The Travel Series: Top 10 Rules of Travel Photography

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Photography is not about the camera. It’s not even about the beautiful images we create. It is about telling powerful stories. Photography is a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. I believe the way to find common ground is by seeing yourself in others.

A lot of my work involves traveling to foreign countries and living in remote places. My job is to become invisible and get close to people and wildlife, so I can bring their stories to life. It's no different being in my home state of Montana than it is being in a country ten thousand miles away. For me, the intimate moments always matter the most. 

Photography has been my passport to meeting people, learning, and experiencing new cultures. I want to talk about the methods and sensibilities I use to bring back powerful, story-telling images without getting hurt in the process. Here are the top ten rules that I live by.

1. Research

Read everything you can about the place you'll be visiting, especially local newspapers and social media. Local stories that may not reach the large international papers give me clues about what's really happening in a place. Establish relationships before you even get on the plane. Make a point of befriending other photographers and sources. Nothing is as valuable as another photographer who has been there. I like to use social media to meet people, or through websites such as lightstalkers.org, where there's a forum to connect and ask questions.

In this case, the story was about China releasing the first female giant panda back into the wild. With careful planning, we were given access to create
a more powerful story that showed humanity's relationship to the Giant Panda. With some thinking ahead and planning, I acquired a more unique image.

2. Go deep

I don’t view travel photography as solely an adventure. Although I get to witness extraordinary things, it's not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when you stay in a place and give yourself enough time to gain insight and understanding. It requires tremendous persistence and patience, but I would rather spend more time in one place than try to see it all. One way to get beyond surface images is to plan a trip to one location, several times, if you can. Below are two anecdotes about how I gained access and went deeper into a story.

I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone; around us hundreds of digital cameras were firing away. Before dawn broke, as we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lens. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.

Later, Subita would tell me how dehumanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. They made her feel like an animal―this is how she expressed it. No one even said namaste, or hello, to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing—what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt and she was simply the prize.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image.

3. Be authentic and sensitive

The easiest way to make compelling, real photographs of people is by being authentic. Making candid images of people is not a trick. It's a skill a photographer can develop, which requires respect for the subject and building a relationship in the time you have together. Successful pictures of people almost never happen from a distance. Put away the telephoto lens and become part of the moment.

Talk to people. Whether it's simply a nod of acknowledgement, a greeting, an explanation of what you're doing, or a long involved conversation, connect with the people you are photographing. Remember, we have more in common with each other than you might think. Don’t look at people as different or exotic. Rather, focus on the things that unite and bind us.

Children are one of the most universal themes that unite us all. This is a group of children who were
displaced by conflict in the state of Gujarat, in Ahmedabad, India.

4. Know your equipment

If you exude apprehension or tension, people pick up on it and cannot relax with the added element of a camera. Know your equipment so that you can focus on relating to your subjects. Your confidence in yourself will instill confidence in them. For me, simplicity is the key to success. I never bring new gear on an assignment or a trip, it's always tested at home first, and I bring backups on the real trip. Simple is always better. It's okay to use the latest and greatest technology, but know how to use it before you start your trip.

I’ve been using Nikon equipment for many years. I test my cameras and lenses thoroughly, as soon as I get them. I want to be
so comfortable with them that I could operate the gear in the dark. This image of the wrestlers had beautiful but extremely tricky lighting.
I had to adjust my settings quickly to capture this shot successfully before the light was gone.  

5. Keep good notes

You think you will remember everyone you meet, but time and age fade the memory. In the past, I used to take down people’s names and a short description of what they were wearing, or some distinguishing feature about them. I would get back home, start looking through my notes and discover many of the girls I was photographing wearing similar-looking pink dresses. Now I carry my phone, loaded with a model-release app called EZ Release, which allows me to take pictures and get their consent at the same time. I also make a habit of writing captions and labeling images right after a trip ends, and not procrastinating. 

Use your phone to take notes, get releases, and remember the people you meet on your travels. 

6. Dress appropriately

Fit in with the scene. Understated is always best. Again, sensitivity for the mores and norms of where you are goes a long way to being accepted. A female photographer may want to wear a scarf to cover her head in some cultures. It's one of the most visible ways to show respect for local sensibilities. I also avoid looking like the stereotypical photographer (black cargo pants or vests with lots of pockets). 

When the first female panda was being released into the wild, I dressed myself up as a tree so as not to scare her. The director of the
panda program was touched. He came running up to me, hugged me, and exclaimed, “You get to hold two baby pandas! President Obama, he only
held one baby panda." The doors opened and we got excellent access for the rest of the story, and got far stronger images because of it.

Later, we all dressed as pandas so we could get behind-the-scenes access to the panda training center
where they train captive-born pandas to go back into the wild.

7. Meet the leaders

Whether you're in a slum or a city, there's always a hierarchy. If you take the time to explain why you're there and get the blessings of the leaders or elders in any community, it will keep you safer than wandering around aimlessly. As a woman, I also take time to meet the women leaders in a community, too.

One evening, after photographing angry protesters, a rogue group of young men decided that they wanted to use me as an example to show their anger towards US policy. I had spent the day with the women leaders in the village, and they came to my rescue when they saw the mob scene developing around me. After that, I always spend the first day of any trip meeting local leaders wherever I'm working, and get their blessing. I'm always amazed at how quickly the news of my project spreads in a community. Everyone knows why I am there and doors open. 

Getting close and intimate with people requires time and understanding. Building relationships is the most important aspect of what we do. 
This is an image of a mother being consoled by her family at her daughter's funeral, in Kashmir, India. I spent four years documenting this culture, and because I took time and built relationships, I was invited into people’s lives and was able to reveal the sometimes difficult, yet always intimate moments. 

8. Trust your instincts

I rely on the kindness of strangers everywhere I go. It is real and out there—most people are lovely and kind. It's a wonderful world out there, but remember to be on guard, as unfortunately, bad clouds can form and tensions can escalate. Trust your instincts and don’t ever assume or be lulled into a false sense of security. Even if it feels safe, don’t let your guard down. I have found that establishing relationships in advance is the best way to prepare.

Just like this man built trust with the camel, you need to trust and work on the relationship on the other side of the lens. 

9. Give back

Your subjects are giving of themselves. Don’t abuse their gift of sharing their lives. Don’t treat them like models. Send back some prints, cherish the moment, and treat them well. Don’t promise if you don’t intend to deliver. In this age where many people are digitally connected, it has become easier than ever to email a jpeg to an address for your subjects to share.

Whether you bring back prints or simply spend time talking to people, it's important to make photography not just about taking images,
but giving back, too. This is Subita and her sister as I am teaching them how to use my camera.  

10. Have fun

Yes, getting the shot is important, but be thankful that you have the opportunity to even be where you are. Pinch yourself and enjoy the moment. It relaxes everyone, and the pictures and stories are better for it.

Literally dive in and immerse yourself wherever you are. Find ways to connect with people. This is in Madagascar, and I'm just having fun.

If there is only one thing you take away from this, I hope it's the understanding that all of us are not only photographers, but we are storytellers. There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I hope that in your travels, you use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart.


About Ami Vitale: Best known for her cultural documentation and travelling widely, Vitale's photographs have been published in major international magazines such as National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, and Time. Her essential gear list includes two Nikon D4(s) bodies, a 24mm, 1.4 lens, a 24-70mm lens, an 80-400mm lens, Nikon SB910 flash, Nikon SU Commander transmitter, and a Manfrotto fluid head tripod. Keep up with Ami by following her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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Thank you for these tips.  They will certainly help as I am preparing to go on a two week celebration of my ancestors whom I have not met yet.  I will definitely do more research ahead of time.  Everything you said makes so much sense.  Great advice.  Again, thank you for sharing.

mam, i am from INDIA, this is the line, which i like ... the last line .."you use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart."  :).. thank u mam. 

I learn new things from your article. Especially, meeting with leaders of a community... Thank you very much...

I adore your images and would like to hear more from you, podcasts and the like. Where might I do that?

Your point #2 is one the reasons why I don't photograph people who are being made tourist attractions. It feels very wrong to me. Like they are animals in a zoo. My travel photography is more about places and things than people generally speaking. And I am fine with that.

Glenn, all over the world I have taken photographs of people. I find most photographers are simply afraid to talk to strangers. To start conversations. To ask about their businesses, their children, their lives,

There can be no more sensitive area for an American than in some parts of Jerusalem. Or in heavily Arab towns in Israel. Just about the scariest ought to be a group of Palestinian teenage boys. I struck up a conversation with a group on the sea wall in Akko. They were thrilled to practice their English on a "real American." They happily posed, even jumped off the wall into the sea for photos. Of course, I sent them to their Facebook pages - and won lots of positives from their friends. 

While shooting scenics along the beach at Rosh Hanikra against the Lebanese border, I spotted a couple and waved at them. They waved back - and then, to my surprise, locked into a passionate embrace! I figured that wasn't accidental, and shot several images. Mnutes later, the couple - Russian immigrants - asked me to email them to them, to send them to their parents back home. I also took some formal portraits, and sent them, too.

Some of the images are here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/melsnyder/sets/72157644985841864/

Chatted up the Druze man selling me "Druze pizza" in a national park, talked about where I was from - and got photos. I always introduce myself as being from New York - EVERYONE has a relative in New York, has visited New York, or dreams of visiting there. A great icebreaker. One very interesting religious Muslim shopkeeper in the Arab quarter declined to be photographed, but invited me to have a cup of tea with him. Of course I accepted. Sometimes, you just make memories, and friends - not photos.

Saw 3 Palestinian girls - one in a hijab - trying to take selfie photos of each other together with their iPhones. Volunteered to shoot the three together nicely - and then, offered to send them a "good photo from my camera" - and took their email addresses.

You just have to TALK to people. Make friends. Be real. The opportunities are enormous. Have a sense of humor about yourself. What;s the worst that could happen? You get denied? Big deal!

Mel

Here you go, Barb!

Great comments, she takes photography to the human side of the fence !

Great stuff, great advice. I noticed the Color Profile Tags have been stripped from the image files.Two bad things. 'Untagged RGB' means a lack of Color Profile. The web should be sRGB. Without a Color Profile the display software has no idea how to interpret the color info, AND your Copyright info is missing ! B&H is doing this to save bandwidth. An Untagged file is HALF the size. Too bad B&H doesnt have a fuller undestanding.   Again, great images !

Can't please everybody-what do you want for free?

Loved comments

Great tips !

Thanks a lot.

I did not read the article. :(    But I REALLY enjoyed the photos. Thank you. :)

The travel information on taking photographs is very helpful. As stated, get to know the local people. You can get in trouble very easily. Some culltures feel that taking a photograph of them is stealing some of their spirit. Always ask first before snaping.

The pictures of India in this article are wonderful and really capture what the country and people are like. I spent several years there and found that caputuring a good picture was difficult since there is so much to record on film.

Great article with very good tips.  I use a lot of what you have talked about but it is nice to hear it from a pro and I learned some new stuff too.

A sensibilidade de um grande artista como você, que fotografa com a grandeza e a delicadeza de sua alma mágica, se traduz nestas bela imagens aqui expostas. São maravilhosas pois jamais irão acontecer da mesma maneira, outra vez. Não importa, estavas lá para registrá-las. Obrigado, pela grandeza de sua alma traduzida em seu trabalho. Fique em paz, e que Deus esteja sempre contigo.

To prepare for your next trip out of town.

Thanks for the input in technique and humane matters. Being a PERSON is foremost when you do want not only to communicate but to move people's hearts.

These pictures are amazing. Thanks for sharing. I have a Nikon and have traveled extensively in India and other countries. It is very important that a picture tells a story. Your pictures speak to the audience and you have given a very valuable simple to folllow advise to the people who pursue photography as a hobby and profession.

Thank you and keep up the good work...

Magnificient Job!

Great tips Ami Vitale, tks.
I'll use widely all of instructions. Keep in contact.

Hugs, Gladstone.

Very good advise!

so powerful...so heartfelt...so caring...so respectful

memorable photos that engage my mind and spirit...many thanks

Dear Ms Vitale, or Ami

Thank you so much for your comments especially the reminder of respect and finding common ground. I love taking photos and capturing the feeling of a location or person and your lessons in this article highlight what makes a good shot.....

I will watch for your work in what I read....

Sandy J

Very interesting article.  I just love your tips for trips.  I will use all of them on my trips.  Thank you very much.

Ed

            Read before you shoot..................India is a colorful  country and you use your camera as a brush on Canvas.
            ........................................................................................................................................................It is really gr8.

           
 

Photography can be understand in whatever language. Thanks for your beautiful paintings!!

Thank you very much Ami for this very excellent article and the advice.

Your amazing photos easily document you are a professional in following

your steps.

exelent

Hi Ami,

I love photography and bought expensive gears and take !!Nice!! photos but I didn't have any definite purpose and direction of what I want to do untill now. Your article gave me that. I will read your article 1000 times and remember these rather than which aperture and ISO to use. Thanks a lot. I solute you. I believe photographs has more bandwidth than internet/phones in conneting people on earth.

Regards,

Kamal

Great article beautifully illustrated.

Don't forget to ask permission before taking a picture. Many Muslims in the middle east do NOT like their picture taken.

Thank you for the great advice. Going to Santa Fe for four days and I will use your advice.

Thank you for a very readable and well-written article on photography.  I have a nephew who is interested in photography and actually got a Nikon  D3100 from his parents.  I think he may be a little uncertain about how to use his new found equipment.  I'm going to give him this article because this will help him focus and direct his attention as to how to go about playing with his camera.  It might be a little  too much camera for a novice, but it is what it is.  Regardless of how long we've been taking photos and especially for those newbies with a camera, I think this article is definitely useful and helpful to us all.  Thank you! 

Btw, I love your work! Gorgeous and emotional.

Love what you do... I did the same for 3 years... Just for fun though... Would be nice to get paid assignments... I use a Nikon D7000... I have spent time in 55 countries to date... My goal? Over 100 countries...
My travel photographs are on a Facebook page "Travel with me, Photography" would love to meet you and even accompany you on your excursions.
Best Wishes...
David

Wonderful article. I just returned from a month in Uganda and completely agree with everything mentioned.

Hello Ami,

Your ten travel tips are very accurate and informative. I travel alot and I am always looking for information and techniques to improve my photograhy.

I would like to be included on any email list you may have to be notified of any articles or workshops you may offer.

Thank you. Karen

     Ami,

     Because of your compassion for others, your photography excels. Thanks for the great article.

Since the circumference of the Earth is slightly over 24,000 miles, there is no place that anyone would have to travel more than 12,450.5 miles to get to! ;-)

Re: "It's no different being in my home state of Montana than it is being in a country twenty thousand miles away."

Ami, like you said "give back" Thanks for doing just that! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom.

To me, 95% of a good photograph is its composition hand i hand with Naturalness next on the list, with your examples you have ticked all the boxes in my book, For a change, its so so lovelly to see natural well captured and what appears to be effortless photgraphs, a testimony to your words.  I feel so many photographers become lost in the ediction of editing process and often make it obviously so, sad.

Nice to see you have remianed a photographer and not just documenting the world digitally.

Simple, technically superb, natural, above all enjoyable engaging, promise me you wont ever become a editing junky LOL.

From Australia, kindest regards Rolf, and thanks for sharing.

Your ideas are very useful. I liked a lot and I will try to keep them on my mind.

Tus ideas son muy útiles. Me gustaron mucho y trataré de tenerlas en mente.

Raymundo Jiménez, from Dominican Republic.

Thank you for that great article and I have learn a bit from your story and tips  and will apply it on my first trip this year.

Thank you for the great advice and tips your images speak. Beautiful !!!

Good tips.  Great photos.  

Great advice and absolutely wonderful images.  I really appreciate your compassion. I will think about all you have said the next time I take a picture, your story has changed how I will use my camera fro now on. Thank you!

Great work and consistent with what you mention.Very substancial info.

Great article. I'm passing it on to all I know that travel and don't travel.We hope to visit Ireland, Scotland, and  France this fall. Your tips will come ion handy.

Thanks

Thsnks for your explanation on what you believe travel and photography should be. It does remind me that photography is not only about taking pictures.

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