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Serendipity and the Travel Photographer : a Guide to Wandering with a Camera
Reading the advice blogs of other travel photographers, a frequent theme is the importance of doing your research before you go, of making sure you know where the famous sites are, what time they open, and when the sun will light them to their best advantage. Whilst this is certainly true, and the importance of research can not be under estimated, I would also like to suggest the benefits of doing the complete opposite to this: the art of Serendipity, which the dictionary defines as 'Good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries'. To do this, you need to put your map and guidebook back in the camera bag, forget the famous sites, and just wander about.
Lets deal with the practicalities first. What if you are in a strange city, where you don't know the way, and don't have enough command of the language to ask for directions? Some people are understandably nervous about just wandering where luck happens to take them. Luckily, there are two additions to your pocket that will safeguard your return every time. The first, which you should never be without, is a hotel card, a hotel business card with address and telephone number printed on it. Most hotels have these. Before you leave your hotel, ask at the front desk for a card, and keep it safely in your wallet. If you ever get lost, simply flag down a taxi, show your card to the driver, and he will take you safely back to your hotel.
The second addition to carry is a little more complex: a GPS receiver. 'GPS' stands for the Global Positioning System, a network of satellites, provided free of charge, that you can monitor with a small pocket device that will constantly show you your exact position, acurate to within a few metres. You can buy a dedicated receiver that can store your walking route and be used to Geo-Reference your photos. Your cellphone may even have a GPS receiver built in already, though you should note that a dedicated GPS receiver will give much better operation and storage facilities, and versions are available with weak signal capability, a big advantage in forest, mountain or builtup inner cities. Whichever GPS receiver you have, turn it on when you leave your hotel, and if possible, set it to record your route as well. With the GPS receiver in your camera bag, you can happily wander anywhere, anytime, and as long as the battery doesn't run out then you can always find your way back to your hotel. The GPS receiver uses very high radio frequencies to listen to the satellites, and these radio waves will pass through thin material, so you can keep the receiver in a camera bag or daypack pocket whilst its doing its work, and not tempt thieves who might notice it. Use it in a taxi too, to check the route taken or to guide the driver if he does not know the way, though when using it like this I would suggest that it is best to sit in the back and pretend you just know the way, rather than tempt the taxi driver with fancy expensive technology.
So now that we are comfortable wandering as the fancy takes us, what are the advantages of such serendipity? To put it simply: unique photos, and the chance to see a side of the city that the average travel photographer never encounters. Once away from the main tourist centres, you will be amazed at the change in attitude and increase of friendliness from the locals. If you don't speak the local language, then use sign language and gestures to communuicate. I'll never forget the reaction in a tiny local restaurant when I mimed a chicken laying an egg, and the resultant task of turning it into an omelette. The laughter from staff and customers was real and spontaneous, and I am sure was talked about for some time later. If I had then wanted to take some photos of the restaurant, there would not have been a problem. Away from the jaded souvenir sellers at the main tourist sites, you will find that people are genuinely interested in understanding you, and will not let a little thing like language stop them from meeting a new friend. Be interested in what you find, ask to know more, and you will discover the heart of the city, not just its showcases.
You might also like to try a walk or taxi-ride behind those famous city sites that the guidebooks concentrate on so much. In any travel-image library there will be many similar shots of these sites, so if you want an original and alternative shot of a site that has been already photographed many thousands of times, it is worth exploring the scene from a completely different viewpoint, with the potential of seeing the site from a new and potentially interesting angle. A good example of this is the famous 'backside-view' of the Taj Mahal, in the city of Agra, India. Its such a popular location for photos that its almost a 'site' in its own right. The Taj Mahal is viewed from across the River Jamuna,which provides a lovely foreground for the already superb building. If you are lucky enough to include someone washing clothes in the river, or a man on a camel walking across the picture, or a boat going by, then the image will be superb.
Is there a hill near the site you are interested in? Is there a tall building next door? It is always worth asking if you can visit the roof or the top floor to take a photograph - the worst that can happen is that they will say no. I got some superb shots of the Opera House in Manaus, Brazil, this way. You may need to offer a small tip to get someone to unlock the roof access door for you, but if it is a good view and results in some unique photographs, then that will be money well spent.
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