If you go on National Geographic’s website and look at all the contributing photographers, it seems as though everyone has access to all sorts of international locations and exotic places. From underwater to rural blacksmith shops to downtown London or Paris to portraits of old Chinese men and women or these dancers in India, international flavor abounds. After all, that’s what National Geographic is known for, and is also what makes it intimidating for amateur photographers to tap into. Because of this, I’d like to address some key points to highlighting different cultures in your images.
Note: did you know that anyone can be a contributing photographer to their online site? It’s called Your Shot and is worth checking out for inspiration and to add your own photos.
Your culture counts!
Remember that wherever you live IS a different culture than the rest of the world. It counts as a unique place, even if it’s not unique to you. It can be easy to see your hometown or city as mundane because you may have lived there for a very long time. The key point here is to find a way to see your town as unique, as though you’re seeing it through the eyes of a stranger.
How can you do this? Depending on where you live would afford different opportunities. Let’s say, for example, you live in a quaint town on the shore at the southern tip of England, one much like Chichester. Its coastal setting, boats, and cool waters can make for some breathtaking coastal images. Mix in some local blokes by asking them to get off their bench at the pub and to interact on the shore in their heavy wool sweaters and their wellies. While these may seem like everyday people to you, to me and others, they’re unique to your town.
Naturally, I’m using this as a descriptive example of what’s unique in one part of the world that might just be your hometown.
If you enjoy being outgoing, you can talk to tourists or other visitors and ask them what they find special about your town. They will see things with fresh eyes that you haven’t seen in a long time, if ever, from that same perspective. Listen to them and be open to their observations.
Become a local
When you are afforded the opportunity to travel, do what you can to blend in with the locals rather than going to the typical tourist spots. Again, if you enjoy being outgoing and are comfortable striking up a conversation with people, this is your chance to find out where the locals go, and those are the places you will find your best photo ops. Note that most locals can be protective of their secret spots, especially if you’re wearing a camera around your neck that screams, “I’m a tourist!” For the time being, leave the camera aside and just relax in the conversation. You won’t build their trust if you look like a photojournalist who is about to blow their cover! Be interested and engaging, and your results will be much better.
Bring the right gear
There’s nothing more frustrating than not having the right lens handy when a great photo op arrives. This happened to me not long ago, and is why I’m sharing it. I had a telephoto lens on that only went to 135mm and was photographing a vista of Stockholm. I left my 75-300mm telephoto in the car thinking I wouldn’t need it. After all, I was photographing a cityscape! Moments later, a kayak-er moved into shot. I would have loved to photograph him close-up with the buildings in the background. The problem was, he was so far away, I would have had to crop the image too tight, even for an 18 megapixel camera, to get a good quality image. I learned my lesson that day... bring the gear for what you expect to shoot, but also bring your gear for the unexpected!
When you’re in a new location capturing images of the locals and other venues, you won’t know always know ahead of time what lenses to bring unless you do ample research for where you’ll be shooting. Even then, bring whatever you can to cover the unexpected opportunity.
People Places and Things
No matter what you’re used to photographing, be open to changing things up. For example, if you typically photograph landscapes, but you’re visiting a crowded city, be prepared to shoot more portraits or street photography. Let’s say you’re in Paris and you come across a happy couple (which is quite likely), you could capture a moment such as the one above. These types of images not only expand your portfolio, but represent the local culture quite well.
Alternatively, if you mostly photograph weddings or portraits, but you are invited on an African Safari, be prepared to shoot some extraordinary nature and landscape shots.
When you are open to talking to people and changing up your destinations and genres, you will find yourself more readily prepared to capture local cultures or even your own culture in a new way. The challenge here is to learn as much as you can about the area you’re visiting, blend in with the locals, and be willing to shoot out of your normal genre. You’ll be glad you did when you’re home processing your images!
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