are brilliant. Wow.

  2. Love your post. Great pictures.

  3. I am sure that your comments will ring a bell with many, especially about how air travel has changed and flying is no longer fun (at least not in large aircraft).

    But photography certainly DOES increase the value of travel. If you have even been forced to travel without a camera, then you will soon realized just how much you miss. But sometimes I envy those who do not take any photos sometimes it is much easier without the hassle.

    But when you look back on some good holiday photos, then it makes it all worthwhile.

  4. Great post Ming, with such beautiful photos of Prague. Makes me crave a new camera so much more now!

  5. Reblogged this on Random Thoughts and commented:
    Difference can be seen

  6. This enlightens me. Nice!

    -crizzie :)

  7. i guess these days we’ll just have to make lemonades out of lemons. security checks are tough but necessary, so i won’t be wearing my trainers next time. which reminds me to know how to pack only “the essentials”. it’s just that i can’t seem to figure that out till now. and yeap! the camera makes no difference, it’s the photographer. that’s why i love my point and shoot, most of the time ;-) great read! nice, i mean really nice photos!

  8. Reblogged this on machilei.

  9. Reblogged this on coralcoastpr and commented:
    Awesome Article

  10. Reblogged this on cuppakristy.

  11. simonyeoillustration says:

    Reblogged this on gallerycreative.

  12. Great post. A question – where is the town in the featured photographs? It looks Eastern European, maybe Hungary or the Czech Republic?! I want to go there (with all the cameras I like!!).

  13. Ah, I just saw someone else identified it as Prague. Must book some tickets!

  14. I like this part and heartily concur:
    “Beyond the airline and security imposed restrictions, globalization has meant that the downtown core of most major cities looks exactly the same;”

  15. Nice topic. I often have this struggle when travelling: what will I concentrate on? Appreciating the beauty of the place or taking pictures? It’s kinda weird but I can’t seem to enjoy both at the same time, specially when the venue is somewhere which it is hard to carry a camera. Nonetheless, taking pictures always prevails. it’s quite hard for me to leave a great place without having pictures to remind me how beautiful the sceneries that I’ve come across to.

  16. Nice post. Really interesting. :)

  17. really good article. thanks!

  18. Reblogged this on cupofkt.

  19. nice post. nice trip too.

  20. Nice photos of Prague. I’ve never seen less than 10kg for a carry on limit, 5kg is just insane! In fact I can’t remember the last time I had to weigh my carry on, lucky European I guess. Heading to the US in March and weighing up bringing both my SLR and compact or just going with the Fuji X10. The only thing i’d miss is the 30mm F1.4 on my Canon, and of course the better high iso results. Decisions decisions :) I think if we’re serious about shooting a particular place we’ll visit again specifically for that, do the tourist thing, take some snaps and scout it out and then head back and do the legwork.

  21. Reblogged this on Definition of Fernweh and commented:
    Check out this article! Do you travel to take pictures or take pictures while travelling?

  22. What a great post – words and images! I think your central issue is one many debate about in their own minds – some great points to mull over. Thank you.

  23. Excellent article. Unfortunately, I have not ever been able to convince myself that less can be more. Many times I’ve traveled with 2 camera bodies, 4 lenses, all the filters and everything else only to find myself using such a small percentage of what I brought. I think it does make you a better photographer to have to work with what you have. On the other hand, every time I leave the backpack at home, I find myself wishing for this or that. Last year, I went to lighthouse and only had my 28-300mm and there was no way of getting back far enough to get the whole lighthouse in. I was wishing I had brought my 10-20. The images I came away with were fine, but the extra work in post processing to get the complete lighthouse was time consuming.

    • I’m not sure a Swiss Army knife type lens is the best choice here; you’re sacrificing quite a lot of quality. In any case, I think the point of limitation is to concentrate on what you can get and spend extra effort in making it good, rather than compromising and trying to get everything…

  24. Great post, and definitely something I find when traveling as well! Awesome photos

  25. you got a high class standard when it comes of taking photos.i absolutely love the pics you’ve posted.

  26. Reblogged this on Cold Thriller in Disguise.

  27. I think if your naturally a photographer this is not so much a question. i find that my need to capture images of a new place is what drives me to go and talk to people find out what crazy things people do there.

  28. Reblogged this on doubleplusgood..

  29. Reblogged this on ZIPADEEDOODAH.

  30. Nice topic(s) & style Ming.

  31. Reblogged this on Turning Wanderlust into Reality.

  32. You inspired me to look at my photography differently, especially when I travel.

  33. The black and white photo of the people strolling has a wonderful ‘figure 8′ of people which causes the eye to also stroll round and round the picture, never leaving but picking up details with each revolution. Nice!

  34. I enjoyed your images. What was your overall impression of the Panasonic LF 1 as a travel camera? Is the EVF useable? Thank you?

    • The EVF is better than nothing for improving stability – bracing it to your face helps – but the resolution is terrible and the dynamic range very poor. It’s better than an optical tunnel finder, but not by much.

      Overall the camera is decent, but if you’re only going to have one camera – I’d still want something with a faster lens or better low light capability.

  35. Reblogged this on tyme4recess.

  36. Reblogged this on cynthiadasilvarocha.


  1. […] on from yesterday’s article on travelling as a photographer – specifically the portion on serendipity – I thought it might be nice to show an […]

  2. […] recent posts illustrated with images from a phone and compact respectively were posted specifically to illustrate this point: just because a camera is old, it […]

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