On The Road: Moscow Meanderings
Travel Photography: Moscow
It's not every border crossing that begins by waking up at dawn to the sound of an elderly Australian tourist in the next rail compartment being dragged off the train because his visa is three days out of date, but the Latvians are quite sensitive to that kind of thing, especially when you're coming from Russia. The knock on our door a few moments later gave rise to involuntary twinges of anxiety, but after a cursory examination of our passports we were stamped in without problem. A few minutes later, Train No.1, the Moscow-Riga Express, departed, leaving the hapless tourist and his wife languishing in the Latvian border post cells.
Although the couple in question rejoined our party (at considerable expense) two days later, the experience is a salutary reminder not to rely on others to check visa dates (even if they should have, like the tour guide of that group) but to do it yourself. And make sure you don't get the visas too early so you've got a comfortable buffer in case you're delayed; many have to be used within three months.
Moscow has a lot of stuff worth photographing. The Kremlin with its immense red brick wall and twenty towers is, of course, impressive, and inside the State Armoury you can see, and photograph (with flash if you want), the amazing Imperial collection, a huge range of fascinating objects which includes royal thrones and coaches, Fabergé eggs, Catherine the Great's Coronation dress and the Crown of Monomakh, used at coronations from the 14th century to 1682.
Photographing for our travel website, Travel Signposts, does not demand the file size necessary for images accompanying magazine features, but I'm still currently using my D1X (soon to be D2X) on the road to cover as many usage options as possible.
I have radically cut down my lens count from my earlier travel journalist days, though.
Whereas I used to carry up to 9 lenses - fisheye, 15, 20, 24, 35 (f1.4), 55 micro, 80 (f1.4), 80-200, 300) now I use a 17-35 AFS and a 28-200 AF (equivalent to approximately 25-52 and 42-300 in the old money). And occasionally an 80-400 VR (equivalent to 120-600) when I know I'll need it. I've also been carrying an old 995 Coolpix with a fisheye attachment for the occasional very wide-angle, usually interiors (and it's small!). I suppose sooner or later I'll have to shell out for a 12-24 AFS or equivalent, but I'm procrastinating: new lenses seem to come out all the time.
The much-vaunted Metro system really does have many stations richly decorated with marble, glittering chandeliers and works of art, especially mosaics, but time has taken its toll, and these days it's a bit faded, a little dusty, and the light is poor – you'll need a steady hand. In a way, though, the unflattering, dim illumination adds a more realistic feeling to photographs taken on the run in the wide concourses and long escalators. So often I feel that turns out to be the case: the image is technically nothing special or even poor, but it does a great job of conveying exactly what it was like to be there.
Why are we photographing, anyway?
And that really, is the point. Why are we taking the photographs in the first place? When I did a lot of freelance travel journalism (in easier days than today), I always tried to tell a story with my shots, as only in rare cases was an image used as a standalone. Taken separately, many of the individual photos conveyed only a very partial impression of the place or event I was covering, but seen together they melded into a coherent, multi-facetted expression of my experience, which hopefully was transmitted to the reader.
At least, that was the theory. In practice, many magazine art directors seemed to have different ideas!
Emphasis on individual shots
Here in Better Photography and in numerous other photo magazines, most of our emphasis seems to be placed on individual shots, and the same goes for photo competitions. To some degree this is inevitable, as viewing and analysing an image in isolation is easier both to organize and appreciate than the hugely variable permutations of a freely specified "assembly" of photographs. It is also an inheritance from the gallery tradition of painting, where by and large the single canvas formed the whole of the artwork.
Although the single, stunning standalone image clearly has its place in travel photography, it seems to me that whether we're shooting professionally or to produce a personal memento of our experiences (or both), we would be better served by adopting a more "filmic" approach. By this I mean concentrating less on that single, unique shot and more on generating a pattern of images that together capture our personal response to the event or place we're experiencing. It's rather like a movie director will take a master shot and then shoot the angles, finally editing them all together to produce a seamless whole.
I feel that recently I have myself failed to do this. Over the last few years I have been covering too many destinations with far too little time. Although this has genuinely mirrored the experience of the regular tourist, it has led to my taking too many "establishing" images and neglecting the details. With little time, I have concentrated on getting the master shot at the expense of the angles, and the result has been, at least to me, a more one-dimensional record of my travels.
Freedom from the tyranny of 36 frames!
The advent of digital photography has freed us from the tyranny of 36 frames and little boxes that take up a lot of room and cost money (we now have other problems, but that's for another day). For a pro, film may have been "the cheapest thing in the bag", but for many amateurs it was an expensive resource to be husbanded and only expended with deliberation. Nowadays, with the ability to delete all your failures rather than throwing them (and your money) in the waste bin, all of us can afford to shoot with more risk and to shoot more often; it's the perfect opportunity to adopt the approach I advocate above.
However, there is one caveat to shooting more: there is more to edit! I've found myself hoisted by my own petard here. When we started the Travel Signposts website, I completely underestimated the sheer amount of time it would take to get even a quickly processed image ready to be put online, let alone carefully edit many thousands of photographs into coherent presentations. Given the idea behind the site - to show people what places were really like to help them to take more informed decisions about where they wanted to go - we decided to get a broad selection of images up first and edit more carefully later; trouble is, we're still hard at work today and expect to be for quite a while, as new material is continually being generated…
Finally, back to the Riga Express: if you get the chance, book a sleeper on this overnight train to the Latvian capital, it's an experience! The individual two person compartments are not particularly luxurious, but they have a certain character. Every carriage has its own attendant, hidden away in their little cubby-holes where they always seem to be brewing up tea. Dinner is served in your own compartment with proper linen and tableware – not haute cuisine but surprisingly palatable – and the bedding is comfortable enough.
Just make sure your visa is in order…
From my article in Better Photography Magazine, 2006.