The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
16. Tell It Like It Is
The Value of Documentary Images
In a rush to Milford Sound, New Zealand. The weather report forecasted sunshine for the coming day. We drove late into the night to be there as early as possible. | Nikon D70 • 36 mm • 1/20 s • f/3.8 • ISO 200
A picture of the salt deposits on the tires of the jeep. A picture of the ice crystals that cover the entire tent after a cold night. A silly self-portrait in front of a famous attraction. A peek into the cooking pot after the longest leg of the trek. The wind meter on the bridge of a cruise ship. A comical sign somewhere in the world. All interesting subjects, but the composition of the images is anything but perfect because each was shot quickly before the moment passed. Maybe the horizon is slanted, or one side of the subject is truncated and a random arm is accidentally included. “Just a snapshot,” you might be tempted to say dismissively.
Yes, snapshots. Many photographic souvenirs are not choice quality. They simply document what was. And really, there’s nothing wrong with snapshots; the opposite is actually true. It’s definitely worthwhile to document the circumstances of your journey and to capture special moments, people, feelings, and experiences, even if the resulting images don’t quite meet your photographic standards (or those of others).
Documentary exposures serve a different purpose. They might replace or supplement your travel journal, serve as an aid to your memory, or document routes to retrace later. And they capture moments that seem meaningful at the time. Sometimes this meaningfulness doesn’t expand beyond that particular moment, but sometimes it retains its importance for years to come. For all of these reasons, those quick and anything-but-perfect snapshots have value – documentary value, but more importantly, emotional value.
The Land Cruiser took on the color of its surroundings on Bolivia’s Altiplano. Nikon D700 • 29 mm • 1/400 • f/10 • ISO 400 • polarizer
A tropical downpour surprised me when snorkeling off Tahiti. Photo by Jörg Ehrlich. Panasonic TZ10 • 25 mm • 1/200 s • f/4 • ISO 80 • underwater housing
As a photographer, you should come to appreciate this type of photo and its qualities. Only then will you actually take such pictures, and not kick yourself later for not taking a picture of something that piqued your interest for a passing moment.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you should randomly snap away without putting any thought into documentary exposures. Firing shots without any measure of consideration produces snapshots that are devoid of meaning, idea, charm, or a connection to the moment of their creation.
In other words, thinking through the composition doesn’t hurt, even if the resulting photo doesn’t stack up to your standards for your non-documentary images. Don’t be too strict with yourself, but also remember that the more photos you produce, the more photos you will eventually need to examine, sort, evaluate, and potentially edit after you return home from your trip.
Baking in the Tunisian desert: The cook heaps glowing charcoal onto the flatbread in the sand. If I had taken greater care when composing the image, I wouldn’t have clipped the head of the gentleman in the background. | Nikon D70 • 66 mm • 1/200 s • f/4.5 • ISO 200
When the ego goes through the roof: Road sign in New Zealand. | Nikon D70 • 84 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 200
Mauretanian hospitality: Ahmed, shown here with two of his children and a visitor, prepares tea for guests he just met. We were able to send him and his family prints of this photo later. | Nikon D200 • 33 mm • 1/60 s • f/2.8 • ISO 100 • flash