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October 16, 2005

Tourist Snapshot Styles

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I never used to include myself in travel snapshots. Instead, I took pictures of things I saw.

There were a couple reasons for this. One was that I'm not handsome and I hated being reminded of that while gazing at snapshots. Another reason was that I used to use pretty fancy camera equipment (a brace of Nikon Fs with three or four extra lenses dangling around my neck) and I didn't want to ask a stranger to take my picture and then hand over a bunch of expensive gear.

Actually I'm fudging a bit here, as some of you might have guessed. I'm mostly referring to my practices from the 1960s, especially my time in Korea and Japan when photography was my main hobby. And unlike Kodak Brownies, Nikon Fs were professional-grade gear, not exclusively snapshot-takers. Moreover, I was shooting with black & white negative film or colored slides. (The latter proved to be a mistake, long-term. Now I have boxes of slides and no slide projector. Plus I'm told that digitizing slides is costly. Sigh.)

Still, it's true that of the hundreds of slides I brought home from overseas, less than a dozen had my mug in them.

I was trying to capture Korea and Japan for family and friends back home. This was in 1963-64, when Korea was poor and un-westernized. So I was greatly interested one day when I found out that a Korean student who had visited the U.S. would be at the USO club showing slides he took on his trip. I automatically assumed he would be trying to capture America just as I was trying to capture Korea.

Oh boy, was I mistaken.

Instead of insights, we got an hour and a half of "Here I am in front of Golden Gate Bridge," "Here I am at Disneyland entrance," and on and on. About the only slides not starring Himself were a few blurry front-windshield shots of some LA freeways. This guy was my photographic antithesis.

Here's an example of a "Here I am"/"Here we are" snapshot:

St. Isaacs with D and N- rev 1_edited-3.jpg
"Here we are in front of ... "
St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg.
In foreground are unidentified tourist and Fiancée.

I would think that the average tourist snaps a mix of scenes and personal verifications. My guess is that about 85-90 percent of the pictures from my latest trip were of scenes.

Another class of tourist snapshot is the Our Crowd picture. This is usually taken at restaurants or bars, where several tour group members are shown in states of giddy excitement regarding the next round/course/entertainment.

I suppose I've sounded a little snooty or even snotty here, but I tried not to. In recent years I've mellowed quite a bit. Tourist snapshots aren't High Art. Likely they aren't art at all. They're simply fun.

What sorts of photos do you take while traveling?



posted by Donald at October 16, 2005


Strange as it may sound, I never take any photographs when on a trip. While in part it's because I'm an atrocious photographer, mainly it's because I prefer to think about things I've seen as they appear in my mind, not in a picture. If that makes no sense to you, you're in good company :) But it's just the way I see things.

Posted by: Peter on October 16, 2005 9:36 PM

After my own visit to St Isaac's in 1988, I went on to the State Russian Museum in St P'sburg (then still Leningrad). There are 2 huge lions at opposite ends of the stairwell (a little like the NY Public Library). Since I stood directly between them, perusing a map, when someone shot a pic, I called it "Reading Between the Lions."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 16, 2005 9:52 PM

Last trip - 99.99% architecture and interiors. Remaining .01% - a shot of my friends I was staying with; I'm not in the pictures.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 16, 2005 10:48 PM

"Last trip - 99.99% architecture and interiors. Remaining .01% - a shot of my friends I was staying with; I'm not in the pictures."

Same here. When it comes right down to it, I take pictures, if at all, for myself, and posed pictures with people in front of landmarks only seem to serve a rather shallow social purpose ("There we were!"). Could be me...

Posted by: . on October 17, 2005 6:05 AM

In my college days (late 80s) I worked in a photography shop that catered to the amateur-near-professional photographer. Out of a sense of obligation, we stocked the usual trade "How To" books, including titles addressing tourist shots. Every single one of them advocated the "here's me" technique. The stated reason: your relatives back home were unlikely to find your objects of much interest, so get yourself in there. The unstated reason: you likely don't have the chops to compose an interesting shot, so say "cheese".

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on October 17, 2005 6:16 AM

Actually film scanners have become very cheap in recent years. I am partial to the Minolta Dimage line because of the pre-scan controls. The Nikon line is also popular.

The Minolta line does have models that will handle mounted slides. Here's a link:

Posted by: Nobody on October 17, 2005 8:28 AM

I take photos of the same kinds of things -- people, attractive light, weird juxtapositions -- wherever I go, except that when I travel I see a lot of things that are new to me, so I take more photos than I do at home. I also take a lot of while-traveling photos in airports, planes, subways, city streets and so forth. I try to include myself in some of the pics, by asking someone else to push the button, but usually the results of doing this are less than ideal.

Yeah, tourist snapshots aren't art, but so what. People take them for good reason: as an aide memoire there is nothing like a still photo, and it doesn't matter that it holds no meaning for people who weren't there. If you like the photos you make there is no need to justify them to anybody else.

BTW, if you have a lot of slides it might be easiest to scan them yourself. Minolta and Nikon are the popular enthusiast-scanners nowadays. IIRC Nikon offers as an accessory a batch feeder for mounted slides. You would probably still have to spend some time editing the scans before you printed or published them, but editing could wait until you were ready to use the images.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 17, 2005 9:39 AM

Whisky Prajer beat me to the punch, so I'll simply second his comment. Friends that I've shown family pix to jumped on my case big time when I showed them of pictures of "things" rather than of "people" or of "people and things". It didn't even matter if the "people" in the pictures weren't anyone they or I knew. Yeah, they'd say that this or that panorama shot was nice, but I had to include some face shots every once in a while in between or they'd lose interest immediately. Even when I showed some recent pictures from the Croatian coast line, which is impossible to take a bad picture of, even for a point 'n click kind of guy as myself, I got the "enough with the breathtaking beautiful Adriatic and cliffs and fishing boats! Show me some mugs, ugly or otherwise!"

BTW, Donald, don't be so hard on yourself. I'd say you look rather distinguished in that picture.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 17, 2005 11:12 AM

Re: Slides, Scanners, People or Landscapes
I am in the years long process of scanning my slide collection and prints into electronic format.
I second the cheap scanner comments. One thing I want to add about scanners is the time required to feed the damm things then do the photoshopping to get the most out of the scan. It is time consuming so if you have a lifetime of slides/prints/35mm negs, get a fast scanner and an autofeed mechanism.
Also, don't go overboard on resolution as most of this stuff, if ever viewed again, will be seen on a computer monitor.
Another point is that I am not scanning the photos of landscapes unless they are stunning. I am only keeping photos of people that the immeadiate family can recognise, like themselves.

Posted by: dilbert dogbert on October 17, 2005 12:13 PM

I would quibble with dilbert on one thing: I think it's usually a good idea to scan everything at the highest resolution available. That way you don't have to scan again, and you have high-quality backups in case something happens to your slides. With a good consumer-level film scanner and 35mm slides that means each scan would be something like 60MB in size, which nowadays shouldn't be a problem unless you have many thousands of slides. It wouldn't hurt to copy your scans to a portable hard drive either.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 17, 2005 12:49 PM

Nobody, Jonathan, dilbert -- Thanks for the info that Do It Yourself (or DIY, as they call it in Britain) is possible. I'll have to do some pricing to see whether it's worth it, and might have to wait a while and hope prices fall as tends to happen with computer-related stuff.

And Nobody, I did get that link you sent (to appear in Comments it needs HTML do-dads bracketing the link-path); captured it via the hyper-secret 2Blowhards backup communications channel hidden deep under the basement of Michael's apartment building -- or some other secret place.

Peter -- Plus you aren't hauling a bunch of expensive equipment than can get stolen, lost or damaged. And saving the expense of film, if that's your medium. On the other hand, one can buy digital cameras for $150 or less. And if your cell phone has a built-in camera...

Winifer -- Hmm. I was at the Russian Museum last month. Can't remember if I noticed lions. Did not take picture. Didn't think of pun. Score: Winnifer 4, Donald 1.

Tatyana -- You're a true professional.

"." -- That's pretty close to my natural state, as I indicated in the posting. But, y'see, when the Fiancee's camera is along, she gets to call the shots, and she likes people-shots.

Whisky Prajer -- That manual business sounds elitist, but it's true that lots of folks simply want photos of themselves: can't argue with the market.

Darko -- My sister as been nearly everywhere and I get to experience her photo album show 'n' tell after each journey. She mostly takes photos of what she sees, but also includes some "here I am" shots along with pictures that include tour group members. Maybe I'm odd, but I do like seeing the scenic pix; in part this is because I've no interest in going to many of the places she seeks out, and it's interesting to get her visual and verbal take.

As for the illustration in the posting, the guy was unidentified. Un-I-Den-Ti-Fied! UNIDENTIFIED!! ... do you hear me!!! Oh, and it's a very flattering picture, by the way.


Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 17, 2005 8:45 PM

No, Donald, I'm just not interested in much else.

Here're the lions at the entrance to the Russian museum (or, rather, Mikhailovsky Palace).

Posted by: Tatyana on October 17, 2005 9:36 PM

I have a very photogenic wife, so on vacation I sometimes enjoy propping her in front of a landmark or two. Every now and then I force her to take a pic of me in front of something famous. But my basic attitude about the Eiffel Tower etc is that I can always find pictures of it that are far better than any I might take. So why should I bother? Instead, I try to snap everyday shots: luggage, hotel rooms, meals, touring, cafes ... Stuff we actually lived, and that might help trigger off memories if looked at later. That said, I'm a terrible photographer, so 99% of these shots are idiotic and worthless. But every now and then a few of them work out.

Hey, another photo related question? Looking back, what kinds of photos do you wish you had of your life and your adventures that you didn't think to take photos of? I'd love to have more impromptu stuff that recorded casual stuff: meals, living rooms, clusters of friends, tennis games, the walk to work ... Hmm, I should probably start taking such photos now.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 17, 2005 11:01 PM

Michael, my thought exactly, about documenting routine minutae. I even started on Sunday, by clicking away at my house and *modestly* at my work on it, so I'll have a memory crutch for the time when it's no longer mine...

Posted by: Tatyana on October 18, 2005 12:03 AM

When I was dedicated young amateur photographer, my mother always complained I didn't put enough people in my travel photos.

She was right.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 18, 2005 3:36 AM

I'm with Micahel B's comment "the Eiffel Tower etc is that I can always find pictures of it that are far better than any I might take". Nothing wrong with buying postcards, tripping through Flickr, or buying a book of photos of an espcially gorgeous locale when you're talking about scenery.

I'm definitely with Tatyana and Steve Sailer about the minutae and especially about Steve's mom's complaint about people in photos. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go on one of those Alaska cruises with my kids. They were on the cusp of teenagedom, already practicing their moaning and groaning and lack of social skills. I was committing cruelty when I insisted on taking their picture in front of goofy and also gorgeous sights. If I stood too close to them in their torrent of complaints about my picture-taking, I'd be wiping spittle off my face. 5 years later, a different tune is being hummed. The Alaska pix with people are their favorites, ones they come back to over and over. They can't believe the minutae (as Tatyana pointed out) of the trip they forgot. And they're too young to be forgettting already.....

Posted by: DarkoV on October 18, 2005 8:51 AM

I spent a semester abroad in college and took pictures of all these famous or pretty things with my little Kodak camera. I came home to college friends to show my pics and a good friend looked at me at the end and said "Well, congratulations Karen. You managed to travel all through Europe and never take a single picture that showed you were there." She thought it was appalling that I didn't have any pics of myself. I hadn't thought of it. I had pics of my classmates. My classmates had taken pics of me--so THEIR pics from the trip had me. I hadn't even thought that I would want pics of me for posterity. However, I still have a phobia about being photographed. I think people who want pics of themselves must feel pretty comfortable that they are very photogenic and they will like the picture.

Posted by: annette on October 18, 2005 9:04 AM

You know, Donald, I just looked again to my last trip albums and have to say: I lied. In between architectue and interiors there are people, few cars and even some flora and fauna, for two purposes: to give scale to the architecture and to show how it's used by locals.

Still, I'm not in the pictures.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 18, 2005 10:55 AM

I found as a single guy that I would take mostly architecture, landscape, and foliage shots when I visited a new place. Never any shots with me in them, partly because I didn't want to hand the Nikon gear over to someone else, as Donald describes. People would appear in city shots, though, to give the real appearance of the place.

After I got married, I worked some shots of my wife in there, generally using wildlife techniques (blinds, long lenses) since she hates knowing that her picture is being taken. And she would take a few of me. But she likes plants and landscapes a lot, too, and is glad to have the shots of them.

Now, with two young children, I get a lot of pictures of them doing things in the locale, for them (and us) to remember, but I still take a reasonable number of people-less pictures. A recent run of around-the-house shots for me would be several of the kids inspecting a beetle and climbing on the swingset, interspersed with pink cloud formations and closeups of cosmos flowers at low sun angles.

For either type of picture, I find digital photography has been really liberating, given the huge capacity of current memory devices and the ability to cull out loser shots. I've always been a big believer in careful composition, as far as practical, coupled with simply taking a lot of shots. You've probably heard the one about a key difference between pros and amateurs being that the former throw away 90% of their frames.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on October 18, 2005 1:02 PM

As a child I was encouraged by my parents to take photos, and did so until my late teens when I lost interest. Many years passed when I neither made nor appeared in many photos, and in hindsight those feel like lost years. Then, about ten years ago, I traveled to a family wedding where the hosts left a disposable camera on each table. I used one of the cameras to document the event for myself. A relative of mine noticed my enthusiasm, suggested that I buy a camera, and eventually bought one for me when I didn't follow through on my own. Since then I have been regularly taking photos of family and other social events.

My rate of photographing has increased exponentially in the past three years or so. What got me more involved was an experience that I could not have had when I was younger. I visited, for the first time in maybe twenty years, the neighborhood where I grew up. Everything about the physical environment -- houses, trees, streets -- looked dramatically different than what I remembered. It seemed obvious that there had been much change. Yet when I later looked at images of the same area in family photos from my childhood, it became clear that in reality very little had changed and that my memory was faulty. I decided then that keeping a photographic record of my environment and experiences is a necessity rather than a quirk or frivolity. Without a visual record, the memory of having been somewhere, done something or seen someone tends eventually to fade or become distorted. And of course, with a visual record memories can be shared. One gains so much by taking the small trouble to make a permanent image.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 18, 2005 2:59 PM

Jonathan: if only Proust had a camera! Recipe for Madeleines haven't changed...

Posted by: Tatyana on October 18, 2005 3:34 PM

I usually do my half-assed version of street photography. Bums on benches, women in windows, children playing, workmen on break - that kind of thing. I have a little Petri rangefinder which makes no noise at all, so I can sneak around. Garry Winogrand* I ain't, but I get a few good images once in a while.

A favorite comic motif is pictures of tourists taking pictures of each other. I've got a very funny shot of a dozen grinning Japanese sitting on the Great Bronze Bull of Wall Street while their leader snaps their picture. The leader, of course, has about seven cameras around his neck.

Friends always wonder why on Earth I would take pictures of anyone I didn't know.

The other thing I like to photograph is statues, because they're attractive and don't gimme no backtalk.

* - I just learned that when Winogrand died, he left twelve thousand rolls worth of unpublished pictures. Yowza.

Posted by: Brian on October 18, 2005 9:41 PM

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