The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
2. From Conventional To Unique
Commonplace Photos and Your Own Point of View
Sometimes you have pictures planned out in your head before you set out on a trip. They may even be the reason for taking the trip in the first place. Who does not recognize the perfect symmetry of the Taj Mahal lit by dawn’s gentle colors? Or the most photogenic side of Switzerland’s legendary Matterhorn? Who wouldn’t love to press the shutter button when viewing the orange-red Dune 45 in Sossusvlei, Namibia?
Wherever you go, you can be relatively certain that other photographers have already been there. It’s always tempting to imitate well-known photos of world-famous sites or limit yourself to the obvious post-card view of your subject. As satisfying as the former and as convenient as the latter may be, take your own pictures of the world – don’t just imitate those of others. This sentiment is legitimate, but don’t stop photographing after you have the photo that you wanted on your memory card.
After the obligation comes the choice: Search for additional points of view, surprising perspectives, alternative standpoints, and inconspicuous details that possess their own charms. Look out for your angle, your perspective, your view. Be critical, ironic, reflective, playful, bold, loose; leave the well-trodden paths; and always stay curious.
Think about a photograph not as something that is readily available, but as something that you can shape and design. You are the one to decide how your picture will look. Your photo shouldn’t simply reflect what you saw; it should also reflect how you saw it and how you want it to affect your viewer. Ideally, your thoughts and sensations will be embedded in your picture. Achieving this is easier said than done, but it’s always worth the effort.
The Treasury is likely to be the most-photographed subject in the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, Jordan. Visitors wander through the canyon as-Siq, with its vertical sandstone walls, towards the rock-hewn monumental structure that remains invisible. Only in the final yards does the view open up, and at this specific spot in the canyon, you’ll almost always find a crowd of photographers. This is the place from which to create the classic postcard view of Petra, and for good reason. It is without question a breathtaking view and a fascinating perspective: light and shadow, natural structures and manmade shapes, curved lines and strict geometry, vertical and horizontal lines, color and colorlessness, warm and cool, bright and dark – all in one picture. But aside from this obvious view, there are so many more photographic opportunities to show the Treasury, to tell stories about it, and to position it within a much broader context.
Below: This classic view highlights the Stupa’s symmetry, its distinctive coloring, and its accessibility. Film photograph, exposure details unrecorded
Some of these are evident and easily accessible while others require walking or climbing. Some can be planned, such as “Petra by night,” when the space in front of the Treasury is illuminated only by candles; others are the product of chance. You’ll need curiosity and a bit of time, but what’s most important is the photographer’s attitude: the will to seek out an individual image and the joy of working creatively.
Photography is a creative means that leads to a very personal result. A photographer shows viewers his or her selection of what he or she has discovered from his or her subjective perception. You can think of this subjectivity as a manipulation of reality, but also as a possibility for shaping and designing: a picture – our picture, your picture – is made.
The city of stones – to go: Mini depictions of the most famous facades in Petra (Jordan) wait to be purchased at a souvenir stand. | Nikon D700 • 35 mm • 1/125 s • f/5 • ISO 250
She who rises, sees more: A short hike led me to this viewpoint over the Treasury in Petra, Jordan. Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 250
Unusual viewpoint: A view from a souvenir stand at the Treasury. The shop with keepsakes, batteries, and disposable cameras belongs to Petra just as much as the famous facade in the background of the picture. Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/100 s • f/5 • ISO 200
Ansel Adams’s observation, “You don’t take a picture, you make it,” hits the nail on the head. A photographer plays an active role and does more than capture what is readily available for the taking. The process begins with perception and the selection of a subject, and continues through the selection of the actual image, perspective, focal length, aperture, and shutter speed, all the way to image editing.
The creative process – or the manipulation of reality – doesn’t start on the computer or in the darkroom, as is often supposed; it’s much earlier than that. Every picture illuminates the subjective view of the person who photographed it, regardless of how much or how little it has been post-processed.
Many times the desire to create a picture arises spontaneously, and in the first moment you may not even realize what it was that triggered the impulse. It’s useful to analyze this subconscious drive, however, because the more precisely you understand what image you want to make and why, the better you can concentrate on achieving it.
Photography is about focusing, not only in the technical sense, but also figuratively. It’s all about the mental focusing required to distill the essence of an image and delve into the idea. It’s about removing what is unessential and emphasizing what matters. It’s about refining an image until it shows what you want it to – nothing more, nothing less.
The classic view: The Treasury in Petra on an early autumn morning. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 1600
“Petra by Night” shows the Treasury illuminated only by candles (and a camera flash here and there). | Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 10 s • f/8 • ISO 2000
Focusing also means concentrating as exclusively as possible on the image at hand. As a photographer, you will need (and want) to pay attention to your surroundings to some degree, but nothing productive comes from constantly suspecting that there might be other photographic opportunities being wasted while you’re working on the one at hand. Of course there will be, but that does not matter too much: It’s impossible to be everywhere at once, and you can’t take a photo of everything, anyway. Taking every conceivable picture aligns better with indiscriminate snapping rather than with the intentions and effort that are needed to create purposeful photographs.
Photography – especially when traveling – requires compromise. Time passes, light fades, opportunities expire. But even when unused opportunities feel like a loss, in my experience it’s usually more productive to meaningfully engage with a few photos rather than capture and produce a plethora of half-hearted and hasty pictures, of which none are outstanding. On top of that, becoming so involved with a particular subject or scene can result in nearly forgetting about yourself and your surroundings; there is something almost meditative about it. You can train yourself in this type of concentration, just as you can practice how to use a camera and its settings.
What a fantastic location: Knight’s Point, New Zealand. The weather and lighting conditions could have been better... | Nikon D70 • 27 mm • 1/200 s • f/9 • ISO 200
...but they were almost ideal for detail shots of the stones on the dark sand. “Four Stones” remains to be one of my favorite pictures from New Zealand. | Nikon D70 • 70 mm • 1/160 s • f/6.3 • ISO 200
Whenever the impulse to shoot a picture pops up, try to figure out what appeals to you about the particular subject. Is it the special light? A contrast of colors? A pattern of lines? The atmosphere of a specific town square? The expression on a face? Why does this scene speak to you and what is it that the viewer should connect to it? What makes the subject so important that you want to share it with others? Try to work out these questions. Don’t be discouraged by difficult circumstances, and don’t feel unsettled if you can’t immediately determine what it is exactly that you want to photograph. In most cases, you’ll be able to work this out by spending some time with your subject, by approaching it, observing it (even without taking any pictures), exploring it, walking around it, and letting it inspire you.
An example from New Zealand: We discovered the beach at Knight’s Point by accident. I can’t even recall why we stopped at this particular spot to begin with. Rain was coming down from a thick cloud cover that almost reached the ground, and my first attempts at a wide-angle overview shot were accordingly disastrous. It was wet, cold, and unpleasant, but I had no intention of giving up. The distinctive pebble formations on the dark sand grabbed my attention at first sight – their playful diversity, their conspicuous contrast with their nearly monochrome background, their elegant arrangements. They were a whim of nature with an unerring sense of design and proportion. These arrangements were all over, each one even more beautiful than the last. I had found my subject – the essence of Knight’s Point – and to this day, this picture of the four stones (page 25) is one of my absolute favorite pictures from New Zealand.
Admittedly, you won’t always have the time, the leisure, or the right frame of mind to engage thoroughly with the things that you see, experience, discover, and learn while traveling. Sometimes ideas for images come fast and easy, but on other days it can be a real struggle. Sometimes you’ll intuitively figure out a great image composition without giving it much thought; other times working out a photo takes quite some effort. And sometimes a snapshot, the unique moment that lacks technical or compositional perfection, turns out to be the best and liveliest photo.
Use the obvious perspective, the postcard view, the iconic image, the picture that’s been created umpteen times as your anchor on the scene and as a starting point, but don’t content yourself with it. Stick around and give your curiosity some space, try to feel special moments, try out something new, dare yourself to do something, develop your own ideas, and focus on capturing them in your photo. It’s worth the effort. Ideally, you will go back home with photos that no one else has, and with the good feeling that you didn’t just copy something but you photographed your own personal view of things.
A classic snapshot of a waterfall in Milford Sound, New Zealand. | Nikon D70 • 50 mm • 1/125 s • f/5.6 • ISO 200
Top: Close-up of the waterfall on page 27. This image is centered around the cascades, the spray, and the marble-like patterns at the bottom of the falls. | Nikon D70 • 105 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 200
Right: Same waterfall, different distance, different angle, different framing. It’s all about what you see when looking at a scene – I saw a hooded figure emerging from behind the water curtains... | Nikon D70 • 78 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 200