A Washington, DC photographer’s view of Charleston, SC, in an ongoing series about travel and travel photography. In a recent survey by Travel & Leisure Magazine, Charleston was ranked the #1 city to visit in the United States and #2 in the world.
LIFESTYLE & TRAVEL: CHARLESTON, SC
This was supposed to be Barcelona.
Instead, we are sitting on a rock hard wooden plank bench in the front of a weather beaten covered wagon, being pulled by two aging mules through the streets of this 350 year old southern city in North America. Yes, mules. From our smiling rotund tour guide, we learn that mules are clearly best for this sort of thing. Much better than horses. Less mercurial. More cooperative. Easier to manage. Who knew.
As we start the 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 independent thinker, statesman of the south and champion of free thought Strom Thurmond. Terrie and I trade concerned glances. I look at my watch. We are 10 minutes in. This tour will be two hours. This is going to be a very long ride. The oppressive heat and humidity of high summer in the deep south engulfs us. We roll on, through the storied historic city of Charleston, South Carolina.
Back to Barcelona.
We had planned this trip to start there. We would fly into El Prat Airport, in Spain, spend a few wonderful days in Barcelona, then hire a car and drive through scenic northwestern Spain to Andorra, where we would luxuriate. From Andorra, we would work our way 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 dujour. It was settled. Done. Reservations had been made. Only the plane tickets were left to buy. Then, at the last minute an unexpected assignment forced us to create a new itinerary, stateside.
Making travel plans is not always easy work, if you’re not taveling alone. Paris and Barcleona had been easy for us to agree on. Where to go in North America would not be so easy.
I lobbied for the north. Quebec City had been wonderful. We fell in love with the place and vowed to return, soon. That was nearly 10 years ago. My vote was Quebec. No contest. Quebec City with a Montreal chaser. Let’s book the flight. Terrie loved Quebec, right? Yes, she did, but not for this trip. This time, she said, we were going south, to the Carolinas. Happy wife, happy life, I recall someone saying.
A trip south would be delightful, she said. 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. And how pleasantly surprised was I.
Consistently rated as one of the 10 Best Cities to visit in the US, Charleston knows how to take care of its visitors.
‘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 now, I wish we had planned more time in Charleston. As it was, this was the fourth stop on our Southern Tour, following 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 our trip. 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 the history 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 beautiful, photogenic city, as you can see. Lots of good eye candy there. I was drawn to the French Quarter on this trip. My interest in architecture and history led me there. The French Quarter, alone, could keep a traveling photographer busy for days. I had an hour and a half, over two days. 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 food for fuel, then head out again after dark. Depending on the place and the assignment, that could go on for days or weeks.
Like most vacations, I was not alone. I shot this more like a tourist 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 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 that sense of a place and still keep the peace with your significant other.
- Scout before you go. Search online for virtual tours and photo guides of your destination. Identify the areas, places and things that will help you tell the story of your visit. Have a plan for your photography, before you arrive.
- 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. Include 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 D Series pro body and 2 lenses to capture the images shown here. The 24-70 f/2.8 is my workhorse for travel photography. It is the best ‘story telling’ lens I own. For details and tight shots, I use the 70-200 f/2.8. On this trip, my current model of the 70-200 was in the shop for repair so I used my trusted, 20 year old, 80-200 f/2.8 AFS in its place. No VR, but still a great lens. You don’t need the latest and greatest gear to create good images. What you do need is good technique and a good eye for choosing subjects.
- 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 is about creating a collection of images that convey a sense of the city, town or place you are visiting. Trying to capture images 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 eventually come along and you’ll be there to capture it. So, be patient. Look for icons and symbols of your setting or location that will resonate with your viewers and connect them to your story.
- 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. But working with amateur photographers in workshops and teaching sessions, I often see them overshoot. Dozens of images of the same scene, hoping that at least one of them is a keeper. Control this and your work, and your life, will be better for it. Think quality, not quantity.
- Practice, practice, practce. Rinse and repeat.
Neil offers private photography tours and workshops , year round, in the beautiful city of Washington, DC. Contact Neil to arrange a private session. To see more of Neils photography, visit his site here.
Now, to Charleston.