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Picture Perfect: Tips from a Travel Photographer

We all take them — the posed pics in front of iconic structures and vistas. But how do we transform our travel photos into a narrative of our journey? To help us, we turned to Nikon professional photographer Ami Vitale, who tells intimate stories through her camera lens. We learned not only how she creates a connection with her subject, but also how we can forge our own bonds.

Vitale’s work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Time and Newsweek. She has won numerous awards, exhibited in museums and contributed to a collaborative book project. Based in Montana, Vitale is working on her first solo book of stories behind the images she’s taken.

IT: Many of your photographs are close-ups of people. Do you ask permission to take someone’s photograph before you do it? Many travelers feel shy doing this; how do you approach the conversation?

Ami Vitale: Always. I usually sit down and talk with people for a few minutes, hours or even days to make sure that they are comfortable with my being there. If I don’t speak the same language, I will make gestures first asking if it’s okay or I will ask if someone nearby can translate. I always invest time in the people I’m photographing. It’s more respectful, I learn more and it elevates the image from being just a snapshot to an image with a real story.

Recently I was in India during the Pushkar Camel Fair and I was photographing a girl named Subita. I was not the only one taking her pictures. Around us, there were hundreds of digital cameras, some cheap, many expensive, firing away.

I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone, and even when before dawn broke, we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lenses. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.

Later, Subita would tell me how de-humanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. Made her feel like an animal is how she put it to me. No one even said “namaste” or “hello” to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing — what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt; she was simply the prize.

The era of film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, the importance of building trust, and crafting a story even as you fire the shutter. Limited by the number of shots, we waited to get deeper into the story before blowing our film. And we were not defined as much by one amazing, accidental image, but rather the tapestry of a great and complex story we could illuminate.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image. There are of course huge advantages to using a digital camera. It can help you tell a story better, but the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture. It takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer.

And that always takes time.

IT: What’s a shot or a moment that most people miss with their travel photography?

AV: Instead of getting only posed photos with people looking directly into the camera, it is more revealing to get images that show something deeper about their culture and lives. It’s pretty simple. It only takes time and the willingness to speak with the people you want to photograph.

IT: If we could all just do one thing to make our travel photographs better, what would it be?

AV: Take more time in one place. Instead of zipping around to dozens of locations in one day, slow down, get to know the people and culture more deeply and the images will show that knowledge and trust.

IT: How does being a photographer change the way you travel?

AV: I don’t consider myself a traveler even though I’ve traveled to almost 85 countries. Instead, it’s about telling stories and learning about the people and places I visit. The experience is not about me but rather about the people who open their lives to me.

It’s a tough job if you are serious about it, and you have to be serious about it if you want to make a living at it. The truth is, very little “clicking” happens. That is about 10 percent of the job. The rest is sheer hard work: planning, researching, editing, negotiating and finding unique ways to tell stories. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else.

So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard — and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.

Read more about Ami Vitale and see her galleries at Nikonusa.com.

Check out more travel interviews!

— written by Jodi Thompson

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