As I was working on a new content for Simplicity-In-Seeing, I realized that it would be a great opportunity to share my thoughts about street/travel photography. We just returned from our photographic trip to Europe and this very visit in particular made me realize that a certain mindset is required for such trips to be successful.
It always starts with preparations. Usually, a serious photographer jots down a list of locations or places, which he/she would like to cover during the trip. Most likely these whereabouts are among “TOP 10” things to do in a city or, in other words, the most popular locations. Is there anybody who, when visiting Paris, wouldn’t want to photograph the Eiffel Tower? Here is the first trap. Popular or iconic places don’t have to be great photographic locations! Yes, I do realize it, and I can already hear the voices arguing that a good photographer will take great photos anywhere. True, assuming that you are following a popular, Facebook’s “like,” or “me too” sort of imagery. Taking a unique image of such landmark places is indeed a remarkably difficult achievement even for a very seasoned photographer!
That brings us to our topic: a mindset of travelling photographer. I assume you are a committed photographer who wants to advance the art of seeing (and this is strictly a photographic trip, not just a family vacation). In such a case, forcing yourself to photograph popular locations just to check it off from the list is a major, major blunder, if not a total waste of time.
When heading to London and Barcelona, my objective was to capture unique imagery and it didn’t matter to me if it is some iconic location or just a forgotten backstreet corner. Certainly, before heading to these cities I had a rough idea of where I would like to photograph. For example, in London at the top of my list I had funky Brick Lane, modern SOHO district, strange Barbican and ultra-modern Canary Wharf, each location very different from one another. However, I was well much aware of the fact that some of these locations may not work for me (mind you, I was going to spend just four days in London).
During our first day we headed to Brick Lane, the street which really does become full of hustle-bustle sort of atmosphere during weekends due to vibrant second-hand merchants and street performers. In fact, it was our first visit there. Immediately upon our arrival I knew this was a very difficult location to photograph. For those who live in London and are familiar with Brick Lane, my statement may come as a surprise. There is a deep-rooted notion among street photographers that busy streets are the best material for street photography. Well, yes and no. There are two elements to a great street photo: (1) your subject, in other words, a positive space, and (2) a stage -negative space. More busy or chaotic a stage, more difficult it is to craft a great image.
In fact, the morning we arrived at Brick Lane, I immediately noticed that I would focus on some portraiture work since it gives me more flexibility, given the location. From the very start I set myself two objectives: find a great stage and then try to photograph my subject within this space (I will write more about the mechanics of shooting portraits at Brick Lane in a separate article).
Please, note that as soon as I identified and made myself a bit acquainted with the environment, given my highly limited time, I immediately altered my photographic objective from situational street photography to environmental portraits. Obviously, if I only had the luxury of time, I would definitely come back to this location and do both.
Here are some portraits I shoot on this very day.
X100F, 1/320 sec at F/2.2, Classic Chrome
X100F, 1/350 sec at F/5, Classic Chrome
X100F, 1/320 sec at F/2, ACROS +R
Let me give you another example. While shooting in Barcelona, most photographers aim at Las Ramblas or Sagrada Famillia, among others. While we arrived in front of Sagrada Famillia, I imminently knew I would try to take one creative shot and just move on to other locations. Here it is.
X100F, 1/800 sec at F/14, Classic Chrome
Similarly with Las Ramblas. As we started to walk along this tourist-filled promenade, I found the place visually busy or even distracting. We immediately turned into small side streets off the centre to explore and find photographic opportunities. Since we were shooting during the day (the sun was quite high), it allowed us to take advantage of the light bouncing between walls and shadows within very narrow Barcelona streets. Some intersections of such walkways were so visually appealing that we stopped and explored those sites for 20 or more minutes.
X100F, 1/320 sec at F/5.6, Classic Chrome
X100F, 1/900 sec at F/6.4, Classic Chrome
X100F, 1/550 sec at F/5.6, ACROS + R
This is important. If you find a location that works for you photographically, take your time and don’t just rush to another place just to check it off from your list. If you feel a particular spot is working very well, excerpt all opportunities within it – you won’t regret it. It is much better to come back with a few unique images than with the whole memory card filled with an average “check-off-the-list/me-too” snapshots.
In sum, while visiting a new country or city, don’t get fixated on your “natural” tendency to do the list. Be open to new opportunities and don’t be afraid to skip popular locations if you cannot produce anything unique. Just think: Do you really want another shot of the same thing? Wouldn’t it be better to spend this time exploring new visuals and show the world new spots, or… the same but seen anew?
In my next article in the series “A mindset of a travel photographer” I will share my experience of shooting a landmark location with you, however in a very different, unexpected way. I will also write about gear choices for the trip and my everyday setup.
P.S. Let us know what do you think about this article. Did you find it useful?