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How To Take Better Photos: Leave Your Camera Behind

To keep in the mood of this post, I’m not going to include a picture, as is DPS’s custom.  This post is about just that, not taking and posting photos.  I do it a lot, more than most probably realize (no thanks in part to the fact that I have a Photo Of The Day feature on my blog) and it’s something that I think makes me a better photographer.  Not better as in, “I’m better than you”, but better as in it’s a method I use to help myself improve.

In general I’m speaking about travel photos here, but it can apply to any photography.  When I’m out at some location far from home and everything is ohhh ahhh new sparkly shiny grand, I have impulses like a lot of you, to start snapping photos of everything. “Wow! Look at that family on a moped!” “Now that’s a cool archway!” “Oh, my daughter would love a picture of those cats!” Overwhelming at times, isn’t it?

Over the years I’ve learned, and am still learning, the art of doing nothing.  In this case, not photographing, but still observing.  On my last trip to Nepal in April I spent two days walking around Kathmandu, alone, without a camera.  Let me tell you, there was some cool stuff I saw.  Neat cool stuff.  Totally.  Lots of it.  So bizarre for someone from the USA.   But that’s about all you’ll hear about it, because I wasn’t shooting.  I purposely left my camera at my friend’s place so I could just observe and take it all in and get a better feel for my surroundings.

I do look differently at the world through the lens.  I’m trying to grab something; time, space, newness.  What I’m not doing is really experiencing my surroundings.  When I put a camera to my eye, even though I typically shoot with both eyes open, I get tunnel vision, bad.  Maybe you do too.  Hyper focus (har har har).  But it’s true.  The rest of the world falls away and although I keep enough wits about me to be cautious of danger, I’m not listening or smelling or feeling as much of the world around me.  I’m just curious about what I see through the lens.

So when I leave the camera behind, I’m able to get a better feel for a place.  You notice I use the word feel a bit in this post.  It’s because that is one aspect of travel that I love, just feeling the difference in a new place until it becomes commonplace, if I stay long enough for that to happen.  Once I get a better grasp of how a location feels, I have found I then take better pictures.  Maybe seeing the same merchant on different days gives me a better idea of who he is.  Let’s say on the first day he looks dour, but on the next three days he’s happy and chipper, even striking up a conversation.  While a photo on the first day would in fact be accurate of how he was that day, it’s not really how he is most of the time.  It’s the same with a location.  Horrible traffic one day could be easy sailing on other days.

There is no right or wrong way to take travel photos (except for completely over exposing everything into whiteness, I suppose).  I’ve found what works for me is taking a break from the myopic view behind the camera when I can’t see past the viewfinder.  Sure it’s not always possible, especially if you’re on a tour and only going to pass by the Eiffel Tower for a two hour break.  By all means, snap away.  But try setting the camera down some time and taking a walk through your new environment without it as a distraction.  Get a feel for your new location.

Then go back, grab the camera, and translate that feel into beautiful photographs.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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