Are you a photographer or a tourist?

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, ND Filters, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios by Gary HartLeave a Comment

Editor’s note: Having recently experienced this dilemma on a trip with my daughter, I found this article by Gary to be especially meaningful. We hope you do, too.


Warm Light, El Capitan Clearing Storm, Yosemite (2007)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, 17 mm, 1/6 second, F/11, ISO 100, Singh-Ray neutral polarizer and Galen Rowell graduated neutral density filter.

Years of leading photo workshops and reviewing the work of others has convinced me that to capture great images and maintain domestic bliss, you need to decide before the trip whether you’ll be a tourist or a photographer. You just can’t have it both ways. (I say this completely without judgement—there are times when I opt for tourist mode myself, and on a recent Mexico cruise I didn’t even take my camera.)

I see many well composed images taken at the wrong times—harsh shadows, cloudless skies, and poorly aligned light are all signs that the photographer was sightseeing with his or her camera. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—if your priority was simply to record the scene, the image was a success.

But to get the pictures serious photographers covet, you need to be out there at the most inconvenient times. These are sacrifices a photographer is willing to make, but others? Not so much. Many family vacations and intimate getaways have been ruined by the photographer who thinks it’ll no problem sneaking out for sunrise (“I’ll be quiet—you won’t even know I left”), or waiting just a few minutes longer after sunset (“Denny’s will still be open when we get back”).

When I’m a photographer, my decisions put me outside when the conditions are most conducive to the images I want, without concern for comfort or convenience: Sunrise, sunset, overcast skies, wild weather, and after dark are all great times for photography, but not necessarily the most comfortable times to be in the elements. Face it—few people without a camera are thrilled to be outdoors when they’re sleepy, hungry, cold, or wet.

That’s why, when I’m a tourist, my goal is to relax and enjoy the sights with the people I love—I leave my camera home and simply take in nature’s splendor. My lights-out and rise times are based on comfort and enjoyment, and my forays into nature are timed for convenience and to coincide with the most pleasant weather for being outside. This approach keeps my body and mind fresh, my loved ones happy, and gives me a perspective that I think ultimately benefits my photography (try it sometime).

I admit that doing nature photography for a living gives me a distinct advantage. But what about the photographers who are so busy that their only opportunity to take pictures is when they’re on vacation? My suggestion is to get buy-ins on your objectives before the trip, and be as specific as possible: “I’d like to shoot sunrise on our second morning at the Grand Canyon,” “I’d really like to do a moonrise shoot in Yosemite on Wednesday evening,” and so on. The rest of the trip? Bring a point-and-shoot, store your serious camera gear out of sight, and don’t let anyone so much as see a longing glimpse in its direction for the rest of the trip.

For the image above, I pretty much hung out (alone) in miserable snow and wind waiting for the storm to break. On this stormy evening, I chose the bridge just east of El Capitan Meadow. Though there were no guarantees, I knew if I went inside to warm up, I’d be out of position if something special happened. Shortly before sunset the snow stopped and soon thereafter I was treated to about 20 minutes of beautiful warm light dancing with the retreating clouds swirling atop El Capitan.

Of course there are many times when nothing happens and all I get is soggy clothes and frigid limbs for my trouble, but those times only make the successes like this that much more special.

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