When not to photograph

David Whitley debates whether sometimes we should put the camera down and just enjoy the moment without playing photographer

In any major tourist destination, you’ll end up running what I call the photography gauntlet. I’d hate to think how much time the human race has wasted waiting for other people to take pictures. The etiquette of such situations is a bit of a grey area. When someone is standing at one side of the path, with the photographer at the other, everybody has to stop and stand around like a plum until the snapshot session is finished.

But when does it become OK to think: “Sod this,” and just stride across, probably getting your unwanted head into the photo? Who should be patient – is it the people trying to get the picture or everyone else?

At times, I think we can be too obsessive about taking pictures. Yes, it’s nice to have them as mementos a few years down the line, but nobody ever says their favourite part of the trip was taking photos. Show me someone who says taking loads of photos of the Sydney Opera House was their favourite part of a trip to Australia and I’ll show you a big, fat liar.

Sometimes the desire to capture the moment can prevent us from actually enjoying it. This is particularly true of safaris or whale-watching tours. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at everything through a viewfinder. The constant urge to get the right shot stops you watching – getting the elephant into shot becomes more important than watching what it’s doing. Taking photos becomes a task, the whole enterprise measured as a success or failure by how good the resulting pictures are. Put the camera down, and it’s a relief not to have to measure the success of the outing. You can just enjoy it as an observer, watching the nuances and interactions, without the need to obsessively capture scenes.

Slavery to the camera becomes worst on a group tour. The more people in the group, the longer you have to wait while everyone takes a picture of everything. It gets even worse if you’ve got the sort of simpletons in the group who are so insistent that everyone has to be bezzie mates forever that every stop has to be marked by a group photo.

Group photos are awful. No-one really wants to be in them, and the rictus grins have to be maintained for seemingly hours as exactly the same photo is taken with twenty cameras. This is bad enough once, but when it’s done at every stop you just want to run away and hide behind a tree.

There’s nothing wrong with photography as a hobby, and I understand that some people get great pleasure from taking photos. But the rest of us who are doing it because we feel we ought to? Perhaps it’s time to think before we snap.



RTW photography tips

As the Eagles sang: ‘In a New York minute, everything can change.’ You have to react faster in city photography than you do in almost any other area. Alert pros know that you habitually walk down the street with your camera exposure set to F8 if you want to be ready for anything. The city is often a very ‘contrasty’ place of light and shade so more important still you have your finger on the dial so that at an instant’s notice you can be ready to shoot at whatever crops up with balanced exposure. Things are less complex with a point-and-shoot but the start-up time is usually far slower so try not to be caught with your camera switched off and a 5 second delay to get past before you can push the button. More than anywhere else security too is a preoccupation in the city so try not to use expensive looking camera bags and pouches that can just advertise what a great victim you would make.  

Most of the world’s jungles are invariably safer than their corresponding cities and your greatest enemy is likely to be the all-pervading, electronics-rotting humidity of the rainforest. A roll-top canoer’s bag can be the best bet to keep your camera in overnight and carry a good supply of silica gel sachet to soak up any moisture (you can dry them in a frying pan!). A good substitute for silica gel is simple rice: wrap it up in a (dry) bandana and stick it in a zip-lock bag and it will draw the moisture out of your equipment.  

Whether you are trekking in jungle or mountains the biggest problem is maintaining the agility to move around quickly and get into position for shots. At the end of a long, hard trek you can often look back and picture – with invariably haunting clarity – all the missed photo opportunities. I spent years stoically carrying my own kit and refusing to hand anything over to a porter: finally I realised that all I was doing was cheating some impoverished local of a good day’s wages and cheating myself of the opportunity to duck and dive and get my shots.

Few people the days will think that you are stealing their soul but shooting a close-up portrait is certainly a very private and personal thing and should never be done without asking the express permission of people involved. In traditional communities you can break down boundaries very quickly by shooting snapshots of children (or your travelling companions) and then showing them...get a few laughs and before you know it everyone will want their photo taken. Thankfully the wonderful invention of the delete button means that you can keep shooting those rigid passport-type poses until you manage to get a smile and your subject’s natural character is revealed. If you promise to send copies of images to local people you should always do so: bear in mind that, especially for old people in remote communities, this might be the only photograph they have ever had taken.

The overwhelming preoccupation of wildlife photographers the world over used to be how to get the biggest, fastest lens available. If you weren’t forking out USD20,000 on a 800mm telephoto you would never be considered one of the ‘big boys.’ If you are keen on shooting birdlife by all means continue with this outlook but for wildlife in most African parks you no longer need such equipment. It’s not the size that counts, but what you do with it, and even with a 200 or 300mm lens you will often find yourself too close. In most African parks that see regular visitors wildlife is so well habituated to human onlookers that it is frequently more of a pre-occupation how to get far enough back to get that shot of lion showing more of its environment...and less of its teeth.



by Mark Eveleigh

Camera tips


Here are 10 top tips that – whether you are a budding Frans Lanting or just a casual holiday snapper – round-the-world photographers of all levels might want to bear in mind.


1. Invest in the best camera you can afford for your RTW. This is going to be the trip of a lifetime and you will be expecting some fantastic images out of the amazing experiences that lie ahead.


2. Don’t take more photographic paraphernalia than you are prepared to carry. You might want to invest in a full-size pro SLR, a set of lenses, plus a tripod but you have a lot of miles ahead of you. If you begin to get lazy about humping it all around then, no matter how good your kit, it is not going to be shooting many Pullitzers sitting in the hotel room!


3. If you are going for a point-and-shoot consider that a really tough expedition type – water-proof, shock-proof – camera could be a worthwhile investment. I used the Pentax Optio WP as a spare backup video and stills camera for several fairly tough expeditions...and it was still going strong after my precious Nikon fell in a Mexican river.


4. A major advantage of the post-film era is in not having to carry a great pack of spare rolls. However, most travellers at some point run out of juice and space. Take more batteries and memory cards than you think you will need and back them up regularly. Rather than one 16gig card (which might get broken/lost/corrupted) take several smaller cards.


5. A flickr account can be a good way to showcase your images while you are still on the road. A lot of people don’t realise either that for a reasonably small upgrade to Flickr Pro you can upload an unlimited number of hi-res images (list them as private so that only you can see them). A great online backup.


6. Even in this day-and-age few cameras are always infallible in fully-automatic mode. Before you leave home familiarise yourself fully on your camera’s manual settings and try not to let your camera dictate all your shots completely.


7. If you are travelling with serious bulky SLR kit then get a bag that at least does a reasonable job of being surreptitious. A shoulder bag is usually better than a backpack since you can access equipment easier. National Geographic make fantastic canvas shoulder bags (the largest of which is big enough to hold laptop, two bodies, 3 lenses, hard-drive, Dictaphone...) and doesn’t necessarily appear at first glance as if it is loaded with thousands of pounds worth of equipment...especially if you cut off the Nat Geo badge.


8. Use a roll-top canoeist type bag and equipment while one the move over water. (If your RTW has Bangkok as one of the early stopovers take an opportunity to buy the bag – good quality and just a few dollars – at one of the many shops along Khao San Road).


9. A lightweight tripod can be worth its weight in gold if you want to get more artistic. You suddenly realise a world of potential for long-exposure, slow-synch, time-lapse and fast-forward video if you carry even the simplest of tripods.


10. Even if not travelling with a laptop consider investing in a portable harddrive (or iPod with lots of hard-drive space) so that you can backup all your precious images. Losing all those breath-taking shots on month 11 of a year-long trip could take some getting over!




by Mark Eveleigh

English needed?


I blame the French. More specifically, the Frenchman who lost his temper with a 12 year old boy in Montdidier. In 1988. My attempt to put a year's worth of French lessons into practice had caused the octogenarian to rant and rage at me and then the sky, all in a language I didn't understand. Clearly I'd cause offense, although how remains a mystery. I suspect it was the charge of 60 British schoolchildren up the high street asking where the swimming pool is in rudimentary Franglais that tipped him over the edge, the poor bastard.

I'm not great with second languages. I'll make a stab at learning basic greetings before traveling somewhere new, but anymore than a few words is a struggle, but I'll take comfort in the fact that I make an effort rather than assume others will take up the slack and be able to speak English. I'm ignorant, but not as ignorant as some, which makes me clever by comparison. Go me.

It was while reading David's post about learning a second language that got me thinking about this topic - where in the world will a traveller really struggle if they can only speak English?

There may be several reasons:

- the country / region / city in question is rarely visited by English-speaking visitors, or there are few ex-pats - there may be no be tourism or trade that forces locals to speak a language other than their own

- there's no common history between the country and other English-speaking territories

- it's a cultural issue; locals and/or the country as a whole is wary of visitors, or perhaps there's little tolerance for pandering to outsiders

Is English is a truly global language, or are there vast swathes of the globe where you'll  struggle to get by? Which countries don't speak it? Which countries prefer not to? And is there anywhere that learning the basics is a must before you arrive? What do you think? Leave a comment or thought below...



By Paul Smith

Off the track



Nowhere in the world that cannot be explored with the help of reliable local guides. Livingstone might have become the greatest name in the history of exploration but he would not have been able to do what he did without the help of his unshakable guides Chuma and Susi. Where would Hillary have been without Sherpa Tenzing or Lewis and Clarke without the fearless Indian woman Sacajawea?     

I’ve mounted more than a dozen solo or team expeditions into uncharted (or barely explored) parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In areas with at least some tourist infrastructure there will be national park authorities or tourist information offices that can recommend guides. The following tips however relate to more off-the-beaten-track locations where you’ll have to find your own expedition crew.

The following tips could prove invaluable in finding the perfect guides and, perhaps, to mounting an expedition that could very well turn out to be the highlight of your round the world trip.  

1. The police force hasn’t been formed that is more effective than community or tribal law. There are few better ways to find reliable guides that to ask a village headman to hand-pick them for you. A guide who is aware that he is custodian of the honour of his village – and that he will have to answer to tribal law should anything happen to you – is likely to be the most helpful and trustworthy you’ll ever find.

2. If you want to get from A to B with a minimum of delay arrange to pay for the trip rather than by the day. This can work best if, for example, provisions might be in short supply on the trail and you need to make the journey before food or water runs out. You might be surprised, however, to realise just how fast local people can move even in dense jungle. You could be in for quite a race!

3. If, on the other hand, soaking up the experience is more of a priority, arrange to pay by the day. This way your guides will be in no hurry and (as long as you have provisions) you can even extend the stay longer or make detours. Be ready however for unreasonable excuses for early stops to camp or seemingly unnecessary rest days. Make sure that your provisioning plans take into account a longer stay than you originally envisaged.  

4. If re-provisioning is likely to be needed part way through the trek take extra guides. Few guides will agree to walk solo through the jungle to carry provisions back from a village. Recently I lead an expedition in Chiapas. We were trekking through an unexplored part of Monte Azul Bio-reserve and, because of the area’s protected status, would not be able to hunt for meat. We took extra guide/porters in case a re-provisioning run back to a village was necessary...and we also took several live hens for fresh meat.

5. On longer expeditions it can be necessary to take a hunter with a gun. But if you really want him to be able to bring in meat you must be prepared to travel slower, allowing enough time for him to be able to hunt in the evenings or early morning. With a long, noisy column crashing through the bush don’t expect wildlife to be easily visible. Most important, give strict guidelines as to what can and cannot be shot: I had to convince my Kuna guides in Panama that under no circumstances were they to shoot jaguar for meat and in Borneo I was not sorry to arrive in a hunters camp too late to partake of their meal of orang utan!

6. Before departure try to research the community obligations of your guides. Few pastoral people will be prepared to guide you (whatever incentive you are offering) during one of those crucial periods of the year when the herds need to be moved. This was a lesson that I learned the hard way when I arrived in central Borneo just as the rice was being harvested...and spent three fruitless weeks travelling between various jungle villages and longhouses, unable to entice anyone into an expedition.   

7. Don’t skimp on porters. These days most backpackers are aware of the plight of the overworked, overloaded and underpaid porters who used to suffer in great numbers in trekking destinations as far apart as the Annapurna Circuit, Kilimanjaro or the Inca Trail. Hire enough guides, porters and camp assistants (or cooks) for your needs.

8. Listen to your guides when they advise what provisions are needed. In Asia few guides will be willing to travel without their pre-requisite ration of rice (frequently three plates each per day). In parts of Africa it might be mealie-meal/sadza/fufu. In the Andes you will have little chance of getting together a team of mountain guides unless you make an allowance for a sack of coca leaves. Unhappy and disgruntled guides will not add to the experience on any expedition...and, in the worst scenarios, an expedition that is not functioning well as a team could potentially be dangerous. In almost all areas a few cartons of imported cigarettes do wonders for team morale.

9. Don’t rush the delicate period of haggling. In many traditional communities it is considered the height of bad manners to launch straight into business without the prerequisite period of chit-chat. Haggle reasonably hard (but always with good humour and a smile) to fix the rate but make it clear that a good bonus will be offered on arrival if you are thoroughly happy with how the trip has gone. You will get a gut-feel about how to handle the payments from your guide’s personalities. If alcohol seems to be a problem within the community, perhaps offer half payment upfront the morning of departure – the rest on completion of the trek. This way there is a better chance that at least some of the money will make it into the households rather than be frittered away in bars on return from a long, thirsty trek.

10. Don’t skimp on porters out of some obscure obligation that you must carry your own pack: the last person who will thank you for this is the poor soul who loses a good pay-packet because of your - albeit laudable - scruples. For many years I refused to let a porter carry my kit...until at some point when I was already working as a professional photographer (I’m no longer sure but think it was somewhere in the jungles of Sumatra) I realised that for a few extra dollars – which some local guy was extremely grateful for – I was freed to move with so much more agility. Loaded only with my camera equipment I was able to chase the shots and angles that I was supposed to be there to get. I was freer to do my job effectively and he could do his.



By Mark Eveleigh