Think Globally: Shoot Locally

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Photographers these days are especially sick of hearing about the economy on the news over and over again. That’s because when it comes to these types of downturns, we’re like canaries in the coalmines… We feel the effects of a lack of economic oxygen long before the rest of the business world, and this is just so much old news.  Any working pro I know could have told you things were really tough a year and a half ago, when the rest of the country was still in the bubble of economic self delusion.

But now a lot of other industries–publishing, travel, and banking among them — have  caught up and we’re all in the same boat. And this doesn’t bode well for those of us who travel and shoot, for profit, or passion, or both.  Travel magazines today are as thin as as a stockbroker’s wallet, suffering from the anorexia of no advertising dollars, and consequently no editorial pages or assignments.  And optional travel for pleasure is the first thing to go in tight economic times… You may not have to give up that Starbucks latte, but that that photo tour to Tuscany? Well, they may have to wait.

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What does this mean for those of us who love to shoot travel?  Do we hang up our cameras and wait out the recession? Take up another passion till the economy turns the corner ? No, that would be like an athlete giving up practices in the off season… You’re going to get so far out of “shape” that you’ll find your photographic chops will get really rusty.  No, the answer is to keep shooting travel, but for a while at least, we’re going to have to shoot it in our own backyard.

I know all about shooting locally… My early career dues were paid working for five years as a newspaper photographer on the streets of the garden spots of the Garden State:  Jersey City, Hoboken, and Union City.  “One day,” I used to think to myself as I tried to pull off an interesting weather shot or “wild art” (as those standalone scenics used to be know in the news biz) in deepest Hudson County ,” I’m going to be shooting in Burma and not Bayonne.” Sure enough that day did come, but even though I’m known primarily for overseas travel work, I have never stopped shooting in my own back yard… Even when the economy was good enough to keep me overseas for months at a time.

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The reason for my love of shooting locally is due in equal parts to being really interested in showing the places I know well, but also to keep me in good photographic “shape.” One of the travel shooter’s dirty little secrets is that sometimes the easy exoticism of the location can let you coast a bit in the creativity department.

The colorful streetlife of India, the cultural cornucopia of Bali, the sheer magnificence of African wildlife… These are the reasons that we put up with awful airlines, tourist tummy, and less than stellar hotels. But it’s also almost  impossible to miss when you’re  shooting these things (although I have seen it done, and done it myself, but that’s a subject for another blog!).

If you can’t make an interesting picture of, say,  a Huli Wigman in Papua New Guinea, then you might want to hang up your camera and look into gardening or golf.

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As a travel magazine photo editor once observed, “I don’t need to ever see another cool shot of monks in orange robes in southeast Asia.  What I need is a photographer who can make pictures just as compelling in Grand Rapids or Peoria.”

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Yes, it’s true: a steady diet of the exotic can make you a bit flabby as a photographer.  It’s like constantly skipping the meal and only eating desert… It’s sweet, delicious, and easy, but if it’s the only thing you eat, you’re going to get weak and fat.  I see a lot of mediocre travel photography (and have done some of it myself, I shudder to admit) where it’s the exotic locale, and not the photographer’s eye, that carries the picture.

That’s why, In good economic times and bad, I’ve always had a local component to my travel shooting. When I lived in northern New Jersey, I used to go in and shoot stock in New York City whenever there was a lull in jobs and the weather was good.  I loved the energy of shooting in the city, and in those days, shooting travel stock on speculation of a major destination like the Big Apple was an economically wise thing to do. In the post-microstock, Flickr, royalty free age, it’s more a labor of love, but it can still have some economic benefits in a well marketed stock file.

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When we moved down to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, my wife Peggy—who runs the business and stock end of my career, and is known affectionately around the house as “she who must be obeyed”—suggested I shoot our new home region for a coffeetable book project. It was a wise move on several counts—it forced me to get to know my new neighborhood, I discovered Philadelphia, and the book became one of our best selling projects.

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Local, Not Yokel
So rather than lament our current inability to get out and shoot the world, I say embrace it. There are several advantages to shooting travel in your own backyard that can pay off bigtime.

First and foremost, now you’re the local—you speak the language (no fixers need apply), you’ve probably got some good contacts, and you know the lay of the land.  Since you live close by, you can cherrypick the weather conditions, and not be forced to make pictures in less than ideal atmospheric conditions. You can go back several times to get the shot just right. You have the luxury of time. None of this can happen when you’re half a world away on a tight schedule in a strange land.

How can all this local knowledge and time help you improve your work? Here’s a sample case. The Philadelphia skyline was permanently altered last year by the completion of the tallest building in the city, the new Comcast Tower.  Since moving to the region, I’ve been doing a lot of shooting in Philly and have some good contacts down there, cultivated over time.  One of them is a facility manager for a large company whose building commands a unique, striking, and very private view of the skyline.  I’ve been sending him my yearly photo calendar for years since we met at a holiday party.

I reached out to him for permission to shoot the new skyline from his rooftop, and he was happy to cooperate. I watched the weather reports and waited weeks till we had a rare low humidity, high pressure midsummer day, and was able to get up on the roof at twilight to make a skyline shot that no visiting photographer, no matter how much more gifted, would be able to make. All this happened, by the way, simply because I am local with an insider’s knowledge.

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Another advantage of shooting local travel is that the US in recent years has become a cheaper and more popular destination for overseas visitors.  And that means that there is more of a need for domestic stock photography than ever before. It may be more soul satisfying to shoot travel pictures in Venice or Tuscany than in Philadelphia, but guess what?  Millions have those same pictures (I love Tuscany and Venice, but the tripod marks of those who have come before us are practically embedded in the cobblestones!), and your chances of selling them are, well, a million to one.

But take a place like Philly? It’s a popular tourist destination, it’s not as heavily photographed as either of its urban “neighbors”, New York and DC, and it’s pretty heavily requested as stock. In fact, in recent years, Philadelphia has usurped the Caribbean as being the best-selling destination in my stock files….and I’ve got pictures from 124 other countries in there competing!

Another great reason to shoot travel locally is to work out techniques and experimental approaches.  When you’re far far away, and possibly jet-lagged, Delhi-bellied, and time crunched, it’s often hard enough to even stand up straight, let alone take flights of artistic fancy.  But if you practice, say, your off camera, slow sync flash techniques with a friend down at the local marina…

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…you’ll be well versed enough to do the same thing flawlessly when the occasion arises in a much more exotic setting with a much more exotic subject…

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Shooting locally is like doing visual calisthenics—when you try to make surprising pictures of the familiar, your eye gets stronger.

This Too Shall Pass
So don’t lament the fact that our wings may have been clipped by the economy—it’s a temporary condition. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hit all those exotic travel photography hotspots sooner rather than later. And if we’ve spent the recession shooting travel in our own backyards, we’ll be stronger, more capable photographers when we do hit the road again. Remember the sage words of the French writer Marcel Proust, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

(Er, but just keep your new eyes out of Philly, see, cuz it’s my town, and remember I’m from Jersey, so I got people, see, and they could make it, let’s say,  “uncomfortable” for youse if you start messin’ on my turf…. :))

To see more of Bob’s images, check out his website.  To read more of his writings, check out his monthly column in Outdoor Photographer MagazineAnd if that’s not enough Bob for you, check him out in the Nikon School Hands-On Guide to Creative Lighting DVD!