A Washington, DC photographer’s view of Charleston, SC, in an ongoing series about travel and travel photography.
TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY: SOUTHERN EXPOSURE IN CHARLESTON, SC
This was supposed to be Barcelona.
Instead, we are sitting on a hard plank bench at the front of a weather beaten covered wooden wagon, being pulled by two aging mules through the streets of this 350 year old southern city. Yes, mules. From our tour guide, we learn that mules are best for this sort of thing. Less mercurial. More cooperative. Easier to manage. Who knew. As we start our tour, our resident-scholar-farm-boy-part-time-law-student-turned-tour-guide launches into a monologue about South Carolina’s glorious political heritage, embodied in that great southern independent thinker, statesman and champion of free thought, Strom Thurmond. Terrie and I trade concerned glances. I look at my watch. We are 10 minutes into an hour long tour. This is going to be a very long ride. The heat and humidity of high summer in the south is oppressive. We roll on.
Through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina.
Back to Barcelona. That is where this trip was to start. We would fly into El Prat Airport, in Spain, spend a few wonderful days in Barcelona, then hire a car and drive though northwestern Spain to Andorra. From Andorra, we would travel along the eastern coast of France to Marseille and Monaco. Slowly, we would wind our way to Paris, reveling in the French countryside and treating ourselves to the local cuisine, washed down with the wine of the day. It was settled. Done. Reservations had been made. Only the plane tickets were left to buy. Then, at the last minute, an unexpected change for us to come up with a new itinerary, stateside.
A trip to Paris and Barcleona had been easy for us to agree on. Where to go in North America would not be.
I lobbied to go north. Quebec had been wonderful. We fell in love with the city and vowed to return, soon. That was nearly 10 years ago. My vote was Quebec. No contest. Quebec with a Montreal chaser. Let’s book the flight. Terrie loved Quebec, right? Yes, she did, but not for this trip. This time, she decided, we were going south, to the Carolinas. With day trips into the deep south, where we could enjoy “southern hospitality”, experience the “beauty of the old south” and “travel to places we had never been before”. Reluctantly, I was IN.
Next stop, Charleston, South Carolina.
Consistently ranked as one of the 10 Best Cities to visit in the US, Charleston knows how to take care of tourists and travelers.
‘Known for its rich history, well-preserved architecture, distinguished restaurants, and mannerly people, Charleston has received numerous accolades, including “America’s Most Friendly City” by Travel + Leisure in 2011, and 2013 and 2014 by Condé Nast Traveler and “the most polite and hospitable city in America” by Southern Living magazine.’
Charleston is all that and more.
Looking back, I wish we had planned more time in Charleston. As it was, this was the third/fourth stop on our Southern Tour, after stops along the Carolina coast and a trip to Savannah, Georgia. By the time we arrived in Charleston, I had one eye on the road north, heading home to Washington, DC. This would be the last leg of this trip and we had clearly saved the best for last. In the end, we only allowed for a few days in Charleston. It deserved more.
Back on the covered wagon.
The tour picked up pace, politics made way for historic architecture and stories of this charming city. A cool evening breeze moved in, clearing away the heat and humidity of the day. Our tour guide even taught us how to make southern fried cheese. Really.
For Travelers and Photographers
Charleston is a very photogenic city, as you can see. Lots of good eye candy there. I was drawn to the French Quarter on this trip. My background as an architectural photographer, and history buff, led me there. The French Quarter, alone, could keep a photographer busy for days. I had an hour and a half. I tried to use it wisely.
The images I have included for this post were captured on two separate days over a combined period of about three hours. That’s not a lot of photography, at least not for me. On an assignment, or traveling alone, I’ve been known to shoot from dawn to dusk, grab some for fuel, then out again after dark. Depending on the place and the assignment, that could on for days or longer.
Like most vacations, I was not alone. I shot this more like a vacationer might. A snapshot of the city, but not the whole story. Not compelling content, but rather a collection of photographs that convey a sense of place.
Most of us don’t travel alone to beautiful cities, alone, simply to photograph them. We are traveling with friends and/or family. The challenge for photographers on vacation, and vacation travelers with cameras, is how to capture a place with memorable images, without straining relationships with friends and family. Here are a few tips that can help you capture the sense of a place and still keep the peace with your significant other.
- Scout before you go. Take a virtual tour of the city or place you’ll be visiting. Identify the areas, and things, that will help you tell the story of your visit. Have a plan for your photography, before you get there.
- Work your photography into the flow of the vacation. Wedge an hour of photography into a shopping trip or the like. Take a stroll, together, through parts of the city you want to photograph, with a shared event, like lunch or dinner at a special place, as the end reward for patience.
- Travel light. I carry one camera body and 2/3 lenses. max. In Charleston, I used my Nikon D4 and 2 lenses to capture all of the images here. The 24-70 f/2.8 is my workhorse for travel photography. For details and tight shots, I use the 70-200 f/2.8. I prefer the VR II version. On this trip, the 70-200 wasn’t with me, so I used a 20 year old 80-200 f/2.8 as my long lens. No VR, but still a great lens. You don’t need the latest and greatest gear to create good images. What matters more is technique.
- Know your gear. This seems like common sense, right. Funny, though, how people (photographers included) often wait until the moment they are about to press the shutter release (or after…) to learn their way around the gear they have in their hands. Know before you go. Your pictures will be better for it.
- Keep it simple. Visual story telling, for travel photography, is about creating a collection of images that convey a sense of place. Trying to capture that singular image that your friends, family (or editor somewhere) will swoon over, will take valuable time away from the rest of the story. Odds are that a completely unscripted, unintended, brilliant scene will come along and you’ll be there to capture it.
- Be conservative, but be good. This is not a political suggestion, even though this is Charleston. No, this is about doing the best you can to capture images quickly and well, then moving on to the next image. If you’re a professional photographer, you know this. Enough said. What I often find, working with amateur photographers in workshops, is a need to overshoot. Dozens of images of the same scene. Control this and your work, and life, will be better for it. Think quality, not quantity.
Now, to Charleston.