When Deciding What to Photograph, Look for a Sign

I’m often asked how, as a travel photographer, I decide what to photograph. The short answer is “everything”. The long answer is that I photograph two kinds of subjects: those that I would love to photograph anyway, like the Eiffel Tower, and those that I believe are necessary to have a rounded collection of a particular subject, like a sign pointing to the Eiffel Tower. Because I enjoy the process of taking pictures—finding a subject, choosing a lens, studying different compositions, and so on—I have fun photographing even the “required” subjects. The perfect image, though, is one that incorporates both of my guidelines.

Despite my guidelines it is still sometimes difficult to narrow my choices and focus on a subject and image I’m happy with. This often happens in situations when the subject is colorful and exciting but chaotic, making it hard for me to organize it visually. Once in a while, however, when you are overwhelmed with the possibilities, you see a sign and everything suddenly becomes clear. Such was the case last June when I covered Denver’s Chalk Art Festival.

Held every summer, the Denver Chalk Art Festival celebrates street painting, which originated back in 16th Century Italy when artists used the streets as their canvas. In addition to the artists, Denver’s festival features live music, a kid’s area, food vendors, and great people watching (and photographing). The free event attracts large crowds, so I went early to avoid them and photograph the artist’s in relative peace.

After an hour at the event, however, it became very difficult to move around, let alone get close up shots of the artists at work. I tried finding a high vantage point without luck, then walked around the event’s perimeter looking for an opening to some of the artists. Again no luck. Then I saw the sign. Not one from heaven, but from Earth. Actually, it was a sign on the ground (less romantic but more effective).

 Artist working on chalk art piece, Chalk Art Festival, Larimer Square, Denver, Colorado

 "Stand here for photograph" sign, Chalk Art Festival, Larimer Square, Denver, Colorado

One of the featured artists was working on a portrait of a beautiful woman, and a few feet from her was a graphic “stand here to take a picture” sign, complete with an outline of a pair of shoes as a visual aid of where to plant your feet. A couple of other attendees were in line, so I waited a moment until my turn came. I felt a little silly taking such a predictable picture, but I also had fun, and left with both a smile and a picture.

Now get out and shoot something.