Photo Sunflowers at Sunset 1

Local Traveler: Finding Photo Ops

Traveling is a mindset. It is not defined by how far we go. I can travel the distance of one mile or a thousand miles to get good travel photos. We often think of traveling as part of a long trip, but as long as we’re open to the experience, travel photography can happen just a few miles from home.

Finding photo opportunities in local area should be easy since we know the area well, but it’s actually more difficult than researching a completely new place. We drive by landmarks so frequently that they no longer have any special meaning to us and we take for granted local events thinking we’ll stop by next year. Simply, we become blinded to our environment through over exposure.

The trick to being a local travel photographer is to think – and see – like a travel photographer even when at home.

I call it “playing tourist”.

This article is about finding good travel photo opportunities everyday.

Photo Sunflowers at Sunset 1
Sunflowers out at the Riverlands near Alton, Illinois. Photographers in my area keep track of the sunflower fields in the area. We just can’t resist!

Hang where the Tourists Hang

To capture the travel mindset, hang where the tourists hang. Visit tourist offices for your city and any neighboring cities. Find out what the tourists do when they come to town – and follow them!

Don’t worry if the tourist destination doesn’t at first seem that exciting. Remember, through familiarity you’ve developed a kind of immunity to the excitement that usually accompanies these sorts of trips. You may even be heading for a destination that would normally not attract you when far from home. It’s not just about the destination, it’s about getting out of our normal routines and going places that we don’t normally go.

Remember to really look around during the journey. It’s not just the destination that’s important, it’s the journey to and from the destination. These trips will likely take you to different parts of the city – so explore! I’ve seen more of my local city in 2 years as a travel photographer than I did in the 20 years before that.

I’ve even been known to take walking tours designed for tourists that walk the same streets I do in the city, but I somehow see the streets differently when I’m with a group of other tourists.

Photo Wheel on City
The City Museum is a favorite stop in St. Louis, Missouri. In the summer, the rooftop is open. 10 stories up in the city and then get on a ferris wheel!

When you arrive at the tourist spot, look with a tourist’s eye. When I travel, I like to experience new things, meet new people, and learn a thing or two along the way. I try to do the same things locally that I’d do when far away from home. I look for new experiences, I try to meet new people and learn a thing or two about my local area.

I’m continually surprised at the places that I’ve never been to just a few miles from home. Even after doing a 365 project (one photo a day for a year) and looking for these local photo ops every day, I still have a long list of places in St. Louis that I haven’t yet been to (I’m looking at YOU, National Blues Museum!)

Return Trips

Because I live locally, I have one advantage over the other tourists – I can keep coming back to that same place or event again and again. When I travel long distances, I usually have to move on after a couple of days and can rarely return to a place for a second photoshoot. Returning means that I can explore the place in depth.

My local landmark is the Gateway Arch. Seriously, everyone seems to stop by the Arch at some point in their life to snap a photo. There are tons of them out there! I fly passed the Arch in my car at least a couple of times a week, but until I started seriously taking travel photos, I only really visited the Arch when I had family or friends in town.

Unlike tourists who come to town for a day or two, I have the advantage of being able to visit the Arch multiple times in all sorts of lighting and weather conditions. In the photo below, I had both the morning sun and fog. I can try for different angles or visit when there is a special event.

Photo Arch Gleaming City
The Gateway Arch is the most obvious tourist attraction in St. Louis. It’s a challenge to find a new angle on this much-photographed landmark. On this morning, the Gateway Arch gleams in the foggy morning sun St. Louis, Missouri.

Local Events

To find local events, I sign up for electronic updates, often available through local newspaper website or city home pages. Photography meet-up or Facebook groups are also a great source of information about local events. I also follow historical and hiking meet-up groups since they tend to like to go to some interesting places as well – I’m not the only one bringing a camera along for the ride!

Keep your eye open for festivals, parades, concerts, etc. These all provide interesting photographic opportunities. Even small events and venues can be a great source of inspiration and take me all over the city. I’d never heard of Lanternfest, which takes place south of St. Louis, until I started getting updates on Facebook from my photography friends. It’s the most amazing event of the year!

Photo Lanternfest
I’d never heard of Lanternfest in St. Louis until I started getting updates from photography friends. It’s the most amazing event of the year! Child ready to loose a lantern.
Sony A7II 34mm 1/125@4.0 ISO8000

Look at a Map

We often think that we know our local area well, but we generally only know the places that we know — there may be many local areas that are still yet to be explored. Looking at a google map, I could see park areas, lakes, and even points of interest that I didn’t know were there. Sometimes, they were just around the corner from places that I frequented.

For 20 years, I’d zoom over the Mississippi River at least a few times a week, but never really stopped and looked at the river until I started photographing seriously. However, when I tried to photograph along the river, I found my way blocked – mostly by industry. For a while, it seemed to me that there was no way to actually get down to the river.

To find good spots, I pulled up google maps and took a look. I ended up finding a few back roads that led me to secluded spots along the river with great photographic opportunities. When roads failed, I found a bike trail – no problem! I love to ride!

This captures the sense of adventure that often comes with traveling. I found a new place – a place that very few people in my area know about. There’s only one place to get this view of St. Louis and it’s not easy to find. By looking at a map, I found the one route that would get me this photo.

Photo STL Cityscape
There’s only one place to get this view in St. Louis and it’s not easy to find. By looking at a map, I found the one route that would get me this photo.

Take Random Routes

We get into habits in our daily lives. We take the same roads, eat at the same restaurants, do the same things every day. Taking random routes to work or when running errands around town shook me out of my blinded mindset. I looked at my city differently and stumbled across places that I didn’t know were there. Sometimes I had time to stop and explore, others times I made a note of and came back later. I’ve had some great experiences and found great photo opportunities just around the corner.

I discovered a barn in Faust Park down a random road in a city park in St. Louis. Around the back, is a path that leads to Thornhill farm, a 19th century living farm – another place I didn’t know about! And if I get bored – there’s a butterfly house in the park.

Photo Barn at Faust Park
I love barns and drive miles to find a photogenic one, but this little-known barn was rolled up in a larger park and sits in the middle of St. Louis in Faust Park.
Sony A7II 70mm 1/10@f16 ISO100

Traveling is a mindset. I don’t have to board a plane or drive for hours. I can travel on my lunch break or on a weekend and experience my local area as a traveler – taking travel photos along the way.


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