(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
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.
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.