Travel Photography Takes a Beginner's Mind

mime and boy cophenagenFor the past 9 years I’ve been working as a travel photographer.  Travel photography is both a specialty and a broad category.  My assignments run the gamut from shooting on New York City streets to rafting the Colorado in the Grand Canyon to watching the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska.  So when I’m asked about what subjects I shoot, it’s varied (as you may have noticed).  I’m not sure if I love this kind of photography because I have A.D.D. or if it’s just a curiosity about the world.

No matter why I love to shoot so many subjects when I travel, it’s always about connection for me.  Sometimes I’m sent to a location with a theme—the Japanese culture in Portland, Ranches in Baker City, art and food in San Francisco—or for an experience like rafting  the whitewater of the Salmon River in Idaho, or judging a Barbecue in Coos Bay, Oregon.  Other times, I arrive in a city or destination and I have to soak it in quickly then capture images that tell a story when they are pulled together on a page.  

If I was to give one tip of how to be a travel photographer, it would be to have a beginner’s mind.    A beginner’s mind is a concept that stems from Zen Buddhism.  According to Wikipedia  Shoshin, refers to a mindset where you have an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.  

Whether I’m visiting someplace I’ve seen dozens of times, or going to a destination for the first time, I step out of the car and look around. If I say to myself, "oh, there's that famous building" or "I need to shoot the street at Haight Ashbury," I close myself off to the photos that truly will tell the story. Instead I try to take a moment to feel the energy of a place.  I take a deep breath and look around.


I'm seeking anything that jumps out and catches my eye--interesting, unique, odd, unusual or something that speaks to an overall feeling or personality of a place.  I look at the architecture of the buildings—from modern to quaint to historic. Sometimes it’s the full view of a street or a mountain trail, other times it’s the detail of a flower, or a door knocker. 

Even if I plan to go back to shoot at a location, I will shoot what I see.  Sometimes my itinerary doesn’t allow for me to return and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to capture an image even if the light is not ideal.  If I can return to get the shot with the light and taking time to get the composition I want, all the better.  

Beginner’s mind is a type of meditation, like getting into the zone when doing sports.  I’m so busy looking around and listening to an inner voice that says, “oooh, look at that,” that I tune out much of what is around me. (This is not recommended as I’ve been known to step out in the street to focus the shot that my mind is focussed on.)  This is the state of mind where you want to be, but it may not be much fun for a travel partner as you go off in your own world.

If you are traveling alone and have to negotiate finding your hotel, or coordinating other travel details, you’ll probably have to balance going in and out of Shoshin so you can get things done.  I usually take those shots that are calling to me, go and get myself settled, then go back out and get connected.  

bike rack at central train station copenhagen denmark

I love being in that space where I am connecting to the world around me and I practice beingin beginner’s mind as much as possible. When I’m in that zone, beautiful scenes jump out at me like this creek and mossy rocks that we were speeding past going over the Cascade mountains.  Magic happens when you don’t have you mind rigid and set on what you think you should shoot. 

It’s why I love what I do.  Here’s wishing you the empty slate of Shoshin.