When I first started shooting travel photography, I went into it the same way I went into shooting wedding photography. I needed a lens for every circumstance. I had the super wide focal length, in case I wanted to take a landscape. I carried something medium for the storytelling aspects, and lastly, I would have a longer lens for some portraits. What I quickly figured out was not only did this make my bag oversized and hard to carry, but I also never really used everything I thought I would need.
With this realization in hand, I set out on my first trip with my mind set on using a single camera and single prime lens. It was a bit nerve-racking at first. I felt I was going to miss out on significant opportunities, but in reality it was actually very freeing. I no longer had a huge bag to carry around which was fantastic, but the largest benefit was one that I didn’t really expect.
When you are stuck with a single prime lens, a few things will happen: the first is that you will no longer need to have a running dialog with yourself about what lens to use. Before, I would walk into a room, survey the scene, and ask myself what I would want to shoot. However, since the change, I can walk into a room and look for what I CAN shoot. If there is nothing within your area, it’s easy to identify that you need to change positions. Or if a moment is happening outside your range, then I can choose to ignore it. This is an amazing thing to use to your advantage. Even with a ton of gear, if a moment is happening too far away, then you are probably going to miss it no matter what. However, instead of chasing down images I’ll likely miss anyway, now I get to plan out the images I can take within the range of my lens. You now look for interesting subjects and analyze where they are, where they are going, and how they need to get there. Once you have a general idea, you can then look for interesting compositions and wait for the subject to fall into your trap.
The second thing that happens is that you have a mental shift. Now that you are only looking for things you can shoot with your chosen focal length, you begin seeing things within that range that you would have never noticed. Instead of focusing on the extreme stand out subjects and moments happening all around you, you will start to see small and interesting details. The image is no longer defined by the presence of a subject. It begins to be about what the subject is doing and how it’s doing it.
Once you limit yourself to a single prime lens, you have this sort of bubble around you that defines what you can shoot. Everything outside of the bubble is too far away to be worth the effort. What this does is causes you to be become hyper aware of everything that happens inside your bubble. But we can take this limitation a step further. In addition to being limited by a single prime lens, we can also limit ourselves to the type of light we want to shoot. Now, we walk into a room and have to look for what’s inside our bubble that is also being lit the way we want. Doing this, we have narrowed down our options so much that anything that fits the criteria becomes as apparent as a road flare in the middle of the night. Over time, we develop a sixth sense that tells us when we have the light we want and we can then purposefully look for a subject in that light. If we do not have anything to shoot we can start to plan. Where are the people, what are they doing, will anyone come into my light?
It almost becomes a game, or a type of hunting. Sometimes you’ll see an easy target and get your image right away. Other times you may have to wait and hope the image comes together. Occasionally, you’ll wait for what seems like an eternity and decide to pack up with your head hung low in failure. Other times your heart will race as the image you have planned starts to unfold just as you have imagined. Then in the rarest occasions, the image will unfold even better than you could have hoped for!
The reason why limiting yourself is so beneficial when it comes to travel photography is because you already have so much to shoot. You are in a new place with new surroundings and new & interesting people everywhere. You are on sensory overload. Everything you see is new and exciting, which leads to you wanting to shoot it all. What you are left with is a memory card full of quick snapshots, simply because you didn’t give yourself enough time to really think an image through before moving onto the next. Great images take time and thought. Just because you have an amazing subject in amazing light, doesn’t mean you have the best composition or the best moment. The saying “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind here.
One thing to keep in mind by limiting yourself is that it does not have to be an end-all be-all. If you decide to shoot hard direct light and it turns out to be a cloudy day, by all means keep shooting. Just keep an eye out for the sun to break through while you do. You must always be on high alert for the stars to align.
At the end of the day, shooting travel photography should be fun and exciting. The art of limiting yourself should be used to enhance that experience. If you see an image you want that falls outside the scope of your self assignment, then take that image. Just try not to get sidetracked from the mission at hand. While this process should be fun, it should also be hard. Images will not fall from the sky, you will have to search for them. You will have to hope and imagine images into existence and sometimes you will fail. You will fail a lot. But if you are not failing, then you are not learning.