On Nov. 15, 2013, I turned 10 years old—not as a human being but as a travel photographer. During my first 10 years, I learned a few things about photography (most of them the hard way), so I jotted them down as I reflected on the previous decade. Some of the things I learned are obvious (now); others not so much.
Here are my top 5 photo tips based on these last 10 years:
1. The golden hour does not last an hour (at least where most people live). How I wish it did! Photographers love to talk about the “golden hour”—the time just following sunrise when the light is amazing. This is how it works: You get up at an uncivilized hour and drive to “the spot” to take a picture. The sweet light, if it materializes at all, lasts maybe 10 to 20 minutes and you are done. You look at your watch—it’s 5:30 a.m. and there is nothing open. It’s energy bar time. If the day is cloudy, the energy bar tastes like sawdust. If the light is beautiful and you got some good pictures, the energy bar tastes slightly better.
2. Photographers are only as good as the subject in front of them. Another way to put this (and I’m paraphrasing National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson): to take better pictures, stand in front of better subjects. There are a lot of articles out there encouraging photographers to take pictures in their own backyard, neighborhood, or local state park. Fair enough. But if you want your pictures to look like Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal, well, you know what you have to do: get thee to Peru or Agra.
3. Clichés sell. Back in the day, I remember reading an editorial in an outdoor photography magazine extolling the virtues of original images and decrying the all-too-easy-to-capture cliché. The same magazine, however, featured an all-too-easy-to-capture image of Half Dome in Yosemite, a well-worn cliché. I was surprised, confused, and, yes, a little hurt. As I looked at other magazines, I saw a trend: a story about London featured Big Ben; another about Paris led with an image of, you guessed it, the Eiffel Tower.
Nice shots, to be sure, but no different than those you have seen thousands of times. I learned my lesson. No matter what editors and magazines say, clichés do sell, so next time you are out photographing, be different and creative, but make sure you also photograph the clichés. And if it bothers you to call your pictures “clichés,” just call them “icons.”
4. There is a big difference between travel and travel photography. Travelers sleep while travel photographers get up at Oh-Dark-Hundred and take naps on park benches. Travelers have nice dinners at exotic restaurants while travel photographers eat energy bars as they wait for the late afternoon light to hit their subject just right. On the other hand, most travelers miss the most magic moments of a destination because they were either sleeping or having dinner. Take your pick.
5. Don’t wait for inspiration. This one I learned right away. If you sit around waiting to get inspired to take pictures, you will do more sitting around than taking pictures. Here’s a quote from painter Chuck Close that sums it up nicely (and directly): “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Bonus Tip: If you want your human subject to look natural, never tell them, “Look natural.”
Now get out there and shoot something.