Rule 17: Shoot Where You Are

Missing Pieces (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

I have to admit, I experience travel envy. It’s the season for street fairs, which invariably means photographers showcasing their work.* Some shoot scenes with which I’m already well-acquainted (in and around Manhattan, for instance, or various locales on the Jersey shore), but some also have gorgeous shots made in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, and that’s where the envy sets in.

Gimme a ticket to Barcelona, or Buenos Aires… hell, even Boston, I think to myself, and then I snap back to reality. In photography, as with so much else, you’re always where you’re supposed to be, even if you’re not always immediately sure why that is. And that’s part of the problem, in a way; it all starts with the why. Figure out your why, and the other questions start to fall into place (what goes in the viewfinder? How do I frame it?), but without it, your why might as well be, “Why take this photo?”

I understand the restlessness, believe me. I photograph quite a bit on foot (and there are reasons for this, which I’ll take up later), but when you’re photographing within walking distance – whether it’s a walk from your home or from your car – the grass is always greener, the scenery or the people that much more interesting, somewhere just out of reach. Cut that out, because if you keep doing that, you’re not going to be present in the moment, or present to your surroundings. Your eye’s in the viewfinder, but your mind… well, it’s wandered off somewhere else, and at some point, your photos are going to reflect that. Being an absent-minded photographer can be bad enough (I speak from experience), but taking absent-minded photos isn’t helping you either.

This, for me, is the bottom line: the things that make a good photo are completely independent of geography. The fundamentals of exposure, lighting, composition and the like all apply whether you’re in Peoria or Paris. Yes, if you plunk a good photographer down in Salvador during Carnival, s/he’s going to get some breathtaking shots. But that same photographer could also, in all likelihood, walk out their front or back door and capture something that you’d want to frame and put on your wall. If, on the other hand, you take a bad or mediocre photographer, it doesn’t matter whether you give them a round-trip ticket to Venice or Venice Beach, they’re just going to come back with dull photos of exotic locations.

Try making the most of where you are. It can be challenging (or even trying, depending on how often you see the same stuff day in and day out), but that challenge can also be a part of what aids the growth of your craft. Besides, it doesn’t have to be exactly the same spot every time; if you can learn to appreciate, and find the photos in, your everyday surroundings, it becomes much easier when you’re in a fresh environment to find something that’s unique, or a unique way to approach the same stuff that we’ve all seen.

*It also invariably means at least one tent with some Peruvian guy playing Abba songs on a Pan flute, band accompaniment optional.

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