Whether you are traveling abroad or within your own country, there are several mistakes that I’ve seen travel photographers make that hinder the process of making memorable photos.
Mistake #1: Not being aware of cultural sensitivities and laws
When you travel to another country it’s easy to forget that the people there may see certain things differently than you. For example, in China, you will see signs up in temples asking you not to take photos. So it should be fairly obvious that doing so may cause offense.
Others are not so obvious. Did you know that in Spain the law prohibits photographers from taking photos of people in public without permission unless they are taking part in a cultural event such as a festival? That’s right, Spain is not a great place to be a street photographer (although that doesn’t stop people from doing it).
Unless you know this, you probably think taking candid photos of people in Spain is perfectly okay (as it is in most other places). Once you understand the attitude (and the law) towards photographing people in Spain, you can adjust your behavior to fit in with local expectations and behavior.
If you want to create a street photo of somebody, it’s best to stop them and ask for permission. That way you protect yourself and (added bonus!) keep out of trouble with the police.
Some countries have laws forbidding the photography of certain buildings, like airports. Did you know that photographers have been arrested, jailed, and accused of spying in Greece for photographing an airshow at a military base? If you’re going to Greece it’s a good idea to know which buildings are out of bounds for photographers. Make sure you’re aware of any legal restrictions in your country of travel.
Mistake #2: Being disrespectful to local people
When you travel somewhere new, especially somewhere that is exotic to you, it’s easy to treat people as if they were laid out, like colorful extras in a movie scene, for you to take photos of. That is not true, and it’s disrespectful and unkind to act as if it is. Imagine how you would feel if somebody from another country came and tried to take photos as you went about your daily life, without consideration for you and your feelings.
It seems to me that a big part of the problem is when people travel through other countries without interacting with locals in anything other than a commercial context, such as renting a hotel room or eating in a restaurant. Sometimes this is down to language – it’s hard to strike up a conversation in China if you don’t speak Chinese, for example.
But your travels (and life in general) can become a lot more interesting if you are open to non-commercial experiences with local people. Try having conversations with people about their hopes and dreams, what they do for a living, how they like living in their town and similar topics. You’ll gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the places you’re traveling through when you do.
Language study is an excellent way to meet local people. I have many good friends in Spain and South America that I met online through websites aimed to help people learn other languages. I’ve met most of them in person and learned a lot about their culture and countries in the process.
Mistake #3: Not putting safety first
Another mistake I’ve seen photographers make is forgetting to take care of their personal security or failing to take appropriate precautions to guard their gear against theft.
Most photographers travel to most places without any security problems, but there is always the potential for something to go wrong, especially if you don’t put much thought into your personal safety and the security of your camera and computer equipment. Some countries are safe, others can be dangerous, so make sure you do your research beforehand and take any appropriate precautions.
A good travel insurance policy that covers your gear (check the fine print) will help give you peace of mind if the worse does happen.
Mistake #4: Taking too much gear
We’ve all seen the type of photographer that walks around with a large dSLR camera and telephoto lens, perhaps even two, swinging from their side.
At the other extreme are photographers who travel with just one camera and one lens. When I worked at EOS magazine we published an article about a photographer who traveled to India with one camera and a single 50mm lens. He made some beautiful images so the approach worked for him.
There’s nothing wrong with taking lots of gear, especially if it works for you. Professionals often take lots of lenses so they know they are covered for just about any situation they may encounter. But there are a couple of things worth considering.
- The first is that a large camera and lens combo is an obvious target for theft. Smaller cameras attract less attention and don’t look as expensive.
- The other consideration is creative. If you have too much gear it’s heavy to carry around and you can waste time trying to decide which lens/camera combination to use.
The key is to think in advance about the subject matter you intend to photograph and what gear you’ll need for it. If you are into long exposure photography, for example, then you’re going to need a tripod, cable release and neutral density filters.
If you are photographing people, you need to decide what lens or lenses you are going to use for portraits. If you are photographing local architecture, you will probably need a good wide-angle lens. If you are going to walk around all day taking street photos, a small camera and lens are much less tiring than a large DSLR with a telephoto zoom.
You get the idea. Ultimately, you need to find the right balance between taking enough gear to meet your needs and taking too much. Also, if security is a concern, you may want to consider leaving your more expensive gear at home.
Mistake #5: Not doing enough research
If there’s one mistake that links all the others, it’s this one – not doing enough research. It’s important because it makes you aware of any local laws or cultural sensitivities you need to know (mistake #1).
As part of your research, you may get in touch with local people (mistake #2) who can give you advice or help you gain access to places or events you would never know about otherwise. Some photographers go even further and work with a fixer – somebody who introduces you to other people, translates if necessary, and acts as a bridge between you and the local culture.
Research alerts you to any security considerations (mistake #3). It helps you decide what gear you need to take, and avoid overload caused by taking too much equipment (mistake #4).
In other words, doing your research is a key part of avoiding the mistakes that many travel photographers make.
These mistakes are based on my observations of other photographers while traveling. But what mistakes have you seen other photographers make? What mistakes have you made yourself? I’m looking forward to hearing your responses in the comments section below.
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