Flying Squirrel

Mindful photography



With spring break weeks away and summer travels just around the corner, it’s time to make your vacation photography shot list.

Wait, what?

Spring break and summer mean vacation time. What’s this about a shot list?

Well, when we’re on vacation, we take pictures. Lots of them. But what kind of pictures? Hopefully the kind you’re happy with; though, speaking personally, that’s not always the case.

Why is this? It’s not that our friends and families aren’t photoworthy. Far from it. More likely, it’s that we aren’t taking pictures in a thoughtful way. We’re not practicing mindful photography.

I’d never thought of this concept until a few weeks ago when I was at the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Show. That’s where I met Ralph Velasco. USA Today’s rates Ralph as a Top 10 Travel Photography Blogger.

Ralph spoke about the concept of using a shot list for travel photography.

The general idea is to prepare, in advance, a list of photographic categories you will capture. As you go about your vacation, you’ll take pictures from each of these categories, resulting in a more deliberately curated photo library of your trip.

What’s the alternative? The usual sort of pictures we take on vacation.

‘Oh, look, it’s the beach!’ And there’s another shot of the beach. And then, ‘Oh, look! A selfie on the beach.’ Or maybe, ‘Wow, look at the Eiffel Tower! . . . And there it is again! It’s so tall!’

Instead, imagine if you began your trip with a photography “game plan” of sorts.

Ralph has a free iOS app (as well as at in which he shares a list of 52 different photographic categories, along with suggestions of what to look for and examples from his own travels.

A few of his categories: agriculture, architecture, art, culture and customers, fashion and style, flora, humor, landmarks, markets, neighborhoods, people and recreation. (He could also, of course, include “hometown newspaper” as a picture category.)

What I like about these groupings is that they prompt me to look at my travel surroundings in new ways, to see things I might have missed before. For example, Ralph offers this suggestion in the recreation category: “Capture scenes of leisure activities to show what keeps the people engaged in their free time.”

Accompanying this tip, he shares a picture of someone playing a domino tile game in Turkey. It’s not a shot of the person’s face, just their tile board.

If I returned home with this picture and I showed it to friends, it might prompt a conversation about what it’s like to live in Turkey. It’s a photo that’s more than just a document of tourist sights, which, honestly, anyone can take.

This photo gives you the feeling of really being in the destination.

In the markets category, Ralph suggests you “seek opportunities to document the action and myriad people at the local market, as well as the colorful and often exotic displays you’re sure to encounter.”

His example for this category is a photo of a vegetable stand in Casablanca. There are no people in the picture. It’s not the photographer standing in front of the stand. The subject is just the vegetables.

And Ralph describes the fashion and style category as “the manner in which its citizens dress, whether in traditional outfits, uniforms, hats or other articles of clothing, which can provide a look into what’s important to, or typical of, a culture.”

That says it all. Pictures that have thought behind them convey more than the usual things.

Yes, by all means, take dozens of pictures of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Great Wall. But also take the time to mindfully look around your destination for the unexpected sights. The elderly Czech couple playing chess, the row of freshly baked French baguettes or the costume worn by the Venetian gondolier.

These are the pictures you’ll return to again and again, the ones that will draw you back into that trip of a lifetime. And it all starts with a simple list.

So the next time you’re in Paris, pull out your camera and your list, and say, “Fromage!”

Thor Challgren is a travel consultant who lives in Thousand Oaks. He can be reached at or (805) 499-8784. Email questions to

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