Ralph Velasco is a photography instructor and international tour guide who has photographed in over 50 countries on 6 continents. He’s the author of “Ralph Velasco On Travel Photography: 101 Tips for Developing Your Photographic Eye & More” as well as the creator of the My Shot Lists for Travel app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. His newest eBook is called “Essence of a Place: A Travel Photographer’s Guide to Using a Shot List for Capturing Any Destination.”
We´re pleased to count on Ralph Velasco´s point of view, due mainly to his knowledge and high experience about all involved to travel photography realm. Below, you´ll find the issues that we have touched on…
Question.- First of all, tell us more about your photo tours, what are their differentiating elements?
Answer.- Actually, I refer to my trips as cultural tours as opposed to photo tours or workshops (after all, “work” is a 4-letter word, we’re there to learn and have fun). With that in mind I intend for my trips to really focus on the cultural aspects of a place. Although I teach travel photography, and this is a big part of my trips, I also look to introduce participants to the food, music, dance, drink and other parts of a culture to give a complete experience. And then there’s the people, which of course are the heart of any destination. I love to introduce my trip participants to the friends I’ve made over the years in these places, and often times we’ll sit down in their homes, have some tea and learn about their way of life, which is so interesting to do and always a highlight.
My tours are open to photographers and non-photographers alike, so often times people will bring a spouse or friend who’s not necessarily interested in photography, and they can be confident that they’ll fit right in, not feel like they’re being held up by a bunch of photographers shooting 12 hours a day. And not surprisingly, more often than not the non-photographers will get excited about photography, because I help them, too, and next thing you know they’re upgrading their point-and-shoot for a mirrorless camera or even a D-SLR.
Another differentiation is that on a typical trip I provide an average of a half-day of scheduled activities with the group, and a half-day of free time so that people can explore the place and pursue their own interests. If there’s one consistently positive comment that I get in my post-trip surveys, it’s that there’s a great mix of group activities and free time, plus, depending on the location, I never include all meals so that people have to go out and explore on their own and aren’t caught up in a group bubble. I really enjoy traveling with people who are adventurous and confident enough to go out on their own in a new place to look for their own experiences and cultural nuggets.
Q.- What does travel mean for you?
A.- Travel has become such a big part of my life (I’m on the road over 300 days a year), it’s actually being home that takes the getting used to. There’s no doubt about it, I’m the luckiest guy in the world: I get to travel to incredible destinations that most people only dream about, and half the time I get to do it with other well-traveled people who share the same interests and trust me to put together a great overall experience for them, so they don’t have to figure out the details, we’ve done all that for them. The other half of the time I’m scouting and researching future destinations that I plan to bring groups back to. But in the end, as I mentioned above, travel, whether it’s domestic or international, is about the local people in a destination.
Q.- When did you start to feel that your future was linked to photography?
A.- Almost as soon as I was introduced to digital photography, around 2001, I knew that my future was going to involve helping others to get better images of their travels. At first I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d do this, but it was a perfect storm of being able to capture digital images that could be easily post-processed and then put into presentations that included photos, video, time-lapses, music, sound effects, graphics, titles, etc. Plus, I’d recently taken some really great trips to Central and Eastern Europe, and to South America, where I was able to put together a nice portfolio of images to teach from, which of course is step number one. These images then became the basis for my teaching travel photography. The best part was that I found I really enjoyed teaching, and although I’m not a very patient person in the rest of my life, I’m extremely patient when it comes to teaching photography and have no problem explaining these concepts over and over again.
Q.- What’s first, traveler or photographer?
A.- For me, I’m a traveler first, then a photographer…Absolutely.
Q.- Beyond the technique, how do you prepare in order to tell a story with your camera?
A.- Having done the research on a place and its people is extremely helpful in preparing to tell a story, and knowing what types of photo opportunities you’re going to be on the lookout for before even arriving in a place, often referred to as “pre-visualization,” is important too. The more you know what you’re looking for, the more you’re likely to find it, no doubt about it.
I have an iPhone app that I created called My Shot Lists for Travel (it’s available on iTunes) and the whole concept behind it, one that’s been around since the dawn of photography, is to maintain a list of the types of shots to be on the lookout for. This should help to create a well-rounded set of images that tells the complete story of a place.
The app has 52 categories that travelers should consider when putting together that story. People, Landscapes, Architecture and Gastronomy (the food and drink) are the more obvious categories, while Culture & Customs, Recreation, Night Scenes, Industry and the Underbelly may be less obvious, and there are many others, even beyond the 52 I supply. I challenge users to capture 5 solid images in each category on their shot list, and if, for example, their list has 30 categories, that’s 150 solid images to then put together in a book, slideshow, website gallery, or however it is that they’re presenting their work.
Q.- From a photographic perspective, what kind of things do you analyze when you prepare for traveling to a destination?
A.- Back to the shot list idea, I look for variety. I don’t have any interest in coming back with just people photographs, or just landscape images. I try to plan trips to places that offer a wide variety of photo opportunities, because it’s my feeling that as a travel photographer I have to be a jack of all trades, master of some.
If I hope to teach others how to make the best of their travel photographs, I have to be really good at a handful of categories (I’m always trying to increase that number) and very proficient at many others. Some photographers specialize in just landscape photography, or just portrait photography, and that’s great, but coming home with only those types of images is going to make for a fairly limited slideshow. I think it’s important to keep the interest of the viewers of my photography from start to finish. No matter how good the images are, people are going to nod off after the 15th or 20th portrait or landscape, so being sure to display variety is the key, at least in my opinion.
Q.- What kind of obstacles do you think a travel photographer has in his career?
A.- Travel itself is not only the best part of being a travel photographer, it can also the biggest obstacle. What I mean is that if you think about all the negatives of a two-week trip a typical person takes, like getting to and from and navigating airports, waiting in lines, sitting on crowded airplanes for long periods of time, spending hours on buses, trains and cars, lugging baggage from place to place, always sleeping in a different bed, being away from loved ones, having poor if any Internet access (especially difficult when trying to run a business), etc., multiply that by 20 for someone who travels as much as some of us do.
Now don’t get me wrong, the reason we do it is because you can also multiply the wonderful parts of travel by 20, as well. I get to meet, interact and make lifelong friends with people from around the world. I also get to try strange and exotic foods (tarantula, shark, grasshoppers) from around the world. Some of the incredible experiences I’ve had in just the past few months have been hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey; riding camels in the Sahara desert of Morocco and riding purebred Icelandic horses on Iceland’s south coast; wine and olive oil tasting in Tuscany; learning about cacao production and tasting the product fresh off the tree (doesn’t taste anything like chocolate) in eastern Cuba, plus countless others. I’ll also be riding El Chepe train and zip lining in Mexico’s Copper Canyon again in August. Everyday is a new adventure.
One of my favorite things to do is see and photograph people doing what they do well. In Cambodia I rent tuk-tuks for our whole group and we just go off into the back roads outside of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang and pull over to watch people masterfully weave silk, pound flaming hot horseshoes, make and dry rice paper and bean curds, it’s really fascinating, and one of the highlights of the trip. My job is to find these experiences, often times during my scouting trips, and I can’t wait to bring my groups back to see what I saw, and to help them photograph it so they can show the folks back home. Some of the other things we do is watch fourth generation flamenco guitar makers in Madrid, and my good friend Benito, a master cigar farmer in western Cuba, make cigars from scratch, plus he’s extremely photogenic and invites us into his home for coffee and a cigar.