Musings on Photography

Travel Photography/Wide or Deep

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on November 8, 2007

In various places, I’m expressed that when it comes to the whole Wide/Deep question I am a devotee of deep. I’ve come to spend most of my photographic effort where I live – the vast majority of the photographs I’ve made this year have been made within 5 miles of my home.

But when you’re traveling as a tourist, you more or less by definition place yourself in the wide camp. In our recent China trip, for instance, Paula and I visited Hong Kong, Guilin, took a boat cruise down the Yangtze river from Chongqing to Yichang, and then visited Shanghai, Xi’an, and Beijing. And we visited all those places in three weeks. That’s really wide, and not very deep at all.

The interesting thing is that, at least in this case, when you go wide, your choice of both photographic equipment and your photographing style seems to change. The PowerShot G9 is a pretty good ‘wide’ camera, if we use ‘wide’ in the wide/deep sense and not the ‘wide/telephoto’ sense. It’s lightweight. You can carry it everywhere, it unlimbers in a heartbeat (actually, somewhat less than a heartbeat), and the image quality is great. I have nearly 2000 photos made in those three weeks, and none of them were made with the sort of leisurely working style I use at home. I found myself using a photographic process that was much more like what I used when I was photographing mostly with a Leica M6.

The other folks in our group, knowing I’m an avid photographer, all questioned why I was carrying only a itty-bitty ‘toy’ camera, and not a big professional digital SLR. Leaving aside the technical reasons (namely, I’m lazy and didn’t care to schlep a heavy camera everywhere), I tried to explain that it boiled down to this: I wanted to actually spend mental time in China, and not just rush through it making photographs I could look at later. That is, when the time I can spend in a place is limited, I find that often making photographs gets in the way of attending to the simple task of being right here right now, and actually experiencing the place.

So when time in a place is short, I’d rather not work too hard at the photography, because it seems to distance me from the place. I see this a lot with tourists – they show up in a place, stand in the obvious place, snap the obvious tourist photo, and move on. It’s like the observation I remember reading (can’t remember where, sorry) by a Sherpa on a peak in the Himalayas to one of the climbers: “Many people come, look, take pictures – bad. Some people come, look, see – good”.

The paradox is that if I wanted to spend, say, 3 months in one of the places I visited, and I really wanted to come to grips with the place, photography would be the main tool I’d use to develop my understanding of a place. But the process I’d use would probably involve tripods, and returning to the same spots over and over and over.

I don’t know what all that means. There’s deep, which is what I’m usually after, and it involves a certain kind of equipment and a certain working style (photographic farmer, really). And then there’s wide, which is what I’m doing when I’m traveling, and it involves other sorts of equipment and a whole different working style (more of a hunter/gatherer). I’ve always thought of myself as the deep sort of photographer, but it seems things aren’t quite as clear cut as I thought before.

3 Responses

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  1. Gordon McGregor said, on November 8, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    I’d agree, I don’t think you can see until you at least start to look. I don’t think it would be possible to go deep into a culture that is so foreign to you, on such a short trip – you can show your reaction to it from a purely personal perspective, but I doubt it is possible to do much more.

    I’ve been enjoying your series of quirky sign translations – that’s something I suppose you could go deep in to in terms of a focus for the week – rather than just ‘anything that took your fancy’, so there is potential for deep or at least focused, even when you are moving around a lot.

    I’m mostly bemused by the people I see video taping their entire vacation, do they watch it when they got home to find out if they had a good time or not ?

  2. Jim Scolman said, on November 8, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Hi, I agree, I just returned from a week, first time, visit to Washington DC. I carried my Leica D-Lux-3 and shot lots of pictures. There was so much to see and not a lot of time at any one place. The Leica was fast, light, small and with my eye behind the finder, yes I added a viewfinder, I am very happy with my shots. I made the right choice to leave the Canon big guns at home for this trip. Thanks, keep up the good work…..oh, I live just up the road in monroe.

  3. Paul Maxim said, on November 9, 2007 at 8:56 am

    I think your very last thought – “it seems things aren’t as clear cut as I thought before” – is an insightful one. To some extent, I think all of us have a foot in both camps (“farmers” and “hunter gatherers”). The only variable is the breakdown of that split. It might be 50/50 or 80/20 or 90/10. And, of course, it’s not a constant. We switch modes as circumstances dictate.

    Still, most of us find ourselves instinctively drawn to one or the other. In my case (if money were no object), I would be in the “wide” or “hunter gatherer” mode most of the time. My wife and I are probably more comfortable on the road than at home, and “home” has become a relative term over the years.

    But I don’t believe that I am therefore less able to go “deep”. Certainly, a traveler can never achieve the depth of a native, but that doesn’t mean that they will only ‘see” the iconic images that the typical drive-by tourist sees and photographs. The camera, as you correctly point out, is a tool for understanding the idea of “place” and time. It just takes a little effort (and perhaps a return visit or two!).

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