I always thought it would be the coolest thing to do lots of travel for a company, and the year I quit my last job I traveled to 9 countries on the company’s dime. Then I thought it’d be cool to travel as a photographer, and this year alone I’ve become a Gold Medallion on Delta (that means I fly a lot!). Traveling is very cool, and I’ve met incredible people around the world (except in Europe–haven’t been there yet, though I know some terrific folks who live there), but it can be difficult, too. There’re lots of things to consider and preparations to make and details to worry about. So, in the vein of the Writing Excuses podcast, here’s an idea to help you beat all the hurry and dash so you can enjoy the journey.

SEA-TAC. I made this at the Seattle-Tacoma airport in Washington, USA. As I recall, this was my first time traveling with a camera! It’s still one of my favorite images. Nikon D90, 50mm f/1.8 lens f/4, 1/250s, ISO 200.

Airports: Overlooked Gems

One of the best things about traveling is visiting airports. Maybe it’s because a country or a city wants to make a great first impression, but airports are often some of the best architecture in the world. The trouble is, only people with tickets get to see it, and they are too busy running to a flight to enjoy it!

Powerfully shaped structures, acres of glass walls, psychedelic tunnels with color and music shows, giant dinosaurs, classic airplanes, millions of dollars worth of art, and miles and miles of train rides are all found in airports. This doesn’t even touch on the foods! In most airports, many of the restaurants are local favorites with a second branch in the airport, so you can have a real taste of the flavor of a town right in the airport. Again, I suspect it’s a shameless attempt to show you what you’re missing in town and lure you to make a stop in the city. Airports are really gems of entertainment with beauty and color and variety as great as all the minerals in the world.

RUH. I made this one in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia a few years ago. Nikon D7000, 50mm f/1.4 D lens, f/4, 1/200s, ISO 200.

My Advice

So here’s my advice: plan some time to enjoy airports as you travel. When booking your flights, look at the layover times between flights. If one flight allows you barely enough time to make it to the next plane out of breath, instead take the flight that gives you an extra hour or two to walk around. When you go to the airport, leave a little bit earlier so you have time before your first flight to make a few frames and enjoy your airport.You’ll have less stress, lower blood pressure, and you won’t have to sit on the plane with the sweat of your run on your back. Best of all, it’ll give you time for a photowalk.

SEA-TAC. Same trip as the one above. This was really my first time in an airport for several years, and my first time ever with a camera. I was going crazy making pictures. The header image is also from that trip. Nikon D90, 50mm f/1.4D lens, f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 200.

The Challenge: If You See Something, Shoot Something


It’s just plain irresponsible to leave all these beautiful places undocumented and hidden from the rest of the world. So here’s my challenge: do some photowalking in airports. As you walk from terminal to terminal, keep your camera handy and make pictures of the beauty around you. Not only the beautiful places, but also the beautiful people. Strike up a conversation with your seat mate in the lobby, and make a portrait. Explaining that you’re practicing your photography and visiting this great place will open just about anyone to an impromptu portrait (here’s a good example from my recent trip).

SEA-TAC. You’ve got to be ready to make a picture–it won’t due to slow the line getting on the plane by fumbling with your camera, but you can count on a delay at the door with enough time to make a picture if you’re ready. Panasonic GH4, Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 200.

Now, let’s take the pictures we make and share them. When you post on twitter or Facebook or G+ or wherever, use the hashtag #airportphotowalk. This becomes a searchable term which will bring up everyone else’s pictures from their airport photowalks, too. What fun it will be to see all the airports in the world!

ATL. As I was leaving Atlanta, I asked the captain if he’d mind if I made a picture. Panasonic GH4, Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, f/8, 1/160s, ISO 500. Did I need ISO 500? no, but I did need to know that I’d have a fast enough shutter speed so that I could brighten or darken a little without messing around; you’ve gotta go fast when you’re standing in the aisle with people trying to board the plane behind you. At 500, I turned my thumb wheel until the shutter speed made the picture the right brightness (I can’t stress enough the benefits of the electronic viewfinder!).

Be Wise & Be Polite

In America, there’s generally no problem making pictures in the airport, and I’ve not had any trouble elsewhere in the world. But you must be wise: if there’s a sign that says no photography, then don’t make pictures. Security lines and customs check points are examples of places where pictures should not be made. Don’t be sneaky, and don’t look sneaky or you will draw attention from security guards, and that’s troublesome. If you think you should ask someone’s permission, do it. If you’re shy of using your bigger camera, use your phone camera and share those pictures with us. This is about sharing beautiful places and interesting views and interactions, and that’s good for everyone. Be wise, and don’t be sneaky.

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I was once shooting a time lapse in Salt Lake City Airport from a table top in a hallway with my camera pointed outside to where the planes were moving in and out of gates. This was a big camera–D800 with 14-24mm behemoth lens on the front. A TSA official was walking by and stopped and asked me what I was making pictures of. I said was making a time lapse video of all the movement in the gate area, and asked if he’d like to see another such video I made a different time. He liked seeing what I’d done, and I asked if making pictures here between flights was a problem, and he said, “No not at all, I just like to check.” He was a good example of the slogan the TSA has, “If you see something, say something.” He saw me doing something out of the ordinary, so he asked me about it. Well, I’ve got my own slogan: If you see something (with great light on it), shoot something (in that great light).

ORD. Leaving Chicago, heading to Atlanta (see above image). In this one, my settings were not optimal, but I made due and made sure to be ready for the next flight (again, see image above). Panasonic GH4 Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, f/6.3, 1/13s, ISO 200. Why use such small apertures when I have f/1.8 available? Because there’re great details to be seen here, and it wouldn’t make sense to put one person a little out of focus. This is an environmental portrait, and the environment needs to be discernible.

Which leads to the point about being polite. In some places and cultures, it’s not proper to make pictures of people without permission. You should know this when you visit. The only time I’ve ever been ashamed as an adult was when I snuck a picture of a person in a culture that didn’t allow that sort of thing, and I got caught. I shamed myself by being sneaky, and worse still, I shamed my friend who was showing me around. Don’t be sneaky with pictures–that’s what I call taking pictures. If you see someone standing in great light, walk up and say, “Gosh, there’s some great light falling on you right now, would you mind if I practiced making a picture of it?” I said exactly that to my new friend, Ray, when I was traveling home from Photoshop World the other day.

Make the most of your travel by enjoying the journey. Leave your excuses for not making pictures at home, and make an airport photowalk a part of your next trip. I promise you’ll enjoy your travel more and have a richer experience if you do.

ORD. Don’t forget to keep the camera handy in your seat–you never know when you’ll get a really clear window to shoot through. Panasonic GH4, Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 200.