Regardless of whether you are a seasoned professional, an avid amateur, or you just got your first camera last week, an excellent way to become a better photographer is to take photo-walks. Walking, of and by itself: exploring a new city, a faraway island, a familiar old trail or a nearby neighborhood is one of life’s great pleasures with or without a camera. But this story is about photo walks and one walk in particular I took with my friend, the inimitable Sebastian John, one hot day over a year ago in Mumbai, India. It was my last long walk in that city I called home for two years and similar to the first long walk I took by myself in Mumbai during the monsoon not long after we arrived. It was not quite as long as that watery hike, because Sebastian and I took our foray into Mumbai’s mad streets in the sweltering days just before the monsoon broke. The heat in that time of year is very nearly hallucinatory. The temperature, combined with the crowds, humidity, smoke and noise, can only be completely appreciated by someone who has been there. Neither a thousand words nor a thousand photos can describe the reality of the streets of Mumbai.
Taking a walk, exploring the world with camera in hand and a fellow photographer, is one very easy, very inexpensive way to improve your skill as well as to capture new images for your portfolio, exhibition, or book. It is walking, but it is walking with a purpose. Photography is usually a solitary game. In the end, it is always just you and your finger on the shutter release but it is good to expand your point of view, see what perspectives and paths another photographer takes, explore the world with someone else and have time to talk about the craft and life and projects in the contemplative state that walking out in the world engenders.
Such a walk can have any form you desire it to have. You can decide to actively shoot the same subject or determine not to shoot the same subject at all. One of you might decide to only take details and the other sweeping landscapes. It is a good opportunity to try out a new camera/lens/film combination in a situation with no pressure to produce. I wouldn’t recommend shooting your next press conference with only a 15mm ultra-wide or a Lensbaby or a pinhole body cap but a photo-walk is a perfect environment to concentrate on learning a new piece of gear. You can self-publish a collaborative book of your adventures on foot or, while walking the streets of Columbus, Ohio plot out an expedition to the Himalayas in search of yeti or a camel trek across Rajasthan. You don’t need any rules or plans whatsoever. At the end of the walk you can find a coffee shop or a pub and sit and talk about the day, go through your photos, show each other your favorite images, and perhaps solve some of life’s other mysteries.
What I have always found most interesting after a walk is the physical evidence of the fact that the most essential piece of photo gear is the photographer’s eye and mind. It is always fun and instructive to talk about gear, but in the end all one really needs is a decent camera and a good lens. If you give two photographers identical equipment they will still do very different things with it. I remember one walk I took with Jef back in Columbus, Ohio. We had nearly identical Nikon gear and took extraordinarily different images. Even when we took pictures of the same subject with the same lens they were very different.
I was thinking about this subject and about my last days in India when I got a message from Sebastian. We are all in different corners of the world now and after catching up I asked him to send me ten images from that walk. I am going to pick my ten images without first looking at his. I expect there will be some of the same subject shot in a different manner and some might look like we were on an entirely different walk.
“Neither a thousand words nor a thousand photos can describe the reality of the streets of Mumbai.”
But it was the same walk and the only time we were more than 10 or 20 feet apart was at the very end, on Chowpatty Beach, when I wandered a few hundred yards ahead for a brief while. We began our city trek in the late morning. I had my Nikon D800 with a 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor and a 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor in my Domke bag. Sebastian shot everything with a Canon 5D Mk III and a single lens, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8. We spent some time at the Banganga Tank then emerged from Walkeshwar at the very beginning of Marine Drive. On my solo walk during the monsoon I had walked the entire sweeping curve of the bay in the heavy rain, all the way to Nariman Point, but this day had been long enough. The sun was just beginning to go down as the sands of Chowpatty Beach crunched under our feet. Families played in the surf as the light turned from white-hot to cool-grey to night. We hailed one of Mumbai’s famous yellow cabs. In the early evening, traffic was relatively light. In 20 minutes we covered what had taken a few hours on foot. I said goodbye to Sebastian and suspected that I had just taken my last photo walk through the streets of Mumbai. It was good to have finished, to have ended where I had begun, on the shore of the Arabian Sea with Bombay to my back. FP