On a recent trip I stumbled upon a slum along the riverbank of Iquitos, an isolated Peruvian city in the Amazon jungle, and walked down rickety wooden boardwalk with my old Canon T2i in hand—snapping shots of the decrepit homes, crumbling wooden stilts, tattered clothes drying in the humid air—until a local security guard walked up to me and told me, in Spanish, that this area was dangerous and I should put my camera away.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that. I’ve been told to hide my camera in Lima, Manila, Kolkata and beyond. If you want to bring your DSLR around the world, you’re basically screaming “Look at all this money I have!” to everyone around you.
The trick to nabbing good travel photos abroad in dangerous situations is a combination of luck and logic. In the five years I’ve spent living and travelling abroad, I’ve never been robbed, and still managed to capture shots of moments I’ve found honest and uncompromising. Here’s how.
This means a few things: for starters, keep your camera strap coiled tightly around your wrist. (I’ve seen drive-by motorcycle thieves snatch purses from women’s hands; the best way around that is to not let loose any strap slack.) Secondly—and this should go without saying—don’t walk down quiet streets alone at night. This goes for all white-skinned travellers, but especially those carrying a $1,000 camera around their necks.
Linger Around for Good Moments
When you find a grungy neighbourhood, your first instinct might be to get out of there as quickly as possible. But I find the most awkward moments are the first few—after you linger a while, on a city block or in front of a food stall somewhere, people get used to you. That’s when they relax. Some of my favourite candid photos have only come after people relaxed a while and started talking amongst themselves.
Never Expose Longer Than 1/500
My style of travel photography leans toward subtle street photos, so I like to wait for the right moment and shoot from the hip. That means I may be walking while snapping the photo, or quickly drawing up the camera when I see something interesting. I tend to keep my shutter speed at 1/500 and my aperture at f/8, and adjust my ISO depending on the time of day and cloud coverage.
Bring a Versatile Lens
My favourite travel lens is my Canon 18-200mm. I admit it’s bulky as hell, and it barrels around the edges near 18mm, but the range is terrific if you only want to bring one lens on a trip. (I consider the weight offset by the fact that I rarely bring any other glass.) At its widest, it takes solid landscape and cityscape shots, but the zoom is great for snapping quiet candid portraits from afar, and it’s especially useful whenever I get a hotel room with a balcony facing the street. As a bonus, with one versatile lens, you’ll never have to stand in the middle of a sketchy street changing lenses—something else to keep in mind when travelling to developing nations.
Ignore People Trying to Scare You
While in Barranco, a suburb of Lima, I had a Limeño man warn me that I shouldn’t flaunt my camera in the neighbourhood. It was 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday; the streets were bustling with people. I ignored him.
Taking photos anywhere is alienating—by sticking a lens in front of your face, you isolate yourself; cameras can be symbols of judgment or an invasion of privacy to strangers. This concept is amplified by a million when you’re in a strange country that is—speaking frankly—filled with people less privileged and poorer than you. It can be tempting to pack away your DSLR and stick to disposable cameras or cheaper, smaller compacts.
But that’s silly. If you care about photography, you should do it, no matter where you are—especially if you’re in a new country. Whether your goal is to take documentary shots, personal mementos or build up a travel portfolio, you can’t just put away your camera when people tell you to. Just play it safe and let your lens do the rest.
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