Live, Learn, Shoot: How Winning a Photo Contest Taught Me a Lesson About Travel Photography


I was shooting as the tour group made its way to a destination down the street in Amman. When these women came up to me and smiled, of course I took their picture. As no one else in the group seemed to even notice them, I couldn’t help thinking, Isn’t this a photo tour?
All Photos © Blaine Harrington

Not too long ago I entered a PhotoShelter contest that called for entrants to submit a single photo they deemed their best travel image. I didn’t know if the one I sent was in fact my best, but I was certain it would get the judges’ attention. If you’re a regular reader, you might have seen it featured in my column in the November, 2014, issue: the image of trucks, sheep, and goats held up by a landslide in the Zojila Pass in Kashmir, India. (If you haven’t seen it, search “asia_04858” at my website.)

I not only got their attention, I took first prize—an all-expense-paid, 10-day photo tour in Jordan for me and my wife, Maureen. I’d been to Jordan three years prior, so I knew there’d be lots of photo opportunities to explore. Added benefits were access to great sites and locations and the joy of having someone else make all the complicated arrangements for that access.

On the trip with us were two tour leaders, two guides, and four photo enthusiasts who’d signed up. The tour leaders basically led us to photogenic locations and provided advice and suggestions when asked.

I came home with photographs I’m very happy with, and some unexpected knowledge. By noticing how the tour was conducted and how the other photographers responded to the opportunity, I was able to evaluate and appreciate the working methods and attitudes I’ve naturally developed over the years, and that now I take for granted.

The tour wasn’t a workshop, but it sure was a learning experience.

I needed my tripod to get this 30-second exposure of the Greco-Roman ruins on Colonnaded Street in Jerash. I also walked into the night scene during the exposure for some LED light painting of the street and arches as the long exposure picked up the glow of the city in the distance.

When these two Bedouin boys in the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads to the archaeological park in Petra, Jordan, did a bit of clowning, I got a few shots in a few seconds. Sometimes spontaneity counts as much as observation.

Look For Pictures
I noticed right away that I did things differently. In Amman, for example, the tour leaders were taking us to a destination at the end of a long boulevard. I was finding subjects along the way—after all, what’s the point of walking through a city and not looking for pictures? The others were not into street shooting or people photography. For that matter, they seemed not to be into observing anything at all. I realized, with some surprise, that not everyone shoots what’s there to shoot; not everyone explores on the way to a destination.

And when they got to the destination, it was basically one or two shots and then on to the next location. Which is not the way I work. I take a lot of images. I take pictures in sequences and at different focal lengths. I shoot verticals and horizontals. Simply, I aim to tell the story of a place, and on this trip the story was: what makes Jordan Jordan?

Noticing that the other photographers didn’t deviate from the planned itinerary made me realize that often people are so destination driven they don’t take advantage of what they can see and capture along the way. There are things they do, or don’t do, that actually limit or preclude photo opportunities.

Gear as well as attitude plays a part in this. Not so much when it comes to cameras and lenses, but accessories—tripods, for instance. I use one—not a lot, but when necessary. What I saw on this tour was photographers so often tethered to their tripods that they were not able to take advantage of what was happening all around them. It seemed too much trouble, or not at all possible, to move their tripods or to release their cameras from them.

And then there’s flash. I never saw one of the other photographers use it; it was natural light or nothing. I can understand that some prefer not to carry extra gear, but you miss so many possibilities—not only shots that can be made because of flash, but images that can be improved by its use.

On two nights each week tourists are treated to a candlelit ceremony at the Treasury monument site in Petra. I took this 30-second exposure as the candles were being placed as I didn’t want to waste the opportunity for good photos by waiting, as the others were, for the candle setup to be complete.

A vendor at the archeological park in Petra in a close-up that’s typical of the people pictures I look for. If someone doesn’t want to be photographed, I never intrude or push, but I always look for the people who are amenable. And if you look, you find.

Be A People Photographer
There are areas of the world in which people are not generally known for being super friendly about having their pictures taken. I understand that, and I respect it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not alert to opportunity.

I’ve found there always will be people who at least don’t object, and at best make it obvious they’d like their pictures taken. On the tour the others did not seem to know or notice that people in Jordan were very friendly, and the opportunities for people pictures were plentiful.

I realized as I was taking people pictures that many photographers don’t cross over. They may be wildlife shooters or landscape shooters or sports shooters, and that’s it. That’s their decision and it’s okay. But this was a photo tour for travel photographers, and the others weren’t really taking advantage of the possibilities, perhaps because the tour leaders were not people photographers, and the others were following their lead.

A Bedouin man and his camels in the Arabian Desert at Wadi Rum. I took this fill-flash image when we stopped to photograph a monument. I shot the monument, but unlike the others on the tour I noticed and photographed a subject beyond the one that brought us to the area.

Be Curious
What I mostly saw in the other photographers was a lack of curiosity and spontaneity, both of which I encourage when I lead photo treks and workshops, and both of which are second nature to me. Photographers aren’t there only for the experience of being there. They don’t hang around waiting to notice what someone else points out to them.

I began to categorize incidents and events on the tour under “destination versus exploration” or “checklist versus discovery” headings. For me travel photography isn’t a series of destinations or checklists; it’s an adventure, an ongoing discovery. Preparation can be tedious, the travel tough, and plans disrupted by bad luck or bad weather. But photography itself is never, “Here’s the great twilight shot…got it…check it off the list…move on.”

I look at the scene and explore the possibilities to find other ways to tell the story. When I get to the point of actually being able to make pictures, I take full advantage, and I make the most of those moments. An unexpected bonus of winning the contest was confirmation of my methods and the determination to exploit what comes naturally.

A selection of Blaine Harrington’s images, including the photo that won him the trip to Jordan, can be viewed at his website,