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.