My thoughts on Instagram and travel photography

Black and White photo of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden - Photography by Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Was recently on a panel of travel photographers asked to contribute thoughts in Gadling’s article Is Instagram Helping Or Hurting Travel Photography?. While I turned in more answers than was referenced in the piece (understandably), I’ve decided to publish the interview in its entirety here to provide more context from my angle.

-How do you, personally, get a great travel shot (i.e. tools you use, type of camera, etc.)?

For me, getting a memorable travel shot is less about the equipment and more about instinct. Honing one’s intuition and anticipating the very next move, scene, or situation along with a solid eye for composition is crucial. It’s about relying less on getting a “lucky” shot, and actually being in tune with your surroundings to know when that “lucky” shot may occur. Knowing how to edit photos is extremely important. You might be sitting on an average shot that, once mildly edited (not HDR), could give you a spectacular image.

In terms of tools I use, I’m a Nikon girl all the way with my favorite lenses being the 16-85mm for street photography and 35mm for closer portraits and food. Both are Nikkor lenses.

-Do you think instant-editing photography apps like Instagram and Camera+ lead to misleading photographs for viewers in the world of travel photography? (i.e. If you take a shot of a sunset and then simply tap a button and filter it to look completely different)

If anything, it’s helping people discover their creativity a lot more even though that creativity may appear canned at first. It lets people train their eyes in terms of what seems awkward tone-wise versus what is manageable or okay to get away with.

That said, travel photography to me is about capturing a sense of place and culture as accurately as possible. To take the viewer there as honestly as you can. That’s very different from fine art photography which a lot of these filters and HDR effects cross into in my opinion. I personally won’t want to go somewhere where the sky is neon blue, the buildings appear more 3D than in reality, and people walk around looking like caricatures.

The bottom line, for me, can be summed up by this wonderful quote from world renown photographer Jay Maisel – “you don’t have to make diamonds out of crap.”

You really don’t need to and shouldn’t feel the need to.

-Do you think Instagram is helping or hurting the world of travel photography?

I signed up on Instagram awhile back with good intentions thinking I’d be posting travel photos as often as I can to quickly show people as I travel along. So far, I’ve got maybe five or so photos on it. Not that I don’t think it’s a useful tool in this digital age. For me, I felt like I was always trying to capture anything really so I could tweet it asap.

While I certainly understand and respect Instagram’s appeal, as a working travel photographer who needs to study one’s environment, mentally and visually compose images, as well as properly soak in my surroundings, Instagram feels too “quick”, too “instant” (pun intended) for me in one sense.

It means constantly looking through my smartphone instead of chatting with the local for a few minutes before grabbing a relaxed portrait of them using my Nikon. So all I end up with are pretty landscape shots with very little of the human element.

At the end of the day, it’s not about the quantity of images one takes, posts, and tweets, but the quality of each image. My goal as a photographer when traveling isn’t to snap thousands of filtered images, but a few hundred, many even a few dozen, solid photos that can stand on their own.

-How are these apps affecting professional photographers who often wait patiently for the perfect lighting or moment for a shot?

I really don’t think these apps affect professional photographers. One can easily tell if a photograph was shot with natural golden light or if digital instant filters have been applied, mostly because the one applying them can’t really see or doesn’t understand white balance, exposure, and other geeky technical photo settings.

If anything, it’s pushing photographers of all skill levels to keep challenging themselves in terms of composing good images. And no question, this is the direction of the future. Faster smartphones with solid high resolution cameras and instant editing at the tap-and-drag of your finger.

Maybe we’re now living in a digital age where understanding some technical aspects doesn’t matter. I don’t know.

But I do know that you can’t replace that feeling you get when you can instinctively tune into how natural light hits certain subjects or scenes. You may get a few “wooos” and “haaas” from an overly processed travel photograph, and maybe that’s enough for that photographer.

For me personally, it’s about capturing people and places which are already so naturally beautiful in their simplicity.

-Do you think Instagram is a photography platform? Should it be something separate from traditional photography?

Yes, it is a photography platform. The same way I think blogging is just a platform versus print which is just another platform. And different publishing platforms come with their own specific rules that govern content creation and distribution.

So I could still share a “traditional” photograph through Instagram without applying any of its filters if I want to (I think).

Think of photography as the raw ingredients for preparing a meal. How you cook them up shows your composition skills. How you serve the final dish is where Instagram comes into play. Either on a simple white plate (say, Flickr), or behind a blue glass-covered dish so your yellow omelet looks green (Instagram).

-Do you use Instagram? Would you for certain instances?

I do have an Instagram account and wished I used it more. As I travel (with a baby in tow nowadays), I’m trying to work out a logical balance between oversharing everything using my smartphone, making sure my child gets enough attention from me, soaking up my surroundings respectfully, and taking memorable travel shots for potential publication.

Now to you, dear readers. Do you use Instagram? Please share your thoughts below.

  • http://www.lolaakinmade.com Lola

    @Pam – I certainly see and understand Instagram’s appeal. Putting filters aside, for me personally, I don’t know how people fully take in the moment while ferociously snapping away and uploading all sorts of random shots. Especially if there’s someone right next to them sharing the experience. I’d rather just soak it in and pull out the Lumix or Nikon when the spirit moves.

  • http://www.nerdseyeview.com pam

    I LOVE Instagram, love it. I used it extensively on a recent trip and several — let’s call them “serious photographer types” — friends asked me how I got those great photos. The answer? With my iPhone and Instagram.

    Focusing too much on tools devalues the photographer’s eye, which is what it’s all about. All the fancy post-processing in the world won’t fix dull composition, bad light, lack of a story in the photo.

    Also I think the rallying against alteration is disingenious. It’s SO not new. We want to see good work. How the photographer gets there isn’t really relevant. Which is what you’re saying, pretty much, I think.

  • http://www.lolaakinmade.com Lola

    @Ekua – I completely agree with you. And this was one of the points I was also making. I really don’t consider anything heavily altered as travel photography. Fine art photography, yes.

    @Kemi – I hear you and I do like that Instagram is allowing everyone to tap into their creativity. I just don’t like that people now feel the need to document everything instead of actually taking the time to enjoy the moment.

  • Kemi

    I have to say it was cool for about 5 minutes. I am now sick to death of them…. Sick l say..lol. I feel the same way about the vintage photo actions of professional photographers. A photo should stand on its own, and it’s cute once in a while, but now l dread opening Facebook as l am bombarded with Instagram photos, most of them horrendous btw. Travel photography especially should be a true reflection of what you see. I am glad that National Geographic is rejecting them now. The problem is everyone thinks their photographs are great, point, click and filter equals great photo. Not true..

  • http://girlunstoppable.com Ekua

    I agree that Instagram is cool for helping people expand their artistic horizons. But I do have a problem with heavily altered scenes being presented as travel photos… that goes for both Instagram and professional photographers with high end equipment. For me, the most interesting and useful travel photography are the images that capture a place honestly through the creativity and point of view of the photographer. Whether it’s a scene viewed through a retro hazy filter of Instagram or a well known monument captured in HDR or a long exposure waterfall picture, it’s not real life or real travel. I think heavy alteration is fine if you’re looking at the photos as art, but when it comes to travel photography, more honesty should be involved.

  • http://www.lolaakinmade.com Lola

    @Adam – It’s so interesting hearing how a designer sees and uses it. I definitely agree that Instagram is letting people tap into their creativity a lot more.

    @Nicole – Love that you use it as a teaser! Interesting you mention supplement. Other photographers in the Gadling piece also said the same thing. Like I mentioned, I wished I used Instagram a lot more, but at this point, I feel like I’m just using it to tweet and get something out asap without fully soaking things in. Plus, constantly pulling out the smartphone with a child on my hip just doesn’t seem right for me at this time.

    @Adeola – No doubt, Instagram is helping people develop and train their creative eye. I agree. The bottom line for me is this; smartphones are both a blessing and a curse. We use them to quickly share everything with everyone else while the person right next to us is waiting for our attention.

  • http://jostwrite.com AdeOla!

    Interesting post. I love instagram because it helps me see the different ways an image can be presented and perceived. It actually also reminds me that things are not always as it seem.

    The biggest reason I love instagram is because it actually helps me think creatively about how I take pictures, the positioning and what I want reflected..all on my iPhone. I never thought much about those with my regular pocket digital camera.

  • http://nicoleisthenewblack.com nicoleisthenewblack

    I love instagram and use it to supplement my ‘photography’. I put that in quotes because I am still learning how to use my camera and compose good pictures. In terms of my blog and communicating with my audience, instagram allows me to give them a preview of my surroundings. It piques interest, I get tons of comments from readers telling me that they can’t wait for the full blog post or to see more. I really enjoy using instagram!

  • http://travelsofadam.com Adam

    Very interesting to read! I don’t consider myself a photographer but as a designer I have a strong appreciate for the art of photography and for the necessity of design. I think Instagram is a way to get people to look at the world a little differently, and for that reason alone I find it beneficial.

    Thanks for sharing your full interview!