Photography / Tips and Solutions

The Travel Series: Top 10 Rules of Travel Photography

         

We 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.

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.

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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Thanks for this article. I appreciate all the points you covered and I personally feel these are the most important things when doing travel or cultural photography. I'm working towards this becoming second nature to me....

Thanks for reading, Suzette!

Great tips! What a funny picture you have found :)

I think I can also reccommend this one when we're talking about tips for photographers and photography rules:

www.photler.com/ebook - It's from photographer who travel through last 10 years and has visited almost 100 countries so far. I personally learned how to capture architecture and landscapes (finally!).

Thanks for all the positive comments and compliments on this article folks! Everyone who enjoyed these travel tips might also appreciate this video we did with Ami Vitale for the B&H Prospectives series: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/videos/watch/documentary-photography-with-ami-vitale:-bh-prospectives/4599996222001. Happy Travels!

Thanks for the tips and love your photos! Photography is something I struggle to understand so this was very helpful!  I have been working on improving my photography while traveling and usually feel scared to talk with people especially if I’m just out exploring. This has made me feel more relaxed about just asking if I could take their photo.

Tudo lindo amei.Só queria poder partilhar no Google +

Really you pick up important matter of travel series. If you obident the fact you will success. Thanks for brilliant tutorial.

Thank you Ami, this was a very helpful article. It was very clear and gave me some motivation and inspiration. I am getting complete to go on a trip and I’m so excited to do some traveling photography. I add digital signatures on all my images.  And yes the photos are outstanding. 

Really fantastic article! Thank you so much for all of this wonderful insight! We have a very similar outlook on life! Lovely!! 

Nice Photography...Keep It Up...All the best to you.. Good Luck..~

Dear Ami,

I wanted to drop you a quick note to mention how touching your images are. They are not only perfectly executed from a technical point of view but more importantly for me, your photographs are full of feelings and emotion.

You are a true inspiration.

Sincerely,

Patrick

Amy, thank you so much for your consideration to other cultures and individuals. Acceptance and understanding (or at least an honest attempt) of other peoples has always been important to me even as a child.

Art Fox

Maravilloso.

You have a sensitivity that every phtographer should possess. 

Hello Ami,

Thank you for sharing your experience in this article.  I have been a wild life photo enthusiast for several years.  Recently I took a job working in an agricultural area and have been moved by the story of what it takes to grow our food.  Each day I drive to and from work I see things and activities that move me.  In particular, I have been moved by the role of the field workers who are essentially all Mexicans or of Mexican descent.  I can see how importatnt it will be for a sucessful project to find a way to connect with those in charge in order to connect with those in the fields.  The Landscape or remote shots will be "easy" to get but the up close and personal shots will require a real relationship.  Thanks for making a clear list of things to consider when dealing with people when looking to capture revealing moments in their lives as part of telling a meaningful story.

Best regards,

Bob 

Ami

Thanks so much for sharing your experience.  

John T

An old photographer, but new student

Sweet images to go with wise tips. I especially appreciate the obvious reciprocation between yourself and those on the other side of your camera. Your life must be a blast. Thank you for giving us a window into it :)

Love your photos and your advice. :)

Ami,

It is an excellent article, any one who does travelling must read it!

Alejandro

photography is about lighting, lenses(tele, wide angle), aperture, shutter speed, iso but most importantly lighting. With photography you record light. All the rest is bla bla bla and mambo jombo, period. 

Wonderfull article and photos. Thank you for sharing. Look forward to learning more about your photogaphy. 

Cheers, 

Van

   WOW!!! Just saw your work on B&H newsletter re. travel photography... As a 'rookie' amateur photographer,[ but as a pro. artist, painter] I'm in complete AWE of your stunning photos... I'm about to leave for my 6th trip to India where I've photographed 1,400 children & familys in the last 3 years but my pics look NOTHING like the crispness, and dense color in your beautiful work. I'm now a big fan, will follow you on FB & thankful for finding you. I'm 'public' on FB, ["DOUG HILSON"] which has many of my painting & photos, but after seeing your work, you'll learn nothing from mine. Finding your work has made my day. Thanks, Doug Hilson, New York

Beautiful stories and images, thank you so much for sharing.  Your tips and suggestions are excellent too, I'll definitely put them into practice.

Wow! :D

muy buenas! (Y)

  Great advice to know the culture where you are photogrphing.  Most people in foreign countries ejoy having their photos taken.  We experienced this on a recent trip to China.

very good pictures. i wished i can do the same.

This is great advice.  I opened this article expecting another list of 10 travel tips that featured advice like "bring a back-up battery".  While useful, it's been done.  Your advice on relating to people, taking notes etc. really needs to be said.  It is something that really helps new photographers like myself approach situations and be effective in getting good photographs and treating those we are photographing with respect. - Thank you.

Thank you so very much for these great tips!  I'm getting ready to travel to Romania, my 2nd trip there in a year, and will be bringing along my new Nikon D7100. I do plan on spending as much of my "free time" getting to know this camera, before my travels begin, but had already planned on bringing along an older and less sophiscated back up...but a camera that has spent a lot of time in these hands...just in case! I have a good friend in the country and we'll be hopping on a train to go into the mountains of Transylvania for most of my time there. We enjoyed spending a great deal of time in the little villages rarely visited by tourists, but since I will be traveling with a native that speaks their languages, we've been welcomed to their little communities with open arms. I developed a love for the people of that country...some of the most friendly and down to earth people I've ever met, and I  plan on trying to capture their true essence or, simply stated, what makes them the people that they are! Hard working, friendly souls, and I do believe that by following a few of your suggestions, my goals will be a bit easier to accomplish!

Ditto!

Excellant advise,

The most important thing to keep in mind, is the comment,

"I feel like an animal" when people travel to a location and treat people like they
are animals that tourists can do anything they want to.

LJE

Great insight

This was very inspiring!!! I hope others read this as I did and keep it close to them!!

Hello Ami,

     Great photos and very insightful reading.  While I'm hardly even an amateur I realized that I've been doing many of the things that ou recommend.  It's subject matter that is often glazed over in my opinion.  I've found that if i just be polite, respectful, sociable, genuine and discreet as much as possible it will create opportunities.  I'm hungry to learn as much as I can about photography so I'd like to read more of your articles and see more of your work.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos and worldviews. It's great to know I'm on the right track, since I never take anyone's photograph without introducing myself and asking permission.  Enjoyed your article and wonderful tips. Thank You. 

awesome article, would love to hear more.

I loved your way of thinking and seeing things...

Thanks a lot,

Gabrielle from Turkey

I love your work.  I take a yearly trip to Montana, a most beautiful place to unwind and search for ones self.  Most of the time is spent traveling the center of the state and photgraphing the landscape.  How ever did you find Montana?

What a fantastic write. I've been wanting to get more involved in photographing people. Which really speaks more to actually getting involved WITH people and not living at a distance

Hello Ami,

I have read many articles on tips and tricks of photography. But no one except you have told readers about joy of giving back. You redefined the concepts in photography. Thanks to you and this really must read article for upcoming photographers

Thanks again and all the best for your future assignment.

Great!!!!

Congratulations!!

You are good!

Ami,

I just read your article for B&H photography. Excellent!!  I know no strangers, and flap my lip all the time, but I never thought of actually getting to know my subject BEFORE you slap a camera in their face! We are getting ready in Oct to go west and into some Native American land, More than the scenery I am so excited to capture the faces. What wonderful ideas you have planted into my mind. Thanks so much! Your work is BEAUTIFUL and draws me into your subjects world. Got any hints for sending your not intrested in photography Nor talking, husband somewhere while you have fun??????

Thanks again,   Katie Abrams  (also a Nikon loyalist!)

B&H Una tienda que nos acerca la magia visual, sin especular con las ofertas y sus bajos precios, solo cabe exclamar ¡HURRA!

Thanks that was an eye opener. I never really look at photography that way. I love your work, you are the best.

Interesting tips. Thank you.

Very beauitful photos! always wanted to visit india! 

Travel blogger: VanillaSkyDreaming.com

Lovely

Great collection of images and very wise advice from a real expert.

Photos and advice are 1st class

Thanks for taking the trouble to share your advice.

I love the way you have travelled with common sense and appreciation of all that you shoot.

I could never shoot anything without consent, not permission, but an invitation to "join". I find this with wild life too.

I know I shoot with your "ethics and consideration", but I thoroughly appreciate your article and will reread it several times.

Dale

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