“What i like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”
― Karl Lagerfeld
― Karl Lagerfeld
My friend Harlan Ellison, the irascible and exceedingly talented fiction writer, holds forth that there are three things everything thinks they can do -- and more than that, do well: drive, have sex and write.
To that list I would add: make photographs.
To some degree we all do these things. The basics themselves are not too difficult. We can all string sentences together in a way that makes a bit of sense. We can get behind the wheel of a car and navigate the streets with a minimum of carnage. Of course, there is no standard for procreation or other more recreational forms of those activities, but we all assume we're pretty damned good at whatever it is, right?
And we can all point a camera and press the trigger. Nothing to it.
The key, of course, is doing these things well.
Although we all imagine ourselves to be adept at all the above, the truth of the matter is that becoming skilled at any one of these four activities requires a bit of concentration and practice. It must become an innate part of yourself and, largely, focus outward rather than inward.
I can write clean, easy to understand sentences. I can even tell a story. Harlan, on the other hand, strings together the very same words to create something astounding, and often gut-punching in a way I could only aspire to a thin echo. I can drive well, as is exampled by my relatively clean record. Yes, well, there was that incident in Arizona earlier this year. Which suggests that while I can drive fast, I am no Bobby Unser.
And the less we say about peoples' skills in the bedroom the better. Too many people fancy themselves highly skilled lovers, and as most of us know it's not necessarily universal. Putting it gently.
So we come to photography. The rise of the digital point and shoot camera has given rise to one of the major fallacies of the artistic world: everyone is a photographer. Yes, everyone can take pictures, but not everyone can make them.
Photography is like any art form. In order to be good you do require a skill set above and beyond simply aiming the camera. It's a combination of timing, lighting, setting and your own understanding of these factors so as to create the proper composition of the final shot. There is certainly an element of luck. Of capturing a moment (and every photographer worth their salt will tell you the feeling when you know you've gotten such an image is a real rush, a very exciting moment of "a-ha!").
This does not mean, of course, that people everywhere cannot take great pictures. I have seen really terrific things from abject amateurs, and some surprisingly disappointing images from professionals. The key is that the skilled photographer ought to be producing the excellent images on a far more regular basis than does the amateur.
(I personally have declined to shoot weddings. This was reinforced a few years back when, as a favor to a friend, I relented and agreed to shoot their ceremony. While everything went quite well, for a while I was stalked by a woman who kept insisting that she was producing shots "just as good" as I was, using a little Canon point and shoot. This went on for nearly a half hour as I wandered the reception getting the "filler" gallery of shots for the happy couple. People at tables, dancing, etc. Finally, after perhaps the tenth time tap on my shoulder, I reminded the woman that I was pleased she was doing so well, encouraged her to keep it up, and to please stop following me around taking essentially the same shots I was.) (Appallingly, a professional photography told his assistant to do essentially the same thing at my niece's wedding. I was constantly finding the assistant watching over my shoulder and then reshooting precisely the same thing I had just done…another reason I won't shoot weddings.) (But I digress.)
Below are what I regard to be the basic guidelines of travel photography. When you're out, in the field, absorbing and deciding what to shoot, these are the fundamentals of what most photographers will look for and try to accomplish. These are not hard and fast, but more guidelines I have acquired over the years. Whether you're a top tier professional -- such as Ralph Lee Hopkins, Ralph Velasco or Jay Dickman, each of whom I quote below -- or simply an amateur trying to make better vacation photographs for the travel book you assemble after each journey, these are the ways to make your gallery more interesting, more functional and personal for the intended audience. Following these guidelines (never rules) I think you'll have a more fun time making your pictures as well as giving yourself a better than average chance of catching that magical moment, the "a-ha".
MBTP #1 - Quote from Ralph Velasco: "75% of successful photography is making an effort to put yourself in the right place at the right time."
So many elements go into creating that special image that this is basic. If you're not in position at the right time, you'll miss the shot. It's about being aware of your surroundings and anticipating what image may present itself. Being ready, and prepared for that moment.
MBTP #2 - Quote from Ralph Lee Hopkins: "If you want to shoot a better picture, stand in front of better stuff."
Ralph is referring to your subject matter: "Gee, you say, "I was standing in front of the Colosseum in Rome. What better stuff is there? My shot is still boring." True enough. What else was in the image? Oftentimes it's the composition, not the single subject matter, which makes the image. Note Ralph refers to stuff. Plural. Keep your eye out for an entire composition, not just a snapshot of something.
MBTP #3 - Quote from Jay Dickman: "Create that sense of place, introduce your characters, introduce detail, bring in moments, and close the story."
What are you telling us in the image? Do we want to know what was going on, or is it a flat image? Is it vibrant, does it tell the story of an active marketplace or is it just people milling around. think about what you want to tell us when you're setting the image.
MBTP #4 - If something catches your eye, shoot it from several angles and distances. Try to catch the "essence" of what you saw. Don't rush.
This is a key element, and is one of the boons of digital photography. Take the time to capture your subject in several ways. Up close, far away, partially obscured. If it's a person, try shooting them from different angles, in different poses. Or, even more fun, unposed, unguarded and unaware. Oftentimes these make for the best family shots.
MBTP #5 - Add the human element. Is someone doing/about to do something interesting? Watch for and capture it. Tell a story.
Static shots of landmarks is cool, but unless you're planning to sell the image to a tourist board it comes across as cold and unmeaningful. And those boring "posed" pictures of your family standing in front of the Disney World Castle. Go for the sense of wonder in that first moment when you child runs through the Disney gates. Or is talking to a Disney character. These are often the moments you will cherish when, six months from now, you're looking back.
MBTP #6 - Try new angles. Low, high or diagonal. Try to get a different perspective.
Very rarely is the straight ahead shot going to be anything special. This is no different than hundreds of other "tourist" images taken by hundreds of other tourists this year alone. By getting lower, or higher, or seeking that perspective which is missed by the majority of travelers you're giving yourself a unique image and memory of a place or time.
MBTP #7 - Capture "life" as it happens. What's going on around you, what makes a place vibrant and unique?
This is vital. I often compare it to being a little Zen when you're shooting. Wander around, being aware of your surroundings and tapped into the feel of a place. Try to capture that in your lens, and tell us why the place is so special.
MBTP #8 - Food is often an excellent subject, and is its own reward after you've captured the shot!
This is self-explanatory. And drink. Don't forget to shoot the martinis.
MBTP #9 - Even a static pic, like a landscape, can tell a story. If you keep it simple. Composition is everything.
This is a recurring theme, yes? Composition is the key to any successful photograph.
MBTP #10 - Ask yourself if seeing this picture would make a viewer want to be there. If so, *what about it* do you need to capture/convey?
Another key. If you're taking the time to capture the image, what is it you're wanting to convey to a target audience. Is it simply for the memory of a place, then what is special to you? Is it to give others a sense of a location, then what would, to you, convey that sensation?
MBTP #11 - Pay attention to lighting. Too many shadows? Is the sun too high in the sky, or too low. Is there a better time of day to shoot?
Lighting can kill a terrific setting and composition. Pay attention, and if you have the luxury of time see if you can capture the setting at its best. If you do not have the luxury of time, then what about the place can you convey that takes advantage of the available lighting?
(I was shooting in Cortona, Italy a few years ago under horrible lighting conditions. Thin alleyways with deep shadows but brightly lit sunny areas. In that case, I have a lot of close-up shots of food, shops and the like, with only a handful of full street scenes.)
MBTP #12 - Don't be afraid to crop. Once the image is done and in camera, be prepared to use an editing tool to hone down on exactly the composition you wanted. Chances are you saw something which will be brought out by cropping it down.
All too often, the a-ha moment is a disappointment when you get the image back into the computer and take a look. Play around with the composition and cropping. Chances are what you saw in your mind's eye is probably there, just not properly framed or accented.
MBTP #13 - Wait for the moment. Don't be impatient. Watch for an action about to occur. Be ready. Most of all: enjoy yourself.
Keep Calm and Wait for the Moment. With enough practice you will see patterns emerge that allow you to predict an upcoming image. (A bicyclist moving towards a building you want to capture. A shopper approaching a vendor at a farmer's market.)
And, most of all...have fun.
Ralph Velasco's work can be seen at
Jay Dickman's work can be seen at
Ralph Lee Hopkins' work can be seen at