How ‘The Strobist’ David Hobby Has Spent His Permanent Vacation

A street scene at night shows a person riding a scooter, with their reflection visible in the scooter's side mirror. The street is lined with buildings and shops, illuminated by various lights, creating a lively atmosphere.

Long-time PetaPixel readers might recognize the byline above. If you don’t, Hi, I’m David, and from 2006 to 2021 I published, a blog that taught photographic lighting.

(Nice to meetcha, by the way.)

Strobist by then had reached a natural end point in its subject matter, and I did not want to spend the rest of my life in reruns. Being “upper middle-aged” at the time, I realized I either needed to retire or find another project.

Full retirement, to me, felt like a fast track to a dirt nap. And that didn’t sound fun.

So instead, I decided to cobble together the best parts of the previous phases of my photography life: newspaper photojournalist for 20 years, followed by internet-based teacher for the next 15.

I kept the journalism and travel from my newspaper days, and the teaching from my internet days. Partnering with my old college newspaper editor, I leaned into the X-Peditions workshop program we had been nurturing since 2018.

Now, instead of millions of students, I have just 12 per year. Which, for a teaching photographer, might be the very best job in the world.

A bride in a white dress sits at a small outdoor table beside a man adjusting his shirt on a busy street. A vendor carrying a traditional shoulder pole with baskets of fruit walks by, blending modern and traditional elements in an urban setting.

At X-Peds, we soak up most of the year prepping a small group of photographers. Then we spend eight days in November in and around Hanoi, Vietnam. During that time, we are in full-immersion photo mode: shooting every day, eating well, and thinking expansively about pictures.

Like I said, heckuva job.

After 40 years’ squinting through a viewfinder, my schedule now feels luxurious by comparison. Our time in Hanoi is like a nonstop idea lab, with constant cross-learning happening between both students and teacher.

Through the years, the X-Peds pre-trip handbook grew to be over 100 pages. Which is really cool when it comes to thorough class prep. But it’s a lot of work to benefit just 12 people per year.

So at some point, it made sense to both expand and generalize that content into, say, a real book that could benefit far more people. And this week, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto: A Guide to Connecting With People and Place, was published.

A book titled "The Traveling Photographer's Manifesto" by David Hobby is placed on a wooden surface. Next to it, there is a blue passport and a small composition notebook labeled "Composition Hand Legend" with some travel tickets attached.

The book is aimed at photo enthusiasts who want to recast their relationship with their camera, transforming it into a tool that can serve a much broader purpose. Especially when on the road. And today, I want to share with you a few ideas from the book.

Having had a few years to both breathe and to closely watch my students, here’s a top-level observation: We’re way too hung up on photography.

Seriously, we are an industry of photo-nerd navel-gazers. (And this, from a guy who wrote 2,000+ posts about photographic lighting.)

Guilty. Straight to jail.

So, first suggestion: To become a better photographer, zoom out. Stop focusing on photography so much.

If you look at people who are really good shooters, the photography itself is very rarely their “thing.” Usually, they are way more into something else. And photography is, like, their vehicle for that thing.

Show me a photographer who has just created an amazing project, and I’ll show you a photographer who is obsessed with the subject of their project. (And not the particulars of their camera gear.)

Much like shooting a project, travel is one of those special times when you get to step out of your normal day-to-day life, and dip into another stream in the multiverse. And our cameras can be an effective tool at helping us to do that.

That’s the reason behind the choice of [travel+photography] as the intersection in my book.

So, while I have you, I want to give you five quick ideas from the book to get you thinking the next time you travel with your camera. In no particular order, here they are.

Silhouettes of people exercising by a lake in the early morning. Some are stretching while others stand or walk. The lake is calm, and the background shows trees and buildings under a blue, predawn sky.

1) Jet lag sucks. Especially the 12-time-zone, zombie-land kind. But if you can power through, for just two days (only sleeping when it’s dark outside) you can then hack this liminal state by incorporating an early afternoon, daily siesta.

This new sleep pattern will turn you into a circadian superhuman, fully alert to experience both blue hours, both twilights, and both golden hours. This will work for the duration of your trip. (Oh, and you can still meet friends for beers at 11:00pm, as well.)

2) Compared to having free run of a whole city, shooting under the constraints of a specific assignment might seem like boxing in handcuffs. In reality, it is exactly that restriction that can amp both your seeing and your creativity.

So, learn to incorporate internalized, self-assignments. (But first, you’ll have to figure out what magazine you are.)

A group of women are playing volleyball in an outdoor courtyard bordered by a low wall. One woman is poised to hit the ball, while others observe. They are dressed casually, and buildings with balconies and a shaded area are visible in the background.

3) Sigh. If we all would devote just half of the energy we spend geeking out on photo gear to instead focusing on our timing and composition, we’d all be better photographers.

I see this so much when editing student work in Hanoi. You spent a lot of time and effort to put yourself in a position to make a potentially great photo. Now, what does that picture look like if you had moved just six inches to the left?

Or, what does it look like if you were tracking that lady walking across your frame, and shooting on the 16th beat before every foot fall?

Look, Alex Webb lives in the same four-dimensional world that we do. He just pays much closer attention at crunch time. That is when you should be more focused, as well.

4) Speaking of foot falls: Life happens to a rhythm. The time scale may vary, but many activities are predictable. And this is especially true in a dense city.

Learn to exploit this repetition. It might mean something as real-time as tracking pedestrians passing through nice light in an intersection. Or maybe it’s noticing something that happens once a day, like a street stall worker lighting up her first morning blue-hour cigarette while setting up shop.

Put the camera down more often, and study the rhythms around you. Notice stuff more closely. If you miss a great photo, be observant and proactive and you’ll likely catch it on the rebound. Plus, given the extra time to plan, you often can make your own luck and get an even better version.

5) Lastly, remember that pictures reinforce great experiences, and great experiences lead to better pictures. So pay extra attention to the intersection of unique experiences and their resulting photos.

A person navigates a small boat filled with goods along a tranquil river surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and lush greenery. Other boats can be seen in the distance, with a misty atmosphere adding to the scenic beauty of the landscape.

The more closely you can bind the two together—and this is a two-way alignment process—the more resonant your travel experiences and the resulting photos will remain, years from now.

The photo above, for instance, was shot around sunrise on a river in Tam Coc, Vietnam. We were on our way back to the docks, after arranging to be the very first boat out on the water. (Siesta for the win.)

Against this limestone painted backdrop comes these market boats, being rowed by ladies using their feet. What were they selling? Pretty much anything you’d want.

I bought a cup of coffee, for less than $1. Yeah, right on the river. It was G7 3-in-1 Vietnamese instant coffee, and it was awesome. And you can get it locally in the US at nearly any Asian market.

Here’s the thing: Now, every time I make a cup of G7 3-in-1, a part of me is back on that river. The experience, the coffee, and the photo are all tied together in my memory.

That’s why I carry a camera when I travel. To bottle up preserve those little magical overlaps. And to be clear, the real overlap here is the river experience and the coffee. The picture is the just pretty wrapper that preserves it.

So step back. Breathe. Observe. Absorb. So much of what can amp your photography comes down to just being thoughtful, and purposeful. Think of it as opening your mind’s aperture up a stop or two.

(“Your mind’s aperture? What?” )

Yeesh, that sounds like I’ve done mushrooms or something. Or not. I’m not saying. I’m just saying that having so much free time since completing the Strobist site has been glorious.

If you want to take an armchair trip to Hanoi with a slightly seasoned photojournalist sticking all sorts of probably weird ideas into your head, maybe give the book a spin.

And if you do, please write and let me know your thoughts. I’ve got time to read them now. The email address is in the back. And make sure to attach a photo, too.

Otherwise, I’ll see you out on the river. If you are up early enough.

About the author: David Hobby spent 20 years—and more than 10,000 assignments—as a staff photojournalist for newspapers before leaving the Baltimore Sun in 2007 to publish Having since taught photography classes for more than 15 years, he now serves as lead instructor for X-Peditions photo workshops, held in Hanoi, Vietnam.

All photos by David Hobby.