Dawn breaks over a field of blue irises, Mount Vernon, Skagit Valley, Skagit County, Washington, USA
Dawn breaks over a field of blue irises, Mount Vernon, Skagit Valley, Washington

Where is the best place to focus your travel photographic energies, exotic locals or near your home?

Carsten Krieger’s article Theme and Variations on Digital Photography Review got me thinking about that last week.  Carsten argues that “many of the iconic landscape images we admire are often made in the photographer’s backyard – places that have become familiar to the photographer through months and years of conscious exploration.”  He says:

“In contrast to a faraway locale where you may only spend a few days in one spot, shooting closer to home affords you the time to learn the landscape’s secrets like the best vantage point, season and time of day for shooting. Photography is first and foremost about seeing and interpretation. And with enough careful and consistent attention, you can discover amazing images to be made even in what (for you) may be the most ordinary of places.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I am lucky to travel quite a bit, sometimes even to “world class” landscape photography sites.  But when traveling to such sites, I think of the huge advantage the local photographers have over me.  They can keep coming back to these “hot spots” over and over, in whatever weather or season they like, and will almost always make better photos than I.  While they have the freedom to pursue the ideal photographic conditions and to try different photographic techniques, I can only make a brief visit of a day or two.  I often only have one chance, one sunrise, and have to make the best of it.  And conditions will not be “ideal” the vast majority of the time.

Whenever I’m thinking this way, I also reminding myself to reverse that logic and to remember how important it is to be one of those lucky locals when I’m back home … with the opportunity to make repeated trips, to be at a place under a variety of conditions, to look for unique situations, to .

Fireworks launched from the Seattle Space Needle at night in celebration of the 2004 New Year's Day, Seattle, Washington
Fireworks launched from the Seattle Space Needle in celebration of New Year’s

So, inspired by this article, I have just pulled out my Washington State Atlas & Gazetteer and drawn a 20 mile radius around my house.  Now, let’s see what I’ve got here …

  • Downtown Seattle, including the Space Needle, Kerry Park, Washington Arboretum,
  • University of Washington campus
  • Seattle’s Japanese Garden
  • Woodland Park Zoo
  • Central Puget Sound, with its boats and distant view of the Olympic Mountains
  • 2 lighthouses
  • About 50 lakes
  • Several waterfalls
  • Snohomish, Skykomish, Snoqalmie, Stillaguamish Rivers
  • Historic downtown Snohomish, Everett, Snoqualmie
  • Snohomish River estuary
  • Woodinville wine country
  • About 50 State and County Parks
  • Central Cascade Mountains
  • Mount Pilchuck Lookout
  • 5 ferry routes
  • Orca whales
Mount Rainier above meadow full of sitka valerian, Edith Creek, Mount Rainier National Park, Pierce County, Washington, USA
Mount Rainier above meadow full of sitka valerian, Edith Creek, Mount Rainier National Park
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Wow!  There is so much just within 20 miles of home!

Extending my circle to a 2 hour drive adds:

  • Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades National Parks
  • Skagit Valley (migratory birds, tulip fields)
  • San Juan, Whidbey, Bainbridge Islands

Have a look at a map of your city, county and state.  What parks are near you, and what is special about those places that motivated their designation as a park in the first place?  Have a look at all the National Parks near you.  Brainstorm some local photography ideas and start categorizing them by “before work”, “after work”, “weekend day” or “weekend trip”.  Chances are good that there is something interesting relatively nearby.  Be a “lucky local” in your area.

While it’s easy to expound on the benefits of photographing locally, it’s another to execute successfully.  The closer you are to home, the more distractions from photography you will be temped by.  It is very easy to put off photography for some chore that needs to be done.

Try not to be trapped by procrastination.  Here are 3 strategies I use for photographing locally, as well as 3 strategies for working away from home.

Strategies for Photographing Locally

  1. Local Shooting List:  I keep a list of my favorite local photography spots sorted by the best time of year to photography them.  I also keep notes on the best shooting conditions and what technique I might try the next time I shoot there.
  2. Annual Shooting Calendar:  Each year, I then select items from the list above to construct an annual shooting calendar.  Here, I might check phases of the moon and tide charts to fine tune the timing of each visit as relevant.  I keep this list in front of me as a reminder to prepare for upcoming shoots.
  3. Always Carry a Camera:  You would do this when traveling to some exotic location, wouldn’t you?  Why not do this on your home turf?  I recently purchased a Sony RX100 compact camera.  While this camera easily fits into my jacket pocket, it also features a large 24 megapixel APS-C sensor for image quality sufficient for professional work.  Keep a camera handy for those impromptu opportunities, such as a spectacular thunderstorm on the way home from work, or your child jumping off rocks on the beach at sunset.

Strategies for Photographing Away from Home

  1. Photography as Primary Focus of Trip:  While I love traveling with family, I find that trips focused 100% on photography are way more photographically productive.  Traveling by yourself or with like-minded photographers allows you to stay focused on your craft, to plan activities around ideal shooting conditions (i.e. which usually don’t coincide with traditional family meal or bed times), and to maintain the flexibility to adapt to changing photographic conditions.  However, even when traveling with family, successful photography can still be had.  I tend to focus on shooting around sunrise, when everyone else is still tidy in bed.  This leaves the rest of the day open for family activities (and scouting for the next morning).
  2. Photography location filesRegular Data Gathering:  I keep two filing cabinet drawers stuffed with magazine articles organized by location.  One drawer covers International destinations and my home state of Washington, while a second drawer covers the rest of the USA.  (A third drawer covers photography techniques.)  As I read Outdoor Photographer, National Geographic Traveler, Backpacker, Washington Trails and other magazines, destination articles of interest get cut from the magazine and stuffed into these files for future reference.
  3. Pre-Trip Research:  I do substantial planning before an extended trip from home.  Reading through the files above, poking around on the internet, perusing local library books, scrutinizing maps, as well as studying Robert Hichman’s Photograph America Newsletters are useful resources for logistical planning, helping you know what to expect on site and in building your shooting list prioritized by weather conditions.
Detail of door from Ming dynasty architecture, Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, China, Asia
Detail of door from Ming dynasty architecture, Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, China

Happy shooting,
Brad Mitchell

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