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Putting the TRAVEL back in Travel Photography

If you join a Pics of Asia photo tour you’re guaranteed to get good photos. Why? Well, because we know the very best locations and we take you there at the very best times. We’re nice like that. 😉

But – and this may surprise you – getting great photos is not actually the main priority of the tours we run. No, the main priority is learning and enjoying the experience of travel. Genuine travel.

What I mean by genuine travel is that wonder of going somewhere completely new, meeting people you would never, ever encounter otherwise and having an experience that no guidebook or Trip Advisor review could ever lead you to. 

This randomness is something I think has been lost in the world of smartphones, Google Maps and online reviews. So it’s something that we at Pics of Asia are trying to put right.

In short, our workshops are as much (if not more) about travel than they are about photography. And that’s how we like it!

respecting the people and interaction is key for travel photography

Getting lost is the goal

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that our tours are completely random. We’ve put a lot of research into finding amazing locations for you. Plenty of coffee and countless early mornings have gone into scouting out the best time to visit these locations, in terms of light and action. So don’t worry: we’re not just “winging it” or leaving it up to chance!

But when you come on a POA tour, you will find that whatever the stated itinerary is, it’s very, very flexible. 

So if a photo opportunity presents itself, if we get a hot tip from a local, or even if our driver takes a wrong turn, we embrace all these opportunities and run with them.

As a photographer, luck is hugely important… but you have to allow yourself to be open, to take advantage of serendipitous opportunities whenever and wherever they arise. 

Last month, for example, while on tour in North Vietnam, an unexpected rainstorm led to us sharing a shelter with a bunch of Ha Nhi farmers. While waiting out the downpour, we shared tales about our lives… and of course, took photos. We couldn’t have planned it. But it’s a moment that I will never forget. 

Randomness is fun

You may have read my rants against the plague of staged photos that in my opinion, is ruining the once good name of travel photography. 

I may have mentioned it once or twice (OK, maybe every day). But one of the reasons it offends me so much is that the joy of travel – and of real travel photography – is meeting new people, and making unexpected friends.

Many photo tours that bill themselves as “travel” tours are basically just a series of stage-managed shoots involving paid locals. It’s not travelling and it’s even less “adventure”.

Which is fine. Each to their own. But if you (and 14 of your friends) are all taken by a guide directly to photograph a pre-arranged subject (say, a certain blue-eyed girl in Vietnam), then you remove all the randomness and serendipity from travel. 

And travel – real travel – is all about random, unplanned events and encounters. When we arrive in a village, we have no idea what we will find. Which is what makes it extra exciting.

People skills are more important than camera skills

Being able to take a technically good photograph is very different from being able to take a photo that captures the mood of an individual or situation. 

Knowing your exposure triangle by heart isn’t going to help you get invited into the home of a little old Sri Lankan lady in the winding lanes of Galle. For travel photographers, people skills are far more important than technical skills. 

This is something we work on constantly during a Pics of Asia tour. We will put you, the student, in situations that are way out of your usual comfort zone. Situations where you have no choice but to make a connection with someone you probably share no language with, in order to get the shot. 

And guess what? That’s what travel is all about! Being out of your comfort zone, putting your trust in the kindness of strangers and finding common ground. Finding some way to break the ice and make a connection. 

Top tip: In these situations, playing the clown tends to work. So if you want to make friends quickly with a bunch of burly brick workers or fishermen, try tripping up in front of them!

A particcipant of Pics of Asia photography tour taking photos laying down in the water in Vietnam

Slow travel is better travel

Whether it’s cooking, sipping coffee, drinking beer, or taking photos, everything’s better when you take your time and really savour the situation. It’s that mindfulness thing that everyone’s talking about nowadays. 😉

I meet a lot of people in my hometown of Hoi An in Vietnam, who are trying to see the entire country in two weeks, and guess what… they are having a shit time. They also tend to look a little bit worse for wear. My advice: don’t bite off more than you can chew.

On a Pics of Asia tour, we like to take our time and really get to know a location. We find that this way, we have more fun – and importantly, get better photos – if we go to fewer locations but spend more time there.

It’s also part of the reason I love to go back to locations over and over again. Because each time I do so, I find something new and fascinating – and, luckily for you, I can then share this information with you!

Making friends is more important than getting the shot

Some photographers I’ve encountered are so focused on getting the ‘perfect’ shot that they seem to forget the people they are taking photos of are in fact real people and not just props in a play. It can be painful to watch. And it doesn’t make me feel too good about my chosen profession.

Fortunately, not many of these people come on our tours. And if they did we would soon teach them that having a memorable and genuine interaction is always more important than getting a good photograph. 

I mean, it’s obviously better if you can combine the two but given the option, making good friends and making good memories is always better than getting good photos. At least it is to me and the POA team.

Smart travel = better photographer = better traveller

I know one thing for certain: learning to travel smarter will make you a much better travel photographer. At the same time, being a photographer (at least one with the right attitude) tends to make you a better traveller.  

It’s a great feedback circle to be in.

Also, being a photographer tends to mean you are naturally quite curious. You like finding new things and going to new locations. I also think that being a photographer gives you an extra reason to explore further and deeper. 

Why? Well, if you were just on holiday, you’d very rarely have a reason to go down that smoke-filled alleyway, or to the shipyards – being a photographer, you do. Because that’s where the pictures are. And in exploring these places – where no tourists ever go – you find out so much more about a country than you ever would on a regular holiday. 

Happy snapping – and bon voyage!

So start travelling smarter. Get lost, find randomness, make friends and move slowly. Travel in a more ethical way and enjoy a much more rewarding cultural experience – in addition to taking better photographs.

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Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

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