By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
I wasn’t so surprised at Dan Westergren’s reaction when I suggested that people tend to take too many photographs while traveling. He is a photographer, after all.
But when I argued that taking too many photos takes people away from actually experiencing the little moments of their travel, Westergren, who is the director of photography for National Geographic Traveler, said he was familiar with the sentiment and had even heard it from people close to him.
“For me, that’s complete baloney,” he said.
Taking photos helps center Westergren in his travel, he said. But he heard my point. And my point was this: Most of us take photos without much thought. I’ve observed it countless times and been guilty of it myself: Pull up to some iconic site or natural wonder, blink at it a couple of times, reach into the pocket for the camera and then turn to leave. As cameras have become more ubiquitous — smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to use — they have become our reflexive method of “experiencing” travel.
My advice: Slow down. Pause to savor the moment. Breathe deeply. Think about how things smells, what the air feels like on your skin, and look at what you’re seeing: the colors, the shapes, the shadows. Think about how it came to be. Share your observations with your travel companions. Listen to their observations. Look at what you’re seeing from a few different angles. And then take a photo — preferably one that you’ll be interested in actually looking at again.
Westergren’s advice also is to slow down, though in a different regard. He says to simply try to do, and photograph, less while traveling. Instead of scurrying through a laundry list of stops, have fewer but deeper experiences. While taking more time in those experiences, photograph them deliberately and creatively, in ways that center you in the moment.
“I don’t know that the issue is people take too many pictures — it’s that they have no purpose in the picture taking,” he said. “They’re snapping what everyone else does, and then moving on rather than trying to make it their own.”
Travel photography is a popular enough subject that Westergren just finished teaching a seminar on the subject to 42 people in Scottsdale, Arizona Many students, he said, hoped to be clued into a setting on their expensive cameras that would allow them to take expert photos.
“Everyone wants some really easy solution, and they think that buying a camera with a lot of knobs and buttons, that if they knew which button to push, the picture would turn out great,” he said. “It’s not the case.”
Westergren said the key is approach. And part of that approach is being a deliberate and creative photographer.
He cited as an example a recent work trip to San Francisco. He had an afternoon of down time before catching a flight home, and rather than run around to grab several iconic photos, he spent most of his free time at one place: observing the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It offers one of the most iconic views of the bridge and gave Westergren a memorable experience and a quality photo.
“It’s about fewer situations,” Westergren said. “I gave up having a picture of a bunch of other things to get that one great picture. I didn’t have to visit 15 things to check off my list while seeing San Francisco. That’s a philosophy you can extend to any trip, and any traveling.”
And there, he and I agreed.
IN HIS OWN WORDS: DAN WESTERGREN’S TIPS FOR BETTER PHOTOS
- Be in the right place at the right time
You can’t get a good scenic picture in the middle of the day — you have to be out early in the morning or in the evening. The Grand Canyon is a profoundly different visual experience at those times, but most people are in bed or at the diner eating breakfast first thing in the morning. You have to reorder your schedule, and that’s regardless of whether you’re taking pictures with a cellphone or a really expensive camera.
- Think outside the box
Maybe you don’t care to shoot the 100,000th photo of the Grand Canyon at sunrise, but you do want to show the experience your family had there. Think of a visual story line. Get a picture out the windshield of the car. Takes photos of the stop for lunch. Take pictures at the rim of your family but from different angles. Once you have the obvious pictures, take a less obvious one.
- Don’t take a few pictures at a lot of places — take a lot of pictures at a few places
Be targeted about what picture you really want. Once you see an image you want, don’t take one or two and walk away; take dozens, and when back home at your computer, edit down to the one or two that really work. To me, editing photos is taking 10,000 photos and editing to the 30 really good ones. That’s where really good photography comes from.
- Put people in your photos
I’m a really shy person without a camera. I would never just walk up to someone while traveling and start talking to them. But with a camera, I do it. It’s how I learn about the place that I am. I go up to the person, and say, “I’m Dan, I think you look great, and this is a great place, and do you mind if I take your picture?” Pictures are just better with people in them because they add local flavor. You can’t sneak pictures and you can’t steal them. Really good pictures are a short relationship between you and that person you’re photographing. The first picture will be posed, and if you’re patient maybe their attention gets distracted — that’s my favorite kind of picture: when you can get them back to doing what they were going to do before you showed up.
- Don’t just let your images waste away — use them
It’s really important to do something with your pictures — like printing a book of them. That’s more practical these days than getting prints made: upload them to a website that will print a nice book. Make that book, and your grandkids will find it. In this day and age of pictures staying on people’s phones and in their computers, it’s important to make the effort of taking that next step and to make the photo album.
Photo: rickz via Flickr