When I think about it, I think that travel photography is a healthy dose of art, with a generous sprinkling of science. I don’t consider myself a professional photographer – I take lots of photos, you only see the decent ones around here. 🙂
However, in today’s interview, I’m talking with Ami Vitale, one of the official Nikon travel photographers. As you see below, her work speaks for itself. Her projects seem to be on a vigorous search for a sense of place, and she has an interesting perspective about life behind the lens. Over 75 countries later, here’s what she had to say.
Q: How did you get started in travel photography? Do you think people need an “eye” for it or are there skills that can be taught?
A: It began with a curiosity of people. I started my travel photography by going down the road from where I lived and knocking on people’s doors, asking if I could photograph them. I was amazed that on the same road, the cultures and people were worlds apart. It was a community in transition and I met farmers, both African-American and white, wealthy families building huge new homes and people living in poverty that did not even have indoor plumbing. They all shared the same dusty road but their stories were entirely different.
If you dig a little, there are stories everywhere and the skills needed were simply to be open and curious.
Q: I see you’re now based in Montana – what a beautiful place to be located as a photographer. Any favorite places to shoot?
A: So far, I am never here! I am trying to change that and am starting a project about ranchers and cowboys this spring but for the moment, I am still always on the road.
Q: A lot of people avoid higher end equipment because of the hassle factor – lenses can be bulk, and they’re a target for theft. Any advice?
A: I think of my gear as my tools. I am aware that they are expensive but I try to give something back and give prints or email images when I can so they know I’m not just taking from them. I do think the higher end equipment in the end produces better quality so I do invest in that but I behave respectfully and try to surround myself with people I trust.
Q: You use Nikon cameras – what’s your favorite setting, and why?
A: Always Manual because I like to use the light in different ways. To reach the next level in photography you really must understand light and it’s not always best to use the programmed settings.
Q: What’s been your most inspirational travel experience?
A: Do I have to give just one? Seriously, they are all amazing because I’m always learning and being pushed to be a better person and photographer/storyteller. I think the hardest ones are the best because I learn the most. Struggling with the physical, mental and emotional challenges make you a better and stronger person. I would not give any of it up. I constantly learn how adaptable we all are and that we can survive in the most unlikely places.
Q: Lastly, I’ve noticed you’ve gotten some great shots in some awkward situations – like the baths in Hungary! Any tips on how to pull off some unique shots for those readers who aren’t “professional” photographers?
A: My best friend is from Budapest so she was running around in her bathing suit, explaining to everyone what I was doing, asking if it was okay, requesting for them to sign releases and getting email addresses so I could send photos to them later. I would never have gotten these images without her and it was a joyous atmosphere.
I cannot emphasize the importance of respecting your subjects. Some people may not like to have their photo taken and will say no but you have to respect that. I am always surprised but most people actually like having their photos taken. It’s all in how you treat them. It’s even nicer if you can send them the image later.
I use a translator in many places because I think it’s important that people understand my intention and reason for being there. And when I look for a translator, I look for someone who is warm and caring more than just someone who can speak well. Empathy is THE MOST IMPORTANT quality to be a good photographer. You may get a few good images without it, but to be consistently good, empathy is everything.
Great perspective, Ami. Thanks so much for sharing your insights!
All photographs are copyright Ami Vitale.