When the Guide Guides You

A few months ago I posted the Travel Checklist and I discussed having a plan in place when it comes to shooting a new destination for the first time. If you travel with any regularity you know that it can be difficult to capture the essence of a place the first time through; it’s a good idea to have a plan and a general reminder of what sort of things you should keep your eye out for, lest you return home with a collection of random tourist snapshots (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

I’ve had some feedback on this post from people wanting to see how I put the Travel Checklist into action. Now, if you were to check out my flickr stream or any of my published work you would likely get a good idea of how I operate when I touch down in a new place and I’m working on a limited timeframe. That being said, I’ll break down a few sections here to show you exactly what I’m talking about.

I’d love to know if this is helpful for any of you good folks out there; let me see some of your examples and show me how you put the Travel Checklist into action. Like I mentioned in the original post, I’d like to know if you would make and changes or additions.

Now, on to the new stuff.

This question was posed to me by Eddie Provencher from www.tigersandmagpies.com .

“You once posted a sample list of potential photos to take when traveling so that people could take it with them and have goals for their photography. I asked if you could post some examples of how you put it into practice. Maybe you could do a theory-to-practice section and include a single example from how your list has guided you.”

Here and now I’ll try and put my money where my mouth is to show you that this list is practically helpful and, in many ways, can inspire you to create images you may not always consider creating while on the road. I recently spent five days in Chicago with my stalwart travel companion, Megan Ahrens. Many of my shooting plans were altered due to scheduling conflicts and adverse weather conditions, so I turned to the list for a little hit of motivation. Let’s work through a few examples.

 

Category 1: The Urbanity of it All

The broadest of all categories; no matter what city or town of village you’re in, you should be able to create an image under each one of these headings. Here’s a quick look at The Classic Monument, Redux.

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Cloud Gate – well known as The Bean – is one of Chicago’s most recognizable and most frequently photographed tourist attractions/monuments. I wanted to do something new here, shoot this in a way that fewer people shoot it (though I’m not crazy enough to assume no one has thought of this before me). I’ve seen a million photos of The Bean with the city skyline in the background; nice photos, sure, postcard kind of stuff, but not altogether gripping or compelling (the same-same, no different phenomenon). So, want to know what I did? I started in the same place as all those who have come before. I shot the typical Bean + Skyline photo. Then I shot a whole lot more. I kept moving and looking for new angles on this thing until I found the one I wanted, high and tight and up into the under carriage. It took me about thirty minutes to find this frame at this angle with this light, but working with the idea in the back of my mind that I wanted to present this Classic Monument in a new way helped propel me to my end goal.

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I also enlisted the help of Roy Orbison’s cousin to breathe fresh air into the old bean. In my humble opinion, these are much more interesting than this take on the bean:

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Let’s take a minute and look at one more heading in this category:

– The Classic Cityscape

We all want to round out or travel portfolio with classic images of city skylines, right? I know I do. I also strive to present the city in a new way, in a new light, whenever possible.

We did our first bit of skyline shooting from Navy Pier… just before noon. Not a good time to shoot a city skyline, of course.

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These two frames, while serviceable, are not altogether remarkable – or memorable. I could have settled for these frames and moved on (or come back in better light!) but I knew I could find a new angle on the city if I looked for it. I got to thinking about the Navy Pier and all the things that conjures in the mind, and I came up with this:

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This is my Classic Cityscape; this is Chicago from the Navy Pier for me. You can make each and every one of these categories your own if you do a little digging.

Category 2: The Things that Move us

– The Underground Subway

Transportation! The way into, out of and through a city. No travel portfolio is complete without images of people being moved. But how to capture the things that move us effectively and originally? This is, of course, the big question.

You want to be specific. You want to capture the essence of whatever mode of transportation it is you’re focusing on. Megan and I used the subway to get into the downtown core from the suburbs every day, so I did a bit of experimenting. I tried panning. I tried shooting portraits of conductors. I focused on the details. Then I decided I would go hyper-regional – the best way to think about travel photography – and I began looking for someone riding the metra (an everyday part of Chicago life) while proudly wearing their Cubs pride (more of a religion than a way of life).

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This is what I came up with. I’m not sure if it would have made the cut on the Seoul Metro Project, but I like it.

Now, sticking with transportation for a moment, there’s a category of people mover I have totally overlooked. I forgot all about the ubiquitous American taxi cab. I can’t believe it! Taxis – whether you’re inside, outside or on top of – make for great photographic fodder.

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Consider the Ubiquitous Taxi Cab a new category. The second frame even relates to the idea of the Classic Cityscape. Relate these categories and headings to one another as often as you can.

 

Category 3: The Natural World

Ha! I know what you’re thinking. “The Natural World? In Chicago? He has got to be joking. There is no natural anything in that massive urban wasteland!”

To that I say, bull honkey. If you look hard enough, there’s a little mother nature in even the most rugged expanse of urban never-endingness. Most places worth visiting were built on some river, tributary or lake. Many more are located in deep valleys, surrounded by mountains. Sometimes you don’t even have to go too far out of the way to enlist the help of Mother Nature; you simply need to know where to look. Or, more appropriately, you need a reminder to open your eyes. That’s how I use this Travel Checklist these days; as a reminder.

Oh! I should see what the natural world has to offer in Chicagoland. Look at all these headings… there has to be something for me under one of them!

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I looked to Lincoln Park at sunset in order to utilize “the sea breeze…” even if Chicago is located on Lake Michigan and not the Pacific Ocean (just bear with me). This is what I came up with.

Category 4: The Culture that Binds Us

– The Mighty Temple

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This is a good one; rife with possibilities and open to your interpretation. The best part about following this list and compiling these images is that you don’t really have to follow the list at all. There are no rules. Only suggestions and reminders. So, I thought of the word culture and I thought of a Mighty Temple. I realized I was in Chicago and I immediately thought about…

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Wrigley Field.

I thought about Wrigley, I thought about the Cubs and I thought about Cubs Fans (poor, poor cubs fans!). With the Mighty Temple as inspiration I turned to the faithful for help.

Category 5: The Way We Eat

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one; shooting what you eat is as simple as taking your camera out of the bag when you sit down at the table.

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– The Local Specialty

With that being said, don’t forget to eat local as often as possible. Search out the venerated pig out joints, the palaces of fine dining and the local haunts. Food fuels a city; your images should reflect that. Megan and I went to Giordano’s to take a bite out of Chicago-style deep dish pizza. It bites back, of course, but we did our best.

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– The Drink of Drinks

We also met up with our pal Aaron Brown. Together we took on the old meatpacking district and we found out exactly what the people of Chicago are drinking – and how they drink it. When I’m on the road I try and eat as the locals do (this is a problem in American, of course… none of my jeans fit after three weeks on the road); you should too.

You wouldn’t believe how many contacts I make and how many jobs I get simply by showing up at a place, eating, shooting the food then emailing sample images to the manager or owner. When I can, I try and strike up a conversation with said decision maker before I leave the premises, just so they know I’ll be sending them something down the road. Looking at travel and food this way gives me a little more incentive to get out there and try something new, even if that means eating a 12-pound deep dish pizza.

Category 6: The People We Meet

Portraits. People. People in places. This is my bread and butter; this is what I live to shoot, what I love to shoot and why I get the assignments that I do. You should be shooting people as often as you can. Some of them you’ll want to get to know; some of them you won’t. Each and every experience shooting someone while on the road is unique.

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I don’t turn to the checklist when it comes to people because I’m comfortable enough shooting just about anyone anywhere; I’d rather miss an epic sunset than a classic environmental portrait. But for those of you who are timid or unsure when it comes to shooting people you don’t know, use the list as an icebreaker. Carry it in your bag. Pull it out when you stop someone on the street and show it to them; tell them you’re creating a portfolio that includes images of the city’s most attractive people (a little flattery never hurt anyone). And remember to keep your images of people as varied as possible; mix in some headshots, some environmental portraits, group shots, etc. Everyone, everywhere, at any time. People = place.

People rarely say no to having their photo taken. But if they do, so what? Ask someone else. Or don’t ask them, if you fancy yourself a street shooter.

Category 7: The World Is Your Oyster

It’s time to shake things up. These headings are vague on purpose; they are meant to put you to work creatively. Read into them what you will and take from them what you can. I, for one, have been keen on the The in and out of Focus business for a while; call it my Out Of Focus America. Megan doesn’t particularly like it when I get all bokeh-crazy, but I’m cool with that. This list is open to interpretation.

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