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8 Tips for Leaving a Light Footprint as a Travel Photographer

“Take only photos, leave nothing but footprints.” We’ve probably all heard the saying, but what does it mean? Basically ‘take only photos, leave nothing but footprints’ means to make as little impact on an environment as possible.

As a travel photographer I’m always doing my best to work with humility, respect and a light footprint. It’s not rocket science, but there’s a lot of photographers who either don’t understand it or simply don’t care. This is the wrong attitude, and can spoil it for others who do the right thing. Here are my eight tips to inform aspiring travel photographers about how they can move lightly and enjoy their travel photography experience at the same time.

#1. Understand Culture

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Culture isn’t just a race or ethnicity; in fact it goes far beyond that. We are all members of numerous cultural groups with cultural identities based on influences. This is an ongoing process and development. When we travel we are exposed to different sets of beliefs and values that may not be part of our culture or upbringing. This is what makes travel culturally rich, vigorous and complex. However, it’s important not to become too consumed with our own beliefs or habits.

Culture is a system of shared beliefs that are used by a society or group in order to socialize with the world as well as each other. Accepting other people’s ways of life can sometimes be challenging, even for seasoned travelers. The key to accepting this is to be open-minded and positive. By respecting different cultures you will learn a lot about yourself and the people you meet, which will allow you to go deeper into a culture to capture stronger images. Acknowledge these new experiences and embrace every encounter. It’s a rewarding experience that can shape your journey as a photographer.

Practice self-awareness and remember everyone is equal regardless of ethnic background, religion, demographic or income. Never try portraying someone else in false light. Be honest with the message you wish to convey, respecting different cultures whilst enabling, not disabling people through your work. Photography is a powerful medium, so use it effectively and wisely.

#2. Respect People

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The further you travel into unfamiliar lands and cultures, the more varied the people you’ll encounter. This is probably the most exciting part of travel. At times it can feel somewhat alienating, but remember, it works both ways. The key to interacting with people as a travel photographer/storyteller is to treat them with respect.

Whenever I travel I live by the golden rule: do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. It’s good practice to acknowledge a person’s intrinsic value as a human being. It’s almost impossible to learn anything or capture the true essence of a place without meeting the local people. Be polite and ask before you take someone’s photo if you feel the situation calls for it. No one appreciates having a camera shoved in his or her face, so try avoiding it despite how much you want ‘that’ shot.

You can learn a lot about a destination or a person by making an effort to have a conversation. Respect goes a long way, more so in unfamiliar territory, when in actuality, you are the stranger. Never demand anything from your subjects, bribe or violate their human rights. Be friendly, move gently and always work with a light footprint – it makes the world a difference.

#3. Respect Property

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This is just as important as respecting people, if not more significant. A prime example of disrespect for property was in Cambodia’s Angkor archaeological park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which consists of ancient temples including Angkor Wat. Five foreign visitors were arrested and deported after they were caught taking nude self-portraits at the sacred sites. These sites hold enormous spiritual and historical significance. It’s completely disrespectful to climb these structures, let alone strip off and strike up a pose. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with nude photography when done tastefully and respectfully, however there’s a time and place for everything.

As travel photographers it’s our duty to document these incredible places. A lot of it comes down to common sense, which unfortunately seems very uncommon for a lot of people who travel abroad. Just because you’ve left home doesn’t mean you should leave your manners and morals behind. Travel is fulfilling so be respectful, don’t take it for granted by being another idiot abroad.

#4. Avoid Paying for Photos

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This is a difficult one, and it will vary depending on what photography means to you and why you do what you do. As a travel photographer interested in having culturally rich experiences, I very rarely pay anyone to take their photo. There’s obviously a difference between travel and commercial photography, but where do you draw the line?

Here’s an example from a recent trip to Asia, where I spent 8 months travelling and photographing both commercially for a client and for my own enjoyment. My assignment brief was to capture the essence of the destination and it’s people for a book. My client provided me a specific brief for the type of images they needed. Some of the images required me to setup moments with models, which of course came at a cost. This is the commercial side of travel photography. I was able to capture and deliver exactly what my client asked. However, it wasn’t exactly fulfilling and it felt as if I was spoiling part of the culture.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting commercially and paying to get the shots, except this does set expectations among the people who may assume everyone who travels will pay for photos. I found it difficult on many occasions where people on the street would ask me for money even if it were a candid moment. It became frustrating because I ended up missing photo opportunities due to other people’s expectations. Some people would get aggressive, which at those times I would kindly respect them and move on. The main concern for me was that the culture seemed blanketed by this expectation; this made it challenging in places to find authentic cultural experiences.

Instead of paying people with money, try giving something back; food, water, clothing or a kind gesture is a great way to thank someone for their time. I remember photographing a group of sadhus (holy men) in Varanasi, India. These men would ask me for money every time I walked past. The day I stopped I knew I wanted to take their portraits, and no doubt they knew they would receive something from me. Rather than paying money, I bought the men a meal each. Instantly their moods changed to being thankful for the food. By offering something people need will allow you to interact without spoiling the culture. There’s nothing worse than watching a bus load of tourists handing out countless amounts of cash to people on the street, it’s setting a bad example and high expectations for other travelers.

Keep in mind the importance of understanding the purpose behind your travel photography. Once you understand this you’ll be able to move, tread lightly and enjoy your travels. A real traveler knows that it’s not about the destination; its about the journey. Seek and you will find.

#5. Foster Tolerance

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This comes back to respecting people and culture, and is a very important concept to assist in accepting cultural differences. It is not a passive concept and does not equate to indifference or indulgence. It’s all about acceptance of differences of other people and is the recognition of the significance of those dissimilarities without any judgement. How does this apply to photography? Well, if you judge someone or something on appearance or behavior without fostering tolerance than it’s likely you’ll miss parts of the story, therefore resulting in missed photo opportunities. By acknowledging these differences new opportunities will arise, opening up new doors that may have never opened without the open-mindedness.

Be tolerant and listen before acting. Great images don’t create themselves; you need to go deeper than just clicking the shutter if you want to take your travel photography to the next level.

#6. Assess Then Act

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When we travel into new and unfamiliar territories outside of our comfort zone we are exposed to a different lifestyle. The best way to deal with this is by assessing each situation and knowing that the same approach cannot be necessarily applied to every occasion. As an Australian, I’ve spent the majority of my life in the western world. I understand the system and find a level of comfort working where I live.

For example, if you’ve never traveled to Asia than it’s likely that you will feel anxious at times resulting in your nerves taking over. Language barriers can be difficult when trying to move freely as a photographer in a foreign land. In order to handle these challenges it’s good to make photography secondary to your travels. Slow down while taking in the moment and then assess if it would make a great photo opportunity. Once you’ve traveled enough the urgency to photograph in a manic way wears off and this is when you’ll evolve as a photographer.

Every time I find myself in a new environment or situation, I always pause and observe what’s going on around me. Analyse the mood, the light, the interaction and behaviors of the people to get a sense of understanding. By doing this you’ll be able to find exactly what you want or need to document. It also puts other people at ease with your presence, you will no longer be ‘the foreigner’ with the camera, you’ll be immersed in the culture, which will help you shoot more inconspicuously.

#7. Tell the Truth

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As photographers, we have the power to change the world, but in order to make a positive impact we must work with integrity. This means being honest and precise, especially when working as a documentary photographer or photojournalist. If you are commissioned to document a story, it’s crucial to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Your images should be relevant to the event and society for it to be effective. If you photos are inaccurate or misleading of the message it will have a negative impact. It pays to do a lot of research in order to work lightly and openly.

#8. Pack Light

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This is probably the most literal way to work with a light footprint when travelling. It’s also one of the best ways to move around generously without the burden of being weighed down by your gear. As a travel photographer specializing in street and landscapes I always try to minimize weight as much as humanly possible. There’s really nothing worse than lugging around gear that you don’t need.

Take only the necessities you know you will use. This takes time and a few trips before you work it out, but once you get it sorted you’ll be able to take full advantage of being nomadic. During my first trip to Asia, I took way too much camera equipment, which mostly ended up staying in my bag or back in the hotel room. On the second trip I knew what I needed and what was going to slow me. So remember, take only the essentials and forget the dead weight. You’ll be glad you did.

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About the author: Drew Hopper is a travel, documentary, and editorial photographer based out of Australia. Captivated by the diversity of cultures, people and environment, Drew ventures far and wide to capture pictures that define his experiences with the vision that they will impact and inspire an audience in a way individual to each viewer. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and 500px. This post was also published here.


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