I have been traveling more than usual this year. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I shoot and why. Perhaps it will trigger a response in you.
This is not a typical travel photography article. You won’t find the expected rules and checklists and how-to advice.
How I travel
Travel for me is a rather solitary activity. Being an introvert, I work best alone. Having people around who want to talk about what I am doing and “help” me find pictures is almost always a negative. My wife is occasionally along on these trips, but she has learned to get out of the way and leave me alone when I am shooting. Not always, but that is the norm. I don’t want to make it sound like I push her away, it is just that she knows me enough to recognize when I am in a zone and don’t want to talk.
When I am traveling with an option of doing photography I prefer to drive or be on foot in a large city. In either case I preserve the freedom of exploring, setting my own path, managing my time. I strongly prefer to explore out of the way, seldom seen sights, even if it means missing the main tourist attractions. Actually, especially if it means missing them.
As you can tell, if I have to take a tour, especially in a bus, I feel handcuffed, in prison, doomed to follow someone else’s agenda. I may see some interesting things, but there is seldom the chance to explore something as i would like.
What am I seeking
As I learn more about myself, I realize I can never restrict myself to certain subjects. I’m afraid I will never be that guy who is known for mountain landscapes, or still lives, or seascapes. I recognize that this is a disadvantage from the sense of marketing and branding. Too bad.
Of course there are certain subjects I am naturally drawn to. I like particular kinds of landscapes. The area that might be termed wabi sabe – simply things that age and weather with character – appeals to me. It is almost a given a given that I would check these things out. A joke with my wife and some close friends is that, if we see an old rusty truck, I will want to stop and photograph it. Like most humor, it is based in truth.
But in a more general sense, I have learned that what draws me is the chance to exercise my creativity. When I see an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective or a creative treatment to a subject, I go for it. It does not matter if it is an obscure something on a back road that nobody cares about. If I can visualize it fresh and make an interesting image, that is what I want.
This is one reason I seldom hang out at the iconic viewpoints that everybody seeks. I have no interest in shooting the same image that thousands of other photographers have made. Yes, I may shoot it for my memory, but I would seldom publish a photo like that.
How I approach subjects
This is pretty nebulous. I do not have a distinct process I have written down. I’m just trying to reconstruct my thought processes.
Basically I have an imaginary dialog with the subject. “Who are you?” “What is your story?” “How would you like to be seen?” I don’t really express these things verbally or even consciously. But this is a process I think I go through.
In effect, I am making a portrait of the subject. In a good portrait, the photographer tries to get to know the subject enough to recognize the key characteristics and the underlying personality of the person. This is what I try to do, even if I am shooting an old truck.
It sounds kind of silly to write it down, but it is how I work.
There are some powerful environmental conditions I have control of that have a strong influence on the outcome and productivity of my shooting. I have learned over time to manage these things.
A powerful one is to get off the freeway. I have seldom made an interesting image alongside a freeway. Cruising down that wide road at 75 mi/hr or more tunnel vision takes over. My focus is the road ahead and cars around me. The most wonderful scene I have ever imagined could be right there next to the road and, if I noticed it at all, I would probably convince myself it was not worth pulling off and falling behind in the traffic stream.
Another is sound. I find that listening to the radio gives a focus that distracts me from creative viewing. My car radio is often off all day. If I am driving at night I may turn it on to help keep me alert, but that is the only time.
Having mild ADHD tendencies, I find I cannot ignore words, either when someone is speaking or in music. When that stimulus is occupying me I tend to ignore a lot of things going on outside. And it is easy to get in a groove and be reluctant to stop to check out possible subjects.
And having a fixed agenda works against my creativity. If it is the middle of the afternoon and I know I have 250 miles to go before I stop, it becomes too easy to judge that this thing I just saw is not worthy of stopping and putting me behind schedule. Agendas can’t always be avoided, but I try.
Photographers tend to be obsessed with gear and the technical side of the art. Who doesn’t like a great camera and a selection of excellent lenses?
Sorry to disappoint, but I find I become less interested in that with time. The key thing is what you see and what you can do, not your gear. I seem to take less gear each outing.
On a 1 week road trip I just returned from, I took one body and I only shot with 1 lens – a 24-120 f/4. I had a couple of excellent lenses with me, but never attached them. The lens I used is surprisingly good and covers the range I normally shoot in. I like to become comfortable and familiar with what I am using so that once I have visualized what I want, I just pick up the camera and it is a quick and automatic process to capture my vision.
Actually the bulkiest equipment I brought was 2 tripods and a monopod. And I didn’t use 1 of the tripods. Next time I will probably not bring it or the other lenses I had with me.
I readily say these characteristics are peculiar to me. And I am peculiar. I am in no way suggesting you should do things this way.
Over time I have learned what works for me and what I did that increased the amount of images I like. Being an introvert makes it easier for me to reflect on things like this. I like to figure things out. You need to figure out what works for you and maximize it.
We each have our own unique characteristics and strengths and weaknesses. Learning who we are and what works for us is a big step toward improving our work. And being happier along the way.