I was flattered to be interviewed recently by a writer for the Washington Post for an article on “Travel Selfies.” For those of us of a certain age, who need a translation, that mean self-portraits made while traveling. These photos. at their best, both the traveler and the destination they traveled to. The conversation I had with the writer was fascinating and I took it as an opportunity to turn some time well spent into a blog entry.
One of the many ironies is that I was producing so-called “travel selfies” long before they were popular. Between 1998, when my wife and I were married and 2004, when she became a U.S. citizen, whenever we were travelling together, we made “travel selfies.” We called them I.N.S. photos (referring to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.) We were thought we were assembling the photo album that we we needed for the dreaded “immigration interview.” Because she is from India we were especially concerned and believes that such a set of “travel selfies,” from around the globe, would prove our marriage was legitimate (and that my wife, Annu merited citizenship.)
This whole process may have been an overreaction to the 1990 movie Greencard, which, according to Wikipedia is:
A 1990 romantic comedy film written, produced, directed by Peter Weir and starring Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell. The screenplay focuses on an American woman, MacDowell, who enters into a sham marriage with Depardieu, an illegal alien from France, so he may obtain a green card. In turn, MacDowell uses her fake marriage credentials to rent the apartment of her dreams. They are subsequently contacted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for an interview to determine if the marriage is legitimate, Long story short, they fail the interview, discover they love each other and Depardieu is deported to France.
Fortunately for my wife and I, the the much feared “immigration interview” turned out to be incredibly fast and simple, leading to her citizenship.
When I was in college I also made many self-portraits. I was working my way through an understanding of the history of photography by photographing in the style of many different master photographers. The medium’s history is filled with photographers making “selfies,” almost from the day the medium was invented.
The two Washington Post articles were published August 24th and were titled: Tips to a better travel selfie and Me, my selfies and I. The latter article is more of a personal perspective as compared to the former which is on techniques to make better travel selfies.
Talking with the writer from the Washington Post, I tried to make a few points, which are relevant to any photographer thinking about making “travel selfies.”
A great selfie is still a great travel photo. By that I mean, a great travel photo makes the viewer want to go that place, meet those people, have that experience, eat that, etc. Yes, most selfies are about the person in the image (duh) but the ones that rise above are about the experience of being “there” first and about the person in the image second.
The Washington Post writer was asking for specific suggestions to make better “travel selfies” so I suggested:
Try using mirrors or reflecting surfaces to show yourself and the environment in the same scene. Traffic mirrors on corners, reflective car windows and shop windows can do this.
If everyone at a location is snapping themselves or their friends holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, for example, embrace that cliche and shoot yourself as one of the many people doing the exact same thing among the throng. One person “holding up” the tower is a selfe. A dozen people all acting like they are holding up the same tower is a great “travel selfie.”
Use the frame correctly. Set aside a portion of the frame for you and a portion for the background. Try NOT to leave any space unused! Avoid excess empty white space in your image since that is where the eye goes when we view any image.
Work hard to get good light on you and good light on the background. That usually means moving around into a position that may be counter-intuitive. The easiest way to appreciate this is to think of the old Kodak advertisement which said the best photos were made with the sun over your shoulder. In this case that might means that the Taj Mahal is in nice morning light coming from over your shoulder. Then turn yourself around (in this case away from the Taj Mahal,) get yourself in that same good light and snap away.
Though most “travel selfies” are made with cell phones, I prefer using a conventional camera for those since a “real” camera can give me a great deal more control over the composition, lens choice, framing, depth of field, etc.
My favorite camera for this is my Olympus TG-850. It is only a bit bigger than my iPhone, nearly indestructible and the LCD screen flips 180 degrees which is perfect for seeing exactly what is going to be in the image, (besides me.)
When using a point and shoot cameras (and some of the better cell phone cameras) try using flash fill. That works best when you are positioned in much less light than the background and have your camera/phone put out enough light (via the flash) so instead of getting a silhouette of you, the light on you and the light on the background roughly match. On the better point and shoot cameras you can easily adjust the flash output so it looks less harsh and reduces the ugly “deer in headlights” effect.
Also, keep your chin up since bad mid-day light creates ugly shadows in your eye sockets and if your chin is up, those bad shadows look a bit less unpleasant. People generally look better with their chins up so why people pose for selfies with their chins down is beyond me.
One way to make a selfie less about you and more about the experience you had is to include yourself among the people you meet in the various locations where you go. Seeing you amidst the “locals” makes the image more interesting to others. Consider including yourself in an imaginary line of people with the lead person being a statue, with the photo composed as if the statue were making the “selfie.”
PLEASE lose the idiotic smile that seems to be required for every selfie. If you are in a thought provoking place or having a serious experience why not have your “selfie” reflect that serious, somber or emotional mood?
And finally, do not be moron and try to make “selfies” in certain inappropriate or even dangerous situations. The two most obvious examples of late involve fools making “selfies” while running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain or posing in the middle of the road to capture a “selfie” amidst the riders on the Tour de France. Just because you can do something stupid does not mean you have to.