I sometimes travel alone, but often I’m with family or friends. Traveling is generally more fun with other people, there is a community and a sense of sharing that heightens the experience. But there are compromises that need to be made as a photographer traveling with others – especially others who are not photographers.
I’m not really talking about taking photos of the people I’m traveling with, I don’t do a lot of that mainly because the people I travel with are pathologically camera-shy.
My companions may be snapping photos with their phones to document their experiences, but photography is not necessarily integral to their experience. They won’t understand why I want to wait an hour for better light and won’t be happy waiting around while I take 100 shots of grass growing (at least that’s what my husband thinks I’m doing!)
In this article, I’ll explore some ideas on how I balance social traveling with my travel photography.
Rolling with the Punches
Traveling often means moving from place to place throughout the course of a day. As a tourist this is fine, I want to see as much as I can and maximize my experiences in a location, but as a photographer, I’m not always where I want to be when I want or for how long I want to be there.
When planning my trip, I try to prioritize locations that have both photographic opportunities AND places that my family will enjoy.
But however much planning I do, I generally have to roll with the punches a bit – maximizing my photo opportunities as they arise – and letting go of the photo ops that weren’t meant to be.
I’m always on the lookout for photo opportunities. The lighting might not be the best or the weather may not cooperate or I may have only a few seconds to capture the shot, but that’s ok! The challenge is making the best photo I can in less-than-perfect conditions.
Tourist places like museums or beaches are actually really good places to photograph. Street photographers especially can take advantages of the hustle and bustle of travel. Architecture and food photos also come easily to hand in most tourist destinations. If the place isn’t that photographically interesting as a whole, try looking for details instead.
If I prioritize my companions’ needs and let the photographs find me, I find that my co-travelers are usually tolerant of a photographic stop if it’s close by. Just be sensitive to the built-in time limit that non-photographers have and be ready to break off your photo shoot if your companions start complaining, fidgeting, or wandering off. If you get greedy one day, you may find your companions less willing to take a photo-detour the next.
Though I find it generally more fun to travel with others, I find it more difficult to concentrate on my photography when others are around. So, I try to build in at least some alone time each day to focus on photography.
I don’t necessarily need tons of time; even just 30 minutes of focused photography can be enough to scratch my photography-itch. The rest of the day I can happily snap away at whatever comes my way without feeling (too much) that I’m missing the best shots.
Though I hate waking up early, I do love to photograph at sunrise. This works well for my alone time since the people I travel with really hate waking up early! I can often go out to photograph sunrise and be back to join my companions for breakfast. They haven’t even missed me!
My companions aren’t unique. Unless there’s a special incentive, most tourist groups don’t get going until at least 9 a.m. The time period before tourists begin to flood into popular tourist destinations is often the best time to see a city wake up.
When I can, I use touring time during the day to scout some locations for the next morning’s photo shoot. My photos likely won’t be at their best during the day anyway so the time isn’t wasted. I’ll talk another time about making the most of harsh afternoon light, but early afternoon is a good time to take a photography break.
Waking early for a photo shoot means I’ll want a siesta in the afternoon, but somehow my travel companions have no problem with taking a nap or lounging on the beach after a hard morning of touring. Snooze, lounge, do a bit of light post-processing all while eating pastries and drinking tea with the family (did I mention that my husband is British? – they really do drink tea all the time) – everyone’s happy!
Golden Hour: Part 2
Even if you’re not an early riser like me (however reluctantly), there are happily TWO golden hours per day. Most people miss daily sunsets in the hustle and bustle of their lives so the sunset itself, wherever it is, can be a valued travel experience.
It’s not just photographers that find sunsets attractive!
I make sure to research each place that I travel to carefully. I know both sunrise and sunset times and have a few sunset photo ops up my sleeve. These are places that my companions will probably be happy to go to enjoy a good sunset.
Suggest low-energy activities to your traveling companions. Most people are losing steam and wanting dinner around sunset time (especially if you were out for Golden Hour: Part 1!) For instance, suggest taking a picturesque, but leisurely walk or find a park with a view.
Nearly anything you photograph is going to look better during the golden hour, so just make sure you’re out-and-about and haven’t planned an indoor activity during this time.
We all have to eat
We all have to eat and unique food is often integral to the travel experience, so look for food-oriented or restaurant-oriented photo ops. I’m not much of a food photographer, but many photographers are – I even catch my traveling companions sneaking snaps of their dinner to post to Instgram!
When doing travel research, I try to flag a few restaurants that either have good views or have interesting decor. We may not end up at these restaurants, but at least I know where they are when the daily question, “Where are we going for dinner?” comes up. This combines finding food with finding a good location photographic experience. Scheduling dinner on a rooftop restaurant at sunset is a prime example!
The Human Element
One advantage of traveling with others is that you’ll have a built-in model – as long as you’re lucky enough to be traveling with someone who doesn’t mind the spotlight every now and again. As I mentioned earlier, my traveling companions tend to run away when I point a camera in their direction.
As a general rule, people tend to like looking at photographs that include other people and some photos work better when a person is included. For instance, including people in landscapes or architectural photos provides a sense of scale.
As long as you don’t ask too often, your friends and family will likely be happy to pose for you. This means that you don’t have to wait for a random stranger to interact with the environment if you think your photo will be better with a human element.
Oh, the Places We Go
Before I finish this article, let me flip the perspective. Up until now, I’ve been presenting the issues of traveling social from the photographer’s viewpoint, but I’ve heard a lot about traveling with a photographer from my friends and family – believe me, they tell me all about it!
From their perspective, as long as I don’t stop every five minutes to set up a tripod or spend a ½-hour trying to compose that perfect cityscape, my companions are generally ok with traveling with a photographer. They even benefit from the experience.
Since I want good photographs, I tend to do a lot of research before the trip and my family and friends are happy to let me – and take advantage of this research. I find unique, off-the-beaten track places that they enjoy from a non-photographic perspective. My companions even get into the spirit of the thing and try to find me photographically-interesting places or compositions.
“Would that make a good photo?” my husband asks. He’s not interested in taking the photo himself, but he’s looking with a bit more attention at his surroundings.
I also move a bit slower than the average, Type-A tourist and everyone in my group gets a little more time to enjoy their surroundings. I’m not talking about moving excessively slow, but most tourists could benefit from slowing down just a bit.
One of my best friends insists that she sees things differently when we’re hiking with my camera. She takes time and looks around because that’s what I’m doing.
We usually travel to places where other tourists are happily taking photographs so you don’t need to leave your camera at home, but there are compromises that need to be made when traveling with friends and family. If epic photography is the goal of the trip, it might be better to travel alone or with other photographers – or make sure your companions have lots of patience and are self-entertaining.
I’d been taking tourist snapshots to document my travels for years before I really took up photography. Now, when I travel I try to balance taking good photographs with taking happy-snaps that simply remind me of my often life-changing experiences with family and friends. Not every photograph you take when you’re traveling needs to be an epic photograph.