I have been making photographs seriously since 1972, when I fell in love with photography during an intro to photography class in high school. I have been taking pictures for money since 1980, when I graduated from college after studying the history of photography. I have been traveling around the globe to make photographs (and to teach classes) since 1986. In all that time, I have used hundreds of different cameras. Along the way, I have picked up a few things that have become constants in my tool kit as a photographer. They are part of my process, regardless of where I go, who I am working for, or what gear I am working with.
This blog originally appeared on the B + H Insights web site in 2011 as “Road Warrior 101” for the photographer (part one of two)
In 1988, I set my personal record for traveling the most days for work. I was away from home 300 out of 365 days. (I know this because I track it for tax purposes.) I travel a lot less than that now. I have also become much smarter about my traveling. On my first overseas trip, to Israel in 1975, I took every piece of gear I owned. From photos of me prepping for that trip, it also looks like I took with me every piece of clothes that I owned. By comparison, these days I travel as light as possible. Since plenty of other people blog extensively about traveling light, in terms of clothes and packing, I will skip that. Although it is a bit of a cliché, the single most important tool I have as a photographer is my accumulated experience. That has been built through tens of thousands of shoots, while working on thousands of assignments, producing hundreds of my favorite photos and while making what seem like millions of mistakes. (I learn more from my mistakes than my successes.)
Some of my most important tools are obviously pieces of gear. Others are techniques and ideas. In this first of two blog entries, I will be talking about non gear-related items. All the tools I carry, in my head or in my bag are important in helping me do what I do best, which is making new and interesting photographs, for myself and for my clients.
In no particular order:
- The first thing I do when I know I am going to a new country is to try to read up as much as I can on the place. Anyone should be doing that! My favorite resource for that kind of information is a great series of books called: “Culture Shock!: (followed by the name of the given country, such as “Culture Shock! India.”) They now have over two-dozen countries covered. You can see some at: www.paperbackswap.com/Culture-Shock/genre/17074/ One guide from that series which was especially helpful to me before my first of two trips to Cuba was: “Culture Shock! Cuba.”
- The travel guidebooks that I prefer to use are the Lonely Planet series. They seem to have the best balance of information, varying from very high-end places to eat and lower end places to stay. I tend to eat up-market but stay down market to maximize my experiences as I minimize my costs.
- In that same vein, I try to go to places where I know at least one person, if not more. That way, although I am still an outsider, I have a little better entrée’ into the local culture. I have been working across India for 15 years largely because of my wife’s extensive family network in that country. Similarly, when I go to Bangladesh, I always work with friends at Pathshala, the South Asian Media Academy.
- In March of 2006 we went to Japan for two reasons. First, we had long wanted to see the place and second an old friend was living and working in Tokyo for a year. Even though he is Brazilian, his knowledge of Tokyo and his minimal Japanese enabled us to see Tokyo (and Kyoto) as less of the kind of outsiders we would have been if we had gone there with no local contacts.
- I am not normally one to take a tour or go with a guided photography group but if I do, I spend most of my time hammering home to the guide/driver/planner that as a photographer my strategy is not what they are expecting, in terms of time of day to see a place. Most groups tend to follow a 9 to 5 schedule and arrive at the important destinations in bad, mid-day light, often with harsh sun that cats hideous shadows. I go out of my way to leave early, or stay late (or both) in order to get the best light at the beginning and end of the day. To fully appreciate this point, look at my pod cast, “The Wells Point.” The diagrams and images in the video will help you understand how time of day and the light’s direction can be utilized to improve your photography. See that at thewellspoint.com/the-wells-point-podcast/
- I have blogged about how, while cameras appear to be the biggest expenditure in photography, there are other important ways to invest money that will improve your skills. You can read about that at thewellspoint.com/2010/06/11/goals-and-gear/ The point of the blog entry is that non-gear related expenditures can be excellent preparation for any kind of photographic “journey.”
For the serious traveling photographer, the right gear is clearly important. No question of that. I will talk about some of the most important gear I use wherever I go in the second part of this blog entry.But for me, the cameras really are the least of it. All the other stuff that I bring with me, read in preparation or arrange in advance, those are often the keys to my happiness as a photographic road warrior.