How to take better travel pictures this Summer

“Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.” ~ Susan Sontag. Funny, when I read that, I totally related to it, as someone who was a professional travel photographer for over 20 years, that sentiment was right on. But if you read the rest of the passage in Sontag’s On Photography, the collections of writings she did about photography, it turns out she did not really intend it in a positive way. She was essentially saying that when we travel, we can often use the camera and the act of photographing as a way of limiting our experience of traveling.

Sontag wrote - “Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs… Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter… Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun.” Ouch!

I noticed during the beginnings of my photographic travel career that I tended to shoot scenes from a distance and avoided contact with my subjects. I would use a long lens or tried to be surreptitious when shooting. I was shy. I didn’t want to bother people. It was safe! The result was the photos were often disconnected and not very engaging.

For me traveling and photography is about making emotional connections with the places I visit and the subjects I shoot, and if I wasn’t connecting with either during my travels, well then, what was the point?

I decided to try a different tact. If I saw someone I thought was interesting, maybe they were a shopkeeper or a vendor, or just doing something interesting. Rather than starting to shoot away right away, I would go up and start to talk to them. What a novel approach right? By showing some interest in them and treating them with respect, rather than my prey, they were more than happy to talk and tell me a bit about themselves and what life was like in this far off land. Maybe it was only through sign language, but when people want to communicate, they usually can.

 Two photos I took minutes apart in the Alfama distrcit of Lisbon. I couldn't speak a word of Portuguese, but that didn't stop us from talking to each other, and the results speak for themselves. ©Peter Bennett (2)

Two photos I took minutes apart in the Alfama distrcit of Lisbon. I couldn't speak a word of Portuguese, but that didn't stop us from talking to each other, and the results speak for themselves. ©Peter Bennett (2)

At that point asking them to pose was easy and always resulted in a far better photo than if I settled for a candid shot. Most importantly I could look at that photo months or years later, and remember the connection I made with that person, the experience lived on in the photo.

I would always learn something interesting from my encounter and they would often tell me about places and subjects off the beaten track that other tourists or pro photographers didn’t know about. How fun is it to explore places and neighborhoods that aren’t in everybody’s guidebook. These are the experiences that make the best stories when we get back.

If you are going to “accumulate” photos, make sure they are worth keeping. Editing through dozens or hundreds of boring landscape shots that looked good when you took them, is not a lot of fun or a good way to re-live your great trip. Take meaningful shots, ones that bring back the moment, ones where you connected with people or loved ones.

Connection is what we want when we travel and photograph. The camera can be a tool to either enable this or distract from it. Have fun this summer, explore, have an adventure, but be safe.