We had traveled on a bus for one and a half hours to arrive at Otavalo, a market in one of the high mountain towns near the capital of Ecuador. Getting off the bus, we first encountered the animal market, where locals come to barter and buy every kind of animal available in Ecuador, including alpacas and sheep (for wool); and pigs, chickens, and even rabbits (for cooking).
I was still new at photography (and travel), but fancied myself a good photographer. And as we rounded the corner of a stall selling necklaces made from coconut shells, I spotted a rare photo opportunity. A woman who appeared to be in her 70’s, dressed in the beautiful indigenous clothing of the Andean natives, carving teeth into a flat blade. She was carving the teeth of this blade with a hacksaw. It looked like hard work.
This same blade would have been machine tooled in the United States, and probably sold for $20. Her blades were hand tooled, took about 20 minutes to make, and cost just $1 each.
I learned this all later.
But I snapped photo after photo of her going about her work. Pretty soon she noticed.
She said something in a language I do not know (she didn’t speak Spanish, English, or German). I tried to understand her, but I couldn’t. And so instead, I just walked by.
As I passed her, she whacked me with the flat of the blade on my backside. It stung a little, but gave me a couple of instant realizations: I had done something wrong, and whatever I had done wrong could have been hazardous to my well-being.
Turns out, she wanted me to buy one of her blades (just $1) in exchange for all the pictures I was taking (without permission).
This was early on in our travels around the world, but taught me one of the three most important lessons I’ve learned about taking pictures while traveling.
Lesson 1: Ask first
Sometimes there may be a fee for taking someone’s picture. Sometimes they may want you to buy something in exchange, and sometimes they may just be happy to be in your picture (sometimes with you) for free. But always ask before taking pictures. If you don’t speak the local language, you can always take out your camera, point at it, and ask “O K?” Sometimes people will shake their hands and walk away (a clear no sign), but most times people will oblige and allow you to take a picture with them. However, if they say no, respect their wishes because great photos are everywhere. And if your photo subject is a person who is selling something, consider buying it in exchange for the photos you’re taking.
Lesson 2: Take lots of pictures, and delete them same day or next day
Digital pictures cost nothing to develop. There is every reason while you are traveling the world to take lots of pictures. Carrie and I sometimes take up to 20 pictures of a subject to get just the perfect shot (which is usually something other than the shot we expect it’s going to be). The only reason not to take lots of digital pictures is that more pictures take up more storage space. But with both 32 GB storage media and backup hard drives being extremely affordable now, you can alleviate that issue by simply purchasing a higher capacity SD card and a backup hard drive that you use exclusively for pictures. But this storage space issue does bring up a point. If at all possible, delete pictures right away. You will want to review your pictures on a full screen, rather than on your camera’s viewer, as often there are details that are just to difficult to notice on a smaller screen. However, if you wait to delete your pictures for even a few days, the law of diminishing intent kicks in, which says that the farther we get from an original intention, the less likely we are to do something about it. Even if you’re exhausted in the evening while traveling, take 5-10 minutes to put your photos on your computer (assuming you are traveling with a laptop) and look through them each day. If you are not traveling with a laptop, review your pictures in the airport or at an internet café before going home. Once you get home, it is highly unlikely that you will edit them, because the pressures to get organized and back to your daily life will again be part of your world, so review your pictures while the memories are still fresh and while you’re still able to be in the moment and spirit you were in when you took them.
Lesson 3: Organize and backup
Organizing your photos on your computer (right away) makes it simple for anyone (you included) to look back at your photos later and figure out where you were and what you were doing. Develop your own system of organization, or feel free to use ours. Each day that we take pictures is a folder of it’s own. We name it the so that it will sort correctly when the list is displayed alphabetically/numerically: YYYY-MM-DD-some-description-here. For example, if we went to Otavalo Market on the 22 of November, 2009, we might name the folder as 2009-11-22-otavalo-market-ecuador. Once you have your folders stored on your computer in a way that makes sense for you, back them up. My brother having his home broken into taught me that having too many backups is a good thing (he still lost a lot of pictures and data to thieves). There are multitudes of services for backing up your photos and files including Google Extra Storage (through Picasa), BackupBlaze, and a host of others. Pick one, pay for it, and backup your photos away from wherever your computer is. If you want, you can also purchase your own hard drive and back up your photos to a separate drive, whose only purpose is to serve as a backup to your online backup.
This may seem like a lot of work, but there’s one thing more valuable than any travel experience – the memories and learning that experience provides. A great photo can be a powerful trigger to remind you what it was you did and learned while you were traveling. By asking permission, you build good will and the opportunity to build relationships. By taking lots of pictures (and deleting the bad ones right away), you make those memories easy to recall. By organizing and backing up your photos, you make sure that your experiences can be enjoyed for years to come.
Do you have a story or advice about taking pictures abroad? Tell us in the comment box below.
——————————————————————————————————————————————————– About the Author: Jonathan Kraft and his wife Carrie have traveled to more than 30 countries in 24 months. After taking more than 25,000 pictures during their travels, Jonathan now realizes he’s “just getting started”. You can get more great tips and advice from Carrie and Jonathan at http://www.carrieandjonathan.com