Travel Q&A With: Ralph Velasco

Travel Q&A With: Ralph Velasco

This week we meet Ralph Velasco a travel photographer and international tour guide of 6 continents. He has written a guide on travel photography called ‘ESSENCE OF A PLACE: A Travel Photographer’s Guide to Using a Shot List for Capturing Any Destination’. You can find out more here: Essence Of A Place

Valley of Love - L - Cappadocia, Turkey - Copyright 2014 Ralph Velasco

Who or what gave you the travel photography bug?

My first opportunity to travel to Europe, I’m from the U.S., was at the age of 15, when I had a really incredible opportunity to study in Spain for a summer during high school. I just fell in love with Europe in general, but Spain specifically, and also with the whole idea of being immersed in a completely different culture for long periods. At that time, in 1979, I had nothing more than a point and shoot film camera, and I had done quite a bit of travel from that point on, including to Peru, Venezuela, Mexico, and after college a two month trip throughout Europe. Then at 24 I took a round-the-world trip after selling my first restaurant. But what I think took everyone’s photography to the next level was the introduction of digital photography, and getting that immediate feedback, and also being able to do some post-processing, and then taking those images and creating interesting slideshows and presentations with music, video, time-lapse and more. I think it’s really important to share one’s work after returning from some place great.

What made you move from hobbyist to professional?

I had always wanted to find a way to make travel and photography a profession, but I got caught up in the more traditional types of jobs we’re “expected” to have, like following in my parents’ footsteps into the restaurant industry, then selling real estate. At the age of 28 I decided to get my MBA in international business and so enrolled in a school in Mexico City and lived there for a year. Eventually I took a job as the Director of International Marketing for a division of Fortune® 500 company, my only real time working for someone else and not in a more entrepreneurial role (I only lasted 3 years). I think the fact that I had a business education, as well as the experience of running my own businesses, really helped a lot in my current position as a tour leader and owner of my own company.

In order to get back out to Southern California I eventually decided to take a job as a financial adviser, but at the same time I was teaching travel photography at some local institutions like the University of California at Irvine, Saddleback College and Santa Ana College, so when the market crashed in 2008 I had something to fall back on and it forced my hand to do this full time. Although at the time the market’s crash was devastating, in the end it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

Wheat Lady in Profile - Bumthang, Bhutan - Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco-1

Where is your favourite place in the world?

That’s always such a difficult question, and I couldn’t possibly choose just one, but some of the amazing places I’ve had the chance to travel and bring groups to recently have been Cuba (in June I’ll be leading my 11th program there), Morocco, Cambodia, Bhutan, Nepal, Central Europe, and of course I had to bring groups back to Spain, the place that started it all.

I just love to share the amazing places and experiences I find during my scouting trips with small groups of people, and I have the luxury of creating these trips to places I want to see, and they just so happened to be places a lot of other people are interested in as well, so it works out perfectly.

What three things can you not travel without?

Besides the obvious money, passport and camera gear, I’d have to say a bandana, good set of earphones and my iPhone. A bandana is about the most versatile travel accessory you can have, it’s great against the sun, I can use it when there are no paper towels in the bathroom, as a sleep mask of sorts, to wipe away sweat, and about 30 other uses. Earphones are great for blocking out street noise in a hotel, crying babies on airplanes (there’s actually one screaming its lungs out on the flight from Casablanca to Berlin I’m on as I write this), and just relaxing with on a long flight or bus ride, which is usually the only time I can really shut my brain down. And finally, my iPhone provides the music and podcasts I love to listen to, plus the vast variety of travel and photography apps I use constantly, additionally it’s my time keeper, alarm, and of course I’m constantly using my own app, My Shot Lists for Travel, to be sure that I’m creating a well-rounded set of images in each of the places I travel. This idea of telling the complete story of a place by capturing a number of images in a variety of categories is a big part of what I teach in blog posts, my eBooks and when leading my trips.

Lone Tree in Morning Fog on Backroads in BW - Tuscany, Italy - Copyright 2014 Ralph Velasco

Describe your dream trip if money was no object?

When I’m scouting a destination it’s important to make the most efficient use of my time and to see a lot of locations, typically in a short period, so that I can determine which ones I want to include in the trips I lead (it’s usually about a 5 to 1 ratio of what I see to what I include in my trips). And when I’m with a group I’m teaching, handling logistics, trying to figure out how to continually improve the next trip, thinking about and planning trips to other destinations, doing expense reports, and in conjunction with my tour coordinator Rebecca, handling all of the behind-the-scenes administrative stuff that most people don’t think about when it comes to planning and leading these trips.

So, to make a long story longer and to finally answer your question, my dream trip would be to have the luxury of staying in a place for a month at a time and just having the time to absorb the culture, meet and get to know the people, not feel obligated to be shooting all the time, and simply not have any timelines or appointments that I need to adhere to. Even when I have just a few days in between trips I really appreciate it, even though I rarely take a day off.

Who would be your ideal travel photography companion?

It’s always such a luxury to have a well-connected local guide/fixer on any trip, so I’d have to say that would be my ideal travel photography companion. These are the guys who speak the local language and can get me into places I wouldn’t normally have access to. They know all the customs and cultural nuances, as well as where I need to be and when, plus they can help facilitate a trip in the most efficient way, so they’re an invaluable resource. It would also be nice to have someone along to whom I can dictate notes so that I can concentrate on getting the images I need, as well as someone to handle social media and blogging tasks which take up so much time and are unfortunately often put way down on the list of things I have to do…yes, that would be wonderful.

Little Girl Holding Pink Bracelet - Battambang, Cambodia - Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco

What is your top travel tip for our readers?

A smile and a true sense of curiosity have gotten me into so many incredibly memorable situations around the world, so that would be my first tip. I’ve been invited to have lunch in a traditional Bhutanese home; had tea with the local men in a traditional kahve, or coffee house in Turkey; savored dessert in the home of new Venezuelan friends; plus enjoyed innumerable other experiences I never would have had if I didn’t present myself as open, friendly and truly interested in these other people. These encounters will often lead to once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities, as well, but that’s just a bonus.

On that note, one suggestion I give to all my tour participants is to put the camera down. Don’t always feel like you’ve got to be shooting. Be sure to experience the place first hand, not through the viewfinder of a camera. Even as a professional photographer I love the freedom of not having a camera hanging off me all the time, although I do always have my iPhone, just in case the alien ship lands, I want to have some way of capturing it!


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