10 Tips to Travel Photography in a Developing Country
18 Oct 2007
10 Tips to Travel Photography in a Developing Country
(When your home is elsewhere)
Just go there. Try it. I realize you may have just bought a couch and can't really afford it. I know that all-expense paid trip to Mexico seems so much easier. But go somewhere interesting. Go somewhere that shakes you up a little. Skip Paris and London for Mongolia, Zambia or Nicaragua. Leaving your home culture does some amazing things. It exposes aspects of daily life that don't even warrant a second thought back home. It inspires, and often helps separate life's important stuff from the filler. And getting outside your home culture helps understand it better. All of these effects, aside from just personal benefits, can make for some inspired photography.
2. Learn the Language and Smile
Learn 50 local words. If there's a more local dialect than a European language, use that too. This shows you care about their culture (You do, don't you? Because if not, well then I take back what I said in No. 1!). Talk to people, and show them you want to learn. The more you learn about the culture, the more you can understand what is happening around you. This will translate to better photography. People will also be more willing subjects when they like you. These are a few of many good reasons to learn how to introduce yourself in a local language.
3. Become a Local
The goal is to not draw attention to yourself. Unwanted attention prevents good photo opportunities (and can be annoying). After living in West Africa for 7 months I found that I was able to fit it reasonably well. I wore clothing I bought locally, I didn't need to look lost trying to find my way around, and I used local transport. I was becoming a local. As soon as my Canadian friend visited me, and there were two of us, looking like tourists again, and we got far more attention. That eliminated many potential photo opportunities.
On short trips, it can be tough to become an instant local. Beyond the obvious like your choice of clothing, subconscious behavioural clues beyond your control will give you away. But there are ways to reduce this. It's a matter of convincing yourself that you belong. I'll use another exercise in visualization as an analogy. Back when I was trying to buy beer while underage, I was successful when I imagined beforehand that I was old enough. Thus at the moment of truth (the cash register) I was calm, confident and at ease. At first, travelling in another culture is a little like buying beer underage. If you can visualize yourself as belonging there, you'll spend less time worrying about how you don't fit in. You'll notice more around you, and others will notice you less. This leads to great photo opportunities.
I've heard it said that the great photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson took this to a new level: he was able to fit into his surroundings almost completely, drawing no attention. He has been compared to a cat in his smoothness of movement. The result speaks for itself. Now if you're a Canadian travelling in Malawi, chances are that you're not going to fit in completely by trying to move like a cat. You might look foolish. But you can take other steps to minimize the attention you draw.
4. Small, Quick and Quiet Cameras
Leica cameras gained popularity among photojournalists because, among other things, they were small, light, quick and quiet. Like photojournalism, the goal of travel photograph is often to tell a story. And the presence of a massive dSLR with a 300mm lens can mess things up. It takes more time to set up and attracts attention, changing the scene in front of you.
Now most of us won't have a Leica sitting in the closet, but the principles are the same. Compact quick, subtle cameras work best. There are some very capable, relatively compact cameras out there, such as Canon's G-series, that combine these features for, say, less than the four thousand bucks a Leica will set you back. All of the shots in this story were taken with non-SLRs.
5. Protect and Choose your Gear Wisely
Watch your gear closely. It helps to use a pack that is bought locally, or at least doesn't seem obviously luxurious. It's not that people there are generally dishonest; more that tourists attract thieves.
Developing countries can be tough on your gear. Look for small and well-protected packs. Bring your cleaning kit, as dust can reduce camera sharpness quickly. If you have the choice, leave the expensive fragile gear at home, and bring the durable stuff.
The first camera I used in a developing country was an old Canon G2. A little bulky, yes, but it took great pictures for its time and, as mentioned above, it was quick to use. It was also bombproof: in my paucity I used an old shoelace as a strap. This broke several times, sending the camera hurtling to the floor. Each time afterwards it started without complaint. And yes, now all my cameras now use proper straps!
6. Swivel Screen
One of the best features of my G2 was the swivel screen, which rotated in two different directions. This let me take hi and low shots easily, for great effect. Most important though, I didn't have to raise it to eye level, which made inconspicuous shots easy. It's all about fitting in, and the lack of a camera in front of your face lets you do that. Although Canon has discontinued this feature on its newest G-series cameras, it's still around on some decent cameras. Worth considering.
7. Love Your Auto Settings
Things happen quickly. For me, the difference of pace is between a West African market and rural Canada. Especially upon arrivel, developing countries provide sensory overload. So often the important thing is to get the shot, not endlessly manipulate settings until perfect. Shutter or aperture priority settings also allow for fairly quick shots, with a little more flexibility. At the very least, take the time to learn your cameras settings well, so that when the time comes you get the right setting instinctively, instead of accidentally turning it off and missing the shot.
8. Always Shoot at Highest Quality Settings
If shooting digital, keep it locked on the highest quality settings. Bring extra memory cards. There's going to be a few keepers from the trip photographs. Shooting at low quality settings will create beautiful postage stamps. The highest settings will let you print and frame your best photos so that your friends will be both jealous of your trip and convinced you're an amazing photographer.
9. If in Doubt, Ask
This is an important one for me. There are larger debates about photography etiquette and our responsibility as a visitor and photographer. I'll leave that for another time, but a golden rule is: if you're unsure whether to take a picture of somebody, then ask. In some areas, it's considerate to leave a small gift or amount of money as a thank you.
I missed one of the best shots I have come across, because I asked whether it was okay to shoot. Picture an old Senegalese grandmother, piercing green eyes within a face etched with thin white contours. Headscarf, clutched just below the chin with a flowing, boney hand. She was sitting in front of an earth wall with soft evening sidelighting. When I asked if I could take a picture, she said no, with a subtle smile. I still wish I could have taken the shot. But she didn't want me to, so I'll just have to remember it instead.
10. Get out of Tourist Traps
Yes the Taj Mahal is beautiful. Go and take a few shots. But then try heading out to a village a few hours away. This is where the real life is, the true expressions of humanity and beauty. My favourite travel photos on JPG aren't great buildings. The best show the soul of people around the world, and allow us to enjoy our differences and similarities. You won't find this at a tourist trap.