Preparing a photography trip can be frustratinlgy difficult and leads to disappointments because of the very different requirements between ordinary travelers and photographers.
This is #1 reason why so many tourists come back disappointed with their photographs. They blaim themselves, or their camera, because “the view was so incredible and the photographs are such a let down!”
The truth is, it has nothing to do with your ability to create good images or with your photographic equipment, and everything to do with The View. Photogenic scenes and subjects are almost always beautiful, (or, at least, visually interesting), but the opposite is rarely true.
When your favourite travel guide takes to that impressive panorama, all your senses combine to transcribe that sense of space. You may even be scared of the hight and of the wind blowing in your back, pushing you closer to the edge.
But these sensorial cues are totally absent from 2-dimensional photographs and the thin atmostpheric hase that dilutes all colours and contributes to the feeling of depth in real life washes out all the details and interest in your photographs.
Check for yourself! Here are interviews of some of the best travel photographers in the world. See how many “stunning views” you find in thephotographs by Michael Kenna, Hans Strand, Michael A. Smith, Paula Chamlee … Not a single one.
What you will find, instead, are interesting visual patterns, rhythm, foreground/background relationships, texture, compositional features …
The scene in the Paul Perton photograph above would not appear in any of the tourism-oriented travel guides. That is not what their business is based on or what they aspire to show their readers.
… which rarely turn out to be photogenic.
Anne Frank’s house may have tremendous historic value, the hour+ long wait to visit is certainly not going to reward the photographer. Even if architectural photography is your thing, butts and heads in cramped spaces is a very minor genre. Don’t take me wrong: I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t visit this house or take interest in the tragic life of this Jewish victim of the Nazi Holocaust. Quite the contrary. Her horrible story of persecution and betrayal is a mirror of our weakest instincts and should be indelible in everyone’s mind. It simply won’t rank high on your list of top photo destinations (besides, this is one of the few places where I feel the interdiction to take photographs is very legitimate).
So, for a balanced stay in any location, you should alternate between places to experience and remember for their meaning and others you go to for the photograhic interest and memories. The latter are extremely rare in tourist guides.
Let’s face it. 99% of all guides share the same information about tourist attractions.Which means that if 1 million people travel to a city with these guides in hand, they will all be visiting the same places at more or less the same time.
When I most recently visited Topkapi Palace for the InSight: Istanbul guide, the queue on my way out was – at least 200 – meters long. That was on a wet winter day. Not one of the thousands of people waiting there with paper guide in hand was likely to return with interesting pictures. Whereas I was almost alone and able to create unhindered the wonderfully romantic images I had in mind.
This was all down to choosing the right time of day, prioritising subjects during my visit and cutting down the cues to a bare minimum. The preparation needed for this “aged” shot was not complicated but it required thinking on photographer’s terms rather than follow the guided tour of history oriented tourist guides.
In fact, they often recommend places which are not even open when the light is good.
The photograph above is a very banal road-side scene rendered beautiful exclusively by the quality of the light. At mid-day, you wouldn’t even look and you’d head strait to the center of the uninspiring village half a kilometer away.
Light is vital in travel photography.
And knowing what the light can be like at certain periods of the year or times of day in certain locations is invaluable information that tourist guides have absolutely no reason to focus on.
This is why we provide sunrise, sun noon, sunset times and orientations in our InSight guides and why we mention the orientation of the subjects described in our photo walks. And if the light has a particular quality (as it does in Northern Italy, for instance) we also describe what to expect and when, to our best knowledge.
And that is a good thing! Only not for photographers because, as explained in point number 1, experience never translates to photography.
Here’s an example. Who wouldn’t dream of riding the Hogwarts Express!? Can you imagine sharing these photographs with your friends and family, on Facebook? We’ll there’s a train in Scotland that lets you live the dram between the beautiful towns of Fort-Williams and Mallaig. It’s in all the tourist guides.
But here’s the deal! On wet days (that’s 2 out of 3 in Scotland), the interior is so steamed up, you cannot see or photograph a thing from the inside.
It’s a much better idea to photograph the train (or any steam train) at the station and take the normal train to Mallaig. It offers much clearer views of the scenery and costs less money to ride.
That highlights the important difference between a focus on photography and a focus on experience (although, in this instance, I believe the experience is also better).
Because it’s easier to let a guide take you places (and also because a good guide can add valuable information and fun to a visit), most tourist guides point you to companies specializing in guided tours.
And that’s great in a museum, but can get in the way of good travel photography.
A large group is slow, conspicuous and follows a common track. It gives you very little room or time for improvisation and, because you have paid for it, you feel bad to leave it, even when you spot something really interesting to photograph.
So, it’s a good idea to strike a fine balance between guided tours of areas you want to learn about and go solo in areas you wish to photograph. The picture above is what most of the tourist on that bus tour will have as their only souvenir. Most of their time was spent in clog and cheese factories slash shops after that.
In order to break even after spending months gathering information on hundreds of sites, restaurants, cafes, hotels, attractions, means of travel (…) travel guides must sell in numbers that can be achieved only by providing the most generic information.
InSight: Guides are low-volume niche ebooks answering the specific questions of photographers (where can I use my tripod, where does the sun set in March …) which cannot be built into the business model of generalist books.
Imagine a cinema theater that always plays the same sort of film. It will please lovers of the genre and disappoint all other cinephiles. Tourist guides do the same to photographers. They’ll show the “important” places based on social convention and have no idea about the great varety of subjects that might interest a photographer (street photography, nature photography, astro photography, landscape photography, …)
Photography-oriented guides will mention the big attractions if these can be of photographic interest and include many other areas that show potential for one or more “genres” but might not be on tourist todo lists.
What are the best lenses to pack for a given location? Will filters be useful? Is a smartphone OK or do I need a full-frame DSLR? Small bag? Big bag?
Those are legitimate questions when packing for a trip, but answers are pretty hard to come by, unless someone has been on location before and can make suggestions. Unfortunately, tourist guides are not “geared” that way. Which is why we started the InSight: Guides collection in the first place.
Shooting a location, even at an amateur level, takes a lot more time than simply visiting it. There can be a lot of waiting for a scene to clear of tourists, or for the sun to hide behind a cloud …
A typical travel guide’s top 10 might be spread out over a large area requiring a lot of lengthy travel and queuing. Whether you’re on a shoot between planes, a pro on location or a family man that’s popped out for a quick session, wasting time is always a big deal.
The more photographer-friendly way we have adopted in the InSight:Guides is to recommend compact self-contained walks or drives that provide a tremendous amount of opportunities without requiring any more traveling.
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