How to Scout a Picture
What’s the Rush?
It could be said that we live in the “Age of Hurry,” where our inbox is the boss. Technology seems to be hunting down our free time and killing it one email at a time. Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, we are more connected to our jobs, our friends, and the world at large than we used to be. This connection makes it harder to unplug our devices, step off line, and look around the streets without feeling the buzz of a phone in our pockets.
Don’t Miss Anything
There is an urge when you travel to a place and feel like you need to fit it all in. It has happened to me before. The feeling pervades the entire trip. You are up early, out late, and clocking in more transit hours than a full week of commuting to work. How do you know if this is happening to you?
1. You travel companions will start to look very tired.
2. You will focus on “what’s next” more than what’s right in front of you.
3. By the end of the day you still can’t figure out where all the good shots went.
It is a common sentiment in travel and photography workshops because we take time from our lives to get in as much fun as possible in the shortest amount of time. It should come as no surprise that photography can’t be rushed or broken into a tour itinerary.
Much of this urge is linked to the way we travel. In contrast to the ancient Romans, who averaged a holiday once every three days, the global workforce is allotted a few weeks off a year to satisfy all of their urges to detox, unwind, and explore the world. It is, simply put, not enough time to even get warmed up. I am reminded of this fact every time I read a book about exploration. Prior to the 1950’s there was not a project that could be measured in weeks. In most cases, trips were calculated in months or years. But with the influx of internet travel, relatively functioning airports across the globe, and a global stability, there are more people moving around the world now than there have been in the accumulated history of humanity. But just because we are traveling, doesn’t mean we are traveling well.
Learning from my mistakes
In previous articles, I’ve mentioned that patience is a skill worth practicing. In fact, as I teach more and more workshops, I’m realizing that the vast majority of obstacles that photographers encounter have more to do with a strategy than understanding the rules of composition. Photography is a patience game. It takes hours, often days to get 1/500th of a second that solidifies a moment. If we are constantly on the move, it reduces our odds of understanding a scene in visual terms because the obsession with “what’s next” keeps our minds in the future rather than in the present.
A simple strategy
Back in my days in construction, my mentor, Mark Ellison, said that, “People thought I was a genius because I had the answers to their questions. In reality, I had already made their mistakes, so it was easier to see the outcome before they took a single step.”
This is one of the most humble views I have ever heard on acquiring experience, patience, and composure. And I will fully admit that it was a piece of advice that I did not immediately put into practice. I used to run around with a camera 24/7, making everyone around me insane because I wanted to capture it all. But in the end I had hardly scratched the surface. So what did I change?
I surrendered to the idea that I can’t capture it all. And my attempts were ultimately a waste of time, effort, and energy that could have been more selectively placed. Here are three things I changed that have forever improved the quality of my images and the quality of my life. And like the Buddha said, don’t take the advice of any book or person without trying it yourself. Here is what I changed:
Leave the camera at home. Anytime I travel to a city, I leave the camera at the hotel. It could be 24 hours to 3 days depending on the place. I look, I watch, and I enjoy the pace of the city with pictures in mind, but by leaving the camera in a bag I am forced to use only my eyes. I’ve experimented in some locations and not even taken a shot, but there seems to be a sweet spot between 24-48 hours where your eyes adjust to a new place and afterwards the urge to shoot it all subsides.
Talk first, shoot later. Street photographers across the globe show up with guns blazing. This trend of shoot first, flash out, Bruce Gilden style of shooting is and always will be a complete waste of time. It’s never yielded a picture of real significance, it’s an awful way to interface with the world, and it only perpetuates a superficial understanding of a city and its people.
First impressions are fun, sometimes quirky and occasionally in the ball park, but the world is a wonderfully complex place that cannot be understood by jumping in front of some poor pedestrian and popping a shot in their face. Give yourself and your camera time to meet a few people, have a few conversations, and then slowly start clicking once you can feel the pulse of a place. You may find it takes weeks or even years for a place to reveal itself, but it’s worth the wait.
F*&K Bucket Lists. Why? Because they destroy the way people experience a place by building false expectations created from other people’s experiences and by putting checkboxes on life. Traveling to a place once is like going on one date and expecting it to fulfill you. The world can be your muse and its many cities your lovers, but you need to spend time in a place to get to know it. Bucket lists foster the idea that doing something once will be enough. Go back to the same place and watch it develop. It might only mean that you come back tomorrow.
Even before I filled my entire passport with stamps it became clear to me that traveling to the same place a number of times was the only way to make sense of it…at least in picture form. Every time I return to Sakai City or Matera I find a rich layer of experience that was inaccessible the last time I was there. Give yourself time to enjoy a place and the luxury to return.
On our first day in Berlin, a friend of my girlfriend took us around for a Turkish meal in Kreuzberg and an espresso at one of her favorite cafés. We were dealing with jetlag and a laid back Berlin café is the perfect way to ease into the city.
In the back of the shop there was a delightful sitting room. Once I saw the setup I thought, there should be a shot here. I took my cellphone and snapped a shot because I wanted to try something new with the workshop. The goal was to put my money where my mouth was and show the workshop the empty shot first.
When we returned a few days later, I told everyone…the shot is in the back. Go see what you find. Low and behold the Photo Gods had given everyone a photograph. There were two girls, lounging on the sofa, in good light…It captured the laid back bohemian Berlin that we would enjoy for the rest of our time there and I can’t wait to go back next year.
Ultimately, there is no right way to travel. There are many reasons that get us out the door in the morning. Some we do because we have to, others we do because we love to. But when we have the time to enjoy the pace of life at home or abroad, it takes a bit of effort to put the phone on silent, leave the camera in the bag, and let the world massage our eyes with its many riches. Otherwise, the list of daily concerns that leaves us in blinders is too long to fit in a single article, but I’m sure you have experienced them before. So next time you visit a new place, make a point to return. See what happens when the rush of photography is replaced with the luxury of time.
How has technology affected the way you travel, take pictures, and relax, both good and bad?
And a special thank you to David Farkas at Leica Miami for the Leica M240 I shot in Berlin and London.