It's not about the postcard shot

Some thoughts on shooting the little things

When you travel, do you plan to see and photograph all the big sights in whichever place you are traveling to?  You do, right?  I do too.  We all do.  That’s natural.  The famous stuff is famous for a reason - everyone loves it, wants to see it, and plans to take photographs of it.  And, it’s usually beautiful, historic, or incredibly interesting in some way (or all three).  In other words, it’s a landmark.  It just beckons you to come see it.

That’s why they become postcards.  

But that’s also why they are getting harder and harder to shoot, or get an original shot of.  They are overshot, in some ways.  They are crowded.  Still awesome, mind you - but overshot.

And most of us don’t have the luxury of returning to that spot over and over again, so that we do get the most perfect conditions for some epic photo.  We might get one shot at it - and that’s it.   

This was embedded in the sidewalk in Bratislava, Slovakia.  It was a full circle with many cities listed.

There's more to travel photography than the big sights

While I do advocate going and taking your shot of that landmark (if you are like me, you have to have your own!), I have started to realize that the little things are just as important as the big things.  They fill in the blank spaces between the big shots.  They are the sweet little slices of a place that you don’t often see on a postcard.  They add meaning, and depth, and substance.  They’re real.

You don’t just show up, shoot the big stuff, and then turn around and shoot the next big thing.  They are not just waiting there for you, all lined up and ready to pose.  There is usually a bit of travel between them, but there’s also a million shots to be had in between, if you take the time to look for them.  And they can be incredible.  

This is an opportunity for all of us.

A corner of a building in Brussels, Belgium, shot at sunrise.  I just loved the lines and the light - and that wall of graffiti at the end of the sidewalk.

Now of course you pretty much have to shoot the big stuff (in some ways, it’s the proof that you actually went there - and let's face it, they're awesome), and to be clear, I advocate that you DO shoot the big stuff.  But my advice is to stay alert and open-minded while you travel, and seek the lesser-known stuff too.  The big shots are sort of like the bones of a good story (plot, major characters, etc) - the little shots are the muscle and all the connecting tissue.  You need both to tell a complete story.

The other thing I have learned over the years is that there are just SO MANY incredibly good shots of the big stuff already.  It’s been done so many times, and it’s probably been on the cover of a book or magazine, like National Geographic.  Someone had the right skills, the right light, and the right eye to capture an iconic photo at the right time - a masterpiece.  And it is just AWESOME.  I freakin‘ LOVE seeing photos like that.  They inspire me.  

Another European street corner - this time in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Down to the right is Nyhavn, the popular harbor area with the historic ships.  I just loved this little scene though, and had to capture it!

Just think about it for a moment.  Even if you have never been to some famous places, you know exactly what they look like, right?  You can see the photo in your mind, right now.  The Colosseum in Rome?  Machu Picchu?  The Acropolis in Athens?  I can picture them all, right now, clear as day.  And it’s because someone has been there and made an exceptional photo of it.    

For me, it's about setting my expectations

Am I really going to get perfect conditions and end up with THE shot of Big Ben, for example?  Probably not.  Am I going to go and shoot it anyways?  Of course.  But I go into it knowing that the outcome is likely not going to be a game-changer in the world of photography.  That's not a fatalistic, defeatist attitude.  That's the truth.  I'm always hopeful (I'm pretty much a perpetual optimist), but I go into it knowing the probabilities.  (See, I'm also a realist.)

And that’s ok, because I am not hunting for a single masterpiece on any trip that I take.  Those are so incredibly rare that I just cannot set that as a goal for myself.  I find it limiting, or restricting, for my style of photography, and for what I want out of photography.

There are those photographers who do set that as a goal, and often achieve it.  I think that is awesome, and I am thankful for them, because I love seeing great photos, and I want photographers who create great things to get the rewards that go along with their efforts.

But I rarely have the time to repeatedly visit a spot, looking for that perfect photo.  I want to shoot everything I can, and move on.  I want to collect evidence of a place, which is a whole lot more than a single location.  Then I want to go collect even more.  :-)

St. Thomas Church in New York City - just a short stroll from the much larger and more famous St. Patrick's.  I went there too, but it was under construction and STILL super crowded.  So I popped over here and nearly had it to myself!

I find that my goals and my approach to a trip have changed over the years.  I want to weave a fabric that shows the soul of a place, and I want to capture a lot of various shots of any city I visit.  I want to shoot EVERYTHING, and come back with an entire album of photos, showing the good, the bad, and the in-between.  I feel like most of the time that happens with the little things, or at least a blend of the big things and little things.  Photos of famous places don't tell the full story - they just can't.  They may be remarkable, but they are a single chapter in a novel.  They don't stand alone.

I find a trip so much more satisfying when I take the time to find all the overlooked and ignored things that every place has to offer.  And guess what?  Those things are NOT photographed to death, partly because everyone just hustles off to the next big thing.  You can get an original shot of the little things, and there is often no one in your way.  That’s a win.

Just some colorful trashcans lining a street in the historic Casco Viejo district in Panama City, Panama.

And guess what else?  I think these little shots tell a better story than the big iconic ones.  They are more real (as I said above), and they give you insight into a place that you don’t get from a shot of a famous landmark.  They humanize a distant land, making it familiar.  They bring it to life.  They are relatable.

So the next time you are traveling somewhere far afield, with your list of all the great spots to go shoot (and I have happily created plenty of those here on the blog, because I think they are worth seeing and photographing), don’t forget to stop along the way and take photographs of the little things.  You might just find that they give you an incredible amount of satisfaction.

If nothing else, they will help you tell a better story.

There are so many incredible things to shoot in San Francisco, CA.  Between them, I stopped and shot Pier 23 Cafe.  Ain't it cool?  I love little spots like this - so much personality.

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Thanks for listening.  Here are a few tips for making sure you get the little shots:

  • Print out a map of your destination, and highlight the big sights you plan to shoot while there (and take into consideration time of day, light direction, etc)
  • Depending on how much time you have (and how many outings you get with the camera), plan out a general route between these big sights
  • Walk between the big sights!  Do not take taxis, or trains, or whatever unless you just absolutely have to (for example, if it’s really far).
  • Wander the streets between sights and do not be afraid to get a little lost.  I find more interesting things to shoot when I meander somewhat aimlessly.  You get the added benefit of becoming very familiar with a place!
  • All the tourists are taking taxis and trains - so since you are walking, you will not have to deal with as much of a crowd when you find little tucked away spots to shoot.
  • Get up early and shoot sunrise.  I have had more luck with sunrise shooting than any other time of day.  Added bonus: all the tourists are still asleep!
  • It's of particular importance to shoot the big things at sunrise, because you will more likely have them to yourself.  Then shoot all the great little stuff afterwards!