Always loving to travel & being me, I have had a camera with me since I was 8 years old. Having been on the road so much in recent months, first to Costa Rica in February & then Cuba a few weeks later in March, I have been paying attention to the way I photograph, using my iphone, my Lumix point-and-shoot, and my trusty Nikon DSLR’s: a D700 and a D3s. I also learned a little bit about how to best carry my gear, & found that the same Crumpler messenger style bag I mostly use here at home was my favorite option on the road as well. (Mine is an older version of what they now call their “6 million dollar home” bag). I have led many workshops, and the one I took to Costa Rica in February was a fabulous blend of garden photography while making new friends with everyone on the workshop, and travel photography, which is all about meeting new friends. The Cuba trip was pure pleasure and learning, which is why I travel: for enjoyment and to learn.
And photographing, of course! I believe most of us are so enamored with photography because it allows us an expanded visual method of telling the stories we want to tell. One of the most basic human social needs is to tell each other our stories. Photography, especially now in the early 21st century, is so uniquely accessible and manipulable that it has become an integral part of how we communicate with each other. Photography is now part of the human vernacular and becoming more so every day. Imagine the explosion in social media without photography; would pinterest, instagram, even facebook exist without photography? Maybe, but not likely or certainly not in the same form and with much less power than they have evolved. But I digress!
So traveling affords us such a rich and fulfilling opportunity with which to exercise our photographic muscles. One of my favorite quotes is that “The camera is a passport into the lives of others.” (Alas, I have lost the attribution). It is so true. The trick when travelling is not to act like a taker, which is how tourists are usually characterized. Hence the difference between a tourist and a traveler, and between a tourist with a camera and a travel photographer.
These two women worked at a cafeteria in Havana on a busy street. The space is open to the sidewalk, which is why the light sluicing in is so wonderful. It’s bouncing around the street behind me & coming softly into the restaurant to brighten these two friendly ladies’ faces. Three of us stopped in here to see if we could grab a soda. Sitting at the soda-fountain-style seats we were able to learn their names and how many people were in their families. In turn we told them about our families and a little bit about us and about how beautiful we found their city. Nothing brightens someone up as much as a visitor telling them how beautiful their home is. We were being sincere, but it’s nothing more than the principle that a little flattery goes a long way, especially when it’s true. I promised to send them copies of the photos we took, and I am making good on that promise.
To make these kind of images on the road I have to work fast. I find it’s best to minimize the number of decisions I have to make, such as which lens to use. I travel with one camera and one backup in case the first one goes down but they don’t have to be equivalent. In Cuba I used the D700 as my primary and my Lumix point-and-shoot as the backup. In Costa Rica I used my big gun, the D3s as my primary and my backup was the D700, though I also did use both the lumix and the iphone for some fun street shooting where I wanted to be unobtrusive. I also use the Lumix for scouting photos, so in the garden at the hotel where I was staying I was able to capture this image before breakfast one morning with the Lumix LX-5. It’s a wonderful point-and-shoot camera that has many of the features found in DSLR’s (aperture & shutter priority modes, you control the ISO, high definition video…) but at a fraction of the cost and in a package that fits into my coat pocket.
There are more of these in this online gallery (generally speaking, the square photos are from the lumix, the images with extreme color saturation and border treatments were done on the iphone)
In Costa Rica we did a lot of hiking in the forest, where I wanted to reduce the stress on my neck from the Crumpler’s neck strap. For that situation I have a Tamrac modular belt , the smallest (4″ wide) one, since I only have two lens cases attached. I really don’t want to carry lots of lenses, especially when I travel; the fewer decisions I have to make the faster I can work, and the less complicated the entire process becomes. The more technology you use, the more separated from your subject you become. Having two lenses on my belt allows me to keep one lens on the camera, with two in reserve, but without being unduly loaded down. The lenses I used for both of these trips are the 80-200mm 2.8, a 28-70mm 2.8 and a 17-35mm 2.8, and in Costa Rica a 60mm macro. I also carried a 1.4 tele-extender to help give me a little extra boost. Sometimes I left the wide angle in the room & took my macro instead; there is just so much new stuff to see in the tropics at close range that the macro was perfect for, like this passion flower. The pollinators in the second image I am told are “stingless bees”, what we here in the northeast might (mistakenly) call flying ants.
Then there is the trick of capturing nuances of cultural differences without making them seem trite. Many aspiring photographers go out into a scene, especially in a foreign country but also here at home, and try to make photos that look very much like the photos they have seen in postcards or in travel magazines. It’s not the worst thing in the world to do, and in fact it can be a good exercise, to flex your photo muscles by trying to copy the success of others. But ultimately if you do this as your goal, your photos will always be at best a weak reflection of someone else’s vision and at worst just trite or exploitive. It’s best to find your own vision, your own way of seeing the world and translating that into your photographs. Doing it in a foreign culture is extremely satisfying and rewarding, primarily because it’s harder to be false when you are not totally familiar with the language, the customs or the terrain. You have to be open and more honest in order just to navigate. Keeping this honesty in your photography will lead you to rich imagery and wonderful experiences with the people you meet. This fellow was a farmer working in an urban farm in Havana, where they grow food but also ornamental garden plants, in the area shown to the right. Like almost every Cuban we met, he was friendly and open to talking about his life and he was very interested in us. The rapport these conversations created allowed us to photograph many of our new friends there with integrity and honesty.
You don’t have to travel to exotic locations to incorporate these principles into your photography. Travel photography can be done in the next town, or at your kids’ sports games, anywhere you might find yourself actually! It’s really about being open and honest with your subject and yourself about your intentions and your goals for the images you are about to make. As Joe McNally, the great National Geographic photographer, wrote recently, photography involves “the head, heart and the hands in equal measure”. What other activities can so engage us?