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We’ve all been there; in a new country, a new city or just a new part of your local town. Camera in hand, you shoot and shoot and shoot as your memory card never seems to fill up. It’s thrilling and you don’t want to waste a moment because there is so much to capture. But what if putting your camera down, even just for 20 minutes, can help you take better photos?
I don’t mean leave it unattended. But I do mean put it away or leave it behind as you go for a walk in your new environment.
I know some of you are getting the shakes at the mere thought of being without your camera in a new area, but indulge me for a moment. In this article, I will bring to light a few thoughts on why putting away your camera might actually help your photography.
How can you truly capture the essence of a location without first experiencing it? There are always bright and colorful things to shoot. But if you go around grabbing each little scene like a bird grabbing nectar from a cherry blossom, you risk miss seeing the whole tree.
I had time to visualize the shot above while watching an evening program at the Treasury in Petra, Jordan. While the program played, I was seated and limited in my movements, so I looked around at the space and tried to imagine photos from each location. At the end of the program, I was only allowed 10 minutes to get my shot (which took one minute to set up and 30 seconds to take), so my time spent gaining a greater awareness for my surroundings helped me greatly to take better photos in the time allotted.
Being aware of your surroundings is also important for safety. We all know the feeling of looking through our viewfinder, or camera screen, and losing all sense of what’s going on around us. It’s the feeling of “flow” when everything else melts away and there is just the joy of photography. That lack of awareness can work against you when in unfamiliar locations.
Beyond safety, having an awareness of your surroundings will also alert you if the clouds are about to cover the sun or if your scene is becoming more or less active. Watching others around you for clues on what to shoot is the next step.
I love people watching in new environments. Even at home, if I go shopping with my wife I will typically end up on a bench just taking in the plethora of different shoppers passing by. Even we introverts can enjoy watching how people interact.
Look for clues about relationships and friendships while observing others. Do most people seem aloof or is there a lot of interaction? Watch how transactions are negotiated in markets. Is there a lot of haggling over price before money changes hands? These clues will help you anticipate when you can get those key shots when you return with your camera.
Is there a flow to the traffic of people around you? If so, look for a good location to set up and get some candid street photos. While crowds always draw attention, look for those standing back from the bustle if you want to capture a variety of everyday life.
Now is also a good time to realize who around you might not want their picture taken. Or who is charging photographers to pose for photos?
In this shot of officers in Jordan, I hung around for a few moments with my camera down, said “Hi” and let the men get back to their conversations before taking the shot. I had noticed that they all looked intently at anyone new coming through the door and that wasn’t the shot I wanted. This more relaxed version was my goal.
With patterns, I don’t mean just the cool shapes made by architecture or found in nature. I also mean the patterns humans create as they go about their day. Observing patterns will help you return with your camera (or simply get it out of your bag) and better anticipate the moment for shutter release and ultimately you will take better photos.
For instance, watching a worker at the leather tannery in Fez, Morocco or a gentleman unloading chickens in Kathmandu, Nepal, with my camera down for a minute or two, helped me to visualize the action I wanted to capture and better time my shots.
Imagine someone came up to you on the street and instantly lifted a camera to snap a photo of your face. How would you feel?
Empathy for strangers and how they will react to my camera pointed in their direction is why I will typically recommend you ask permission first before taking a shot. Or better yet, with your camera down or put away, interact with your subject first. See what they are doing and ask questions if you can. Something about them made you want to take their photo, so take it one step further and interact before snapping away.
I played with these kids in Peru for a bit before having them ham it up for the lens. I don’t speak Quechuan and only poor Spanish, but I can recognize kids playing “shop” with weeds and flowers when I see it. I could tell who was in charge and I played along for a few minutes, trying in vain to get a good deal on my ugly weeds, before snapping this photo.
People will interact differently with you if you approach them first with your camera down or put away. Sometimes there is a fleeting moment that most feel needs to be caught candidly. But far more often a richer image can be created when you make human-to-human contact first. Rather than human-to-camera-to-human contact.
If you’ve never left your camera behind for even 10 minutes, I suggest giving it a try. It’s unnerving, I know! But it can lead to seeing your new environment in a way not possible with a camera constantly popping up to your eye.
Now you tell me; do you think you can take a walk and experience a new location without your camera? Do you think it might change the way you see the world before photographing it? Will it lead to helping you take better photos?