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Here’s a bit of common photography advice I often read on popular travel blogs: Research your destination on 500px or Flickr. The idea is that if you review other photographers’ images, before you even get on the plane, you’ll know the best gear options, the best locations to shoot, how to get there and the best time to arrive. Sounds great, right? Well, not really. For me, this advice basically says hey, other photographers have already cut this trail so now we have a digital “manual” to reproduce their beautiful images. Except… I want to make compelling images that tell stories, and the story I most want to tell is my story. Whose story am I telling if I just study and replicate other photographers’ images?
If we’re planning a trip to Tuscany (and frankly, I almost always am), when we pour over those images on 500px, are we really absorbing them and thinking about how we can make our own unique images of Tuscany? Or honestly, are we just trying to figure out where to stand so that we get that awesome shot of Belvedere, the famous Tuscan farmhouse?
To me, a big part of compelling photography is the story the images tell. When I make images, I want you to be able to find me (metaphorically speaking) in the image. When I look at your images, I want to see a bit of you. That idea may not always be possible with a single image but with travel photography, we’re usually presenting a group of images. It’s that combined series of images that tells our story. So here’s the rub: If we see an awesome image of Belvedere on 500px, plan a day to go shoot it at dawn, and then motor off to our next shoot location, what’s our story? Is it simply “I was here?” And is that enough? For me, no.
What if we did it a different way? What if instead of researching key word Tuscany on 500px, we researched Tuscan food and learned about making pasta. And then we learned about traditional Italian Bolognaise sauce (which happens to be out of this world in Tuscany, trust me). And then maybe we learned about Chianti wine. And olive oil. And, oh-my-gosh, limoncello. Maybe along the way we find a blog, written by a local, who tells you in her About Me page that she gives personal tours of her farm or her region? So we email her and she replies that she’d love to give us a tour and she’ll introduce us to a neighbor who runs an agritourismo, where we can eat lunch and drink local wine poured straight out of the barrel. Maybe while we’re on this crazy food and wine adventure, we’ll pass a farmhouse with all the charm of Belvedere, but none of the celebrity. We can snap a few test shots at high noon, note the coordinates and come back at dusk, with full bellies, wine-stained lips, a bushel-full of memories and gorgeous images of our day recorded on our cameras, so that we can share every detail and vista with our friends/families/followers back home.
Personally, I’ve never shot Belvedere. Someday I might but so far, it hasn’t been part of my story. I’ve traveled to Tuscany a dozen times but that particular farmhouse has never crossed my path. I’m pretty sure someday it will, but until then, it is somebody else’s beautiful image that I’m more than happy to admire from afar.
The TL;DR Take-Away:
- Traveling soon? Skip the popular advice. Don’t research images online at 500px or Flicker.
- Why? Because you want to make images that reflect you, not replicate work other photographers have already done.
- Instead, research the culture of the place where you’re going.
- Delve into food and lifestyle blogs.
- Get in touch with locals.
- Find ways to connect what you love (i.e. food, wine, religion, flowers, animals) with where you’re going.
- Use those connections to make your travel images more personal.
- Not traveling soon? No problem.Use the same methods to search out local people and places, and learn new things about your own city.