For almost a year I planned for the 22-day trip I took this past January to photograph among the indigenous people of Ethiopia. I did a lot of research so I’d know what to expect and how to deal with everything from the customs of the country to the weather and the traveling conditions. Also, I’d have a driver and a guide, and along the way I’d pick up local guides who’d know the ins and outs of specific villages, tribes, and dialects.
Every traveler with a camera will welcome the words “smaller” and “lighter.” Because I travel and photograph for a living, I not only welcome them, I search for them. I want to see those adjectives accompanying nouns like camera, lens, laptop, and drive (the portable kind).
At one time or another we’re all tourists somewhere. There’s even the old suggestion that to be a better travel photographer you might pretend to be a tourist in your own hometown. Seek out points of interest and find unusual ways of photographing them and you’re on your way to better images when you get to Paris, London, Toronto, New York, or wherever you’ll someday be headed.
Travel is, by definition, motion, and among the photos I always look for on my travels are the ones that capture people in motion. For me motion falls into two categories: one I call sports movement, the other fashion movement. Sports movement is the bobsledder on his run down the track that results in a photo that’s a rush of color and a blur of background; fashion movement is motion that’s almost stopped—“almost” because the person’s activity is implied in the captured movement, and that’s what I do most of the time.
About a year and a half ago I found myself on the road from Yen Minh to Lung Phin, Vietnam, but I wasn’t going anywhere: the road was blocked by a cement truck that had lost traction on a switchback section and crushed the side of the road, blocking traffic in both directions. Along with other motorists, I worked for over two hours trying to get the truck righted, and during those hours there were a few times that I remember asking myself, what am I doing here?
Often people will ask me, “How do you get that great color in your photos?” I appreciate the compliment, but it’s usually followed by, “You must do a lot of retouching.” Actually I don’t. I will do a little color enhancement, but how color looks in my images has to do partly with how I set certain camera controls, how I control or use lighting in the scene, and how I compose the photograph.
What I want to capture in my photography can be expressed as the character of a place. I have to aim for images beyond “this is what it looks like here” because in my business photos have to tell stories, have to illuminate, even educate; my images should always reveal something of the culture, the history, and, most important, the lives of the people.
I don’t have to light up rooms or freeze fast action very often—travel photography doesn’t usually call for that, and, besides, I really prefer to shoot in natural light. Fortunately, most of the time I can, but there are instances when a flash will make the difference in a picture by narrowing the scene’s contrast range, making it possible for the camera’s sensor to capture the details in shadow and highlight areas. Often flash is the only way for me to make a picture, as I don’t have the luxury of coming back when the light is better.
The last thing I ever want to do is pose someone. On my travels I want pictures of people acting naturally, doing what they normally do, and if they acknowledge the camera at all, or pause for a portrait, I want them to do it in the most natural way. The people I photograph are always aware of me, but I never want them to play to the camera—which can be tricky because the very presence of the camera changes the situation.
You’d think that with the variety of gear available today, I’d be able to find exactly what I want. Well, for the major stuff, like cameras and lenses, I pretty much can, but when it comes to several key accessories, call me The Modifier.