One of my passions in life is travel. I love to travel, experience new cultures, try new foods, meet new people and, of course, take photos while I’m traveling.
“Street photography” tends to be a very specific genre, and everyone has their own definition. For me, I see pretty much any form of photograph taken in public as “street photography”—including much the huge genre of photography often referred to as “travel photography.”
However, I learned from Cindy that travel photography tends to be less artistic and more about personal documentation of your experiences while you’re abroad. So how can we bridge the two? Can you shoot traditional “street photography” while in a foreign place without making it look “National Geographic-y?”
Shoot like you’re home
One of the problems when we’re traveling and taking photos in a foreign country is that we get “suckered in by the exotic” (as I learned from my teacher, Constantine Manos). We get inspired and awed by what is exotic, different, and novel.
Yet what is exotic and novel isn’t always interesting photographically.
We tend to fall victim to visual cliches when traveling: we want to shoot the Eiffel tower when we’re in Paris, colorful walls and men in turbans in India, and women in rice patty-hats in Vietnam.
So how do you capture “interesting” and “unique” photos while traveling? My suggestion: photograph like you’re at home. Alternatively, pretend you’re a local.
We all know the cliches in our own town. For example, when I shot a lot in Downtown LA, photographing the vendors with bubbles was a bit of a cliche. When I was in San Francisco, photographing photos of homeless people was an easy-target and cliche. In Vietnam, I try to avoid just random people riding in motorbikes.
How do locals photograph their own city?
Before I travel somewhere, I try to see what kinds of images the local photographers make.
For example, before coming to Hanoi, I typed “Hanoi Street Photography” into Google and found the work of Chu Viet Ha (who takes interesting, multi-layered, complex, and colorful images of Hanoi). Since then, we have become good friends, and I like to shoot with him. He teaches me how to photograph like a local, and I pay attention to what he decides not to photograph.
I recommend the same approach the next time you plan on traveling to a foreign place. Figure out what kind of photos you don’t want to make.
When you’re shooting street photography while traveling abroad, use it as an opportunity to work on your technique (not just photograph what is exotic).
For example, practice working on shooting layers, practice trying to capture “the decisive moment,” and practice trying to reduce or remove clutter or distractions from your frame. Think of how you can photograph in good light (sunrise and sunset), and capture lovely shadows and light in your images.
Document your personal experiences
Of course, you are more than welcome to take touristy snapshots. If I have great food, I like to take photos of it; I will occasionally snap a nice landscape to send to my family back home.
But I feel a lot of travel photography should be more about yourself rather than others. I find traveling gives you the mental space to reflect on life. Take photos of your own inner-mindstate while you’re traveling. Take photos which are personally meaningful to you rather than just taking photos which are “exotic” and “interesting.”
When you’re traveling, ask yourself how you can take photos that reflect who you are as a human, and the experiences you’re going through. Also, know that you don’t have to share all the photos you take while you’re traveling abroad. Make photos that only you would appreciate, and re-visit those memories and images when you get back home.
Can I find a better image on Google images?
Another tip: think to yourself, “If I looked for this image of this scene, could I find something better on Google Images?” This question keeps me from spending a lot of time trying to take a good photo of the Eiffel Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge.
Take photos that only you could make (while traveling abroad).
Enjoy the walk
Another tip on making street photos while traveling: just enjoy the walk (and bring your camera along). Don’t feel you need to document every single thing you see, or experience.
Follow your gut. Only click the shutter if you actually plan on re-visiting the image later.
One of my mistakes when I first started to travel was that I took photos of everything, and then never looked at them a second time. Nowadays I only take photos of what I think I will look at again later. The practical benefit to this approach is that I don’t have to look through tens of thousands of photographs after a trip. I take fewer photos that are more personally-meaningful to me.
Travel close to home
Also know that “traveling” isn’t necessarily about going really far from where you live. Traveling is more about a shift in mindset than location.
Think of it this way and you can “travel” pretty close to home. Perhaps visit the next town, village, or city. Go on a short weekend road trip in your car, or take the metro, bus, or train somewhere off your personal beaten path.
Inject some novelty into your travels by visiting a place somewhat different from where you live. It doesn’t have to be totally different, just different enough to change your mindset. Certainly not so different that you need to spend thousands of dollars on a plane ticket.
Enjoy your experience
Lastly, don’t feel like you must take the world’s best photos when you’re traveling. Instead, think of travel as a chance for you to reflect on life, to think about your values and reflect on the direction your life is heading.
Use your time while traveling to journal, reflect, and meditate on life; write in your notebook, write diary entries, and make photos. Try to change yourself somehow mentally before you go back home. Don’t expect to make good photos, or else you will be disappointed.
Focus on the experience of traveling, over making images.