Travel photography doesn’t always mean airport, flights, vacation days… and all the rest. I often travel locally – within an hour’s drive of my home – or even just take a walk and explore my own proverbial backyard.
Most days of my life are spent at home rather than traveling, but that doesn’t mean that I put my camera down for months on end.
Traveling is a mindset and travel photography doubly so!
This article is all about putting on those walking shoes, slinging a camera over your shoulder, and taking off into the wilds of … the next street over.
Finding the Journey
Photo walks are all about exploration; capturing the travel spirit even though I’m not far from home.
I lived in the St. Louis area for about 20 years before I picked up a camera as a serious hobbyist. If you’ve been reading my articles, you know that I started my photography journey with a 365 Project (See my article about the Top 10 Things I learned by doing a 365 Project.) Every day I needed to find a new photograph and being of the travel photographer persuasion, this came with finding a new place to explore — every single day!
I walked down streets, explored parks, and generally poked my nose (or my camera lens) into every local nook and cranny I could find.
I learned more about my local area in 2 years than I did in the previous 20!
I found off-the-grid tourist destinations, views, interesting architecture, and charming neighborhoods – all within a few miles of my home! I would have never found this view of the St. Louis Arch had I not been out for a photo walk with friends.
Very little of what I discovered I could have found by looking in a guidebook or searching online. These are the places you can only find by being there!
Good morning, STL! Home in St. Louis, but always looking for a new view. Cityscape over the Mississippi River at sunrise from the Illinois side of the river.
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I even charted my walks on a map so I could see where I’d walked – but more importantly – where I hadn’t.
At first I did these walks alone, but then I found a community of other photographers who shared my love of a local journey.
Organized Photo Walks
Wherever there is a gathering of photographers, someone is bound to come up with the idea of going for a walk with cameras in hand.
What is the collective word for a group of photographers? – I’m going with a “paparazzi of photographers”.
Local camera clubs and photography groups often schedule walks, but so do other groups – like hiking organizations and historical groups. If you live in a city with some tourism, look into what type of walks tourists are offered. Tourists have cameras so without stretching the definition too much these are also photo walks! You can chose to listen more or less to the guide.
There are also worldwide photo walks like the one Scott Kelby organizes. These are great since they combine local photo walks with a worldwide sense of community.
In St. Louis, I participate in what we call Photo Floods. These are the brainchild of local photographer Jason Gray.
A group of us gather once a month at a preset time and walk a specified neighborhood in St. Louis. The boundaries are all clearly marked – No stepping out-of-bounds for that one last photo!!
The point is to photographically document the whole of St. Louis – warts and all. Some neighborhoods hold hidden surprises; others are more pedestrian. The challenge is to find something interesting to photograph within the zone or make interesting photographs walking down an average street.
The idea of a photo flood translates everywhere. You may think your town or city is dull, but take a walk with your camera. You may be surprised! Here’s Jason’s version of how the Photo Floods got started:
My wife and I moved to St. Louis from Chicago in 2009. My family lived in the city when I was born, and I grew up nearby, but my wife was not from the area. Once we were settled in, she and I began using our days off to explore the city and the region. On a particular venture up the Great River Road to Grafton, we came across some sort of motorcycle parade, and I began to imagine what it might look like photographed from several simultaneous points of view. On the drive back to St. Louis that day, the idea for Photo Flood Saint Louis was born. Of course, that was 2009 or 2010, and the concept did not become reality until 2012 (I guess the best ideas refuse to go away, no matter how hard you try).
Organizing Photo Walks
There’s no special knowledge or skill needed to organize a photo walk. All you need is a plan. By “plan” I mean: “Let’s me at the corner of such-and-such street and see what happens” or something equally simple.
Invite a friend… invite two! Post an announcement to a local Facebook group and meet some new photog friends. No need to limit the walk just to photographers, anyone with a cell phone camera (i.e., everyone) can come along.
Here are a couple of things that I picked up along the way about organizing photo walks:
- Be flexible, but set a framework
Set a rough start and finish time and a general plan for the walk. This helps when a group gets separated. It also helps the latecomers (there’s always a few) find you.
But be flexible. There’s generally no need to be locked into a set route.
There’s also nothing stopping the photo walkers from continuing after the end time and usually nothing stopping wider exploration. It’s easy for one walk to lead naturally into another. Go ahead and be sidetracked!
- Don’t let the weather keep you away
Sure, some people will only come out and play with their camera when it’s nice and sunny, but bad weather can make great photos – or not. It’s still worth a try!
If no one else shows up to your photo walk, go anyway. You’ll get all the good photos and won’t have to share!
- The more the merrier
Don’t worry about flooding an area with photographers or photographers stepping on each other’s toes – maybe literally. Even with a large group, photographers seem to naturally break into smaller units of 3 or 4 people, which can fluctuate as the walk goes on.
Photographers can choose to walk off by themselves for all or part of the time. That’s fine. As a photographer who sometimes does this, it’s nice to know that I could turn a corner and see a familiar face. It adds to the shared experience.
I find that I’m also a bit more adventurous in a group even if the rest of the photographers aren’t actually visible. Being in a group also provides a bit of protection – see #4.
- Consider the area
In St. Louis, we have to pay a bit of attention to where we are walking. Some areas of town aren’t very safe. After all, St. Louis is considered the 2nd most dangerous city in America. But not ALL of St. Louis is riot-infested. In fact, I work within a mile of Ferguson and most of the time it’s a very mild-mannered place.
The organizers of the St. Louis Photo Floods keep the relative safeness in mind when scheduling our walks, though. We walk very early in the morning (near sun-up) in the more suspect areas. This is after the drunks have stumbled home and before the drug users wake up – I’m joking (sort of).
But there’s no pressure – walk where you want! If you want to avoid certain areas of town and focus on other areas, if you only want to walk in parks or around lakes, no problem! You’re organizing the walk so you get to decide.
- Be ready with an answer to the question “What are you doing?”
At least once on every photo walk that I’ve taken, someone stops and asks what we’re doing. This is usually not an official (though that has happened in some St. Louis neighborhoods), just someone who is curious or worried about strangers in their neighborhood.
The camera gear is sort a giveaway so it’s not really a mystery.
The best course is honesty. There’s nothing shameful or illegal about taking a photo walk down a public street – of course if you’re trespassing…..
A smile and a compliment will go a long way at this point.
“We were just photographing your beautiful neighborhood. The patterns made by reflections off the broken windows and spent shell casings are fascinating!” (I travel with some very odd photographers).
Having a business card of some sort to handout is also helpful. I carry around St. Louis Photo Flood business cards with the website listed. Handing out my own business card may be ok, but I might not always want that level of connection with everyone.
- Provide a sharing space
It’s nice to have a social time after the walk to exchange war stories (maybe literally if you’re walking in certain St. Louis neighborhoods). Have a meal afterwards and talk about all the great photos you found.
Also provide an online place where photographers can upload their photos after the walk.
This provides closure, but it’s also great to see the different perspectives. If you haven’t taken a photo walk before and assume that all the photos will be the same – you’ll be in for a big surprise!
After a St. Louis Photo Flood, everyone posts photos to a specific Facebook album. Some people post 20 photos – others post 200!
You’ll just have to get past the photo-envy when you see that someone else found a photo that you didn’t. Don’t worry you’ll get it next time!
A photo walk lets you take a little photographic holiday and be home in time for dinner.
It’s a social event as much as it is a photographic event and everyone, no matter what level of photography interest or ability, can have a good time.