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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Think Globally, Shoot Locally


To become a better travel photographer, try staying home and shooting alone


Bob Krist took this photo of the Philadelphia skyline from a city rooftop. He had exclusive access to that roof because of a local contact.

Among the many benefits of mass tourism, there are a couple of lurking downsides. Culture can become commoditized, and while it's true that traditional societies can benefit from the attention of visitors, they also can be negatively impacted. Then there's us travel photographers. How are we impacted? Well, we travel photographers can become downright lazy. That's because there's not a remote corner of the earth, no arcane cultural festival or celebration, no wildlife hot spot, to which you can't book a photo tour and travel in the cocoon of fellow shooters under the watchful eye of an experienced professional photographer.

The economic downturn and the struggles of publishing have made photo tours a necessity for survival and a very viable source of income for pros. And it's made getting great pictures for less experienced shooters an easier proposition than trying to organize and shoot a trip by themselves.

It's also almost impossible to miss when you're shooting in this kind of a group (although I've seen it done, and I've done it myself!). Generally, however, if you can't make an interesting picture of, say, a Huli Wigman performing right in front of you in Papua New Guinea, then you might want to hang up your camera and look into gardening or golf.

Am I saying that we should skip the photo tour and travel alone? No, I'm saying that in addition to taking those great tours to the fantastic places all over the planet, you should go out by yourself when you're home and shoot in your own backyard. Why?

Well, it's like elite athletes who practice and work out in the off-season to prevent getting so far out of shape that their game would suffer. The same concept applies to us travel photographers—if we don't practice in between trips, our chops get rusty. And a steady diet of exotic culture presented to you on a platter can make you a bit flabby as a photographer. It's like constantly skipping the meal and only eating dessert—it's sweet, delicious and easy, but if it's the only thing you eat, you're going to get weak and fat.

As a travel magazine photo editor once observed, "I don't need to ever see another cool shot of monks in orange robes in southeast Asia. What I need is a photographer who can make pictures just as compelling in Grand Rapids or Peoria."

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