Travel Photography – shoot like a pro, without taking the time

Posted in Photography, Travel at 15:29 by RjZ

I take pictures when I travel, but don’t travel to take pictures. Too bad. I’ve practiced the theory that if you go to pretty places and snap enough shots you’ll get some interesting photos, and that’s worked pretty darn well, but the really nice shots are just luck that way. Nothing wrong with that, but it can be frustrating to look at your photos upon return and wonder “what would it have taken to take some of those really amazing shots you saw before your journey?” I’d love to tell you, but the fact is, I don’t know and neither of us is likely to take the time anyway.

Instead of reminding you to stake out a location, discover the best angles and perfect light, and wait for just the right cloud bank, here are some ideas you can do without ruining your trip. Unless someone is paying you to travel to a far away place expressly for photography, then you too, likely have something you want to do during your visit, aside from watching the whole trip through a viewfinder. You could get those amazing shots by doing your homework, but amateur travel photographers, are almost always, first and foremost travelers, not photographers.

Out-and-back again

You’ll rarely have the time to really scope out a location and discover the best shots and the right framing. Often you’re doing the best you can with the lens on your camera when you happen to walk past something. If you’ve got multiple lenses you might notice a shot would be perfect with your telephoto, but moments later, the walk-around has to go back on the camera. All this lens swapping will slow you down. Instead, most outings, can be some sort of out-and-back deal. You walk around the church, or museum, or monument with one lens on, and walk back with another. During the first walk, snapping happily at whatever strikes your fancy, you giving a bit of thought to the other lens you’re going put on for the way back. It’s like doing a mini site review, and your traveling partners don’t even have to notice. The only caveat is that if you see something you think is interesting, by all means take the shot! You can’t be sure you’ll always get back, but you can always delete a few extra photos.

Plan dinner

There are times of the day when nearly everything is a winner. That time, right after sunset, for example, when a well exposed shot turns the sky a deep azure blue that contrasts so well with warm glowing spot lights on monuments. You’ve got to eat, but can’t it wait just a few minutes? It is truly a shame to be sitting at dinner when you could be out getting lucky snaps, over and over again. Maybe it’s not the best light for this location, or you haven’t found the perfect angle, but just delaying dinner a half hour can make all the difference in shots you’re proud of.

Never leave home without it

Most professionals may plan, and sit, and wait for the perfect shot, but they still get lucky now and again. You can’t take a lucky shot with your camera in the bag or back in a hotel room. I stay in hotels too cheap to trust with my camera, so I have the thing strangling me for the entire trip. The upside is that no matter what strikes my fancy, the camera is always ready.

More controversial is how much you drag with you. Rare is the traveler who is comfortable looking like a wedding photographer on assignment, with backup camera and extra lenses swinging from every limb, but, for the same reason that leaving your camera home means you’ll never catch a lucky shot, I suggest everyone weigh just how horrible it will be if they take a tripod, flash, or extra lens. It’s up to each person, and balancing your photography with your experience is a challenge, but remember, these things won’t do you any good at home. Mini tripods and sandbags are easy to pack and a heck of lot better than nothing.

Read a comic

Great scenery takes great patience, and loads of time which you don’t have. Instead, take advantage of how you and your friends will see the bulk of your pictures these days: several at a time. It takes time, planning and loads of talent/luck to make a single picture capture a story, but it’s way easier with three or four shots to tell same story . Instead of framing a single shot of something gorgeous you’ve come to see, imagine a page in a comic book, where  few well chosen panes capture the scene completely. You need an establishing shot, some action, some detailed close up, and if you’re lucky, some result of your scene. Maybe it’s you and your travel partner eating an ice-cream. An establishing shot of the street and ice-cream stand, a snap of your partner buying a scoop, a close up of the ice-cream, and finally, a couple of empty bowls. None of these shots is necessarily so amazing, but together, chances are you’ve made a charming vignette from your trip. Either way, you did have ice cream. Mmm, ice cream.

Professional planning takes time and experience, but even a little can go a long way and all these are can be ad hoc each day of your trip. You can capture both the fun you had and a bit of local culture all at the same time. Have the gear you need (and are willing to carry) and have it ready all of the time. Think just abit about what you’re taking a picture of and how it will look flattened out on paper or a computer screen, and you’ve already stepped up form taking snapshots. Finally, at the end of the day, or end of the trip, telling stories is what photography is about, even if you need the crutch of four shots and one walk-around lens to accomplish half of what the greats can with time, planning, patience and a Leica range finder or a medium format box camera. Most of them, didn’t have any sightseeing to do!

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Whirr, click. Next slide please.

Posted in Photography, Travel at 17:06 by RjZ

How many of us even remember the whirring sound of the slide projector and the clunky clacking as it progressed from one image to the next? Slideshows used to be made with, well, slides. Individual, analog, pieces of celluloid that best captured the color and saturation of photos taken from some far away journey or remote location. All that saturation was likely wasted on the crappy screen or dying projector lamp, but it made the purists feel good that it was there, recorded in the image forever.

Even if you’re too young to have experienced the archtypal slide-show, you may still have had to sit through friends showing you pictures, one-at-a-time, and describing every detail of each image in what eventually becomes a droning blur. Actually, (depending on the speaker, I suppose) that doesn’t bother me at all, which goes a way in explaining my own style of blabbering for an hour long presentation of, what essentially, are only vacation photos. I can see how others might be scared off.

After most trips, I sort through a few thousand digital photos; carefully winnowing them down to, maybe a few thousand – 10; and research a bunch of things I should have known during the trip about the sites I’ve recorded. Then I send out an e-mail to local friends, inviting them to come over and sit in a dark room for an hour or more and look at my pictures while I talk over them. Snacks are included. It’s a wonder anyone ever comes, and even more surprising that they’ve come more than once.

Showing off your pictures to a dozen friends and hoping they won’t hate you for asking them to come, changes bit about how you take pictures. I’m learning to strike a balance between styles. There’s documentation snapshots: this is a picture of the pyramids, look, you can see the pyramids there and they’re big. Then, there’s the arty: just look at the bokeh (yeah, that got mentioned) in this shot of a chinese door knob. How do you know it’s in China? Um, well, it looks kinda Chinese and, um, the date on the photo’s EXIF data is during my trip there, so it’s gotta be from there. Nice shot, don’t you think?

I don’t go for the one-slide-at-a-time mode of presentations. People have seen movies. Regressing to anything less than 20 frames per minute is too slow for our attention starved world to tolerate. I wouldn’t see it as a compliment if people had time to look at their phones and text while I was telling them useless facts about how high that mountain is or how old this temple. The slides tick on by with my discussion about what we’re seeing. Sometimes it works well, sometimes I can’t finish a story in time, but hey, how much rehearsal do you want? You’re not paying for this!

As a result, I can afford to show a load of images (a thousand photos at four seconds per is still just a bit over an hour). I can document, with snapshots, and have a few pretty ones hoping for the coveted ooohs and aaahs, but what I am (all too) slowly teaching myself is to be a journalist. A good photo, even if up there for only a few seconds, captures something about the place; it tells a story; a unique story.

People connect, above all, with people. When I first started capturing snapshots I always waited and waited until people had finally left the frame. I still do it, but more and more, I’ve realized that people make nearly every shot better. Cerro Torre? beautiful. Cerro Torre with a solitary hiker making her way to the glacier? Beautiful and interesting. (No, I didn’t capture that!) I don’t yet know how to record good stories in a single frame. Today, I keep the camera with me for the whole trip and try to think about that slideshow later. I try to build up a story around the site: what was it like to get here, how did we travel, what did we eat? I can’t be sure if this is working, but somehow people do ask when the next show is going to be, so I’m on the right track. No matter, I am confident that having a purpose for my photos improves my photography. Or maybe people come by for the food. It could be the food.

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Travel photography: Nice shot, what kind of camera do you have?

Posted in Photography, Travel at 13:13 by RjZ

The number of digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) is proliferating at a wild pace lately. So, many of you have already spent handfulls of cash on a shiny new camera with interchangable lenses. That probably means you’ve already heard the standard question aimed at one of your better shots: “what kind of camera do you have?”

Everyone else seems to think your camera took the shot all by itself; that you take it with you and it jumps out of the bag on its own at just the right moment to snap an incredible photo. Who can blame them? Heck, I want that camera too!

Eventually the learned response is that it’s the photographer, not the camera, who takes a great shot. Of course. Honestly, though, that’s not completely true, is it? I mean, if it were, how would you convince yourself and others in your life, that it makes sense to spend another couple-of-week’s salary on a new lens? Cleary, the camera has something to do with it.

For me, going to pretty places is one of my best techniques to ensure good pictures. That, and taking a lot of pictures. Eventually, the numbers win out! What role, then, does the camera play at all? Well, good quality cameras, and optics do make better pictures. The colors are more even, contrast is dramatically improved, and focus is better, or at least more likely to be where you meant it. Better optics also increase the range of what is possible. You can now capture a wider view or a closer look than your cell phone camera will allow. Most interchangeable lens cameras are also fast enough that you can point them at a fleeting subject, press the button, and actually expect it to focus on something and record a picture before the shy moose, or perfect kiss in Paris streets, has vanished.

That brings me to my incredibly simple tip for great travel photography. Know your camera. It matters little what kind of optics your camera has if it hides in your bag and you have to fiddle with it when you finally pull it out. Even if you plan is to play the numbers game like I do, you’ll be able to choose from many more not-exactly-poor shots if you’ve been able to make the camera at least do what it’s capable of.

Whatever your camera can do, from auto-focus and magic scenes, to fully manual pixel level adjustments or feeding that old stuff, what was it? film? your job is knowing which end to point at what you want to record and what’s going to happen when you press the button that makes it take a picture. The only reliable way to do this, is to have taken many pictures in a variety of situations.

If you can have an idea what all the buttons do and which ones save you time before taking a shot, which ones make sure you focus where you wanted to, and which ones make the flash come on, or stay off, then the numbers game, enabled by cheap digital images, will surely pay off. For this reason alone, if you’re planning a trip and thinking about a new camera for it, great, this is a good excuse! But, and here is my second indespensible tip, get the thing early enough and take a load of pictures with it before you head out. If you haven’t familiarized yourself with your camera, or cellphone, you’ll never even get to answer the question “what kind of camera do you have?” except, maybe, when it comes from some snob hoping to justify a decision to have bought something else.

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A glut of free photography

Posted in Photography, Society at 20:22 by RjZ

I’m flattered by the fairly regular requests I get on my flickr site to use one of my photos. Unfortunately, the flattery wears off pretty quickly when, more often than not, the request is to use the photo for free.

It’s still great that they have the courtesy to ask; after all, anyone can steal any image they see up on flickr, simply downloading it to their desktop. Folks who can convince me to make them a contact get full access to the high resolution images I upload there and could easily print the better ones poster size or use them in glossy brochures if they’re so inclined; there’s nothing to stop them.

Due to this ease of downloading, I’ve embraced a shareware attitude for my pictures, asking a fee commensurate with the use. You can download it for free, but if you really like it, it’d be nice if you paid me something. If someone emails me saying he’d like to print one out and hang it on his office wall, I ask a pretty low price; maybe five or ten dollars (depends on the picture). He can choose to pay me or not. Surprisingly, folks do.

When the art director for, say, an American Express Travel website contacts me to use a photo, I inquire about the expected traffic the site is going to see and for how long they intend to use the picture. They have to pay more, for this professional use. After all, they’re using my photography to bolster their brand. (American Express was kind enough to pay for a picture.)

Still, many more art directors state that it is not their policy to pay for the photos and suggest that I will get exposure to thousands or even millions of individuals. According to Eduardo Porter’s The Price of Everything Google “suggested to illustrators that providing…art [for the new Chrome browser] for free would be in their best interest. ‘[W]e believe these projects provide a unique and exciting opportunity for artists to display their work in front of millions of people.’”

Sure, but the guy who wanted to hang the picture in his office and American Express were both willing to actually pay me, can’t Google afford it? I described this problem in my lament about the death of travel photography Google and others have little reason not to try this ploy—many, many excellent photos are to be had, for free, simply by asking (or, of course not asking). Photographers are all too willing to devalue their own work in the hopes that exposure will be just the ticket to a professional future.

I’ve probably just been able to pay for my flickr pro membership with the volunteer payments I’ve received from fine honest folks out there, but I am gratified that people would think so much of one of my images to pay for it, and nothing proves that you’ve got something of real value more than actually getting paid. Otherwise, you know, why buy the camera, if the photos are free?

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Travel photography – Lugging gear

Posted in Photography at 10:20 by RjZ

I travel light, or, at least I used to travel light. I used to carry everything for a three week trip in nothing more than a small book-bag sized backpack. If you’re going to carry a bunch of photography gear with you, and from the looks of it, nearly everybody is shooting with a DSLR these days, traveling light is essential. After all, who has room for clothes and extras when we’re carrying three lenses, a flash, tripod, filters, and on and on.

I carry way too much, simply because I am not a very good photographer. The great ones, (look up, I don’t know, Henri Cartier-Bresson) used a fixed lens, range-finder camera. They learned everything about their camera and learned to identify a scene exactly as their camera would see it. They made pictures that told stories and didn’t depend on long tele-photo lenses or distorting wide-angles. You should do that and not worry about how much gear to carry, and I should end here.

But I, I am just not that good. I carry a walk around lens with a broader range than most just so I won’t have to change too often (and miss shots). I carry a super-wide, because shots taken with it are often more impressive (on the rare occasion that they work) and they at least set me apart from shots with a kit lens. Oh, I often carry my heavy telephoto lens too because, well, you can’t shoot everything with that lens, but you can’t make a bad shot with it either.

But that’s not all, to Japan, where camera accessories were practically a badge of coolness, I dragged a tripod and on a few trips where I am expecting dark places I’ve brought the flash, and my cheapo remote triggers (and of course, gels for the flash). All in all, it’s ridiculous and thousands of pictures later, all I get is the feeling that travel photography is virtually dead.

One thing I do unmistakably gain, though, is experience. By now, you should be wondering how to carry all this junk. If you believe the market place, you’ll go out and get a specialized camera backpack that has room for all those lenses, the tripod, and even a second camera body (you know, someday….) Well, folks, these will keep you gear tucked away safe and sound, but make absolutely no sense for traveling.

The problem is, obviously, the tucked away part! That’s no place for all the crap you brought with you! The point is to take pictures and not to miss any shots, and that’s pretty hard to do when your telephoto lens is nestled inside your pack behind three zippers and two layers of velcro.

It’s worse than that though, these packs are sturdy, but all that means is when those perfectly organized compartments for tripod and long lens are unoccupied, you’re still carrying around this cumbersome pack, trying to squeeze through the mob or onto a crowded bus. Decided not drag the flash or tripod this trip? Well, good for you, you’ll still be dragging around an inconvenient camera bag.

Don’t despair, I have a simple solution for you! All you really need is a lens case for each lens (actually, for n-1 lenses; one is always on the camera, after all and you can juggle a bit and put shorter lenses in longer cases) and a neoprene wrapper, or hell, a towel, to wrap your camera in. Now you can toss this stuff into any soft backpack and carry as little or as much as you need. But there’s more! Make sure you get a lens case with some sort of flap that attaches to a belt; nearly all of the kind that have zippered tops, as opposed to the drawstring bags, have this. Now, when you’re out and about, you attach the lens cases to your book bag shoulder straps. They hang down at your side like gun holsters and you don’t look any more dorky than every other tourist with a small backpack on.

Frankly, my camera only leaves my neck when I sleep or shower during a trip, so the towel I mention above is truly enough of a case for it when you do have to stow it, but what about rain? American grocery stores still offer the easiest rain cover you’ve ever seen, for free: the plastic grocery bag, and you can find something similar most everywhere (sigh). These are disposable if they get ripped, and I promise, your camera is not soooo sensitive that it will melt from the first drop of water. When it really starts to pour, I just tuck the camera inside my rain jacket for the duration, or worse case, back in the backpack. This crinkly plastic bag fits most lenses, packs to the size of your first, and lets you use the camera in all but the worst downpours.

The backpack still has room for your guide book, a bottle of safe drinking water, and maybe lunch or souvenirs. You have quick access to the right lens for the right moment (exchanging from the lens case with the lens that was on your camera) and your whole system neither screams expensive gear nor weighs you down when, for today only, you decide not to bring every item in your kit (like that’ll ever happen).

System for carrying camera and crap

System for carrying camera and crap

So, save hundreds of dollars on a camera bag you’re going to hate and let thieves scope out the guys with the expensive looking gear. You’ve got things to see, pictures to take. Be ready!

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Travel Photography – (UV) filters are for amateurs

Posted in Photography, Travel at 17:44 by RjZ

One of the first things most everyone buys when they get a new SLR camera, often purchasing them at the same time, is a UV filter. One of the reasons you buy an SLR camera is the ability to put these impressive optics on them with their giant (compared to a point-and-shoot camera) glass and the image quality they deliver. Screwing on a UV filter keeps dust, dirt, and your grubby fingers off the optic and the little jewel is forever safe, all with almost no loss in image quality.

It’s too bad that that’s only sort of true. The protection part is obvious, but why would you need a UV filter? Light, particularly outdoor light on clear days, is comprised not only of what we see, but UV light we can’t see. Film cameras used to have a particular problem with this. Glass coatings were not optimized to avoid UV and the film itself is exposed by these wavelengths, washing out pictures and blowing contrast to hell. I read that somewhere–it’s not like I ever used a film camera.

Digital cameras use sensors that are somewhat sensitive to UV, but modern lenses and coatings have mitigated the problem significantly. There is very little washout, even in a bright sky on most cameras these days; just try it yourself. Take a shot with and with out the filter and see if you notice any difference.

Camera shops don’t mention that photo-journalists throw lenses in their duffel bags, with nary a protective filter anywhere. Sure, maybe they’re not paying for their kit, but they know the drawbacks of filters too. For example, they can block some light and change the color cast of your lens. Most good filters have anti-reflection (AR) coatings, but they aren’t perfect and some light is reflected. If this light is wavelength dependent, then, at some angles for sure, your perfectly clear and neutral filter will change the color of light your camera sees. If they don’t change color cast the extra layers of glass often increase lens flair or create it when it otherwise wouldn’t be there. The metal ring around your UV filter can cause vignetting, particularly on very wide lenses, where the corners of your image are darkened or black. Sure, many people are doing this on purpose to the images they take as vignetting can often highlight the focus of your image, but it’s a feature you’d rather have a choice about then try to extract and remove later. If you’re using a polarizer—you are using a polarizer now and again, right?!—UV filters are a huge pain, as you’re really likely to remove them to put the polarizer in its place. After all, you spent all this money on a fancy camera and even more expensive lens, surely you don’t want not one, but two cheaper pieces of glass between you and your subject.

So, why, again, do so many people have UV filters on their lenses? Oh yeah, because the lenses are so expensive, the filter will keep it safe. Let me tell you my story.

I was taking my brand new SLR on its first trip abroad. I had it sitting in my lap on the plane; just in case something exciting happened while flying (if anything exciting actually ever does happen while flying, I can imagine taking pictures of it will not be the first thing that comes to mind). At one point, it slipped off my lap and onto the carpeted floor a few inches below. I leaned over to retrieve it and, with a sinking heart, heard glass slushing around underneath the lens cap.

My eyes bulged. I couldn’t imagine that the lens was that delicate, but I was new enough to cameras that I wasn’t so sure. I carefully opened the lens cap to discover that the ‘protective UV filter’ had been shattered and sliding around between the cap and lens. I carefully poured off the broken pieces into my OJ cup and discovered that the broken filter had scuffed the native AR coating of the lens. Thankfully, the damage is only cosmetic; you can’t see the scuff in any images taken with that lens, but the concern I felt for my lens was real. I can clean dust and finger smudges from my lens, but scuff is permanent.

Before you buy a UV ‘protective’ filter, I have a suggestion for you. If you don’t already have a lens hood for your lens, get one, and if you do, put that thing on your lens. All the time! When you’re walking around with your camera dangling from you neck, you’ll inevitably bump into something or someone probably with the business end of your bulky camera. With a UV filter in front, it’s possible you could shatter it and scratch your lens. With the lens hood there, even without the lens cap, the objective is safely nestled a few centimeters away from danger. My lens hoods are plenty beat up, but all my lenses are still safe. Your pictures will improve too! Lens hoods block stray light that gets to your sensor without creating an image. Stray does more to wash out contrast than UV ever did! Lens hoods come with many higher end lenses and are cheaper than a good UV filter anyway. What have you got to lose?

If you decide to buy a UV filter anyway, check out this thorough review which sheds some light on how much to spend and how much not to spend on your new filter. But remember, you’ll look like an amateur! That doesn’t matter, of course. (right…) but will it really keep your lens safe?

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Travel photography-wide angle lenses

Posted in Photography, Travel at 19:30 by RjZ

The first in an occasional series on ideas and observations about traveling with a camera

I was so excited when my wide angle lens showed up in the mail. It’s remarkably small light, but also, remarkably wide, with 100° field of view. Can’t get back far enough to fit the Eiffel Tower in the frame? No problem! This lens can practically look behind you.

My goal was to take environmental portraits where a merchant is surrounded by her wares. We see not only an interesting face, but enough of their world to see just why they were so damn interesting in the first place. Of course, I hoped to take in sweeping landscapes and impressive architecture shots as well. Unfortunately…

Taking wide angle shots is way harder than you might think.

When I am assessing a picture, hopefully before, but sometimes after, taking it, I think it’s helpful to ask “what are you taking a picture of?” With a telephoto lens, the answer to is nearly always obvious; you’ve zoomed right in on it. Whether it’s a portrait, or an architectural detail, or even an abstract texture, there is likely nothing else in the picture to distract the viewer. Look at a rack of arty postcards, telephoto is a simple trick for successful shots.

But with a wide angle there will almost definitely be something in the picture that you hadn’t planned on. A frequent mistake for most of us is to try to capture what we saw with own eyes. Seems logical enough, especially for travel photographers who want pretty pictures, and also want to document what they experienced, but you’ve still got be able to answer that question “what’s this shot of,” or you’ll even wonder yourself–just what was I taking a photograph of here? Wide angle shots encourage this documentation, because it’s so easy to take a picture of everything you see, all at once. Too bad, the result is often a cluttered mess. To make these work, there has to be some subject in the picture somewhere. Often, that means getting close to something in the frame–really close. You’ll have to stick the camera right in a person’s face to make them large enough in the photograph to be interesting. This is no lens for the faint of heart. Until I get a lot bolder, or perhaps just more rude, I won’t have too much success with my environmental portraits, but the lesson is clear, if unexpected: the wider the lens, the closer you need to get.

Or maybe you’d like to take advantage of your ultra-wide lens’ perspective distortion? There’s a good chance that you’ll get a few great shots this way, with crazy skewed angles criss-crossing the image and zooming off into infinity, but ask yourself–how long before all those tilted lines and falling over buildings will become tiresome? Not long, I can tell you! A useful solution to all the tiresome tilting lines is to ensure that the camera is perfectly centered in the geometry what you’re looking at, and perfectly level. This way, you’ll get a beautiful isometric shot that would make any architect proud and won’t make the people watching your slide show want to lose their lunch. Finding the perfect center of a converging row of columns is much harder than expected but you’ll sure notice later if you missed it, even by a tiny amount. Leveling the camera is easier, but you’ll wind up cropping half the shot out, unless you’re as tall as a building or you like the looks of the the ground in at least half of the shot. I hate cropping so much of my wide shots; it makes me feel like I threw away all that field of view I paid for in the first place. You can correct distortion in post-processing with many software tools, but honestly, stretching out all those pixels won’t bring most shots back. Better to watch where you put your camera in the first place and stop trying just to capture everything because you can.

An ultra-wide lens enables you to capture things that most everyone with a camera phone or a point-and-shoot will miss, but, get one long before your next trip–they take lots of practice.

Here are some random samples….

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Travel photography is dead

Posted in Photography, Society, Travel at 17:28 by RjZ

There are many like it, but this is mine

I jostled for a view of Kyoto’s one of most renowned sites: Kinkakju, the golden pavilion. The place is so obviously photogenic it, seems positively futile to take a picture of it at all. Surely, thousands of photographers have taken shots in the most perfect light and with the very best lenses and conditions. What, the self-reflecting photographer must ask, am I bringing to the table here? This question didn’t stop me, or the hundreds and hundreds of fellow tourists, from giving it a try. Armed with high-end digital SLR cameras or arms stretched out grasping a cellphone, each of them was determined to record this memory, and maybe bring something home that might convey the beauty of the distinctive architecture and setting, even though thousands of such photos are available, many without copyright on flickr.com.

The flag bearer for travel photography might very well be the National Geographic Society. The Society began in 1888 and they have been sending happy photographers filled with wanderlust to every corner of the earth ever since. The amazing pictures and stories that they brought back have become an inspiration to millions of travelers and camera owners since but, no matter how great your pictures are, don’t expect to become one of those lucky devils paid to go to darkest recesses of the planet!

The reality is that professional travel photography, where professional means making a living, is all but dead. It’s been swamped by technology and one of the National Geographic Society’s missions: the shrinking world. It’s statistics. If a million monkeys stand in front of Yosemite’s half dome taking a million cellphone pictures a day then naturally, every once in a while, one of them is going to snap something rivals Ansel Adams.

It’s bad news for the aspiring travel photographer, but even the the original goals of the Society make at least a little less sense today. The founders wanted to organize “a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” The magazine was essentially the first to use photographs to tell their stories, but there is clearly something inadvertently ethnocentric about pictures of sadhus in India being more interesting to their readers than ministers in Minnesota. Which of those is a travel photograph?

Some time ago I posted several street photos I snapped during a walk in Chennai, India. A couple of my contacts on flickr.com where I posted these are also from India. When they walk around snapping nearly the same pictures as I did, are their pictures also travel photography? How about pictures I take in Boulder, Colorado near where I live?

The sheer numbers of high quality cameras available today has changed photography for everyone. Oh, I know, it’s not the camera that takes the pictures, but the photographer, but I remind you of the million monkeys and their cellphone cameras. Everybody gets lucky if they take enough pictures (this has been my strategy for years!) This is especially true for so-called travel photography as flickr will show you but it’s also true, to a lesser extent perhaps, for most every other type of photography a budding professional might pursue. (Search on any famous place and you’ll find dozens or hundreds of excellent photos. Try the same for some not so famous places and you’ll still be amazed.)

No travel photography for you then? Considering portrait photography? Your market is has shrunk thanks to the occasionally great snaps that people make at home. Sure, you could do better in a half hour, but they were around at just the right time to catch that perfect smile–after all, they were around for thousands of worthless snapshots as well. Except, perhaps, for spec photography, where the photographer is asked to go out and take a very specific shot, on time, and within a budget, there is little sacred left for the professional photographer. Even those spec shots have seen considerable competition from cheap stock photography websites filled with snapshots of everything under the sun by another million monkeys.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with those monkeys. Hand me a banana, as I am clearly one of them. I’ve cut into the professional photography market myself with a few paid photos and few paid gigs, which doesn’t mean I am professional, of course, but rather illustrates the point that market for whatever it is professionals believe they’re offering is barely enough to support all them all.

Photography has exploded as a result of a trend to document and share every moment of our lives (often, no matter how trivial) but all those extra pictures have diminished the need for professional photography. Worse, it makes me wonder why I was standing there in front of Kinkakuju with a tripod, waiting and waiting for the cellphone grasping arms to get out of my shot. At the end of the trip, I simply could have asked some one flickr if I could hang their shot in my home instead. The light wasn’t that good when I was there anyway.

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