Travel, or Photography? (Part I - Philosophy) / by Jay Loden

Recently I was listening to the B&H Photography Podcast episode titled "Travel or Photography?". The episode asks several professional travel and landscape photographers the difficult question "if you had to pick one, travel OR photography, which would it be?". Coincidentally, it was a topic I had just been thinking about that day: where travel and photography overlap for me, and how it has changed over the years.

We just came back from a family vacation to Bar Harbor, Maine and Acadia National Park and naturally my cameras came along for the trip. The operative word being cameras, plural. It's been a long time since I went on a trip with only one camera, if for no other reason than I loathe not having a backup. One of the first vacations we went on after I got seriously into photography was a trip to Alaska where my neck strap broke in mid-stride. My camera plummeted to the pavement and was broken beyond repair. Fortunately I had a second body with me on the trip and continued to make more photographs. In fact, now that I think about it, that was also the same trip my wife's point & shoot camera was destroyed by water damage. We lost two cameras to that same trip! Ever since I've been a believer in at least some form of backup camera or second body.

ISO 160 * 75mm * f/8.0 [Panasonic GX1 + 14-140mm] Denali, Denali National Park, AK - The trip that cemented my love of travel & photography, despite a camera casualty!

ISO 160 * 75mm * f/8.0 [Panasonic GX1 + 14-140mm]

Denali, Denali National Park, AK - The trip that cemented my love of travel & photography, despite a camera casualty!

Of course, the downside to all the gear is that the line between the photography and the travel can get awfully blurry. Lately it seems there's an inverse relationship between how much camera equipment I pack with the intention of making images, and the quality (and quantity) of the work I produce. I can't help but feel this nagging sense I'm losing sight of the forest for the trees.

For context, a brief bit of my personal history is probably in order. I first picked up a camera in 2011 born of a love of travel I share with my wife. We went on several wonderful trips together in our first years of marriage without a single image to remember them by! After realizing how many great experiences and moments were being lost in relying solely on my memories, I finally picked up a camera in earnest. I'd long been interested in photography, so with a possibly once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia and New Zealand coming up, I thought what better time to dive in.

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand - one of my first travel images.

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand - one of my first travel images.

At that time, the single most important deciding factor in my mind was that the camera had to be as small as possible while still maintaining reasonable quality. I settled on a Panasonic GF2 and 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, plus an Olympus 14-42mm collapsible kit zoom. Back then I couldn't imagine carrying a bunch of heavy camera gear around on vacation (hah!)

As with most of my hobbies once I was in, I was all in. Gear Acquisition Syndrome being what it is, it wasn't long before my tiny m4/3 kit morphed into a seemingly endless string of upgrades and then system switches. I began to be accompanied by an ever-larger camera bag, 2 camera bodies, several lenses, maybe an extra fixed lens compact, filters, tripod, spare batteries, and other accessories. The end result is that years later I find myself consistently carrying far too much gear on my trips. But my quest to be prepared for every photographic opportunity I might encounter more often simply leads to "analysis paralysis" as I waffle over what gear to carry or what lens to shoot.

Among my worst decisions was once bringing two separate overlapping systems (Fuji X and Micro Four Thirds) on vacation to Jasper and Banff National Parks. Packing for our hikes and excursions every morning made for mental vapor lock as I agonized over what to pack that day.

ISO 200 * 1/2s * f/22 * 18mm [Fuji X-E1] Sundance Canyon, Banff, Alberta, Canada - One of the images I managed to make that trip despite gear paralysis ;)

ISO 200 * 1/2s * f/22 * 18mm [Fuji X-E1]

Sundance Canyon, Banff, Alberta, Canada - One of the images I managed to make that trip despite gear paralysis ;)

As my photography interest exploded, I began to see travel as framing opportunities to make interesting images in exotic locations. What started as documentation of my experiences turned to artistic exploration. However, particularly since the birth of our daughter a couple of years ago, circumstances and my priorities are shifting. Art is once again giving way to documentation (though the two are by no means mutually exclusive!). Instead of traveling to make great photos, I'm making photos to preserve precious memories of the most important people in my life. I still want them to be beautiful images, of course - but the focus has simply changed.

Leica M6, 35mm Summilux, on Ilford HP5+ Priorities can change... and that's a good thing! :)

Leica M6, 35mm Summilux, on Ilford HP5+

Priorities can change... and that's a good thing! :)

Not only have my priorities been rearranged, but the practicalities of travel with a toddler have changed my photography as well. With an almost-two year old in tow, I rarely have time or ability to work a scene, change lenses, set up a tripod or break out filters, get up for a sunrise, or hike extensively for panoramic views. Heck, based on our vacation this past week in Maine, I'm lucky if I can manage to have both hands free half the time ;)

This will likely change again in the future, and probably many times over as the years go by. But at least for now, I'm far more interested in preserving memories and beautiful moments. Now is a season to dial things back both in the intensity  of my approach to travel photography and the gear that goes along with it. Time for me to shoot with the camera / lens that's in my hand, and focus on what's essential or moving to me personally rather than simply seeking out the most photographically interesting compositions. 

These aren't new ideas; in many ways I am simply echoing what so many others have preached before me. Especially in the fixed-lens renaissance ushered in by cameras like the Fuji X100 series, Sony RX1, and Leica Q that are inspiring so many photographers to go back to basics, it's common to see people finding inspiration in limiting the gear. Many (myself included) are discovering it pushes the focus back on the keys to photography that works: content, light, composition, & timing.

ISO 100 * 1/8000s * f/1.7 * 28mm [Leica Q] Acadia National Park, Maine - Images like this one won't hang on anyone else's wall but my own, and that's ok.

ISO 100 * 1/8000s * f/1.7 * 28mm [Leica Q]

Acadia National Park, Maine - Images like this one won't hang on anyone else's wall but my own, and that's ok.

It all comes back to the key question: is it about the travel - or is it about the photography? Life changes have brung me full circle to where I started. The camera is a tool to preserve the incredible breadth and beauty of life, and the art I create with it once again stands in service to a documentary motivation, rather than an end in itself. What about you? How do you feel? Is your photography the motivator for travel, or does travel serve to drive your photography? Leave a comment and let me know - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Note: This post ended up a bit longer than I originally intended, so I've split it into two parts, with the second part talking about what changes in philosophy have meant for my gear choices. Stay tuned for Part II!