10 Tips For Traveling and Shooting Street Photography

(Above photo from my “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” series)

“The grass is greener on your side”

When I started street photography, I resented the fact that I lived in Los Angeles. To me it was a boring, tired city that I lived in- and I wanted to go somewhere more exotic. I wanted to go to Paris, Tokyo, and New York – where the “real action” was for street photography.

I have been to all of those places and while they are fantastic for shooting street photography, sometimes the grass is greener on your own side. However if you are still interested in some tips for traveling and shooting street photography, read on!

Traveling and street photography

Traveling is a phenomenal way to gain more life experience through the people you meet, the food you eat, as well as the sights you see. However I find it difficult to take good street photographs while I am traveling – as I am generally more of a tourist than a local (who actually knows the place).

However, I still have some advice for anyone shooting street photography while traveling.

1. Go in with an open mind

If you go travel to a foreign place, you will always have some sort of pre-conceived notions of that place. For example, when you think of Paris you think of the Eiffel tower, people kissing at cafes, and cute dogs. For Tokyo you think of neon lights, shibuya crossing, and geishas. For New York you think of the Empire state building, Times Square, and yellow taxis.

As I discussed in one of my previous blog posts, approach a new city with an open mind. Spend the first few days in a new location shooting anything that interests you, and see what kind of common themes appear in your shots. Don’t restrict your photography to the clichéd moments. Take photographs that feel ordinary and familiar to you — they can often be the best photographs.

 2. Meet locals

The great thing about the Internet is that it has made the world a lot smaller. One of the blessings I have when traveling is that I am always able to meet up with local street photographers.

The benefits of meeting local street photographers are many. First of all, they will generally know the best places to shoot street photography, the best restaurants (food is an important part of a place’s culture), as well as local customs (what to do/what not to do). Not only that, but I have found the most memorable parts of my travels via the people I meet – rather than the places that I see or photographs that I shoot.

 3. Stay away from the tourist landmarks

When I travel and shoot street photography, I generally try to stay away from the tourist landmarks. Why? Typically these tourist landmarks are full of tourists (duh) and it is very difficult to make an original photograph.

How many photographs have we seen of the Eiffel tower? How many photographs have we seen from the coliseum? How many photographs have we seen from the Taj Mahal?

Take a path off the beaten path. Ask the locals where to shoot that aren’t so touristy. This way you can capture more authentic photographs of a place, rather than the place that are littered with touristy t-shirts, memorabilia, and collectibles.

Sure you can check out the landmarks, but don’t expect to take any interesting photos there!

4. Try to speak the local language

In my experience I have found that speaking the local language of any country you visit is a positive thing. Although people may snicker at your accent, they really appreciate the gesture of you trying to speak the local language, and are more likely to open up to you.

I like to carry around a small moleskine notepad and try to jot down some phrases. Generally the ones I like to learn:

-What is the direction to the ________?
-I am a photographer
-I am sorry that I took your photograph, I am a tourist
-Where is the metro/bus/train from here?
-Where is a good and cheap place to eat here?
-Cheers! (when toasting drinks)

 5. Ditch the map

I generally like to travel in a new place without a map. Although I still carry one (just in-case) I like to get lost in foreign cities.

Getting lost is one of the best things when traveling and shooting street photography. I think some of the best places I have found by accident. I would simply walk down a path, down a flight of stairs, and into some mythical courtyard or alley.

Now be smart and don’t wander into what you may perceive to be dangerous areas- but let your curiosity guide you.

6. Stay hydrated

This tip is more practical, and not always obvious.

One of the most important things is to stay hydrated while traveling. If you are traveling in the summer and it is quite hot, you can sweat up to a gallon/several liters of sweat in a day.

I like to carry a Klean Kanteen water bottle (stainless steel) that keeps my water cool and I can refill whenever.

Take regular sips of water when you are walking around, and try to refill it as often as you can at water fountains. Even when you are eating at a restaurant, generally waiters/waitresses are more than happy to fill up your water bottle with tap water if you ask nicely (this depends if a country has safe tap water to drink).

 7. Buy comfortable shoes

I think that the most important piece of gear when you are traveling and shooting street photography isn’t your camera. It is your shoes.

Buy a pair of shoes that breathe well (if you are traveling somewhere warm) or are warm (if you are traveling to somewhere cold). Having comfortable shoes will help you walk longer, keep your feet more comfortable, and lead to fewer blisters and calluses.

I personally like wearing waterproof Merrill boots when traveling to cold places, and Nike Free’s when traveling to hot places. The Merrill’s give me the confidence to stomp through puddles, go into muddy areas, while keeping my toes from freezing when it is cold. The Nike free’s are incredible as they are incredibly light, flexible, and breathable (to keep my socks dry).

So before you travel, always pack a pair of shoes that are comfortable for you (and don’t forget a nice pair of socks as well). I prefer socks that aren’t made out of cotton (as they breathe better and dry quicker).

8. Bring backups of everything

When you are traveling always carry backups of everything. There is a phrase that people in the army said: “In war two is one, and one is none”.

Apply the same philosophy to your traveling. I have gotten hard drives stolen out of my luggage at the airport, have had hard drives crash on me when traveling, had batteries fail on me (quit holding their charge), lost batteries, lost memory cards, had corrupted memory cards, cameras break, etc.

Therefore whenever traveling try to always carry two of the following:

-External hard drive
-Camera/lens
-Battery
-Memory card

 9. Pack light

One of the worst feelings when traveling is the weight of your luggage on your shoulders, or having to drag it around.

Try your best to pack light. When I started traveling I packed way too much stuff, trying to think of every single item I might possibly need when abroad.

However remember that a good rule of thumb is that if you ever forget to bring anything, you can always buy it overseas.

I generally travel with a North Face Backpack (for my clothes and misc. stuff) and a Timbuk 2 Commute 2.0 bag (for my camera and my laptop).

Regarding my clothing I like to wear everything quick-dry. Therefore I only travel with two pairs of shirts, boxers, socks, etc. I wash my clothes every night with shampoo and let it hang-dry. Then by the next day it is already dry and I can wash the other pair I wore during the day. I also generally travel with jeans (if the weather is cold) and shorts (if the weather will be warm).

Also to save space when packing your clothes, don’t fold it into stacks. Rather, roll it up and tie it with rubber bands if necessary.

 10. Spend more time in one location, rather than less time in several locations

Although I don’t spend much time in one place when traveling (generally one week max) I think it is much more rewarding to spend more time in fewer places.

Therefore if you are traveling for two weeks, I think it would be better to spend your entire two weeks in one location, rather than visiting six different places for a total of two days each.

Why? By spending more time in one location, you are better able to get to know the place better, and get a better sense of the culture, environment, and people.

When I was a student at UCLA, I embarked on a backpacking trip throughout Europe for an entire month. In the course of the 30 days, I visited Paris, Rome, Florence, Cinque Terre, Venice, Prague, and London. If I could have done it all over again, I would have visited four places total for a week each. I ended up spending too much time traveling (on the train and plane) between each place (and having to pack and unpack my stuff all the time) rather than being able to settle down and enjoy every location I visited. By the time I felt that I started to get to know a place, I already had to go to the next destination.

Therefore the next time you travel your trip, try to opt for fewer places and having more time in each location. Not only will it be less stress on you in terms of transportation, but it will help you get stronger images from each location. After all, you have a better likelihood of making 10 interesting photographs in a place you stay in for two weeks, rather than two days.

 Conclusion

If you don’t have the money, time, or opportunity to travel- don’t fret. The grass is always greener on your side. The best street photography projects I have seen from people are generally from their own hometown (as they are locals and know the place inside-out, rather than tourists simply visiting).

However if you have the chance, I highly recommend traveling. I have discovered the most about myself as a person through my travels, and have also discovered life-changing insights from the people that I have met. Also through my travels I have learned to appreciate more of what I have back home (as well as learning what I hate about living at home and what I would like to change).

Don’t waste your money on cameras, cars, and material things – rather spend your money on experiences. It is more or less psychologically proven that spending money on experiences (Rather than material things) will bring you more happiness.

One initiative that I have is creating this Google doc for those all around the world. Simply fill out where you are from, and your favorite places to shoot street photography. Hopefully we can build this up into a resource that anyone can access when traveling (anywhere in the world), as well as having fellow street photographers to meet while abroad.

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19 Comments

  1. Staying in one place longer is a great tip. I’ve been shooting the same intersection for one year. In the end, the project showed itself to me and I ended up with a vast understanding of my surroundings.

  2. To add two points that contradict you ;) 1) Don’t be afraid to try to put a new spin on an old cliché. 2) Go to the touristy places and shoot tourist (as a bonus you get to see the landmarks while your there too). Tourists & “tourist culture” can make an interesting topic in itself, and I have seen quite a few interesting street shots/street type shots that are of tourist. Tourists tend to have this very liberating “I’m a tourist damn it.. and don’t care if it’s not cool” attitude about them.

    1. I live in New York and have found that one of the best, most fun things to do is shoot the tourists shooting the sites.

  3. I can agree with staying in one place longer for sure. Not just for the photography aspect of it, but you really get to know the ins and outs of a city better when you aren’t spending all of your time packing and unpacking.

  4. Thanks for the tips! I’m heading to Vancouver next week, so this came at the right time. In addition to seeking out individual local street photographers, search Google for any local street photography clubs. I started my own in Edmonton as per your recommendation in another post, and we’d be very excited to meet any travelling street photographers!

  5. I’m from Malaysia – On the Borneo Island. Generally many people skip East Malaysia when traveling in Malaysia and i think my hometown is the best place for street photography. It is very different from metropolis like Kuala Lumpur. Sarawak and Sabah are both beautiful states to start. =)

  6. Tokyo is overrated for street photography. I was just there and amazed about the deadness of it all. Yes, there are some interesting and crowded places, but few and far between.

    If you’re looking for action in Asia, Hong Kong is a much better deal, both in terms of pictures and in terms of money. :)

  7. Good travel tips. Less is less and is more. Counter intuitive but true. Gear too. Less is best.

  8. I think like you Eric. But something I have to overcome is to meet other photographers… I’d always thought that the photography is something personal and lonely but it isn’t. Thanks for this tip I’ve seen it very useful and I’ll try to put in practice during the next trips. I’m with you in the rest of the post.

  9. Hi Eric my name is Milena Gruber and I just started to find my passion for photography after my husband encouraged me to go for it! Thank you so much for the tips you mentioned above because I am just starting out and it is good to get some tips from a street photographer that has experience because I as well want to go and pursue street photography as well :) I will definitely follow your site and your videos because your style is the style I would like to pursue as a new photographer. Thank you!

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  11. Thank you Eric for the advice!
    Question: What happened to the Google Doc? Would like to fill it out/check it out!!

  12. I feel that this is what makes street photography so unique and fascinating when compared to other genres of photography. Street photographs are able to convey the humor, irony, and the beauty of everyday life, by people with others and the environment.

    John@Mapdestinations

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