As a traveler who takes a lot of photographs (it’s an abiding passion!), I try to keep my gear as light as possible. Usually, along with my Nikon DSLR, I bring a 24-200mm zoom which takes care of most situations and a 20mm ultra wide lens for those occasional glorious landscapes bathed in golden hour sunsets. And a small tripod that fits my backpack. Still, there is a wide gulf between an amateur like me and a professional photographer who’s on assignment. Aside from the equipment, there’s also the factor of time. This was illustrated to me when we went on safari.
Wish I had a better zoom than the D80’s 135mm
At the Skukuza rest camp in Kruger National Park (South Africa) while we were getting ready for our drive down the the dusty veldt, a mud-caked Land Rover parked next to us. Three unshaven guys got down lugging their camera equipment: heavy tripods, compact battery-powered lamps, reflectors, humongous zooms, the whole works. The fourth member of the motley group cradled a Nikon D3 with a super telephoto 800mm prime lens still mounted to its own dedicated tripod. On his shoulders were two other backup cameras and I espied a Mamiya medium format in a separate case.
Great model, great view, great weather – you won’t always get a picture-perfect setting like this in your travels.
My interest piqued, I timidly approached them looking a bit awkward with my Nikon D80 (with its puny 18-135mm) which, at that moment, looked like a throw-away point-and-shoot. I found out that they were Belgian photographers and were on assignment shooting wildlife for a stock photography company. So how long have you guys been here, I asked. Three weeks – with two more to go, came the reply. They went out everyday with their own guide and tracker who set up their gear in areas where the animals were anticipated to be then hid in improvised hideouts. The cameras were attached with motion sensors that automatically fired when triggered by sudden movement. Or sometimes they used long release cables. Most of the time, they said, was spent waiting, waiting and waiting. Patience was a virtue, great-looking shots were the reward.
Up in Pike’s Peak. View? What view?
They showed me a couple of the previous day’s shoot and they were all stunning! One particular frame caught a fisheagle feeding its young inside a nest at the top of an acacia tree. I could clearly see the thin feathers that had sprouted out of the young bird’s head illuminated by the faint rays of the sun that filtered through the tree canopy. It couldn’t have been staged better. How they did it? One of them built a temporary house (hide) covered with grass on the branches of the adjacent tree and waited for days just to get that shot. Wow!
I had to shoot quickly since clouds started moving across the face of the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. A few minutes after I changed location for a different perspective, it was already covered.
Well, when traveling, you are forced to shoot whatever the situation is at hand. Lucky for you if the weather is always good with the sun shining brightly to give you a better-than-average lighting. But this isn’t always the case. What if it was overcast or, worse, raining or snowing? I remember once driving up Colorado’s beautiful Pike’s Peak with a gloriously blue sky when we started. Suddenly, the weather changed so when we got to the top, a dense blanket of fog covered the place. Couldn’t see a damn thing! Not even the car 5 meters in front of me, what more of the highly-fancied view of the mountains.
Sure, the sunset was absolutely beautiful but clouds covered the alps below.
Then years ago, in Jungfraujoch up in the Bernese Alps, we arrived at the top of the highest train station in Europe only to find clouds covering the whole spread below. Soon, it started snowing. What to do now? You may have the best gear and intentions but what about the time? Can you afford to wait for the weather to change for the better? Most likely not. So you take whatever’s available. Or you will later rue the fact that you didn’t try.
Sometimes, adverse weather conditions could work in your favor like this ethereal shot of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria right in the midst of pouring rain.
Over the years, you pick up bits and pieces of what’s important and what’s not. Would you like your shot to be blurry but get the essence of the scene or pin sharp but missing the moment thus making it quite boring? I’d choose the former than the latter. Though there are things that have their set of basic rules that you have to abide by. Like night photography. Your image should at least be passably sharp in order to make it come alive for after all who wants to look at photos with streaking lights ruining the scene or too dark that you lose the detail. That’s when carrying a tripod around comes into its own. I know it’s a hassle but not really a must. To have a steady support, all you need is a level surface where you can put down your camera and set the timer. Many times, I’ve made use of what’s around me – a fence, a stump of a tree or a hood of a car. Once, in Paris, the cops asked me what I was doing dragging the wheeled garbage bin around to use as a support to shoot the Tour Eiffel! I usually take the airline’s blanket before deplaning because it comes in handy to use as a prop on top of my backpack to lessen camera shake. Try it!
I shot this 15 second exposure of the IMAX Theater in the City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia, Spain by gripping the camera on top of my backpack and holding my breath till I almost turned blue!
I’ve had so many shots ruined by less fortuitous circumstances and so many of them just remain in my memory – they were the ones that got away. So when you see a lovely postcard, don’t always think you can have the same exact results with your own pictures. Remember that these were done by pros who painstakingly reconnoitered the place and staked all the angles in preparation for the best optimal weather conditions.
The consolation though that you get as an amateur photographer is that you can say, I was there and this is what I saw. It’s a slice of time spent at a certain place and it becomes quite a personal testament. And, of course, nothing beats the joyous feeling when you see your photographs telling a story. Really.