To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 


If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!


Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.


Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.


The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.


Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.


On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.


People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.


Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.


“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Confessions Of A (non) Photoshopaholic

22 01 2009



“Is that Deep Purple I hear?”                             (Algonquin Park, Ontario)


I am a big fan of Photoshop…otherwise there would be no photographic evidence that I accompanied Eva Mendes to the Oscars or that Daniel Craig and I have the same abs, but when it comes to travel photography I steer away from the magic paintbrush and like to keep it real.


I believe that the value of travel photography lies in its ability to transport the viewer to the place at which the photo was taken. When the astronauts first ventured into space, painstaking efforts were made to accurately capture the magnificent views they had and share them with earthbound colleagues. NASA used the best camera equipment then available and provided the astronauts with in-depth training. Professionals were employed to instruct them on shutter speeds, f-stops and everything they would need to photograph the surface of the moon in diffused light or the brightness of an earthrise. It was extremely important that the brilliant colours of the earth in the void of space or the many muted hues of the lunar surface be properly reproduced upon their return. Only 24 people have been to the moon and none since 1972, so the rest of us have had to settle for the photographic and cinematographic images they brought back.


Photoshop is a fantastic tool whose creation ranks alongside graphite pencils and acrylics, but I personally believe that there’s a time and place for its use. While I would never dispute the artistic value of this and other digital processes because the leaders in the field have proven that their work truly is art, I personally do not Photoshop my travel photographs beyond minor corrections and adjustments that can be made in a conventional darkroom. This is purely personal preference and absolutely no criticism of those who choose a different approach.


I love travel photography and derive almost as much pleasure from later reviewing my pictures as I do in actually taking them. I most treasure the photos that best capture those magical times and places and I derive my greatest pleasure in sharing them with people who then proclaim a desire to follow in my footsteps. If my photos encourage even one person to explore this magnificent planet of ours, I’m a happy boy. But just like the NASA astronauts, unless I am aiming for art rather than reportage, I want my travel photos to be more Canaletto than JMW Turner.



Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 7.5/18

19 12 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer.




Never let yourself regret not taking a photograph.


When travelling between Nairobi and the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, the road winds precipitously down the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. On one side there is the steep cliff side of the valley wall, whilst on the other a dramatic drop to the plains below. The view itself is spectacular as it sweeps away to the Mara and the Serengeti beyond. Towards the bottom of the steep road there is a small chapel tucked against the side of the cliff. With such a gripping view on the opposite side, it’s not surprising that it often goes unnoticed. The chapel had been constructed by Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War while building the road that now carries hundreds of thousands of tourists each year on their way to the great game parks in the south.


I had passed the chapel while travelling back to Nairobi. The road is narrow with no opportunity to stop until you reach a lookout close to the top. With my camera tucked in the bag at my feet, I could do nothing but watch it disappear behind us. It was such an incongruous sight that I kicked myself for months afterwards that I hadn’t had my camera ready to snap a quick pic as we drove by. I assumed the opportunity was lost forever.


Fortunately, a few years later I found myself travelling the same road to again reach the Masai Mara. With my camera now ready and loaded beside me, as everyone else gazed at the great view to the left, I watched for the chapel on my right. The photo I snapped is not particularly good and means nothing to anyone else, but for me, it’s as good as any I took on that entire trip.


And more importantly, my list of ‘missed photos’ had become one shorter.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 5.5/18

12 12 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer

“I said ‘Make the beds’…not ‘Make the beds’…”          `             (Kenya)

The best photographs sometimes hide in plain sight. 

The photographs that grab the most attention and cause the greatest conversation are often not the ones of the famous landmarks, the spectacular scenery or the beautiful wildlife. Often, they are of every day things that many people overlook, or if they do notice them, fail to photograph.


Good travel photography is an art that goes well beyond an expensive camera or an exotic destination. It’s all about having your camera at the ready and keeping an eye open for things that are out of the ordinary. You don’t have to spend every moment of your vacation with the viewfinder glued to your eye – this is a holiday after all! – but always have a camera at hand and if something turns your head, a photo of it will likely turn the heads of your friends and relatives as well.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 17.5/18

28 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from snap-happy wanderers.

Maasai elder                                   (near the Masai Mara, Kenya)

Never leave anything but a good impression.


Amongst my favourite photographers are Yousuf Karsh, Lord Snowdon and Jack Cardiff who, while taking great portraits have been able to capture so much more than someone’s mere appearance or facial features. On so many occasions, these great artists have been able to capture their subjects’ personalities and character – no mean feat when wielding a camera.


Travelling always brings us into contact with so many fascinating people who we will never forget. Whether fellow travellers or people we meet along the way, it is so often the people that stay in our memories even longer than the sights or experiences. Photographing the local people is, in my opinion, significantly more difficult than snapping wildlife, buildings or scenery but it’s well worth the effort. However, if attempting to photograph those you meet on your travels always remember to be respectful and seek their permission, be warm and friendly and thank them afterwards and never photograph children without first asking a parent or guardian. While many cultures do not like having their photographs taken at all, none of us ever like having a camera shoved in our face by a complete stranger.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 10.5/18

21 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer.

“Bartender, the ice in my drink is stale.”    (Close-up of Vatnajokul glacier, Iceland) 


The Big Picture isn’t always the best picture


One of the most difficult animals to photograph in Africa is the elephant. It is so big that it’s very difficult to photograph it and capture any sense of perspective. Too often elephants end up being a solid mass devoid of contour, colour or size. The same can be true of anything else that’s particularly large be it a building, a mountain, a canyon or any natural feature. When this happens, in addition to snapping the ‘Big Picture’, also look for an interesting detail of a smaller aspect that helps paint the whole picture. With a building, it could be a particular angle, corner or finishing touch. Focus on that which others may overlook.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 3.5/18

14 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer.

“It’s not overcast…it’s atmospheric!”                        (Iceland)

 Never mind the weather.


Although we all long for great weather on our travels, unless we always choose parched deserts or sun-soaked equatorial islands, we are likely to encounter at least a few days of inclement conditions. As a photographer, don’t lock your camera away and let the weather get the better of you, instead be creative and use these days to your advantage.


Firstly, make sure that you are prepared for all conditions. Most photography stores sell special cases or heavy-duty clear plastic covers that can protect your camera from anything shy of a hurricane and still take great photos. However, if unprepared for Mother Nature, make your own using a zip-lock bag or even a plastic shopping bag. Failing that, shoot from beneath awnings or even from inside through an open window. Use the dark skies or teaming rain to paint a picture. Play around with your camera settings to make the conditions even more dramatic than they perhaps are. Use the reflections in puddles or on rain-soaked windows. Heavy rain will likely drive many visitors inside leaving streets and sights merrily-free and eager to pose for your camera.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 4.5/18

7 11 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer



























“If you wait long enough, you’ll see the surfers.” (Wave Rock, Western Australia)


Pick your season!


Before we book our travels, many of us determine the best time to go. We may opt for the season when it’s not at its most ferociously hot or humid, or its coldest or wettest. Or we may time it to coincide with a particular festival, event or migration. Unfortunately, many others do exactly the same thing and you end up with ‘Peak season’ or ‘High season’ when flights, tours and accommodation are most expensive…and the main sites are most over-run with other travellers.


While there are times when you want crowds of people in your photos, you often don’t want the polyester-decked masses in your frame. You can try to miss them by carefully choosing your angle, patiently waiting for a quiet moment…or travelling off-season. The weather might not be quite as good and you may run the risk of leaden-grey skies spoiling your snaps, but your trip will likely cost you less and you’ll be able to capture the sites you’ve travelled so far to see without them being obscured by the crowds.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan