There are many genres of photography, which I believe is what makes photography such a unique hobby or profession. The camera simply becomes a tool that facilitates a personal interaction with the wide range of variables in our culture.
Many photographers love the thrill and adventure of nature photography. Others enjoy the intimate relationship of a portrait. Some relish the minutia and detail of the micro world. Still others seek the speed and pace of the sports world. Even others enjoy venturing into the wild and focusing on the various species of wildlife.
Finally, there is the world of travel with all the knowledge to be gained from interacting with people of distant lands and cultures. The commitment a photographer makes is both personal and life-changing. Each has its own rewards and challenges.
For me, the quest is the adventure of traveling to faraway places and using my camera as a tool to meet new people and develop unique friendships. As the world is becoming smaller each day, the growth of the travel photographer is increasing exponentially.
Photographing far from home serves as the perfect mixture of enjoyment and education. The thrill of walking into a mosque in Morocco or crossing a bridge in the Netherlands can only be matched by mingling with the native people there.
However, when visiting distant lands, one should realize that the focus of your camera can point to three quite distinct areas: Buildings & Surroundings, People at Work, and Environmental Portraits.
Most photographers today enjoy the peace and challenges of simply walking through previously unseen places and capturing the beauty of the newfound scenery. The mountains, lakes, and buildings serve as the subject for a wide array of beautiful images. The two major variables the photographer may face deal with the weather and crowds of people. However, even on stormy days, beautiful images can be captured.
In terms of fellow visitors, the choice is twofold. Either return at a less congested time or use the crowds in a constructive way within your photograph. It is important to realize that as important and beautiful as these photos are, they serve only as the beginning of true travel photography. The following is a short collection of my traditional travel photography.
The next layer in this genre employs the demanding strategies of the Street Photographer. The quiet yet observant photographer walks through unknown streets that offer opportunities to capture images of the true culture of a distant country. The adventure of strolling through these neighborhoods, while trying to create unique photos of daily life is the goal. The photographer becomes, as the French would say, the flaneur or voyeur. With an inconspicuous camera in hand, the photographer, through careful observation, attempts to transform the mundane into art.
Photographer, Elliott Erwitt, perhaps says it best. “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
As with street photography in general, there are many ways to approach the challenges of photography in foreign lands. The most popular is for the photographer to strive to be invisible. The camera is an unseen guest in the pursuit of this challenge. In this quiet search, the photographer seeks to silently blend into this new world, and somehow allow the lens to document this distant culture.
The final layer involves becoming visible and getting more personal with the actual people in faraway places. In just a few seconds the aim is to interact and establish rapport. This daring step is to secure their trust in the quest to capture an intimate view of their soul. This is the sub-genre of Environmental Portraits (EP). Here the photographer is far from unseen, hidden, or inconspicuous. With EPs, the photographer seeks to actively engage a perfect stranger, and with a smile, a bow, and a sincere story, set the stage for a quick personal portrait in this new environment.
For a male photographer, the ultimate aim is not to appear “creepy.” An honest smile is important, but a simple and convincing story is critical. It is your story that gives you credibility. One cannot be shy, nor can one be overbearing. Sincerity is the key. Realize that sometimes you may be unsuccessful, but in general, you will succeed.
With normal street photography, one needs a relatively small camera to remain invisible. With EP, one requires anything short of a view camera. Personally, I use a Canon 5D with a 70–210mm f/2.8 lens. It is big and impressive, and that shouts serious and professional. The aim is to separate yourself from the many tourists that have previously visited the area. The camera gives you credibility, and your smile gives you accessibility.
In general with street photography, the geography and lighting are locked. You shoot where the action is regardless of surroundings. In EPs, you first shoot wherever you find the subject. Forget about light and style. The aim at this point is not to take a quality photo, but to have the subject relax.
After a series of shots that may be totally useless, you then ask the subject to move to a better-lit place or a location with a more attractive background. Many times I have had people move away from the sunny side of the street to the shady. I have had them walk down the street, move away from the crowd, and to a quiet spot in front of an attractive doorway.
Taking photos of children requires special care and consideration. My practice is to first approach the mom or dad, give a genuine smile, and then simply point my camera at their child with a questioning look on my face. Rarely would a parent deny permission.
After this initial “meet and greet,” the issue now is how to take a true portrait of a child. The problem is that in any portrait, one never should simply say “smile.” This is especially true with a child speaking a different language. The question is how should the photographer get the child to relax and then capture some honest emotion?
The answer is simple! All the photographers have to do is not be afraid to embarrass themselves. Give the child an exaggerated smile, tilt your head, and then make rather silly expressions. After a few seconds, the child begins to react to your funny faces with a variety of relaxed looks.
“Being silly” is a universal language of all cultures and ages. The child soon begins to feel at ease and then mimics your relaxed mood.
In conclusion, let me say that I cannot imagine traveling without my trusted friend, my camera. Its function is to more than allow me to look at beautiful people and places. Its power is that it forces one to “focus” on the people and surroundings of a distant land. With a camera in hand, the photographer is constantly “framing” all that is seen. Sightseeing then becomes active rather than passive.
Rather than simply walking and gazing at new things, the photographer is “preprocessing” images in a logical and organized format. The resulting photos become much more than an avenue to recollect memories of that special trip. They serve to illustrate and document the beauty and diversity of a newfound land and its people.
A lasting point of advice… Always take a backup camera. Camera tragedy can and does happen!
About the author: Charles Levie is a photographer and math educator based in West Friendship, Maryland. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Levie’s work on his website, Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. This article was also published here.