Travel Photography: A Simple, Profound Secret

Jeff Pflueger: On an important rule for travel photographers -- and when it's worth breaking

12.01.09 | 10:10 AM ET

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Professional photographers have a secret to great photography. For decades, the secret was out of reach for the people who weren’t working professionally, mostly because it was too expensive—in dollars, time and storage space.

Today, everything has changed, and the secret is available to everyone with a digital camera. It is simple and profound: Shoot a lot of pictures. There is no excuse not to. Most of us aren’t paying for processing anymore, memory is cheap, and the software out there, like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, makes organizing and editing a huge volume of images easier than ever.

To give you an idea of what a professional shoots in a day, I asked photographer Peter Menzel what a busy day looks like. Peter has done some amazingly imaginative projects in his career. You may have seen his work from Material World: A Global Family Portrait, riveting portraits of entire households—all the people, and all of their possessions—in front of the their home. The collection is a rich trans-global view into our relationships, both with family and with possessions.

Peter wrote to me in an email, “Four 8 gig chips and a few 2 gig chips is about my biggest day.” I did the math. Peter shoots something like 2,356 pictures on those “biggest” days. Back in the days of film, this single day would have produced 66 rolls. This is somewhat of a norm among people doing the type of work that Peter Menzel does.

Once you are committed to shooting a lot of pictures, you will find that the way you photograph changes. Rather than just spotting a great shot and making a picture, you will begin to look at a scene while you travel and visualize what you want to photograph but that isn’t quite there yet. Each photo then becomes a process of searching for that image. Invariably, during the process, you are surprised to capture something you never expected.

Photographer Ed Kashi’s recent work from the Niger River Delta dramatically spotlights the destruction that multinational oil companies have wreaked on the lives of the people who live there. The images are powerful and haunting.

To see how Ed Kashi photographs, watch his multimedia piece on Iraqi Kurdistan. With the help of Brian Storm’s MediaStorm, Kashi riffs on the popular format of audio slideshows by including not just each perfect photo, but the photos in between as well. The result is a front row seat to how Kashi shoots a part of the world we seldom see.

With all of this shooting, if you ever find the blisters on your shutter finger becoming too painful, and the time editing becoming too arduous, remember that rules are to be broken. After photographing for decades with National Geographic, Jim Brandenburg went rogue. “In a way, I was bored of my craft, tired of churning out endless rolls of photographs in exotic locations, only to have the best cherry-picked and the rest banished to a dark corner. I needed to get back to my art, back to my home ...”

Brandenburg’s self-imposed challenge for 90 days was to take only one photograph a day. The resulting images in the book Chased by the Light are inspiring. They remind us that breaking norms is the basis for creativity.

Jeff Pflueger

Jeff Pflueger is a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer and web geek. His adventure travel photographs involving all kinds of outdoor lunacy have been published in National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times, Men's Journal, Sunset and other publications.

9 Comments for Travel Photography: A Simple, Profound Secret

Panama Hotel 12.01.09 | 2:55 PM ET

Loved the piece. I can fully attest to complete amateurs (ie. me) closing the gap between (or at least passing occasionally as) the true professionals. We have a boutique hotel down here in Panama ( and have a system where we solicit photos of our old quarter from guests during their stay. Needless to say, some are simply spectacular. Working on putting up a full gallery (so nothing to show on our website for the time being). Of course, surroundings also don’t hurt. You could be a complete dolt and come out of our neighborhood with some great shots :)

david yusem 12.01.09 | 5:23 PM ET

Having just bought my first digital SLR after many years of shooting film I can report that it has been nice not to worry about using too much film and paying for processing, and at the same time I feel I have cheapened my art. I used to be more selective about my shots, sometime focusing and almost pushing the shutter only to back off because something didn’t feel right and I didn’t want to waste film.  therein lies the art.  If I was shooting professionally to make money I would shoot tons of photos knowing that there had to be a few good ones in there.  Artistically, I think I will still choose to be more selective in my shots.  We’ll see how long this lasts as I get used to the new digital SLR and the freedom to shoot and shoot.

Sophia Dembling 12.01.09 | 5:52 PM ET

Yes! When I was a staff travel writer at a newspaper (and had to provide my own photos), that was the advice the photo dept. gave me. I was told that if I got one decent shot per roll of film (not great, just usable), I was doing fine. Sometimes I forget that rule, even with digital, and I’m sad when I review my shots.

Christine B.Osborne 12.02.09 | 4:13 PM ET

I actually disagree with Jeff. Any skilled photographer - one who knows how to frame an image - does not need to take dozens of photos to get a good shot.  In the early days of slide film, I could not afford to take masses of images - it was simply too expensive - so I had to (and am sure many others did too) make every picture count . If the subject was suitable, I shot it twice, Vert/landscape; if it was brilliant and/or moving, three times, and this is what made me a good photographer.  Yes, the digitogs of today have been able to improve their photography, but it serves no one to tell them to shoot of dozens of pictures - because digital; is cheap etc. Selective photography (David Yusem) counts every time.

Larry J. Clark 12.04.09 | 7:08 AM ET

“On an important rule for travel photographers—and when it’s worth breaking”?

Catchy header, but essentially vacuous. 

First of all, where is this “important rule” hidden?  I see some discussion about shooting a lot of pictures, but that isn’t a rule…It’s just a technique or habit.  Citing the habits of NatGeo shooters might be interesting, but what’s the context for readers of this site?  NatGeo shooters (or editors) have to tease out something unique in their photos—a task made more difficult because the magazine churns out such a mass of formulaic photos every year. 

If you decide to incorporate photography into your travel experience, you have to make some logistical and time management decisions.  Photography has to fit into your daily routine.  If you decide to take a deep dive into shooting, you’re not going to be doing something else—there are only so many hours in a day.  And no matter what level you settle on, you still have to review every shot you take. 

The 6,000-frame-per-day example has no more meaning than the one-frame-per-day example without some kind of personal context.  Further, attempting to evaluate a photographer’s day based on the number of frames produced only tells you how many frames were produced…It doesn’t tell you how much time was spent performing the activities of photography.  (Although it does give a clue as to how much time will be spent in front of the computer screen that evening.)

There is no “rule”.  Never was one.  Therefore, nothing to break.

MarcusAdkins 12.04.09 | 10:13 AM ET

Great post just wanted to add my 2cents

Taking allot of pictures for the sake of taking allot of pictures will only overload you when you get to your computer.
You should look for “that” shot then experiment with lighting, angles and shutter speeds this will teach you faster than anything and soon you will be taking more great shots without wearing out your shutter

Jeff Pflueger 12.08.09 | 4:53 PM ET

Great points - thoughtful comments.
Larry, you are of course correct, “rule” is way too extreme. “tip” is much better. Perhaps “On an important tip for travel photographers—and when it’s worth ignoring” would be better.

And Marcus, nice addition. No point in shooting a lot of pictures if one isn’t experimenting with shutter speed, aperture, light and everything else along the way.

We practice at things to get better at them. Photography (and photo editing) is no different.

Dan Ross 12.08.09 | 10:10 PM ET

As a photographer, I can say that I have used both methods of photography, shooting everything that moves, and shooting selectively.  After many years and many thousand shots, I have developed my own balanced style.  I know what kinds of shots will actually be used later, so I mentally prepare for that moment, and preplan what angles and what settings I want to use, and when that moment comes, I shoot many variations of that special moment, with a certain style or use in mind. Compare that to just shooting random unplanned, uninteresting phototography that will be deleted after the first glance.  Volume is secondary.  Sometimes you get the perfect shot with one try.  Other times it takes more patience and thought. 
I think it is not helpful to recommend that amature photographers just shoot thousands of pictures with the logic that sooner or later they will have at least one lucky shot.  It is much better to study each picture taken, and understand what you did right or wrong, and become a skilled photographer that can capture pictures that reflect your style.  I would much rather havea dozen wonderful picture, compared to a thousand sloppy pictures. 12.09.09 | 10:33 AM ET

Thanks for sharing your knowledge about photography.  Many travel writers think they cannot shoot great pictures, but they can.  Like you said, “...once you are committed to shooting a lot of pictures, you will find that the way you photograph changes.”  The key is to take as many pictures as you can while paying attention to the scenery around you and the subject.

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