Travel has the power to transport us, challenge us, and expand our ways of thinking by exposing us to different ways of life. There are epic trips that fundamentally change us — when we climb a mountain, conquer our fear of diving, or spend a month living in a desert. We return home from such trips more open to new points of views, less scared of the unknown, and acutely aware of the issues facing our planet today.
But there is another way to travel, one that has more to do with being an active observer than with scaling peaks or rappelling into abysses. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that smaller, more ordinary experiences are just as powerful. Whether it is sipping a cup of coffee at a cafe in Paris or talking to a stranger on the streets of Vietnam, it is the ordinary moments that have the capacity to transform the mundane into the spectacular by teaching us to appreciate life’s beauty and endless diversity.
Capturing such ordinary moments is a way to further this education. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned by spending years on the road enthralled with the beauty of ordinary, everyday life.
Seek unusual frames for well-known subjects
The streets of New York City have been captured countless times and thus present a special challenge to a photographer. How can one convey the hopeful spirit of the city in an original way? My solution for capturing well-known subjects: look for unique frames that could give the scene a new perspective. As I took a stroll on Manhattan Bridge one gloomy afternoon, I found a piece of torn fence through which to frame the streets below. Doing so made the image instantly more interesting.
Become best friends with the light
In my opinion, light is the single most important element of a good photograph. Once you learn to see the light, you’ll start noticing the way it illuminates, adds softness or harsh shadows, and transforms each scene. While visiting Wadi Rum, the vast desert in the south of Jordan, I had an inkling that the soft light of dusk would create an ethereal feeling in the whimsical landscape. Depending on the look you are going for, try to capture your scenes in the soft early morning or late afternoon light, which will give your images a touch of wonder that only the light can bring.
Use shutter speed to convey a certain mood
One of the most fun things about photography is experimenting with shutter speed and depth of field (or both) to influence your story. I am a big fan of using shutter speed to convey a certain emotion. In this case, the moment I saw this lottery ticket seller on the busy street in Hanoi, I knew exactly how I wanted this image to look. Specifically, I knew I wanted to use a slower shutter speed in order to capture the motion trails of the motorcyclists passing by. To this day, this image remains my favorite among my work because it presents the opportunity for the viewers to interpret it in many different ways.
Anticipate the subject’s next move
The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” I think about this quote a lot, especially when I am photographing moments on the streets. As a good observer, you should try to develop a sense of what would happen next, an ‘intuition’ as Cartier-Bresson called it. Relying on intuition is how this particular image was born. I saw a person coming up the famous spiral staircase in New York’s Barney’s department store and I anticipated his next move. All that was left was to click the camera.
Look for interesting juxtapositions
The simplest elements are often what make an image interesting. This Marrakesh street stopped me in my tracks for these simple reasons: a) the man was using a modern device — a cell phone — next to a retro-looking van; b) the color of the man’s jacket closely matched that of the van; and, c) the shadows cast by the man, the van, the street lamp, and the gully seemed to tie the whole scene together. I had a split second to recognize all these elements before I pressed the shutter. Always have your camera ready when you are out and about!
Talk to people
You’ll get better portraits if you take the time to connect with your subjects prior to capturing them. Even a bit of smalltalk can help establish rapport and the effort will result in a more compelling image. Street photographers are often tempted to leverage their zoom capabilities and sneak in portraits of people from afar. It always shows. Try to push out of your comfort zone and approach the people you’d like to photograph. The difference is remarkable. I shared a cup of tea and a small conversation with this temple attendant in Tam Coc in central Vietnam. Then I asked to take his portrait and was quite happy with the result.
Isolate your subject for impact
Sometimes, what we leave out of the image can be just as powerful as what we choose to keep. In this instance, I could have included the whole scene that was unraveling before me on a moody (and blisteringly cold) winter afternoon in Chicago: a deserted beach with straggling runners, several people huddling on the edge of the sidewalk, and the lady in front of me who was gleefully feeding seagulls. Instead, I chose to focus on the birds and the object of their desire, which made an ordinary scene instantly more powerful.
Don’t be shy to bring props
Sometimes an ordinary scene can turn into a magical one with the use of a simple object. For that reason, I often bring a prop or two on my trips. My recent trip to Latvia was no exception. As soon as I saw the charming streets of old town Riga, I knew a colorful umbrella could work wonders as a focal point. I asked my friend to walk down the street while I captured her movement. The glowing star lamps added a touch of magic to an otherwise ordinary moment.
Look for scenes that convey a sense of place
Travel photography is unique because it allows you to transport the viewer to the place the photo represents. This is achieved by capturing a sense of place.
Next time you’re traveling and have a camera in hand, look for these details: What are people doing? Is there unique architecture or a peculiar custom that people in this region are known for? Identifying these elements and including them in your photos will help convey a sense of place. Walking down a busy street in Hanoi, I knew immediately I needed to capture a group of people sitting down to drink coffee across the street from me. Travelers to Vietnam will recognize the ubiquitous low blue stools, while the “made in vietnam” sign behind the group and their fascination with mobile phones adds additional layers to this scene.
Be there early and take advantage of the sun
This piece of advice is given often, and for good reason. Being up early will make the difference between a regular image and a spectacular one. For one, you’ll beat the crowds. The sun will also be your ally at sunrise. Use it to your advantage. In this case, I visited the Roman Forum at sunrise to ensure I had plenty of time without crowds in my way. Shooting with a narrow aperture created a more interesting photo, with the sun star just breaking out of the Forum’s magnificent ruins.
Look for action
Often the photo of an ordinary moment will be more interesting if there is action in the scene. It helps if you’re capturing a beautiful landscape already, which is often the case with the hot air balloon rides in Cappadocia. But this advice still holds true in less dramatic locations. Look for action, for people doing something (especially if that action is unique to the place you’re visiting) and you’re guaranteed to capture a spectacular, if ordinary, moment. I was thrilled to wake up early each day I spent in Cappadocia —seeing hundreds of hot air balloons rise into the sky every morning is an unforgettable experience. I was happy to get close to one particular balloon as they were landing, and being there allowed me to depict the magic of Cappadocia with a less conventional image.
If there is one benefit to traveling solo that I take full advantage of when I am on the road, it is having ample amounts of time to wait for perfect scenes. Traveling alone means I have all the time in the world to make plans according to my own needs. While we often have to wait for an interesting subject or situation to wander into our view, being patient pays off. Such was the case with this image. It was raining while I walked down the famous Washington Street in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn. I waited for about 25 minutes until this man with a lovely umbrella came into my view. I knew that, out of hundreds of photos I took that day, this would be the one to keep.
Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself
Sometimes you’ll have to make a fool of yourself in order to make an image work. I was impressed with the beauty of the Wat Arun temple in Bangkok, but I felt that the scene was missing a human element. I also wanted to capture the sheer exuberance of being in such a special place and none of the few early morning visitors seemed to fit the bill. So I decided to take a self-portrait that would deliver on that objective. Little did I know that my small exercise would draw attention — first from a handful of school boys, then a larger group of temple visitors. What you don’t see in this image is about 20 people standing behind the camera and watching my every move as I kept dancing and taking my self-portrait.
Think about the story you want to tell
To capture the magic of ordinary moments, think about the story you want to tell with your image ahead of time. When I took a 4 a.m. train out of Bangkok to see the sunrise in Ayutthaya, an ancient temple city north of the capital, I didn’t know what to expect upon arrival. As soon as I saw Ayutthaya, I knew that its enchanting atmosphere — the deserted temples, the birds, and the soft early sun — had to be conveyed. I wanted to tell the story of beauty, magic, and curiosity, so I constructed this scene.
Always bring a tripod (or a travel buddy who will be as patient as you)
I travel solo, so a tripod is my best friend on many occasions. It helps you add a human element into your images when there is no one else to invite into your scene. The alternative? Have a patient travel buddy who will share your vision and help you bring it to life!