Thursday, October 20, 2011

Would you travel without a camera?

Travel essential?

Whether you consider yourself a traveller or a tourist (and there’s a topic for another post), would you - could you - take a trip entirely without a camera? My camera (sometimes more than one) is with me on all my trips. Taking pictures and reliving the adventures through them afterwards gives me lots of pleasure, as does sharing my best shots on my blog, Facebook, in slideshows or even prints. I’m hardly Robinson Crusoe there.

But are reasons to leave the camera at home?

Duplication of effort:

Round and round and round...
If you are traveling in a couple (or more), and one person in the group is an avid or exceptionally good photographer, it may make sense for you to abandon any attempt to compete. My view is, if taking photos gives you your own special pleasure, go ahead and take your own too. Here’s a related point for that avid photographer: if you’re in a group, you can be really annoying if you make everyone wait while you get that one special shot. It’s only special to you. There are ways to avoid this problem, such as traveling alone or with other photographers. On an Antarctic cruise, I once joined a small group of photographers who were put into their own Zodiac (inflatable boat) with a photographic guide. The rest of the group was warned: “don’t join this boat unless you want to spend twenty minutes going round and round the same iceberg.” We did, and it was fantastic.

Too much effort:

On a grueling trek, a hike through sand and dust, or in hot humid conditions, where carrying a camera would be difficult or tough (on you and the camera), you might decide to forget that added hassle. On the other hand, if you are a keen photographer these extreme adventures may be just the sort of thing you want to record, but consider if the effort is really worth it. I carried my digital SLR and its heavy lens all the way to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, then lay in my tent in the crater too exhausted by the climb and the altitude to have any wish at all to crawl out and set up a tripod to capture the full moon over the glaciers.

Crater camp on Kilimanjaro: a long way to drag a camera.

Photography not allowed:

You might be happily snapping away, recording your holiday memories, only to find that the interior of a special place is out of bounds to photography. Many churches, art galleries and museums do allow non-flash photographs, but certainly not all. How does that make you feel? I usually go through the gamut of momentary annoyance and maybe disappointment, to resignation, to actually enjoying the experience of a visit which doesn’t focus (excuse the pun) on lining up a great shot, or waiting for tourists to get out of my way. If the place is really special (think the Villa Borghese in Rome, as just one example), buy a book or a few postcards. A related situation: your camera breaks, or you forgot the charger, or the memory card is full or battery run down. Chill.

Photography could get you into trouble:

There are places you shouldn’t photograph: military installations are high on that list, and some parliament buildings. Put the camera away when you see one of those, or anything possibly related, such barbed wire and sandbag bunkers, or vague white domes in the desert, or an airport where there is no commercial airport. Yes, you might grab a Pulitzer winning clandestine picture, but you might also get arrested. Or shot. There are also culturally sensitive sites where photography might be inappropriate. (Aside: I would suggest that the elders of Uluru place that sign saying “no photographs” of certain sacred sites at the Rock a little more prominently - sorry!)

Uluru: Photography allowed from this viewpoint

What happens afterwards?

Get creative with your photos
In the old days, some holiday makers would return home, have their film developed, show the prints around, then put them in a drawer or box to be forgotten more or less for ever afterwards. Today the equivalent is a computer hard drive full of photos that haven’t been culled or edited or organised, and that no-one looks at anyway. I’ve known people who didn’t even download their pictures from their camera card. My motto is, if you enjoy your photos, keep them accessible. File them away on your computer in some kind of logical, named or at least dated order. And use them: put your favourite shots on your desktop, keep a blog or make Facebook albums, make some slideshows (really easy to do these days) even if only you will look at them. For very special “wow!” shot, you might consider prints; for once-in-a-lifetime trips a hard copy photo book is also easy to produce. Enter your best shots in photo competitions; make on-line albums and send the link to your friends.

The experiential approach

How many times have you seen - or been one of - a group of sightseers alighting from a bus at a viewpoint and hurriedly scattering en masse to take photographs? Now, as you can tell from my views above, I’m not averse to this. Photography gives a lot of people a lot of pleasure. But consider what the alternative experience might be like. I once sat next to a fellow traveller on a bus out to Yosemite National Park. The day was glorious, the waterfalls were in full spate, around every corner was a picture-postcard view. My companion simply got off the bus and gazed interestedly around him. No camera. In conversation, I learnt that he was taking a one year trip through various countries, learning languages and staying with local families. He had decided: no camera, and no souvenirs. There was no space in a backpack for souvenirs, and a year’s worth of photos was too daunting a prospect. With this philosophy, he was free to quietly absorb the places he visited, and fix them in his memory as experiences rather than carefully composed visual take-homes.

Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite. Too beautiful not to snap....

A few tips for those of us who still want to take a camera:

Permission granted.
  • Carry a small compact which fits in your pocket for those times when a big SLR would be intrusive or crass, or when you’ll be walking for hours and don’t want to carry a load, or when you think you would like to go out without a camera but are still just a little too addicted to go cold turkey.
  • Seriously good photographs sometimes happen through luck; but more usually they do mean carrying good (heavy) gear, and getting up early to catch the best light. And having patience and the willingness to sacrifice most of your holiday to photography.
  • It is absolutely true that you should ask permission before sticking a camera lens in someone’s face. You might think that you are far enough away and they won’t notice...but you really don’t want an angry Maasai warrior dancing around in front of your African safari vehicle because someone inside it took a photo that shouldn’t have been taken (yep, actually happened to me). Also, it is just not civilised.
  • Do use long lenses to capture ‘people scenes’ without being obtrusive. And you will not - repeat, not - get any decent wildlife pictures with out some kind of telephoto. You will not get great ones with out the right equipment for the job. The same applies to itty-bitty subjects, such as insects, low-light situations and capturing movement. And as for trying to photograph inside an arena or theatre or cathedral with the little flash on your compact: it only lights up a few metres in front of you, you know. (I can’t believe that still needs to be said).
  • Do cull, discard, select when you get home. And do use editing software to at least straighten your wonky horizons and remove dust smudges. The diehards will work long and hard on their ‘post-production’, but even a happy-snapper has no excuse to show really bad photos now that digital is here.
  • If you take a camera on your trip, take it with you wherever you go, and use it. This may seem obvious, but cameras left in the hotel room are responsible for a lot of great missed shots.

Photo credit: Mike Holihan
Your blogger with long lens at the ready....

...for this shot.

And a final thought...

There are other ways to record and relive your trip. Try writing some stories, sketching, or making a scrapbook of ticket stubs, postcards and memorabilia. A camera isn’t compulsory. Enjoy!

Here are a few travel photographer blogs with some lovely shots: clearly these guys never leave their cameras behind!

David Lazar
The Travel Photographer
Mitchell K Photos


  1. I don't carry a SLR because I'm just too lazy to carry around something that heavy. I find that a my Canon 20 IS powershot - is a reasonable compromise - it has the 20X zoom which takes pretty good pics - even with this idiot on the other side :-)

  2. Hi Lissie - I've seen some great results from the smaller Powershot cameras. Sounds like you're a Canon fan like me!

  3. Thanks Annette, this is a great post and has made me feel normal that I carry a camera to most places.

    I have not been able to get this post out of my mind for several days now.


    P.S. I like your new design in chocolate tones

  4. It is a good article, and I saw your big white one for your Canon! My SLR (Canon too) is still compact with the basic one 18-55 F2.8, and I also have a small Leica D-Lux4, as you suggested, for some easy occasions.
    I use Flickr to store (or show off) my photos. I really like the idea to make a photo book for some trips, but have not really act on it yet.

    By the way, I am going to London next week. Will you be in the city?

  5. Hi Bruce - I knew you'd be in the "take a camera" camp! And one of those who get a lot of pleasure from their picture taking. It was a great idea for you to set up a blog to show of your years of fab pics.

  6. Hi Yiling! Another camera-fan friend! Lovely to hear from you, and yes - I will be in London next week. I'll sned you an email with my contact details - it would be great to catch up if we can find a time.

  7. when I was younger I wished for a camera to be implanted in my head (not so hard these days I suppose) so I could just think 'shoot'whenever I wanted to take a pic.

  8. I guess if we were to get philosophical, Bruce,we could argue that our eyes are just that, with the images being recorded in memory...close your eyes for the slide show...:-))

  9. Oh, I read a news somewhere, there is a guy who put a camera into his fake eyeball, so he can really take photos for whatever he sees. Well, his another eye is a good one. But it is still not as good as our eyes really see.