Photos the Tourists Miss

Get off the Beaten Path and Beyond the Postcard Shot.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, one great photo can capture the soul of a city better than any guidebook. But to find that essence, you first need to throw the guidebook away. Want a photo that doesn't tell the Same Old Story of a city? Shun tour groups, wander the streets, prowl through nooks and crannies, get up insanely early or stay out way too late.

Here are four photographers who did it, and their tips on how you can make your travel shooting a success.

SEATTLE

The problem with skyline shots is that it's often so hard to be creative in composing them. There are only so many angles you can shoot from. Long rows of buildings get tiresome after a while. And it's hard to isolate a lone landmark.

Unless, like Frank Melchior, you compose the skyline through framing.

The 54-year-old postal worker was born and raised in the home of the Space Needle, and he's shot Doris Chase's sculpture "Changing Form" in Kerry Park on Queen Anne Hill, "hundreds of times," he says.

But every time he'd shot the sculpture was in daylight, when there were people sitting around it. He had never thought to capture it the way he did in this photograph until last winter, when he was entering one of the weekly contests for the website DPChallenge.com.

"The assignment was 'Triptych,'" Melchior says, "so I was looking for a frame with three openings." Then he remembered this abstract steel sculpture's circular cut-outs, which afford plenty of unusual views of the skyline.

Knowing that the sun rises further south in the middle of winter, he realized that it would illuminate the city skyline from the vantage point of Kerry Park better at dawn than dusk. So at 5 a.m. one day, he drove 45 minutes downtown from his home in Edmonds.

No one was at the park, which allowed him to set up with impunity. He'd mounted an 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor on his Nikon D200, a long enough lens to get the Space Needle in the distance. With the camera on a tripod near the sculpture, he spotmetered the Space Needle and then switched to manual. An exposure of 3 seconds at f/4.5, ISO 100, released using the camera's self-timer, did the trick. Later, in Adobe Photoshop, he sharpened the sculpture and removed noise.

The result isn't just a unique view of the skyline -- it's also about the act of observing. And Melchior credits the creative challenge of contests, along with other online resources, for helping to teach himself photography in just five years. "I plan on going pro when I retire," he says.

SAN LUIS POTOSI

Out in the country, we think of birds as a lovely part of nature. We photograph falcons in their majestic beauty as they soar across the sky. But in the city, they just seem like a nuisance.

Daniel Avilies was raised in one of the biggest cities in the world -- Mexico City. But as a child, he says, "I didn't really observe the surreal interaction between this monster of a city and the nature in it."

Now a 21-year-old graphic design student in the much-smaller Montemorelos, he doesn't often witness this unusual dynamic. So, when on a trip last December to the city of San Luis Potosi he ran across people feeding pigeons in the central plaza, he saw the human-like quality of the birds. He picked up bread to use crumbs to lure them closer, then sat down on the ground with his Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Canon lens.

Avilies snapped at the birds gathering around him until it occurred to him that in order to really capture their personalities, he'd have to shoot on their level. So after setting the camera to autofocus with an exposure of 1⁄200 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800, and a focal length of 18mm, he placed the camera on the ground in front of him.

The strategy? Just keep pressing that shutter button as many times as possible."I was shooting with one hand and feeding the birds with the other," he recounts.

In fact, he captured about 500 images altogether. Among them was this gem. One look at it and he had to laugh. "When I saw the attitude, the fierce pigeon defying me because I got into his territory, I imagined those '30s and '40s gangsters," Avilies says. "So I converted it to black-and-white in image editing and named it 'The Boss.'"

PHNOM PENH

Unlike most business transactions, a haircut imparts a feeling of intimacy. And that's why 41-year-old Jeff Alexander has always been fascinated by them.

"A haircut is a very honest, vulnerable state," he says. "It's an exchange of trust."

On a trip to Cuba, this public relations executive from the Philadelphia area photographed a barber who had cut his hair. Now, years later, he still considers the result one of his strongest images.

So whenever Alexander travels, he sets out to photograph scenes of the daily habits and activities of the people in the far-flung places he visits. That impulse is what brought him to the Central Market in Phnom Penh on a visit to Cambodia in the summer of 2005.

Just after the sobering experience of visiting one of the so-called Killing Fields outside of the city, he and his now-wife were wandering the booths when they found themselves at the outskirts of the market, where there was a group of streetside barbers.

"The setting was terrific, and the child's reflection in the mirror was irresistible," Alexander recalls. "It allowed me to see both faces at the same time."

Moreover, the fact that all parties were busily engaged in their task made them easy subjects. "They knew I was there, but they were too busy to care, and I doubt they would have minded anyway," he says. "Cambodians were very warm and inviting to us."

Experience has taught the New England native to always have his equipment on him when traveling. He used a Nikon D70 with an 18-70mm AF-S Nikkor, the white balance set to Shade.

Standing under the awning a few feet from the scene, the bright light allowed him to use an aperture of f/8 and keep both faces in focus as he composed in the viewfinder, zooming in just slightly from 18mm and snapping away at 1/125 sec.

Alexander travels often, and this won't be his last barber photo. "Sometimes luxurious, sometimes far less so," he says. "But go to any city and you'll find it -- they're out there, waiting to cut your hair."

ROME

When traveling, most of us operate on the early-to-bed, early-to-rise principle. This way we'll never miss the golden hour of sunrise over a city skyline or mountains, and always be prepared for a day of photo hunting. But that's why many photographers miss one of the greatest caches of street photography -- the city at night.

Peter Gutierrez's work as a Brussels-based freelance journalist on European affairs keeps him traveling to different countries. Then, daytime is for writing. But when the 46-year-old Texas native's work day is done, "that's when I hit the streets."

Armed with one of several film cameras, a lightmeter, and a tripod over his shoulder, he performs his own personal, compulsive reportage: "The loneliness of the city, where people are present but faceless, nameless, like ghosts or spirits."

But capturing them takes speed and dexterity. "If you spend too much time behind a tripod, people notice you and act unnaturally."

So when he stumbled upon this street vendor in Rome, Gutierrez used his usual technique -- lots of preparation and quick shooting.

His Minolta Autocord RG 120 twin-lens reflex with a 75mm f/3.5 Rokkor lens was already mounted on a tripod and loaded with Fujifilm Pro 160C film. (Tripods are best for night shooting of course, but in a pinch, resting your camera on a wall or street furniture can do the trick, and is sometimes more subtle.)

He used a handheld meter on a medium-gray section of the pavement, then set an aperture of f/11 and shutter speed of 15 seconds. Rather than focusing on the vendor himself, he selected an object in another direction at about the same distance. The small aperture helped ensure that this tricky low-light focusing technique would work.

Then he swung the tripod around and aimed at the vendor. Handholding a dense blue Cokin A 021 filter both compensated for the yellow cast of artificial light, and exaggerated differences in other mixed lighting to create an eerie mood. (You can also do this later with software or in a darkroom.)

As for the vendor, "this all happened in a matter of seconds," Gutierrez says. He always looks away from his subject, to avoid attention as he counts down the exposure time. When the shot was done, he picked up his tripod, "and I was gone."

Granted, a furtive approach is one way of photographing strangers, but it's also essential to what Gutierrez wants to capture: "Small scenes, fragments indicating the presence of humanity, that I'm not a part of. I am an observer, unobserved."

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