Once Is Not Enough

The pluses and pleasures of backtracking

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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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Granted, the hotel hadn’t seen an upgrade since the Soviet era, but it was clean and safe and had a great view of the Neva River—plus, I was theonly American in the joint! I got two extra full days of glorious sunshine, and when the tour began and I moved to my luxury digs, it started raining nonstop for the next three days! I don’t care how expensive your hotel is, it still can’t fix the weather. So, thanks to a small investment of time and money, I got some updated keepers of this fascinating city that I ordinarily wouldn’t have captured.

I try to identify the key sites at a place and plan to shoot them at least two different times of day. In St. Petersburg, the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is one of the city’s icons, with colorful onion domes that just say “Russia.” I went during the afternoon and got it with a nice blue sky background, but I also went back at twilight to catch the beautifully lit towers against a rich twilight sky.

Going back to identified high-quality targets in different light and weather is a staple of shooting alone on assignment, and if you’re willing to leave a meal early or arrive at breakfast a little late, you can pull the same thing off on a group tour. But that’s not the only tough decision that you may face during a group tour; sometimes you have to let something go in order to have the time to visually explore something else.

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On this same tour, we were brought into Bilbao, Spain, to visit the fantastic Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. You’ve seen the pictures of this free-form titanium structure I’m sure. Well, the tour was going to last two hours—two hours for the exterior and the interior! There’s no question about what’s more interesting; it’s the exterior. It’s a huge rambling place on a river, so getting a good overview of the place meant crossing the river on a nearby bridge.

As much as I wanted to see the exhibits, I knew I’d need the time for the exterior so I skipped the interior tour and did all my exploration from the outside. I shot color and black-and-white infrared, and had time to go clear across the river for overviews and different angles. I was ruing the fact that I had missed the interior when I hooked up again with the group, only to find that interior photography wasn’t allowed! Even if it were, my choice to bypass it would have been the right choice (for photography, maybe not for art appreciation!), but, boy, did I feel better about my decision after getting that news from my fellow tour members.

Even though I have a thirst for visiting new places, I’ll never turn down an opportunity to go back to a particularly interesting place, especially in a different season. One of my first jobs for the then-new National Geographic Traveler magazine back in the ’80s was to shoot a city profile of Salzburg, Austria, during the summer festival. Twenty years later, I was offered the same assignment, this time in winter. I jumped at the chance, of course, and I was amazed at how different, and even more beautiful, the city was in the dead of winter—fewer tourists, more hotel availability and postcard-pretty snowscapes.

Winter, or off-season travel in general, is a great way to revisit a place. It’s cheaper and less crowded, which means your chances of getting pictures that aren’t loaded with other tourists are greater, and you’ll have more of a chance to slow down and relate with the locals instead of fellow tourists. So try a little “slow travel” instead of “fast tourism” on your next trip, and watch how your photography improves.

Photo Tours
One way around the tour group photo dilemma is to take a photo tour. While a photo tour is still a group tour, it’s usually led by a professional photographer, and the itinerary is optimized to put you in the right place at the right time. One of the corollaries to the digital photography boom is the resultant boom in workshop and photo tour organizers. Running photo tours used to be a niche business, but now the field is getting crowded, with tours sometimes led by those with a workshop or two under their belts (as students) and a website. So, buyer beware. Here are a few key things to look for when considering a photo tour or photo tour operator.

Group Size. The larger the group, the less customizable and flexible your itinerary becomes. Six to eight participants is ideal—for some places you can go up to 12 to 14—but if the number gets above that, you’ve lost the ability to react spontaneously to lighting and weather conditions (due to the exigencies of housing, feeding and transporting large groups of people, especially in the developing world).

Leader Qualification. Is your leader an experienced and published pro? Does he or she have a photo career outside of tour leading? These are questions that you’ll want to ask, as many photo tour leaders these days are veritable tyros themselves, organizing tours to subsidize their own travel. That’s not to say that a beginner may not be a good photo tour leader, but experience is essential.

Company History. How long has your tour operator been in business? Can you get a list of references from past tour members? What’s the company’s track record? These are key considerations when choosing a photo-tour provider.

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.