10 Rules for Traveling with a Photographer

I’ve never traveled with a photographer before. In fact, if anything, I’d say I’ve traveled with anti-photographers. Not that any of us disliked photography or photographers, or were in any way opposed CIMG_0733to it, merely that there were a whole lot of blurry, poorly-composed amateur photographs being taken on my previous trips. Which is always disappointing, because you’re raving to friends and family about the stunning, breathtaking beauty of mountains covered in snow and all you have to show for it is this gray, weirdly shadowed image that could also be mashed potatoes and gravy. (Yes, I may have been eating mashed potatoes as I wrote this but, honestly, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference in a bad photograph.)

So, I was excited by the prospect of returning with decent photographs. And I live with a photographer, so I’m accustomed to coming home and finding him at his computer working on Photoshop, or being asked to pose or hold something while he experiments with an idea. But that doesn’t mean that I was fully aware of what to expect when traveling with a photographer. These are some lessons I picked up along the way.

  1. The big discussion each morning before leaving the hostel is going to be whether and which cameras to take with us. This is important, because these conversations are about security. Do we believe that we’re capable of protecting our possessions wherever it is that we are going? And there’s an element of gambling here. Because sometimes the dangerous places are what you most want to capture, but when you’re dealing with someone’s prized possession—and Colin’s camera is, without question his baby—you don’t want to risk having the entire trip ruined by the theft of said prized possession.
  2. There will be more cameras than there are people on the trip. I’m actually a little surprised that we found ourselves in Peru with just three cameras between the two of us. Colin had his expensive digital camera (the aforementioned baby). I had my shitty Powershot that I bought at shitty Walmart, and which started malfunctioning in Norway, continued to be a piece of crap in Alaska, and I’m not really sure why I brought to Peru, but practically never used anyway. And Colin’s film camera, which I appropriated because my own camera was so lousy. And there’s a tactile, interactive quality to the film camera that I absolutely love. If it didn’t cost so much to develop, I’d probably shoot exclusively in film. But we spent a fair amount of time juggling them back and forth, negotiating who was carrying the film camera at any given time (we never negotiated Colin’s digital camera, because he would barely tolerate it being out of his grasp, and we didn’t negotiate the Powershot because it sat uselessly at the bottom of my backpack for most of the trip).
  3. You’re going to spend some time waiting around while the photographer in question works on a time lapse video, painstakingly hitting the shutter button every five seconds for five minutes while other tourists ask questions about what you’re doing. It’s alright, because when you get home you’re going to have a really cool time lapse video from your trip. And because you’ve spent the last three weeks running around Peru at a breakneck speed and taking five minutes to rest and appreciate the view is actually kinda nice.
  4. You might feel useless a good chunk of the time while he’s looking terribly important and knowledgeable fiddling with various wheels and lenses, but the truth is, you’re an important collaborator. In part because a guy with a camera looks a lot less creepy when he’s got a companion, but also because you can help distract attention from the camera, allowing your photographer to obtain the highly sought after unposed portrait.
  5. You’re going to be asked to hold the terribly important camera at some point during the trip—probably not more than once or twice, because he doesn’t like to let it out of his sight, but some circumstance will arise and he will need a free hand. This is a rare and incredible honor. Do not feel insulted when he emphasizes that you’re not to drop the camera, or put it down. If he didn’t trust you, he wouldn’t let you think 10 feet of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s protective of it.
  6. Your trip was three weeks long. He’ll spend the first two months after you get back editing photos and video footage, fretting over details you hadn’t even thought to consider. You will occasionally be asked to give your opinion. Do so honestly, and then get the hell out of the way. There’s serious work at hand. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working, and now living with, photographers, it’s that post-production is at least half the work, if not more.
  7. If you can’t beat him (or in this case, don’t want to), join him. I really enjoyed the ocassions when I was wielding the beloved film camera and he was snapping away with the fancy digital camera. I know I can ask him for camera advice, and he doesn’t have to feel guilty about taking too much time fiddling with a camera when I’m fiddling with one as well. Also, some of my favorite shots from the trip are the ones I took of him when he was distracted with his camera.
  8. You’re going to get a lot of compliments from friends and family when you return with 1,000 professional-grade shots, not to mention a 20-minute video compiled from brief clips you took while traveling. And while you’ll feel a little smug and excited about the quality of the photos, the truth is, you’ll have done very little of the work. These photos will be important when you begin to doubt whether it all really happened or was simply some dream despite the fact that you still have the marks on your ankles where the sand bugs bit you on your trek to Machu Picchu.
  9. Know the cultural norms and expectations regarding photography–both for yourself and your photographer companion. Taking pictures of people is a sensitive issue. In some cases, it’s a major taboo, especially where children are concerned. In most cases, you want to make sure that you request permission first, and this can be another area where you can help your photographer, especially if (s)he is shy. I found that, in most cases, a friendly smile and a gesture miming taking a picture is sufficient, and most people were amenable. In larger crowds, it’s impossible to ask everyone if it’s acceptable to take their pictures, but you can still help gauge the overall feel of the crowd to determine whether it’s safe or not. On another trip, a man walking through a crowded street selling taffy got really mad at me for taking his picture. The truth was, I was taking a photo of the entire street, but he loudly demanded that I pay him for the picture. And while there’s no law that you have to pay someone if they wind up in one of your pictures, you can bet the crowd will side with the person demanding the money and the situation can escalate quickly. It was one of my rare unpleasant interactions in Morocco (Essaouira, specifically) , but something that would merely be unpleasant at home can turn dangerous in a foreign country.
  10. Speak up. I tend to feel like I should stay out of the way when Colin is taking pictures, but the truth is, I do have some experience directing photo shoots, and I work with a staff photographer on a daily basis. Maybe I’ll see something that Colin didn’t, or something that Colin did see but doesn’t consider important. Maybe I’m planning a blog post about something and would like to plan a photo to illustrate my point. The photographer you’re traveling with is probably more than happy to accept requests, but they can’t read your mind so if you want a special photo, ask for it. (Keeping in mind, of course, that asking someone to take a photo for you once or twice per day is reasonable, but you probably don’t want to start treating them like your employee. Or worse.)
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