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ami vitale portraitWe all take them — the posed pics in front of iconic structures and vistas. But how do we transform our travel photos into a narrative of our journey? To help us, we turned to Nikon professional photographer Ami Vitale, who tells intimate stories through her camera lens. We learned not only how she creates a connection with her subject, but also how we can forge our own bonds.

Vitale’s work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Time and Newsweek. She has won numerous awards, exhibited in museums and contributed to a collaborative book project. Based in Montana, Vitale is working on her first solo book of stories behind the images she’s taken.

IT: Many of your photographs are close-ups of people. Do you ask permission to take someone’s photograph before you do it? Many travelers feel shy doing this; how do you approach the conversation?

Ami Vitale: Always. I usually sit down and talk with people for a few minutes, hours or even days to make sure that they are comfortable with my being there. If I don’t speak the same language, I will make gestures first asking if it’s okay or I will ask if someone nearby can translate. I always invest time in the people I’m photographing. It’s more respectful, I learn more and it elevates the image from being just a snapshot to an image with a real story.

Recently I was in India during the Pushkar Camel Fair and I was photographing a girl named Subita. I was not the only one taking her pictures. Around us, there were hundreds of digital cameras, some cheap, many expensive, firing away.

I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone, and even when before dawn broke, we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lenses. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.

Later, Subita would tell me how de-humanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. Made her feel like an animal is how she put it to me. No one even said “namaste” or “hello” to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing — what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt; she was simply the prize.

The era of film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, the importance of building trust, and crafting a story even as you fire the shutter. Limited by the number of shots, we waited to get deeper into the story before blowing our film. And we were not defined as much by one amazing, accidental image, but rather the tapestry of a great and complex story we could illuminate.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image. There are of course huge advantages to using a digital camera. It can help you tell a story better, but the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture. It takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer.

And that always takes time.

ami vitale african women

19 Tips for Better Travel Photos

IT: What’s a shot or a moment that most people miss with their travel photography?

AV: Instead of getting only posed photos with people looking directly into the camera, it is more revealing to get images that show something deeper about their culture and lives. It’s pretty simple. It only takes time and the willingness to speak with the people you want to photograph.

IT: If we could all just do one thing to make our travel photographs better, what would it be?

AV: Take more time in one place. Instead of zipping around to dozens of locations in one day, slow down, get to know the people and culture more deeply and the images will show that knowledge and trust.

ami vitale boy

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IT: How does being a photographer change the way you travel?

AV: I don’t consider myself a traveler even though I’ve traveled to almost 85 countries. Instead, it’s about telling stories and learning about the people and places I visit. The experience is not about me but rather about the people who open their lives to me.

It’s a tough job if you are serious about it, and you have to be serious about it if you want to make a living at it. The truth is, very little “clicking” happens. That is about 10 percent of the job. The rest is sheer hard work: planning, researching, editing, negotiating and finding unique ways to tell stories. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else.

So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard — and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.

ami vitale boat

Read more about Ami Vitale and see her galleries at Nikonusa.com

Check out more travel interviews!

— written by Jodi Thompson

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10 Responses to “Picture Perfect: Tips from a Travel Photographer”

  1. sally leone says:

    Enjoyed this article. I’d never know the right questions to ask and you nailed it.

  2. Diane Doyer says:

    Very informative article for all travelers who love photography. I will pass this on to my husband who with great passions enjoys all forms of photo shoots.

    Thanks , Jodi Thompson for your article on Vitale’s helpful insights.

  3. Sharon Sidorick says:

    What a great article! As an historian, who does oral histories, I related intensely to the importance of having the trust of the subject of your essay. It is clear that the author was able to gain the trust of this wonderful photographer by the insights she incorporated into the article. It is both well written and informative. Great job!

  4. Alice Deeny says:

    The respectful traveling photographer. Great article!

  5. Harold Moses says:

    I assume that she got a signed authority from each of her subjects before she was allowed to publish the images

  6. I love the tip of spending time in one place… sometimes I feel you need to visit it at different times, different days, because you see different things. Even in today’s fast paced world, and point and click… it’s time well spent.

    stay adventurous, Craig

  7. I’m a photography enthusiasts and your ethical photography tips are great. I prioritize my pictures in every travel because it lets you enjoy the place back home over and over again.

  8. I’m working on my own photography skills, I like how you mentioned to take time in a place. We tend to zip in and out too much. Great advice here


  9. JK McCrea says:

    I have a professional photographer friend who specializes in street and homeless people. That is how she makes a living. It’s one thing not to engage them in conversation (as some are very opposed to interacting) but another not to even compensate these souls for using their sad situations to raise one’s own. I always leave something for the person if I’ve taken their photo, even if it’s just a few dollars.

    JK McCrea

  10. vicbrasil says:

    Whole hardheartedly agree with all points made above. Asking permission is critical to building trust. Start a conversation, praise them, then ask for permission to shoot. Getting the subject to look away from the camera is tough.
    And using one’s own environment to develop the techniques and learn about the camera is crucial to becoming a good photographer.

    On hints for better travel photography, please tell the reader/browser how you shot the attached pictures. Many people look at the pictures and then read.
    Picture 1 – camera attached flash or separate – and how to achieve the fill (in) flash that you used on this shot.
    Picture 2 – If permission was granted on this shot, how did you transcend the language barrier to get the novice monk to place both hand on the rings and hold the pose.
    Picture 3 – HDR? To get the depth and saturation of the clouds is “almost” impossible without external manipulation. I am sure hundreds/thousands of people out there have tried to shoot scenes with clouds and they end up being washed out. If it is not an HDR shot, how did you get the tonal range shown in this picture? Where did you focus so the camera metering captured the full range of colors. THANKS!

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