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The Art of Traveling: Taking Great Travel Photos!

When Carla and I began our travels, I was excited about dusting off my keyboard and writing a weekly blog . . . and it’s been a joy sharing our travels with you each week. What I didn’t expect was to fall head-over-heels in love with photography. I figured that a few images accompanying what I wrote would be helpful, but I never imagined they would take center stage as much as they have with this blog. I have always been in the field of the creative arts, but I was naively unaware as to how powerful photography can be in the art of storytelling.

I am truly grateful, and touched, by how receptive the readership of this blog has been to my work. Your reception has inspired me to engage more with photography and have it be a much more integral and dynamic part of this blog. And in the process, I have found a new passion in life, even as I approach 70 years on my next birthday. What a gift. Thank you.

Many of you have also reached out to me privately with questions about photography. As a matter of fact, it’s the topic that I receive the most inquiries about. So, with today’s post, I’d like to take some time and address a couple of these questions. The two that are most asked are, “What camera do I use?” and “Do I enhance or alter my photos in any capacity?”

As for the camera I use, you may be surprised to know that when I travel, I don’t use a “camera”, but strictly my iPhone. And on this past trip, it's the iPhone 14 Pro Max – the latest version of the iPhone. I have a nice mirrorless camera with some very nice lenses, but when traveling, I always prefer my iPhone. I have come to think of my iPhone as a camera that just so happens to have a few other digital options, rather than as a phone that happens to come with a camera. For me, first and foremost, it’s a camera.

So, why forgo using a nice camera on a trip in favor of an iPhone? Here are my top reasons:

My Phone is Always with Me:

While no doubt the image resolution and quality might be better with my mirrorless camera, when it comes to portability and convenience, it’s difficult to imagine a better option than the iPhone. It’s always with me. It’s compact, lightweight, and is great when I want to take a quick shot. I can have it out of my pocket and shooting within a matter of seconds. And with the iPhone 14 the image quality is starting to approximate what I can get with a mirrorless or DSLR camera. My guess is that most people will be more than thrilled with the quality you can get with an iPhone.

A Camera Around Your Neck Screams Tourist:

In my experience - to truly capture the beauty and soul of a place - you must connect, not only with the place, but with the people who live there. Wearing a visible camera can be a barrier to that connection. You are almost always seen as a tourist when a camera is draped around your neck and the local people are much less likely to warm up to you if they feel like you are only there to capture their beauty without truly getting to know them. Having a more discreet camera (like an iPhone) is a way of showing respect and reverence for the townspeople. Carla and I tend towards slow travel and, when we first arrive somewhere, I don’t even begin shooting photos in earnest until the third or fourth day after our arrival. I like to get to know the place, connect with the people - get a sense of the whole before I begin photographing its parts. If you begin shooting images as soon as you arrive without getting a sense of the people or place, no matter how good your photographs may appear, they will not truly capture the essence of where you’ve been. Connect first . . . shoot later.

When it’s all said and done, good photography is less about the equipment we use and more about the person behind the camera . . . or the phone. Our ability to connect with people and places; to see the beauty that shines through, and to take the time to appreciate the people and culture of a particular place . . . that is the true essence of good travel photography. Connection equals Beauty.

Now for the second question, “Do I enhance or alter my photos in any way?”

I do use Adobe Photoshop and work with most of the images I shoot before I share them publicly. When Photoshop was introduced to the world in 1988, it was the digital answer to the physical darkroom and was used primarily by photographers and creative professionals. Over time, the public has become more aware of Photoshop because of the many well publicized cases of photo manipulations and misrepresentations perpetrated by those using the software. Wrinkles and blemishes were removed from photos of celebrities; muscles and body toning were enhanced in photos of athletes; the moon, clouds, sunrays were added to landscapes, and so on. And unfortunately, today, as Photoshop has become a verb, it’s typically used in the pejorative sense implying that someone has manipulated an image to give a false or misleading impression.

Just to be clear, that level of manipulation is not how I use Photoshop.

It is my opinion and speculation that one of the most famous and renowned photographers - Ansel Adams - would have loved Photoshop. As an artist he used the tools at his disposal at the time to create images with great impact. If today’s photographers use Photoshop to the same end, I think that makes perfect sense. What’s good enough for Ansel Adams is good enough for the rest of us, and he was known to spend half of his creative process in the darkroom and sometimes he would spend an entire day in there just to produce one print.

Now, I’m certainly no Ansel Adams and what I attempt to do with Photoshop is to simply have the image look as it did when I took the photograph. In other words, to bring the image back to its natural state. Whether it’s a camera or a phone, it’s still a gadget that comes between your eye and what you’ve captured, and that gadget is imperfect. It will create its own translation of the image and most of the time, it’s not exactly what you think you saw. Occasionally, it’s spot on, but often it will miss the mark by a good bit. So, I simply use the darkroom tools within Photoshop to bring the image back to what I saw when I took the shot.

What I never do is any kind of digital foolery in my image manipulation - such as adding a sunny sky on a cloudy day, or inserting people, places, or objects into an image that were not part of the original scene. For me, it’s less about creating the perfect Instagram photograph and more about accurately sharing what I saw . . . and yes, I’m a bit picky about getting that right.

For example, sometimes the shadows in the photo will be much darker than they appeared in the actual scene and the darkness hides some key details and color that were originally apparent and that I think are important to the overall communication of the image. It’s also not uncommon for the tonal range of an image to have a smaller gamut than what was actually present, and so I simply use Photoshop to open these shadowed areas and bring the tonal range into its fullness so you can see and experience what I encountered at the moment my finger hit the shutter button on my phone. I do not consider this “enhancing an image”. I think of it as helping to bring the image back to life, so it displays the truth and authenticity of what was in the original scene that I set out to capture.

I am fortunate to have worked in the creative arts and have a pretty good working understanding of Photoshop, Lightroom, Camera Raw, and other digital photography tools. They can be a very valuable part of your photography toolset. They are the new digital darkrooms and even if you are not familiar with them, there are plenty of instructional videos online where you can easily learn enough to improve upon your photography skills, if interested.

For me, travel is an amazing playground for photography. It keeps me engaged with our trekking around Europe in a way that I never imagined and the gift it leaves behind are stories of beautiful and meaningful moments captured in time. And to this photographer, what I receive is a lesson in the art of perception.

This beautiful, powerful, and very simple quote from Dorethea Lange captures it perfectly . . . “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

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I couldn't agree with you more regarding photography and I loved hearing how photography has been an unexpected gift of your travels. I love photography and I, too, do little post editing other than as you expressed to bring back the image to reflect what you saw if needed. I have no interest in manipulating a poor photo but am challenged to capture the best image I can in the moment. I, too, have relied on my iPhone for all the reasons you mentioned. My Canon DSLR feels very intrusive to carry around when I travel not to mention the precious space it takes up in a backpack and the weight of the camera and lenses! I, too…

Aug 04, 2023
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Hi Lyn - and thanks for sharing. I like what you wrote here and you make a great point about other photo editing apps aside from Adobe's suite. I enjoy hearing how much you like photography and yes, for me, it was unexpected how much I'd come to enjoy it as we travel. It's been a gift for me and has added even more purpose to our journey.

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