Snap Judgment

For a great vacation photos, avoid the tourist spots and get the real picture from the cover

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It was their honeymoon: The sun-splashed scenery and once-in-a-lifetime moments cried out for artistic documentation ... or at least some form of documentation.

That's why Donald Oakjones happened to buy his first camera - a Konica Autoreflex T with a 50 mm lens - shortly after he and his bride arrived in the Dutch West Indies. Ever since, June of 1970 has stood out as the month he became a husband and a photographer.

One photo taken from their hotel room in Curacao records his early success at composition. It's of a pontoon bridge with an exotic background of island houses painted in rainbow colors. He's also fond of his images of the island's oil refineries, their gas flames burning high.

And the photos of his wife, Jane? There were some, he says, but they don't spring to mind.

Oakjones took 480 photos on that trip. Last year when the Oakjoneses vacationed in Hawaii, the retired city police officer took 1,600 pictures. He used a Nikon D100 and even centscm+RDcknox:broughttook a portable drive to store the digital images.

"I look at travel photography as a diary of my vacation," he says. "Anything you take is a memory."

Thanks to digital technology, you can now have more memories than ever ... and more chances to make them artful, says Jay Van Rensselaer, a photography instructor and director of the Homewood Photo Labs at Johns Hopkins University.

For the past several years, Van Rensselaer has taken time to build a collection of haunting images of the Middle East while on assignment to document Hopkins archaeological work in Egypt and Syria. Along with earlier photographs from trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, he has captured the personality of vanishing tribal traditions and contemplated the stirring vastness of mountains and deserts. Sometimes he explores an unexpected angle, sometimes he adopts a painterly approach. He's adept at preserving the instant when a tourist-wary native drops his guard.

Take, for instance, his photograph of a father and son in a village in north Pakistan.

"My friend and I got to talking with the father," Van Rensselaer says. "The kid was incredibly shy. They told us that the reason they shave their heads over there is because of lice - and they are very self-conscious about it. The kid was wearing a baseball cap.

"When his father took it off, I took off my hat, too. And I'm bald!"

Instantly, the boy grinned - the unforgettable expression Van Rensselaer managed to catch.

"We had spent half an hour there talking and chatting with those people," he says. "That's what allowed that picture to happen."

He often leaves his camera behind when he explores a new area, discovering more about the characters and attitude of a place without the means to simply record them. Sometimes, though, he'll take a digital point-and-shoot "notebook" to jot down places and images he may want to revisit.

Conventional tourist spots are unlikely to yield much gold, he says.

"Tour groups will take you to Point A to photograph the beautiful view you've already seen in the book and on the postcard. Now you're supposed to take the picture. But what's the point?

"When you're with a group, make a break. Get off that beaten path, explore beyond the main streets, the predictable beautiful vistas, tourist traps. That's where you'll see the real country ... and the memories you're after."

Many seasoned photographers possess the instincts and patience of hunters - along with a game plan for success.

"I station myself in an interesting place and wait for things to happen," says Baltimore photographer Phyllis Berger. "On my recent trip to Italy, I found this wonderful street corner in Amalfi, right near a fountain. I got up early, went there and waited for the kids to start going to school in their cute blue uniforms. People came out to go to work, opened the windows to hang out laundry. Grandparents were watching kids, there were lots of motor scooters everywhere. It was wonderful! I knew the action would come to me, and that's what happened."

Van Rensselaer suggests using a thematic approach.

"Tell a story through the people of a region. Or tell it through the eyes of your kids - kids can go up to people and engage them in a way that a lot of adults can't," he says.

Before he leaves on a trip, he always reviews photos from his last one.

"Go through your albums and say, `That worked, that's boring, that's boring, that worked!' Then ask, why does it work? Is it the composition? The angle I shot? The juxtaposition of elements? The cropping?"

Donald Oakjones' favorite trip photo is now 30 years old. It's a portrait of his oldest son, then 2, sitting alone on a sand dune near their vacation home in Bethany Beach, Del.

He likes how the boy is looking away from the camera, how the clump of grass in the foreground blurs, how the late afternoon side-lighting seems almost perfect.

You could also say that, like the best photographs, this one continues to grow on him.


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