During the first two days of our Cost Rica honeymoon, Rich and I took dozens of snapshots of friendly locals, exotic jungles, and each other, until I finally thought to ask, “Say, how many shots do we have on that roll of film, anyway?” And that’s when we discovered neither of us had remembered to put film in the camera. What can I say? Honeymooners…
Trick #1. Put film in your camera, make sure your smart phone has plenty of juice, and/or check your battery and memory card. Don’t miss the shots you traveled all that way to take. If you do, laugh it off; at least you've got a good story to tell.
Trick #2. Carry your camera everywhere. You never know when that once-in-a-lifetime shot will occur. And that leads me to Trick #3.
Trick #3. Choose a camera that’s easy to carry. I was recently at a travel photography conference where everyone was lugging around cameras that weighed more than a Thanksgiving turkey. I was so relieved when Mikkel Aaland, award winning photographer and digital pioneer, told me these days will soon be over. “Two summers ago I was on a pilgrimage to southern Tibet and I brought these,” he said, holding up a turkey-sized Nikon he used for landscapes, a little Panasonic he used for stealth shots of people and close-ups of small objects, and an iPhone he used (get this!) solely for making calls to the outside world. “Three years from now, on similar trips, I will probably just take the iPhone. Skeptical? Here's a photo shot By Andrew P. on the iPhone 6:
Trick #4. Shoot close. Closer. There! “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” said the famous Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa. Author John Steinbeck once wrote that his friend Robert Capa “could show the horror of a whole people in the face of a child.” Sometimes it’s a tiny detail, such as a red umbrella or a hand reaching for a cup, that makes an image strong and meaningful.
Trick #5. “Every photograph should tell a story,” said Robert Holmes, who just won the Travel Photographer of the Year award for the fourth time. Often a photo’s story is about the sense of surprise and delight (or horror, or bewilderment, or some other emotion) we felt upon discovering something utterly unexpected. I took the photo below moments after I walked into what seemed a modest church in Oradea, Transylvania, and was stunned by this splendor.
Trick #6. Lighting defines mood. Rosy sunsets, misty hills, or the short, sharp shadows of high noon instantly create an emotional framework. Sometimes moving around to capture light from a slightly different angle can entirely change the feeling that infuses the moment. Often, the magic just happens, as with this photo I happened to capture when out for an early morning walk with a friend in rural Spain.
Trick #7. Go ahead and chimp. Ignore all snarky remarks about “chimping,” that is, looking at your digital photos right after you take them, which usually involves staring at the screen with wide eyes, pursed lips, and incoherent hoots and mutterings reminiscent of our simian cousins. Some pros feel chimping distracts you from the next great shot, while others seem mainly to be worried about looking silly. Who cares? If you want to make sure you got the shot, go ahead and check. Just don’t let shutterbug pals snap a photo of you doing it.
Trick #8. Zoom or crop to focus on compelling details. Shooting close (see Trick #4) may make this unnecessary, but I am a big fan of the little detail or unintended portrait, and I often wind up using just one small part of an image. That’s why, for now, I’m sticking with a camera; cropped iPhone shots quickly become too grainy. Reviewing photos from a project Rich and I did a few years back in Kenya, I decided to crop this photo of the village school into a closeup of a few children, creating a much more powerful image.
Trick #9. Fool around with your photos in post-production. I'm in transition from the now-defunct iPhoto to Lightroom, which lets you crop, tweak, and correct images, even straighten out walls distorted by perspective. If/when I start shooting more with my phone, Mikkel Aaland recommends Snapseed, which gives you sophisticated photo editing capacity right on your device; WordSwag for adding text to your images, and Waterlogue, which makes photos look like watercolor paintings. A similar app, Brushstroke, lets you alter your photos to look like paintings by various artists such as Van Gogh or Warhol.
Trick #10. Put the camera down occasionally and look around. Our photos provide us with souvenirs, screensavers, and social media bragging rights. But they also offer us something that goes beyond mere mementos. Sometimes just looking at one of our photos rekindles the transcendent feeling of resonating deeply with particular people and places, those whose presence made us feel more alive and connected with the world. Those moments occur when we are fully present to the time and place around us, seeing it with our own eyes and not through the lens of a camera or phone.
In 2015 we will capture and store one trillion digital images. Turned into 4 x 6 prints and placed end to end, they would reach from the Earth to Venus and halfway back again. But don’t be daunted by those astronomical numbers; there is still plenty of opportunity to take fresh, original photos that express your unique vision of the world. “Technology has advanced so much,” Robert Holmes said recently, “now anyone with a digital camera can, by being in the right place at the right time and having a bit of luck, take a shot that rivals anything of mine.” So there you have it. Get out there and start shooting!
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When American Jeff Greenwald went to Iran to photograph the solar eclipse in 1999, he didn’t seriously expect gunplay to erupt during the astrological event. True, Iran was a strict Islamic republic in the run-up to 9/11, but so far the Iranians had been helpful and hospitable, and aside from gaudy anti-American graffiti, the streets were relatively quiet.
On eclipse day, Jeff arrived alone at a large public square in Isfahan to discover a sea of families sitting on picnic blankets, lining up their snacks, cameras, and homemade pinhole viewers in anticipation of the free entertainment. Jeff spread out his blanket, lined up his own cameras and snacks, and settled down to wait.
Then the shouting and shooting started.
Jeff jumped up to see some of the local lads 50 yards away brandishing guns, firing blanks at the sky, and yelling. He couldn't make out their words, but when they pulled out an American flag and lit it on fire, he grasped the gist.
Silently, the local people around Jeff rose and edged in close, forming a protective circle. “One woman stood with her shoulder pressed to mine,” said Jeff, when I heard him tell this story at a writers’ conference last week. “A small boy, maybe eight years old, took these two fingers—” He held up the ring and little finger of his right hand. “—and stood holding them, looking around with an expression that said, ‘If they want to get to you, they’re going to have to go through me.’ An old man put his hand on my shoulder.” After a while the shooting stopped, the shouts dwindled away, and the last ashes of the American flag drifted into the darkening sky. The young men stowed their guns, then sat down on their picnic blankets to line up their snacks, cameras, and pinhole viewers. Everyone else sat back down, too, and got on with watching the eclipse.
“That moment changed me,” Jeff said. Three years later he co-founded Ethical Traveler, an organization exploring ways that travel can be a force for good in the world.
Reading the headlines, it’s easy to feel discouraged about humanity. But my own travel experiences – while not nearly as dramatic as Jeff’s – involve an astonishing amount of simple decency. A few years ago in Spain, my friend Teresa lost her wallet on the sidewalk. “It had everything in it,” she said, white-faced. “Passports, tickets, credit cards, cash…” Just then a smiling Spaniard appeared. “Is this yours?” He held out her bulging wallet. Everything was intact.
Think that’s an isolated incident? “Last night I left my wallet - with debit and credit cards, driver's license, social security card, 30 Euros and $60 USD cash - on the counter of a busy store here in the US when I went to buy some juice,” wrote travel blogger Wandering Earl a few days ago. “I realized it this morning, some 13 hours later. Just went back to the store and sure enough, they had it safe in a drawer, nothing missing at all. That now makes about 8 countries where I've left my wallet, laptop, camera or backpack in a shop or cafe and it was there the next day once I realized it. The world is definitely not waiting to steal your stuff when you travel. Or maybe just nobody wants my stuff.”
Still doubtful about human nature? Meet George Mahood and his pal Ben, who set off on a 1000-mile journey through Britain penniless and naked except for boxer shorts. “The idea of the penniless challenge,” George explained, “was founded on the belief that, as a nation, we have lost sight of the basic values of humanity and kinship… I wanted to prove this notion wrong.” And while plenty of people considered them daft (I can’t imagine why) they also gave George and Ben clothes, food, shelter, a couple of wonky bicycles, and plenty of encouragement.
“The world is safer than ever,” proclaimed a recent headline. “And here’s the data to prove that.” The statistics, about murder rates going down and the number of democratic nations going up, are heartening. But the most convincing evidence comes from our own journeys. Like the little boy at the Iranian eclipse, the honest Spaniard, and the Brits helping George and Ben, we all have opportunities to show the world the content of our character. Being human, we won’t always appear to advantage in these moments; would I have had the courage to stand between Jeff and those armed youths? I’ll never know. But life will always provide impromptu tests of my generosity of spirit, and I hope that at least some of the time, I’ll find a way to show chance-met foreigners that they, too, can still rely on the kindness of strangers.
In Vietnam, with a young nun who served as translator for the older woman, who wanted to meet me because she had lost touch with her son when he went to America, and talking with me was the closest thing she had to talking with him. I gave her my ball cap as a memento of the moment, and she kindly gave me her hat in return.
Have you ever given, or received, unexpected kindness while traveling? I'd love to hear your story.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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