Thoughts on travel photography, 2019 edition

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There are two kinds of travel photographers*: those who travel to photograph, and those who document their travels. I used to be firmly in the former category: you pick a destination and plan your entire itinerary based around photographic objectives; you try to sit/stay/transit via positions that maximise every possible photographic opportunity. You depart at times when light and seasons are likely to be most cooperative. Your equipment is 90% of your total baggage weight, and you’ll recycle your underpants if it means you can bring both the gimbal head and the ball. You pack every bit of gear you own just in case – you can always leave it in the hotel, but you might not be able to get a spare on location. And then you carry everything on the off chance you might miss an opportunity. You fly airlines that are lenient on hand luggage, but must balance that off against who cleans their windows best (or has A330s/A340s with that CrystalVue coating). I’ve done that round first on holiday, then on commissioned jobs, on workshop tours, and finally on misguided attempts to take a break from commercial work. Of late, I find the way I work changing; and that’s meant some big changes in the way I approach the idea of travel photography. Oddly though – my yield isn’t lower. If anything, I’d say quality is higher. Let’s try and figure out why.

*There may well be a third kind, but I’ve yet to find it.

The old adage of being less likely to find something when you’re looking intensely for it is probably true, or at least it feels that way. We are at least more aware of the time spent looking, and that’s not always a good thing; it leads to impatience, boredom, and compromise. And worse, it means you might miss other opportunities because you’re not prepared or set up for them. Then you start carrying a second body or a quick draw compact or something else, or worse, 20kg of gear and then use your iPhone. I’ve done it before; it’s photographically missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps one just feels the pressure of expectations: none other than your own.

Then there’s also the creation of opportunity: by participating, you open yourself to new things, and more possible photographic scenarios. But if you’re too busy trying to make an image first and last, then you’re far less likely to be in the right place at the right time because it’s much harder to know exactly where and when that time and place might be. Moreover, if the essence of travel photography is to capture/document/share one’s experiences – what raw ideas exist if you don’t have any experiences in the first place? It is simply impossible to authentically capture what you haven’t experienced. Perhaps worse still would be capturing somebody else’s expectations of what those experiences should be – none other than the proverbial checklist.

I can’t help but always feel a bit disappointed whenever I go to places that are on ‘everybody’s list’ – they tend to be more touristed than authentic, more hyped than real, and you go away with that feeling of having checked off but missed something essential. Perhaps it’s because these places might not necessarily be a good fit between your own interests and what the city has to offer that best matches. Though it’s possible to fall back on serendipity and the joy of discovery (I’m sure there’s a special German word for this) – a bit more detailed research or recommendations by peers does help. These days with travel primarily being for non-photographic work, there isn’t a lot of extra time left over so I know where I want to go beforehand; the journey between points of interest serves the function of serendipitous discovery for me, and I deliberately allow a bit more time for this.

There’s definitely something satisfying about finding a place that’s new to you and experiencing it without preconceptions. Not only is the experience better, but your eyes are not biased towards what might have been shot and shared before by other people: in effect your vision is entirely your own. (I also try hard not to look at the work of others before I go to a place to avoid being biased; I often ignore my own previous work too, especially if I’m trying to evolve creatively.) I find that the one or two frames you might get during these ‘explorations’ are much stronger and and resonate more acutely with you personally since there are no other third party associations.

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Sophie, street photographer

I wish I could say this shift and discovery of efficiency and vision were brought on by a conscious choice or considered evolution; they weren’t. It’s a consequence of going with no intention to shoot and suddenly seeing things pop up that you might have ignored or not had the headspace to see before; then you find yourself making something compositionally interesting but frustrated by the process (and lack of hardware). To find that right balance between being ready/prepared but not overanxious (a local Malaysian term describes this best: “kancheong”) is a tricky thing indeed. I think, for the moment at least, I’ve managed; some of that is equipment, some of that is accepting some compromise** in the workflow and output. No matter how dedicated you are, the more finicky the process, the less likely you are to repeat it – and repetition is what produces creative evolution and tangibly different results. For somebody who is almost pathologically conditioned to pursue something to the nth degree, this is the equivalent of a sea change for me.

**Knowing/ understanding, practicing and accepting are all very different things

Regular readers will have noticed first the PEN F JPEG experiments and the next an increasing use of SOOC JPEG from the Nikon Z7, culminating in a dedicated picture control pack for this (and the D850) – this is no coincidence. As I find myself with less and less time to spend postprocessing, no matter how efficient my PS workflow becomes or how fast my computer is – it’s still much faster to not have to do it at all. Admittedly, a good chunk of my reluctance to accept camera JPEGs previously was due to atrocious color and horrible tonality; onboard processing has not only improved to a degree that the results are acceptable, but often seem to compare well with post-conversion as something is likely going on in the data processing higher upstream – and the closer to the signal the processing, the cleaner/smoother the result. I also admit that it felt very wasteful to chase ultimate image quality in other areas, but then let one of the key areas go completely.

The upshot of all of these philosophical changes is probably best summed up by the results from a recent family trip to Japan – 10 days of sporadic shooting, spacing other activities, resulted in pretty much the same rough cut number of images as previous photography-focused trips of nearly the same duration. I only carried at any time the Z7, 24-70 and at most one other lens – either the 50/1.8S or 70-200/4. But I was done with my curation and most of the post for the few images I wanted to rework after the plane ride home, and another couple of hours covered the rest – including archiving and parting out for future posts etc. This process would have previously taken the better part of three to four days with Workflow III, or a day longer with Workflow II. This is obviously a lot of time freed up for other things, both during the trip, and afterwards.

Curiously, I’m much happier with my output from this trip than previous ones, despite familiarity of the subject matter. I suspect it has a lot to do with me passing over compositions that fall into the “good if fixed with some rebalancing in post” to only stopping for “strong as is” – you don’t spend time propping up what’s weak, shooting the raw material to begin with, or agonising if it makes the cut or not. They’re binary ideas/scenes: captured in a sort of instinctive stream of consciousness rather than overt deliberation, they either work or they don’t. That, and the hunt for the three year old’s next capsule machine won’t wait for the right subjects to fill your imagined scene. MT

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Sophie, charge remaining 0%

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Comments

  1. I’m a photographer, but never travel with my gear… A small camera in the pocket, and off I go. 89 countries to the counter 🤗

  2. I took the film plunge a few years back and also did something I would not have thought of before; travelled with 2 film bodies (Nikon FM3a and Fuji GF670). Also had X-Pro 2 along. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at how not difficult it was, and the quality (and not having to deal with editing) of the pictures was a bonus. Actively looking for a second film medium format body and just traveling with 2 MF cameras. Have B&W loaded in one and Color in the other. The problem is finding a nice complementary camera to the Fuji

    • I had a better solution to this a few years ago: one Hasselblad V, but with two or three film backs – and just swap as desired. Saves having to carry a whole second camera (and potentially also set of lenses).

      • Was actually considering a Hasselblad vs Rolleiflex. I’ve read your Hasselblad V series; I think it from your reply that you think it works as a portable, travel camera? It does give the benefit of having interchangeable lenses…

        • I’ve travelled with it many times. Select lenses judiciously; personally always felt the 80 was wide enough, but wanted something longer (150). If you add a 50 the weight goes up considerably though – that thing is a rather solid lump of glass and metal compared to the other two.

  3. 14 years ago I went to Singapore on business. I took a side trip to Angkor Wat. I have one photo from my five days in Cambodia in my portfolio. Pretty boring, but technically proficient stuff.

    Overtime I have developed what I find to be a helpful philosophy when it comes to travel photography: I try to photograph a foreign location in a way that does not readily reveal the location. I’ve spent the most time in Paris–9 trips, including three in the last six months. Like everyone else, I have my share of Eiffel Tower shots, but I am more interested in the less identifiable.

    Over those nine trips a project has emerged. I am documenting Paris’ cemeteries. I’ve done a tremendous amount of research, including finding a book that catalogues over 5,000 artworks in Pere LaChaise. Knowing what you are photographing is critical in my view. In that regard, I have made some interesting connections between people buried and memorialized in these cemeteries, which is very helpful for sequencing. My project also includes some of my essays about the experience.

    By going back, I see the locations in different light and weather. It has turned into a enjoyable project. I am about done with it, but I am looking for a new travel project. One observation: For me, going back to the same location is very helpful. Photographers get bored with their home cities, but there is a true home court advantage in working your home base. When the weather changes or there is an interesting event, you are there. Even the best planned photo trip is subject to lots of luck. I think that is why going back makes sense if your goal is photographically-related. BTW, three of my trips have been in winter–short days, grey skies. Weather can’t be an excuse. You make it work.

    I do relate to your packing and equipment comments. There are cameras I would like to bring, but I have resisted. I try to keep it simple with two bodies (same make) and three lenses to minimize weight. Every time I fear I am going to miss a shot, but I don’t. When you have a 90mm lens, you see 90mm shots. You don’t need ten lenses.

    • “Knowing what you are photographing is critical in my view.”
      Yes! Without this, an image is limited to a single (visual) dimension: the layering of interest, reference, story and intellectual interest has to come from something more.

      As for weather – I agree, you make it work especially if it isn’t somewhere you can go back to. I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘bad light’ so much as light that isn’t suitable to subject or idea, which means changing one of the other two if you can’t change the light…

      • John Walton says:

        For most of the 1980s I roamed various parts of the world with my FM2, a mid-zoom and a 180/2, and pockets full of Kodachrome. I enjoyed what I was doing, and found I had an affinity with wide and short telephoto. My creative instincts developed – my photography was situational. If I went out looking for photos, the results were not satisfying. I also found that I was seeing the world at f8 – always composing and seeing life through the viewfinder. I stopped staking photos for some years, much to my regret – there are whole chunks of my children’s life that are imprinted on my brain, but missing in photos. I regret this, but at the same time …

        Now, well I like a good piece of kit as the rest of us, and I have overspent over the years. What I have found with the plethora of excellent equipment available now, I am back to seeing the light and seeing situations unfold. I’ve found a compromise between digital efficiency and haptics that work for me – manual lenses, dials on bodies, raw only, fast primes, and I’m happier now than I have been for years. My partner (her father was one of the leading commercial photographers in our country) hates photography (she was an award winning photographer herself in her younger days) tolerates my passion.

        Now, I carry two digital bodies (modest 24MP – one colour the other monochrome), a wide (21/4), 2 standard (50/2 and 28/1.4) and a short tele (75/1.4). They are a mix of modern aspherical lenses and older spherical makes. I like having the option of fast glass. Life is simple. Sometimes, I will take a manual film body (no meter) and test my sunny sixteen with Tri-X. Itks fun, and I take the pressure off.

        What I’ve reminded myself of is the old adage, watch the light, think where to put your camera, and watch the world unfold around you. Be brave and be prepared to be part of the scene – technical perfect8n is secondary.

        • Experience vs participation – I’m sure you’d rather have been part of their growing up than the observer on the wall. 🙂

          “My partner (her father was one of the leading commercial photographers in our country) hates photography (she was an award winning photographer herself in her younger days) tolerates my passion.”
          Oddly enough I keep encountering retired pros who tell me the same thing. And personally there are days it’s satisfying and I wouldn’t be doing anything else, but there are also days where it really feels like a drag. I suppose this is a consequence of any activity about which one is passionate – love/hate being opposite emotions and all that.

          That sounds like a heavy (Leica, presumably given the monochrome) setup – there’s a lot of metal in those things!

          Technical perfection need not be secondary. It’s easier than ever to attain with less concentration required than before, given current technology – it just shouldn’t be the main objective of a photograph.

  4. I have a depressing feeling that to reach that level of competence where you can reliably capture consistently good SOOC jpgs on a family holiday without needing to be thinking about photography first and foremost requires that you have *first* put in the years travelling primarily for photography and refining an incredibly thorough pre and post capture process designed to extract every drop of image quality.. You’ve mastered the craft so well it’s already internalized. Not sure if I’ll ever reach that point 😀
    Some of the “must visit” spots are truly beautiful and or spectacular, but I agree that I often come away feeling I’vemisssed something. The best photos I get from those places are usually around the side of the famous monument, or from a different angle, or details rather than the standard shots, where I usually end up with an inferior version of the postcards for sale in the gift shop…
    PS: did you find an airline that’s consistently good at cleaning their windows? I haven’t found one yet 🙂

    • Actually it’s not so much that as knowing and really believing composition is independent of hardware. Deep down we almost all have a little doubt/uncertainty/curiosity/GAS that takes a long time to admit and longer to expunge. (Before any others point out that I probably buy more gear than most, I’ll also point out that I’m equally quick to get rid of it if it doesn’t suit the purpose: idea first, last and always*). Practice does undoubtedly help, but past a certain point it’s also necessary to practice “un-practicing” – to avoid repeating the same pictures on autopilot…this is the creative rut that is all too easy to fall into.

      *Paraphrased from a popular intelligence agency.

  5. I’ve always had enormous respect for athletes that make it look effortless. I suppose similar respect goes to artists who do the same. Of course the outside observer isn’t privy to the blood and sweat that went into building that level of competency. Being able to use simple tools in an unobtrusive way to produce satisfying results requires an advanced level of mastery. Thanks for sharing yours!

    • Thank you. Oddly though I feel it’s as though you have to shed a whole lot of conscious effort before the results feel truly fluid and you’re not thinking about the process so much as the result…

  6. craig carlson says:

    Ming, Your caption for the photo at the end CRACKED ME UP! 😉

  7. Despite you already owning the 85 & 135, is there any chance the new 3 lb Otus 100mm will be tagging along in future trips? 🙂

    • Nope, I no longer have any involvement with Zeiss. And honestly, as good as the 85 and 135 are – I only use them in the studio or where I don’t have to mule them for an extended period…

      • Darn 😦 You’ve taken great cinematics with the other Otui, so I was looking forward to see your experiments with the 100mm.

        With your recent back injury and workflow simplification, besides your PCE’s, zooms and Z lenses, have your third party lenses gotten much use? The Hasselblad V’s, Summilux, Zeiss’s, etc.

        • Honestly, I’m taking a step back from involvement with any camera brand/company at the moment after what was frankly a very bad experience. It seems there is no interest in actually understanding motivations to image-making and producing a better experience or a better tool; it’s just about chasing the numbers the marketing department demands. I have honestly no interest in this and just want to make pictures; the equipment is just a tool and doesn’t change your ability to compose or see. Most of the time – I’d say 99% – my work is split between iPhone, Z7/24-70 and D3500/18-55 kit. The rest has been used out of curiosity or for certain special client projects, but honestly given current ROI, I’m overdue for another garage sale.

          • Thank you for sharing 🙂

          • Mazher says:

            Hi Ming,

            Interested in your thoughts on the d3500. I’m thinking of upgrading my aging d7000 to a d7500, but the tiny size of the 3500 seems like something perfect for tossing in the diaper bag.

            • Came to the same conclusions as you. Found a new kit on ebay for $290, was a no brainer…yes, it’s limited, but a) it does everything you want it to; b) it’s responsive; c) it just works. What else can you ask for in today’s era of feature overload?

              • Michael says:

                Is the D3500 compatible with your JPEG presets, though? Or else are you again committed to hours in front of a computer editing?

                • You have a reduced set of possibilities – the curve is missing, but there’s just about enough flexibility in the rest that works with the native response of the sensor to still give you decent SOOC output. There’s definitely a bigger gap between processed RAW and SOOC with this camera than the Z7 or D850, but I’d put it at being at least on par with the Olympuses.

  8. Have you considered that the Z with the lenses you carried was still too much? That something like a Leica or Fuji X100F is all you needed for the type of photos you took?

    It seems that some photographers complain about tourist places full of people are the very same photographers who post the images that draw people to those locations. Or are these locations only meant to be photographed by certain photographers and not everyone else? So then we try to find new interesting but less travelled places. We post the images online and write about our adventures. Which of course attracts other photographers to that new location which then becomes touristy. And the cycle continues.

  9. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight!

  10. I just took a Ricoh GR1 (film) on my second trip to Japan back in 2000 and got some great images. Since then I’ve accumulated lots of gear, but the proportion of great images (my assessment) has gone down.
    I’ve recently bought a GRIII and the other gear is neglected. It has such great in-camera processing, especially for monochrome, that i spend less time at the computer and am happy with more images.
    I wonder if I’m brave enough to leave the rest at home on my next trip?…

  11. gpjoel says:

    “Sophie, charge remaining 0%” – Instant Classic!

  12. Well said. I started traveling with a second body and “just in case” gear on some exotic travel. Now I find myself some how “needing” all this most of the time I go out. As you noted, this has no relationship or perhaps an inverse one, with the number of keepers. I’ve recognized my pathology, but you’ve lit a fire for me to go back to basics.

    • The ‘just in case’ is still fine where professionalism is required and you must get the job done, but is probably overkill in an exercise that’s meant for pleasure…

  13. I admire your re-thought philosophy. Einstein supposedly once said that “true genius resides in simplicity.” Assuming that’s true, I’d say you’ve stepped stepped into that realm.

  14. Roger Wojahn says:

    What a great post Ming! That last photo of Sophie takes all!

  15. * Could that third kind be photographers who take pictures of themselves with an eternal changing background?

  16. Terry B says:

    Ming, I love those shots of your cute daughter, Sophie. I see she is picking up some of the street photographers’ techniques for unobtrusive picture taking: stand at right angles to the intended target so as not to alert them, take a quick glance to scout the scene, then turn and shoot! Got it. One in the bag, so to speak. What a wonderful caption for your last image of her.

    Back to your post, it is something of a dilemma. Oddly, as I read it, the one image that flashed through my mind was an old film starring Fred Astaire and which I saw many, many years ago. I can’t now recall anything about it, other than it was in glorious technicolour, but this one scene in which he appears with no less than three Rolleiflexes hanging from their straps around his neck.

    • That must have been in the days that we did not have reliable zooms yet. Rolleiflexes with 55mm, 80 and 135mm lenses. My old photography teacher regarded them as Kleinbild: small format. Makes sense, since their size and weight might probably be less than a modern full frame DSLR with three lenses.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        He probably meant it was smaller than my Linhoff 4×5!

      • Terry B says:

        Kruit, if you come across some contemporary advertising for Rollei when they first introduced their TLR, you may be surprised to see some describing the camera as “miniature” aka “kleinbild”. Certainly based on the majority of cameras around then, this wasn’t an unreasonable assertion. Later, “miniature” came to represent 35mm cameras which I understand in Germany to this day are known as “kleinbild”. Shows that size is always relative to available product.

        • They did make a smaller 4x4cm version, I believe. Not quite as miniature as the Minox toy versions that came later, but still relatively small…

          • Terry B says:

            Ming, yes they did. Interestingly and checking the RolleiClub site, the first two versions had f2.8 taking lenses, but in the better known “Baby Rollei” released in 1957 this was replaced with an f3.5.

            My collection houses two 4×4’s, the Yashica 44LM and a Primo Junior (made by Topcon). The Primo came out the year after the Rollei, and it comes with what was, by all accounts, a cracking f2.8 Topcor taking lens. Having used a TLR, ranging from my first YashicaMat in 1963, then Rolleiflex 3.5f, and finally a Mamiya C330S for nearly all my film era shooting, holding these dinky 4×4 bodies is something of a revelation. More so with the Primo as it really is a miniature version of a Rollei Automat.

            The Minox and House of Sharan issues are more like toys, but their appeal lies in their being miniature copies of the real thing as the bodies are pretty close in detail. Just for fun, I decided to get the versions of the Leica M3 and IIIf, Nikon F, and Rolleiflex as I own these cameras.

            • Oddly though I’ve never had much curiosity for the Rolleiflexes; couldn’t figure out why. The Sharan on the other hand is a guilty curiosity that requires some discipline to stay away from (and avoid regretting 😛 )

    • Terry B says:

      In response to my own post, I’ve been doing a little digging and discovered that the film is “Funny Face”. My recollection is, however, defective. He has two Rolleis and what appears to be a Norwood Director exposure meter on straps around his neck. The third camera is a 35mm.

  17. The cynic may say that the third type of travel photographer has now arrived to fit the modern world : the person who goes somewhere to exclusively photograph him-or-herself for the purpose of likes and followers. O tempora o mores, and so on.

    Another interesting thing I find about shooting while traveling is the issue of who you’re with. When I travel with my better half, we often agree to do something together for one half of the day and then pursue our respective particular interests separately in the other half. When I’m on my own, I can take my time, stake out an interesting place, and then wait for the trigger, as Jay Maisel calls it – that element which makes the shot worth taking. When I’m with the Mrs., I don’t have that luxury (as I’d be holding her up), but it’s good practice in seeing, framing and shooting almost on the run. Two very different styles of shooting.

    Agree also on the “tourist spots” where everyone goes (and shoots). It’s far from impossible to get a decent shot there, but you have to work at it. I always think that finding where everyone is shooting from and then going somewhere else entirely is a good start. In a way, though, isn’t that a great challenge – finding a novel or interesting way of shooting something that is probably photographed literally hundreds if not thousands of times a day?

    Not entirely related, but something which could make for an interesting essay or article : taste, or the lack of it, in relation to travel photography. I post now and then to a Facebook group which focuses on Japan-related photography; the main contributors seem to be tourists / visitors, but there are also submissions from local people and long term foreign residents. What can be relied on, though, is that the posts with the highest views, likes, gawking smileys, etc, are nearly always either over-processed to a level which should be illegal, or are clearly fake (composited) or stolen (clearly taken by a landscape specialist but not credited). There’s the odd person who calls them out on it, but otherwise it’s the usual torrent of “OMG”, “Amazing”, etc…and we’re back to o tempora, o mores!

    • I don’t agree that is really photography in the purist sense :p

      Traveling with a companion and having the pace dictated to you tends to have the benefit of speeding things up and seeing more locations, but at the expense of not really ‘completing’ any single one properly. I can’t say if it’s better or worse than entirely self-dictated movement because I’ve had good images come from both methods of working…

      I’m very hesitant to comment on taste because the whole nature of photography is subjective to begin with: what I find tasteful might not be what somebody else does, but who’s to say who is right or wrong?

  18. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    “There may well be a third kind, but I’ve yet to find it.”
    I think we can all safely rely on you to do that, Ming.
    We are all exhorted to plan – research – scout the right position – and the right lighting. And perhaps we end up with a “perfect shot”.
    But then? – maybe spontaneity is better, so we try that. A bit like candid or street photography, but shot using different subjects, perhaps. Is it better? – maybe – but then the critics leap out of the undergrowth and attack it for this reason or that.
    So where to next?
    My solution is to stop worrying about what other people think and do my own thing. It works for some – look at Picasso! At ALMOST got there for Van Gogh – he just died a few months or years too soon. Not that I’m vain enough to suggest I’m in their league – I’m just using them as role models. But at least if I do my own thing I will be happy, even if nobody else likes any of it.
    One of the main advantages of amateur status!

    • Exactly – no expectations/ obligations other than your own. And if you look/experience/observe first and then only photograph second, you have the benefit of recording your impressions rather than your memory of other people’s…

  19. With her carrying a camera that makes it two

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