I’ve never considered myself a photographer. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it. I love whipping my iPhone out when I’m somewhere new and trying to find a unique angle to shoot from, and I certainly get that rush of dopamine when I post a photo to Instagram that I just know is gonna get more likes than usual. When one of my journalism professors dedicated a week-long unit to the basics of photography, I might have groaned at first (“But I’m a writer!” my sophomore-year ego screamed), but then we started learning about negative space and the rule of thirds, and I suddenly found myself spending free moments tinkering around with my phone’s camera, trying to apply what I’d learned. There was a depth to the form that I hadn’t previously recognized, and as a creatively inclined person, I felt invigorated by that.
All of this is to say that, though I don’t consider myself a photographer, I’m not one of those faux-enlightened hipsters admonishing my generation to “put the camera down for a second and live in the moment, would you?!” I have a deep respect for photography and would certainly like to pursue it further, but with a finite amount of time and money, I just haven’t taken the opportunity to do so yet. I’m passionate about writing and reading and the outdoors, and when I have the chance to travel, I like to devote as much time and energy as I can to those endeavors. I seek out local bookstores and journal about what I’m experiencing, and I find the best areas to go hiking or camping or rock climbing. As with any pursuit, a lot of equipment and mental energy goes into serious photography, and at this point in my life, I just don’t have the luggage space to accommodate that. For now, my iPhone will have to do.
One of my housemates has made room for photography in her life, and when she travels, she almost always has her camera in hand. While I plan my itineraries around what I want to see and do, only to pull out my phone if I see something interesting along the way, she more often than not sees her photo ops as the destinations themselves. Her photography is both her way of telling travel stories and of exploring new cities — she can best pick up on a locale’s rhythms and details when she’s viewing it through a lens.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I assumed that these two differing philosophies could peacefully coexist. I was mistaken.
The journey was a quick one, just a weekend trip so my two housemates and I could see the city for the first time. Our friend was studying there for the semester and offered to host us and show us around a bit, so when we all got off work on Friday, we packed our bags and hopped on the 5.
Part of the problem, I think, was the short window of time we had to explore. When you have less than 48 hours to see an entire city, there are things you’ll want to do that are going to get cut, and when your travel companions want to see different places, that ticking clock can induce a lot of mutual anxiety. It’s a pressure cooker that slowly bubbles everyone’s frustration to the surface.
We expected this to an extent, so before we left, we compiled an extensive list of everything we wanted to do. Our individual contributions to the list were, in a way, reflective of our personal travel philosophies.
My photography-driven housemate’s list included two entire pages worth of locations. Some, like City Lights Books and the Ferry Building Marketplace were places we could really spend time at and explore. But when I saw the list, I thought that many of her choices seemed to be added solely as photo ops. Lombard Street, Mission Dolores Park, the Palace of Fine Arts — these were places we’d likely be hitting just to snap a picture.
My other housemate’s additions were specifically interactive, almost all of them containing verbs (e.g. playing arcade games at the Musée Mécanique, eating dim sum in Chinatown). For him, travel is experiential, and he sees time spent solely taking photos as a waste. He’d think, Why focus on getting pictures to look at later when you can enjoy the city now?
I added just two items: exploring the Marin Headlands and hiking at Muir Woods. My “an-iPhone-is-fine-for-now” photo philosophy is somewhat laissez-faire, and I was trying to extend that with my itinerary requests. By barely adding to the list, I tried to say that I was content doing anything, just happy to be seeing the city. I knew how at odds the other two might be, so I think I fancied myself as mediator, a calm voice of reason.
It was exactly the kind of arrogance that would bring our group’s tension to a head.
Saturday was jam-packed. We started out with exploring and eating at the Ferry Building before making our way up the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. There, we basked in the salty air and boisterous barking of the Pier 39 sea lions and spent an hour (and countless quarters) among the old-timey machinery at Musée Mécanique. We took some time to drive around and snap photos of the city’s vertigo-inducing urban hills and then found parking in Chinatown so that we could fill up on dim sum for lunch. In the afternoon, we drove through Golden Gate Park before crossing that big, orange bridge displayed on all of the city’s postcards. Originally, my suggestion of Muir Woods hadn’t made the agenda since it would eat up an hour or two just to get there and back. But I’d argued that since I’d only wanted two things, we should make an effort to include the excursion. We planned on going after we finished exploring the Marin Headlands, but by the time we made it back to the car, it was already getting dark. So we decided to postpone until the following day and finish Saturday with a visit to City Lights, dinner in North Beach, and a drive up to Coit Tower to see the cityscape at night.
On Sunday, we rose at the crack of dawn to fit in as much as we could before having to start the long drive back to LA. We hit the Palace of Fine Arts, admired the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, and worked our way toward the Mission District. As the departure time ticked nearer and nearer, I noticed that our itinerary was becoming squished, and our routine had gradually devolved to the point that we were rarely getting out of the car. I’d done the math and realized that Muir Woods was likely out of the picture and, suddenly, I became a little less laissez-faire about it all.
My photography-driven housemate rattled off some more places she wanted to hit before we left, and then turned around from the passenger seat to ask if that was okay with us. That’s when I snapped.
“No, it’s not. All we’re doing is driving around so you can take photos. I want to go to Muir Woods.” In the uncomfortable silence that followed, I pictured a tantrum-throwing toddler who was just told they can’t have a second scoop of ice cream.
What had happened? I’d been patting myself on the back for being flexible and respectful enough to accommodate others’ differing perspectives, and yet here I was, blowing up because I didn’t get to do one of the things I wanted to on a 36-hour trip. I’d failed to practice what I preach. When I saw my housemate taking all of her photos, I had those exact thoughts I’d previously seen as judgy and self-involved: Put the camera down and enjoy the city, goddammit.
A few minutes down the road, my other housemate saw a parking spot and pulled the car over. Our San Francisco-based friend, who was seated next to me in the back seat, picked up the voice of reason that I’d so confidently thought was mine and said, “Listen. I know we’re all a little on edge right now. But you only have a few hours left to explore before you have to leave, so why don’t we just decide on what we want to do and enjoy it?”
Maybe it was the de-escalating presence of a third party, or maybe it was the natural sigh of relief that follows such a taut moment of tension, but at that moment, we were all able to find common ground. My photography-driven housemate offered for us to go to Muir Woods before heading home, but I admitted it would be a stretch at that point, if we wanted to get back at a decent hour. So, we agreed to spend the rest of the time in the Mission District — taking photos, yes, but doing so on foot. We hiked around the sloping sidewalks and marveled at the colorful architecture. At Valencia Street, we ducked into eccentric stores, like the 826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store and Paxton Gate (“ethically sourced taxidermy”). For lunch, we spiced it up a bit with Cubanos from Media Noche. But the highlight of it all was the half hour we spent at Mission Dolores Park, trying not to let our jaws hit the grass as we took in the sweeping view of what seemed like the entire peninsula. To me, those few hours in the Mission were some of the most fulfilling of the trip.
The extent to which we plan our travels around our photography is an important topic of discussion. After all, research has shown that if our main goal is to procure photos to post online, we’re not going to enjoy our experiences as much. Additionally, posting and geotagging photos can attract an increased number of visitors to fragile locations and environments, a trend that has prompted Leave No Trace to issue new guidelines regarding social media. Most seriously, the drive to get that perfect photo has resulted in the deaths of far too many travelers.
But we shouldn’t drift too far toward the other end of the spectrum, like I did in San Francisco. It’s important to find a happy medium. Because even if you’re not a photographer, yourself, incorporating the practice into your agenda can take you to places you never would have uncovered otherwise. Some of my favorite moments from our weekend in the Bay Area were ones I wouldn’t have experienced if my roommate hadn’t directed us with her camera — wandering under the giant arches at the Palace of Fine Arts as the morning sunlight flooded in, driving around the chilly empty streets at the crack of dawn, hopping down the steep steps of Lombard Street and praying not to trip as cars wound by. You don’t have to turn your entire trip into a photo shoot, but you shouldn’t just leave the camera at home either. If you use your desired photos as a rough framework to guide you through a new city, not only will you view each location with a more perceptive eye, but you’ll find yourself continually surprised by your new surroundings.
Not to mention the main point of it all — you’ll end up with some pretty good photos to remember it by.
A week after we returned, my housemate shared a link to a Google Drive folder with us. Inside, we found all of her images, the end result of all that time we’d spent driving around with her pointing her camera out the window and us whining about it. The photos were stellar, lifelong souvenirs of a trip so fleeting it might be difficult to recall 10 years down the line — and, of course, much better than anything I took on my iPhone.
Looking to take the first step toward better travel photos? Learn the basics with our Beginner’s Guide to Photography series!