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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Once Is Not Enough


The pluses and pleasures of backtracking

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia
The pitfalls of modern mass tourism are nothing new. Way back in the ’60s, satirists were already beginning to decry the “been there, done that” mentality of the dedicated sightseer. Indeed, the title of a 1969 film, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, a bit of fluff that sent up the typical breakneck, 18-day grand tour of Europe, has become the shorthand phrase for the whole tendency to rush rather than relax and to tick off countries on a list like a supermarket shopper rather than to really experience (and hopefully capture) them in imagery.

For travelers, this tendency to rush turns countries into commodities, and for travel photographers, it makes it almost impossible to get anything new or insightful. So, just as there is the “slow-food” movement out there to combat the ill effects of the prevailing fast-food culture, I’m proposing a slow travel initiative, instead of the reigning “fast-tourism” trophy-hunting mentality we’ve gotten into, and I’ll borrow another title, this time from a ’70s potboiler, and point out that when it comes to travel photography, Once Is Not Enough!

That’s right, going back to the same place more than once—whether it’s later the same day, a week or even a year later, or in a different season—almost always will yield better pictures. This can be due to something as simple as the fact that now you know your way around a little better to encountering a special weather condition or festival that wasn’t there the first time around. Due to the expenses of travel, group tours often are the most economical way to go. But most tours are set up for quantity and not quality. They’re marketed by how many places you’ll see, not how well or thoroughly you’ll see them. This is why most magazine shooters work alone and work much more slowly than any tour moves.

I’ll talk more about “slow travel” in upcoming columns, but let’s deal with ways around the hustle and bustle on that most rushed of experiences, the group tour. Group tours are a way of life these days for economic reasons, if nothing else. I’ve been on a number of them in recent years as a speaker and workshop instructor, and I’ve worked out a few strategies on how to get second cracks at places, even if the preset itinerary, at first blush, doesn’t seem to allow it.

Group Strategies. No matter when your organized tour starts and ends, try to schedule a few days extra at the beginning and/or end of your trip to get a decent amount of time in the city or location where your tour starts. Most tours like to start strong, and it’s not unusual for the premiere location of the tour to be the first location. Often, the tour company can arrange extra nights at the same hotel the tour starts for a highly reduced rate. I recently was a lecturer on a high- end tour that started in St. Petersburg, Russia, and used the finest hotel in the city. Even at a reduced rate, booking a room for a couple of extra nights was far too rich for my blood, so I booked into a bargain three-star that I stayed in 20 years ago when I was on an assignment and the city was called Leningrad.

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