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The Woes Of The Photographer Who Travels Alone (Or Travels With People Who Are Non-Photographers)

Posted by on 12 May 2011

It’s been quite some time since I last wrote a proper blog post. Work and business travel have kept me too busy during the day and too exhausted at night to do any blogging.

So last night, determined to break the dry spell, I resorted to an old trick, i.e. browsing through recent travel pics to see if I could gain any inspiration. But instead of feeling inspired, I ended up feeling depressed as I browsed through the very few pics that have me in it — some with the background in perfect focus but with my face blurred; some with me right smack in the centre and very little of the scenery visible in the background; several pics with various portions of my body cut off; a few others with me in the shade, too dark and noisy for Photoshop to salvage.

Welcome to the world of the photographer who travels alone…or travels with people who are non-photographers.

Couldn't take my own pic, so I took a pic of my shoes (and stockinged feet) instead. Pathetic, I know! :( (Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Oct 2010)

Note that I use the term ‘photographer’ very loosely here. Generally, I always refer to myself as a ‘photography enthusiast’ because I feel that my skill level does not quite qualify me yet to call myself a ‘photographer’. A DSLR camera does not a photographer make; in the same way that the most expensive set of knives does not a chef make. But I do take decent enough photos that make people (who normally don’t like having their pics taken) ask me to take their pics after they’ve seen what kind of pics I can take.

So yeah…where was I? Ah, yes. Traveling alone. That has got to be my biggest problem when traveling alone — I take very nice landscape photos but when I try to take pics with me in them, I end up looking weird because (i) the lens distorts my face when I try to take a self-portrait by extending my arm as I shakily attempt to hold my D90 (which weighs something like a staggering 2 kg/4.4 lbs when used with my 18-200mm VR lens!) at what I felt was the right angle at the time; (ii) sometimes, there isn’t a suitable surface for putting my camera so that I could take a pic of myself using the self-timer, so I end up putting the camera someplace with some weird angle; or (iii) either way, I’d feel too self-conscious to get a decent pic of myself. DSLR cameras just ain’t cut out for selfies. And the the selfies that one can take using mobile phone cameras can be limited in terms of angles and scope.

It gets worse when I am traveling with people who are non-photographers. I take such nice pics of them — as though I’m paid to do so — but when I see the pics they take of me, I feel like crying (see first paragraph)!

Sometimes I get lucky when the people I’m traveling with are fast learners. Case in point: when I was traveling to Amsterdam and Paris with my mum. She’s not a photographer but after she tried again and again and again and again under my supervision (“what is the subject of your photo?”, “keep your arms close to your body” , “frame the shot so that the lamp post is just visible on the left”, etc), eventually her composition improved, she was no longer a victim of camera shake, and she actually managed to shoot many beautiful pictures of me. Just like when we were outside the Louvre — my mum tried taking a pic of me at that very same spot some 6 or 7 times, until I got so frustrated that I just laughed. My mum ended up taking the best shot of me from our Paris adventure — me, sitting in front of the fountain in front of the pyramid outside the Louvre, my head thrown back in laughter. Little do people know that I was actually laughing from frustration more than anything else!

Then there was this security guard at GenSan Fish Port. I set the D90 to Auto mode and turned Live View on. Then I showed him how to expose for a photo when the subjects are in the shade and the background is too bright — zoom in and focus on the subjects’ faces, press the shutter halfway, then with his finger still on the half-pressed shutter (to lock the exposure), zoom out and compose the photo. He was a surprisingly quick study and his composition was actually pretty good. He managed to take nice shots of my friends and I posing with a 137-kilogram headless blue marlin, posing with 3 tuna fish that were two arms’ length long, posing in front of a wooden fishing boat.

On several occasions, I’ve tried asking total strangers to take a pic of me, usually picking out people who have DSLR cameras and who looked like they knew what they were doing. Sadly, not everyone who owns a DSLR camera can take a decent photo, no matter how expensive their gear is or how convincing they look with the way they turn the camera this way and that as they snap pic after pic after pic from different angles.

Excuse me, Sir. Can you please take my picture? (Keukenhof, April 2007)

Hence my quick vent on Twitter last night:

And judging from the responses that I got, I’m not alone in my predicament.

So yeah. I just might advertise myself as a ‘travel photographer for hire’. I’ll document your travels with pics and videos of you and the places you visit. As compensation, all you have to do is take care of all my travel expenses: return air tickets, visa fees (if any), food and drinks, and (separate) hotel room. And I promise you photos and videos that will make your friends and family go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’…plus give you free travel planning advice. Interested? You know how to contact me hehehe! ;)

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