Have Camera, Will Travel?
On my first (and to this point, only) trip to Russia, I was mugged. Rather, it was an attempted mugging.
A man approached my friend and me in a small underpass in St. Petersburg and asked for money. When I repeatedly told him I had none, he flashed a small safety razor blade at me and growled, “Your money or your life,” a line I never imagined I would hear outside of a dime-store novel. At the time, I was well-protected against the Russian winter and getting to flesh with his small blade would have required an act of extraordinary compliance on my part. I didn’t have that much time.
So somewhat rudely, we told him to direct his entrepreneurial energies elsewhere. Then he walked over to a wall against which artists had their art displayed, looked both ways, snatched a small painting, and stuck it under his coat. Walking back to where we stood, he flashed it at us and said, “You want to buy painting?”
What can I say? It was 1991, the Iron Curtain had just fallen, and the finer points of working in a free market were still a bit foggy in the former Soviet Union. You have to give the guy credit for not giving up easily!
That’s what I love about travel. No matter what happens, things go sideways, and that’s when the adventure begins. On the best trips, you come home with more than a few souvenirs; you come home with memories. Stories.
Like the time the monkeys got into my tent in Kenya and trashed the place. Or the time a very angry monkey chased me down the street in Old Delhi while I swung my camera bag at him. Or the time I tried to remove a monkey from my head in Peru and it bit me and I thought I was going to die of Ebola or something equally horrific. Come to think of it, many of my stories involve monkeys. The only thing I love as much as coming home with the stories is coming home with the photographs.
Whether it’s around the world or around the corner, exploring new places with my camera is one of my life’s great joys. I’ve seen so much of this wonderful planet through my lens, and the more I travel, the thirstier I become for the stories and the photographs.
On my last trip to India, I wanted to bring you with me by making some videos for you. Have Camera, Will Travel (above) is the first of these. It's nine minutes long and explores three no-nonsense, no-gimmicks, no-BS pieces of advice for making the best possible photographs as you travel, no matter where that is. These are the important things. They’re harder than choosing the perfect camera bag or travel tripod, but they also affect your photographs much more.
If you love exploring new places and you want to make stronger, more intentional photographs as you travel, take a few minutes to watch this video. There’s a place to leave comments below, and I’d love to have a discussion about any of these ideas or, for that matter, any questions you have about travel photography.
The second video, More Than Snapshots and Postcards, is coming soon, and that'll be followed by a third video, But What If I Bring The Wrong Gear?
For the Love of the Photograph,
The other issue is connected, and that’s the allure of the exotic. Of course the issue with this is that what is exotic to me might not be exotic to you, and the pull to explore the diversity of other places and cultures is a powerful one. birmingham to amsterdam flights
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As we grow and evolve in our craft what does it mean, specifically, to us, to make stronger images? Leonard Cohen once asked, “how do we make work that moves the heart?” For me that’s another way of asking the question and one only I can ask of myself often. דקה 90
Three excellent pieces of advice. Stay longer. Slow down. Don’t run all around town like a mad hen. Focus. I’d add putting away the camera from time to time if travelling with a non-photographer partner.James Bond island tour
The most vital part approximately travelling is packing, and in case you are touring by way of avenue then it performs a primary function. A wide range of workshops, tours, and concerts round off the fortress experience is a good change. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your points and have come to the conclusion that you are right about many of them.Sponsorship letter for Pakistan visit visa
i know it makes me sound like a rank beginner, david, and i’m willing to risk that. you regularly refer to “stronger images” – according to your lexicon, what does that mean exactly? i know what it means for my photographs, but it’s so subjective. it meant something entirely different a couple years ago when it could’ve referred to totally mediocre images! how do i tell where i am with this issue?
I will field that question although you asked it of David.
For me, the stronger image is the one that stops you in your tracks. If you are on Instagram you will probably scroll through thousands of images over a week or a month. The the stronger images are the ones which arrest you! You stop your scrolling, you look, you wonder your eyes being led around the photograph, it touches your heart or touches your soul, but you stop. I have a favorite piece of music, “The Meditation” from Massenet’s Opera Thais. If driving, I pull over and get out of the traffic , whenever it comes on, and I feed my soul again. Among other responses the stronger images will do that.
Hi JP, (and Andrew, thanks also for chiming in). Sorry this is so late, not sure how I missed this one. You’re right, it’s so subjective. That means only you can answer it. What you are trying to accomplish will be different for you than for me. So on some level what I mean is images that more effectively (powerfully?) do what you hope them to do. For me I want the person responding to my photograph to feel something, often to feel like they’re really there. Immersed. Sometimes, as with portraiture, what I want is for them to feel some empathy. Sometimes it’s a sense of wonder.
Your question doesn’t make you sound at all like a “a rank amateur” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In fact it’s a question I think we will ask of ourselves often. As we grow and evolve in our craft what does it mean, specifically, to us, to make stronger images? Leonard Cohen once asked, “how do we make work that moves the heart?” For me that’s another way of asking the question and one only I can ask of myself often. My photography is an exploration of my answers to that question.
January 17, 2022
Thank you so much for distilling your wisdom regarding travel photography into 3 points .
While watching your movie in the boat, I saw the 2 holes that the boatman had for his feet.
Then, the wooden paddles bolted to the bamboo oars.
Finally, the boat passing by in front of your boat with a man standing upright and not falling over.
You are lucky to to be in India !
David – I had an insightful experience on our recent trip to Croatia. A friend brought more gear (two camera bodies +4lenses), a heavy backpack, a tripod, etc. I had my Sony and my Lensbaby 56. When I saw her photos I was shocked at how many were out of focus. I didn’t come home with nearly as many pictures but they all had that look and feel of Old World that I love from my Lensbaby and I felt deeply satisfied.
Thanks for these lessons – slowly your message does settle in and then we get it.
Funny that you reposted this particular video at this time. The last time you posted it I was heading to Bots for several weeks. The pandemic had other thoughts. Now we are about to do that rescheduled trip finally and low and behold your video reappeared. Hilarious coincidence or karma that the world is getting back to some small piece of the past.
One of these days I’d love to hang out somewhere on a trip of yours. Best always and stay safe.
Sage advice. Great reminder – slow down and actually ‘see’, not just ‘look at’. Looking forward to the next video.
Thank you for sharing your insights, tips and photos (and a lot more). I find your work exceptional and inspiring.
I have recently made a career change to humanitarian photographer, uniting my passion to my life purpose. I went on my first humanitarian mission last October in Kolkata India, many photographic challenges yet so enriching.
I enjoy reading, watching and listening to you and looking forward to learning a whole lot more to be better prepared for my next humanitarian mission to Senegal Africa this coming fall.
Your pictures are a pleasure to all senses.
Mary-Ann, that is fantastic! What a wonderful career, hey? So much challenge, but so rewarding. Wishing you many more wonderful adventures! You’ll love Senegal!
Just Back from South India and can’t agree with you more. Carried one camera and one lens and had a great time enjoying and getting some great shots of the people
Thanks for the information, definitely food for thought. I’m not a travel photographer, but I do travel quite a bit and cameras are always with me. Traveling to West Coast this summer for a 19 day trip to photograph scenes from San Francisco to Oregon. After watching video I will rethink itinerary,
I appreciate the opportunity to hear your insights. I’ve been a follower of your work since reading “Within the Frame”. However, the advice you’ve given in this video is of limited value to me. I’m not a professional, and travel photography for me is limited to vacations with my wife. So I don’t have the luxury to spend a day or more in a single location hunting for the best shots, best lighting, etc. It’s not fair to her. So I have to content myself with finding the best shot I can in the limited amount of time available at the present location. So I write this in the hope that you can provide advice to those of us “Accidental Photographers” (remember the film “The Accidental Tourist”?) who still want to maximize the quality of our captures without being able to spend a great deal of time at any location. BTW, I agree whole-heartedly about traveling light. During our trip to Europe a few years ago, I carried only a Canon EOS M3 and a single 15-45mm zoom lens, no flash and no tripod. I was very happy with the image quality from that kit.
Hey Steve, I hear you. But I don’t know what to do about it. Honestly, I think the desire to make photographs as a serious pursuit, and the need to have a vacation, are mutually exclusive. Of course you can make some nice images on vacation but in that sense the usual wisdom applies. Seek out interesting places and events, be mindful of your compositions and embrace the constraints you’ve got. These videos are about a different thing altogether. Not a better thing, just a more focused thing. I think where people struggle is in trying to mash together two things that compete with each other: a nice quiet trip with a partner and the desire to come home with stunning travel photographs. The two just don’t often work well together. When they do it’s all about compromise.
Great advice to Steve… I love taking pictures of the places we visit… but am also cognizant of my husband…
I appreciate your advice and tips. I love trying to capture a feel of a place..and the people we encounter. I’m mindful of bringing out the camera so as to be respectful of the community I happen to be with. .. but once we have been with them, and established ourselves, it doesn’t seem to be an issue.
I love your blog and newsletter! Thank you for sharing your wisdom.
I think these are wise words indeed! I love to photograph my extended family, but have learned that I simply cannot be the photographer and be part of a family event. I’m so glad I watched this film and read this particular comment and reply as we (fingers crossed) finally head to Hawaii for a long postponed and rearranged trip in February; it’s so easy to tell ourselves we can combine all our roles and passions at every opportunity but ultimately I guess we deny ourselves the full depth and pleasure of any of them if we do so.
As always, enjoy your insights, enthusiasm, your straightforward video clips. Below I am just gonna share my take on what you discussed in your great video.
I am lucky enough to live in a college town that offers some great photo opportunities. My “genres” are urban geometry/architectural abstract, plant-life, street and natural light portraits, but mostly the first two. I completely agree with your statement about knowing what kind of photography I do (and will not do). I know my vision (though it can fluctuate and grow). That clears away a lot of alternatives (process of elimination–I have tried enough other genres and know I do not enjoy them, even if the photos are “good”) so I can make decisions when I need to (to your 3rd point). To me, traveling light is not just about the equipment and clothing we pack, but also to having a clear idea of who I am as a photographer, while being open to la aventura of something new (and messing up, or not).
That said, I live close to San Francisco, which offers lots of gems to capture.
To your first point, about getting to know the place: Yep. Even though I do not usually photograph people/cultural moments, I do thoroughly enjoy spending time in different locations. Part of my photography adventure is walking and seeing, soaking up the local atmosphere, though really, I am still enamored with where I live and feel the same about it, too. All that said, I carry my cameras and am ready for whatever, and if I capture it or not, cool. It is all about la aventura del momento.
As to equipment, on my first trip to Germany (Berlin & Frankfurt) in 2015, I had my used D50 (it was already about 7 years old when I went to Germany) with its plasticky kit 22-80mm lens, and I still look at some of the photos I took and sigh with joy. That camera opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could do. Now I have two mirrorless full frame bodies (same model), one with a 55mm F/1.8, the other with a 24-105mm f/4. I carry them in a sling bag that has some extra SD cards and an extra battery, and I walk around lots. I love having the ability to just pick up and go. (BTW, I also pack super light, a carry on.) And yes, creativity blossoms under restrictions, but clearing all the excess helps the light get in, too.
Yes to “travel with purpose” as well. I often travel alone, though I also get to hang (and couch surf) with other photographers who know my style, and I let them know what I want to see, but I also let them take me to wherever they feel comfortable or they think I might enjoy. But still, I am open to la aventura. I am open to the time I spend taking in where I am and who I am with.
So, thank you, David. Hope I did not ramble too much, but yeah. Great video, as always.
Thanks for taking the time to contribute to this, Fernando. Sounds like we’re very much on the same pages in terms of both how we work but more importantly, I think, WHY. Enjoy the adventure! 🙂
Insightful and articulate video. Three excellent pieces of advice. Stay longer. Slow down. Don’t run all around town like a mad hen. Focus. I’d add putting away the camera from time to time if travelling with a non-photographer partner.
Curious. Why two camera bodies? Simply to avoid changing lens? Photography versus video?
Looking forward to watching your upcoming videos.
These are such small cameras that two doesn’t really weigh me down. I like 2 when changing lenses would slow me down or get my sensor really grimy. But often it’s one camera, one lens. We will all have different approaches, even mine changes based on the mood I’m in. Sometimes the most freeing thing in the world is just one camera and one prime lens. Sometimes I want a little more versatility. Thanks, Fred.
Right on. Perfect
Your photos are proof that you know what you are talking about.
You’re very kind, thank you, Clinton!
Hello David, your articles crack me up. Thank you for the laughs (I presume you did not buy the painting) & very happy to hear no one got hurt. That IS the stuff we remember, the stuff you can’t plan, the stories we will tell. I also very much appreciate the advice you shared in the video. So.Hard.To.Do. Keep on shooting.
LOL. No, I didn’t buy the painting. In hindsight I kinda wish I had, though. Would have been a good story!
You always encourage me to go beyond my comfort zone. And for that and your generous wisdom I am most grateful. Thank you.
I feel like you’re trying to tell me not to bring all three of my tripods on my next trip… 🙂 Great vid, David, from what is also one of my favorite places. I’m looking forward to the next two videos.
If I may offer some constructive criticism, the sound quality on this vid seems really harsh; and the constant zooming in and out between edits is really distracting. If the edits were less frequent, I would say you could have just zoomed in more to increase the visual contrast between the two shots but, in this case, I would have preferred simple wipes between the edits.
Thanks Tim. One tripod is probably enough!
Thanks for the tips on the video. Sadly there’s not much I can do about it now. Next time!
I am afraid in case this feels like a personal attack on you, it is not. It is a specific burr under my saddle that I need to share, and we need to discuss as photographers
It is not really time to gently advocate for people to stay home and not flit off to “exotic” locales? The strain we are putting on this world is far exceeded by any collective or individual benefit garnered by air travel or cruises solely to create photos. Better to apply the slow, thoughtful low gear approach to finding joy in your immediate environment. And photographing that. If you really want to know and photograph a place well, stay home. Or constrain yourself to a 160 mile radius.
May even make you a better more creative photographer if as well as constraining gear you constrain your travel. (Not you David, but the collective YOU).
Trevor your comment is spot on. I teach at photography at the Chicago Botanic Garden and I open every class with a slide about photographing close to home. There is abundant photographic riches within a 50 mile radius of Chicago. And I encourage my students to think about creating “exotic” work in their own backyard.
I see no personal attack at all, Trevor. I don’t think this is the best place for the conversation, but as few others seem to want to have it, why not? You mention two real issues, and I agree wholeheartedly with them both. The first is the responsibility to this planet, and all I can do is take that responsibility on myself which I’ve done by more than halving my travels, both international and domestic over the last couple years. I’m not sure how to encourage others to do the same, but it’s necessary, now more than ever. The other issue is connected, and that’s the allure of the exotic. Of course the issue with this is that what is exotic to me might not be exotic to you, and the pull to explore the diversity of other places and cultures is a powerful one. Can beautiful photographs be made closer to home? Of course. But what pulls you and I, what interests us, might be very different indeed. We all get into photography for different reasons and I love that people encourage others to photograph close to home, but it’s a hard ask if they just aren’t that interested in their own backyard. Food for thought, though, and it doesn’t negate the need to steward this planet and be much more mindful about our carbon footprint.
You are so right David. Thank you for sharing.
As always I enjoy your riverside talks……
What I enjoy about your lessons are that they reinforce the principles to simplify and focus. When I travel (several times a year for photography vacations) I reengage with your Compelling Frame series. Kind of like going to church to clense ones mind and cast aside the bad habits.
Learned the less gear is better lesson the hard way. Sore back and exhausted. For street photography I’m down to one body one lens and I never regret it. (choose either a fixed 35mm, 16-80 or a 80-200 depending upon my mood). Heading to Botswana soon with 3 lens and fighting the urge to do what i did in the past and bring 5-6 since those never get out of the bag or get used once. I so agree with you.
Love your advice to slow down. Its what we all need to do to learn a place. When traveling with others its such a hard concept to get across to them. The tour mindset has embedded itself into most travelers to see more and spend less time in a place. Most photography workshops are unfortunately just as guilty of this also. Recently I was in Morocco and spent 3 days in Chefchaouen, the blue city, and it wasn’t until the third day that I actually started feeling comfortable there. Needed to spend 2-3 more in retrospect. Got to know several locals that I was talking to and photographing daily. That experience was eye opening when you treat others as humans and when they see you they embrace you. They offer you mint tea or hashish because you have been kind to them even if you don’t speak their language. The effort to communicate will generate incredible experiences and photographs.
Look forward to your next video and keep up the wonderful work.
You nailed it, Charlie. This is one reason my workshops are no longer tours. We go to a place. We move in once. And we spent 7 days in the same place. I used to do tours, and they’re great to get an overview of a place or tick some boxes, but not for making photographs. You’ve got to slow down and take the time to shake the dust off. Have a fantastic adventure in Botswana!
My best tip for photographers is to put away your camera for a few hours and pick up a sketch book and pen. It takes time to really look at a subject so that you know it well enough to make a drawing. This forces you to look at detail before putting pen to paper. Try it. It will improve your photography.
Great idea, Steve. I think you can do this without the pencil, just sitting, watching. I often write what I see, sitting with my little notebook describing the scene before me. It calms me, pulls me into the smaller corners of a place.
David, you are an amazing guy.
As I look back on those images that I’ve created that resonate with me when I see them, it’s because I applied those “three things” you discuss herein. Thanks for the gentle but powerful reminders. You inspire me to pick up my camera and start shooting again…
Right on, Rob. Nothing makes me happier. Get out there and shoot with your heart!
I agree completely that it’s important to stay in one place for more than one or two days. That’s when my best or favorite captures are taken. I still have to learn to take less gear . I enjoyed this video and am looking forward to more on this topic.
Thank you David for advice that seems obvious but I, for one, have spent so much time, in the past, rushing around with a bag full of heavy gear, snapping wildly at anything I saw. A spell of ill health put paid to that and, out of necessity, I have switched to a small, mirrorless set up and started thinking about where I really want to be and why.
Incredibly, rather than feeling that I’ve lost something, it feels like the pressure is totally off and I can enjoy learning a new way of being a photographer and artist. Look forward to your next two videos in this series.
It’s freeing, isn’t it? I too used to go out with a lot of heavy gear and it exhausted me, and put a lot of pressure on me to perform. I’m much happier now and I think my photographs are stronger.
The best pieces of advice are often the simplest and the most sensible: time, focus, purpose. Thank you David for reminding us of what is essential to make strong photographs.
I sincerely appreciate your contribution to my photography and to the sensitivity that you bring to your work. I agree that ‘people’ are central to my photography and I am trying to transition to ‘street photography’. However, so far, I have a significant obstacle to the pursuit of that end. Questions of ‘privacy’, dignity of individuals, intrusion into people’s lives, push-back, agression, etc., etc..
I do not like staged events, so asking before shooting is out. Asking after, creates another dynamic – time restrictions, the interruption of the ‘creative/observational flow’ (ceasing the moment), getting releases, etc.
What are your guidelines for shooting street photos? I know a good telephoto lens helps, but beyond the gear, I would be interested in you sharing your perspective.
Hey Roger – Well this is a large subject, one I cover in the course I’m gearing up to re-release (The Traveling Lens) but the guideline for me is compassion, and respect. Asking to make a photograph (not a portrait) in the streets, as you say, can be disruptive so as long as I feel I’m not intruding, I just photograph. When/if I am noticed, then I engage. I never get releases. Just not my thing. And while a telephoto lens helps some, that too is not my thing. I prefer a wider lens and being more a part of things, if I can. Makes it harder, but the look of long lens moments is not often what I’m after. But you gotta do your thing. Just do it respectfully, let your energy match the energy of the people you’re photographing, and try not to look too creepy. 🙂