by Oui We Contributor Sam Spahr
As a photographer, the visual record is everything to me (trés dramatic, oui). But I know I’m not alone because we live in possibly the most visual time. Photos are easy to produce and extremely accessible. We share like there’s no tomorrow! Every day I know what the desert in Oman looks like, and someone in Kraków is super up-to-date on my dog’s little adventures - thank you, Instagram!
With all of this possibility, access, and general love of photographing it’s easy, even for me, to get a bit wound up in it all while traveling. I’m deciding which camera to take, when to post a pic, not wanting to miss a cool shot… and wham: I’m spacing out on the whole experience instead of really living it.
So, I’ve been working on me (claps for self) and am trying to do better. Maybe, just maybe, your out there thinking, “yeah I get a little caught up behind the lens too” Great, because cheating yourself out of any experience that you have spent planning and dreaming about for any amount of time is not fair to you or anyone hoofing it with you.
After some reflection and practice, I have some thoughts that help me to better live in the real-time sweetness of my adventures, and I hope they help you too!
Choose your machine, and commit
As a bit of a purist, I always bring at least one camera, that isn’t my phone, along for any journey. Whether it’s film, point and shoot, DSLR, or even a cutie little instant camera, I like the focus of having one machine for one job. If you’re more comfortable shooting with your smartphone, do it! Whatever your choice, focusing on one camera apparatus is step one to dialing in.
One camera may work better for different activities or excursions than another. I would probably rely on my phone for a night out in a new place but take my DSLR or film cam out for a village stroll during the day. << look I can’t even pick one camera for a hypothetical, hahaha help me…
Resign yourself to the #latergram
I do not care if you’re shooting you’re entire Grecian getaway on your phone. Stop trying to post photos immediately after you’ve taken them. Harsh, I know, but it’s so important, and here’s why:
You will 100% miss the magic of the moment you’re trying to capture in the first place once you start filing through filters and slick captions and subsequent emojis. Save that stuff for a boring cab ride or take a few minutes when you get back to the room. Take the hand of your travel bud and run off into the bustling market instead of spending 11.7 minutes trying to upload it!
Which is honestly just great advice, for life, but anyway… Choose the moments wisely. When you’re in a new place, everything feels exciting and worthy of a photo, maybe even a photoshoot. This is one that I struggle with most (read: spent 20 minutes posing my husband in front of a giant palmetto frond.)
Humans are emotional beings, and even if we don’t know it, we take photos because we are trying to hold on to a feeling. Remember this when you’re thinking of hitting the shutter. Ask yourself why you want the photo; it may save you from 100 in your camera roll totally unseen and forgotten about because they really weren’t that special in the first place. i.e. The Food Shot: Do you want a photo of a perfectly crafted creme brûlée or a shot of the unadulterated joy beaming from your partner’s face as they dive into it? Go for the feeling, if you must. Or take no photo at all and bliss out with your loved one. You’ll remember that feeling - no photo required.
Get the shot and get on
My hubs is usually my travel bud, and I owe his sighing and palpable distraction much credit for the wisdom I’m laying down. If he starts looking at something else or begins to gain a few strides on me, I know I’m taking to long photographing my subject. I rate my photo skills pretty high, so I tend to linger out of luxury and less so because I can’t get the shot I want.
However, if you do find yourself spending more than a minute or so trying to snag a pic, it’s totally worth working on your photo game, no matter what you’re shooting with. Spend a few minutes on YouTube and start getting the best performance out of your device - camera or smartphone. You can better respect the time of everyone else your with if you know your machine and how to better use it. Happy travel buds = happy travels.
I’ll start you off with a few time-saving-get-the-shot-you-want-not-the-shot-you-end-up-with notes:
Grid + Frame
Seeing each photo as a grid can help you organize the space of your intended image, leaving you with better composed photos, which = more interesting images.
Use the age-old rule of thirds. Imagine that the frame of your shot is divided in to a 9x9 grid. (some devices give you the option to turn this grid on in real life.)
Think about framing your shot within the thirds of the grid i.e. far left, far right, or center. Top, bottom, or center. Then you can play with splitting your subject across thirds, etc… Photos are usually more interesting when the subject is not placed center/center unless you're being very intentional.
It has a double meaning - 1: We say something is "in focus" when it appears sharp in the photo. I am the biggest ruler breaker when it comes to focus. I LOVE to play with what is in the foreground (typically what is in focus) and the background (what's usually blurry or out of focus). Sometimes I have fun creating shots that are totally out of focus (on purpose), but a lack of focus, or a blur, is also a way to convey movement and energy too.
2: The focus of the image itself, meaning where is your eye being drawn to? This is also where the grid helps. Use it to decide how to arrange the focus of your image. Where are you placing the subject? What is their relationship to the space behind them? To the side of them? Above them? If you want to get tricky, explore multiple points of focus. Check out my carousel image to see my use of the grid and focus (1 and 2).
Grand vistas, monumental buildings, and sky high waterfalls always warrant a photo but are sometimes the trickiest thing to translate. Inserting people into large scale scenes can help to convey the grandeur of an impressive subject. Have fun with it though: no need for a bunch of smiley shots. Have your human-scale helpers play with different poses and looks. Get that candid-esque feeling as they awe toward the inspiring landscapes before them. Shoot from a lower angle for some quick and easy drama.
This is a tough one to distill into a few sentences, but the best advice I can give you is to use natural light when possible. Get up early and stay out late. Morning light is soft and gentle on almost any subject you could come across. Evening light can lay down some sick shadows on a city scape, and is my favorite time to shoot architecture and the general feeling of a town.
Also, don’t be afraid to shoot at night. It can be a little intimidating, but the absence of light is just as fun. Glowing candle light or some twinkle lights strung up above a café can lead to some seriously dreamy photos. Bonus: the good stuff happens early and late, the everyday moments that make a a place what it is like shopkeepers setting up in the market, neighbors greeting the day, general unabridged living. *and most importantly please don't use the flash... pretty please*
When you do have the time… play, play, play. The only way to get better and faster is to explore and play, which is a pretty nice excuse to keep traveling too ;)
Check back for more notes soon, and in the meantime, happy photographing!