For Valencia photographer Tono Balaguer, there’s no such thing as a shortcut. Beautiful pictures take time and hard work, and he’s gone to great lengths for the perfect shot. He travels by bicycle frequently, covering as many as twenty-five to eighty miles per day in all sorts of weather conditions, through the mountains and over the historic cobblestone streets.
The extra effort has proven worthwhile. Tono has found hidden, tucked-away spots over the course of many hours on his bike– locations he would have missed if he’d been driving in a car. He’s often been on the road, spotted something, removed one foot from the bike, and caught it just in time. “The famous destinations have probably been photographed by millions of people at all hours of the day,” he writes, “So I focus on minor, interesting details that show a new side of a familiar area.”
Tono also has a background in architecture and interior design. His understanding of form and color informs his photography; he knows when and where to stand, and he knows exactly what kind of light will bring a building to life. But his connection to architecture runs deeper than pure aesthetics; every place he’s photographed has a unique heritage and history, and through the buildings and the streets, Tono finds stories left behind by generations that came before us. He describes architecture as “a mirror of their dreams.”
“Spain is a place where history happened and left proof in stone,” the artist tells us. While photographers in North America and Asia have glass, steel, and skyscrapers, he has the historical pilgrimage routes of Santiago de Compostela, site of the legendary tomb of Saint James the Great. He’s seen the sunset over magnificent landscapes other people have overlooked, and he’s tasted local foods found off the beaten path.
“Funny stories happen daily,” the photographer admits, “Imagine sleeping in the hostels with a different group of people every night. There are people from all over the world, and I’m trying to speak to them in Italian, French, English, Catalan, and Spanish.” He’s tried to sleep while surrounded by pilgrims singing religious songs late into the night, and he’s certain he’s slept on a few pillows that hadn’t been washed in quite a long time.
Throughout his journeys, Tono has seen it all. Once, he even rode alongside an elderly man who had been biking for five years straight. The old man had a mysterious illness, and he said the exercise relieved the pain in his bones. “I have been the translator in a medical emergency,” the artist adds, “I’ve crossed a broken Roman stone bridge.”
We asked the photographer to share some of his pictures and the stories behind them. Tono has carved out a niche for himself in Spain, and he agreed to share some professional tips about how to photograph your own hometown in an original way. Tono Balaguer is currently working on a book project. Visit his website to stay up-to-date.
“I didn’t have a tripod with me, so I had to lie on the floor and set the camera on my little bike handlebar bag. The floor was muddy and wet, and it was a little bit of a mess, but the perspective with the cobblestone emphasizes the importance of the pilgrim’s journey.”
“This is a local beach in Spain. I focused on the lifeguard tower and the palm tree for more of a Californian sunset feeling.”
Light is everything. It is the most unexpected variable that you have to deal with. It can either amaze you or give you the blues. Light is generous, unfaithful, tricky. We are light catchers, and we have to do our best to catch it.
Do not waste much time thinking about your gear- just be sure your lens is the right one. A good lens gives you freedom when the light is almost impossible to work with. Dynamic range is the second thing to look for when choosing your gear– more important than megapixels. And get the biggest sensor within your budget. You must learn all the technical elements so well that you can then forget about them and enjoy the freedom of playing with light.
“This is a simple image of Albarracín, one of the most beautiful villages. The way the daylight draws shadows on the facades adds rhythm and gives life to the traditional, monochromatic medieval houses.”
“This image is from a location on the Balearic Islands, an area busy with hotels and quickly-built houses meant to host as many tourists as possible. I turned to the sea because this is what potential buyers dream of seeing when they book a trip here.”
Gather enough information about your destinations to avoid repeating the same photos you see over and over again. Find a personal way to express yourself. Copying others is a bad way to begin. Photography is a language, and images that speak for themselves are much more inspirational than those that have no story to tell.
“After every bike trip, I go back to the studio and try to reproduce the most exciting recipes from the journey. I always take the time to ask the chef for a couple of cooking tips. In the case of Galician Octopus, you have to hang it from your hands, submerge it in boiling water several times, and take it out of the pan before leaving it to boil for a while. This is my own recreation.”
“Like many places in Menorca, it seems like I could stay in this place forever. The amazing Mediterranean architecture, environment, landscapes… I love this island.”
“The story behind this photo might be more interesting than the image itself. The bus carrying myself, my bike, and my gear arrived fifteen minutes before the sunset. I screwed my pedals on, attached my gear and my bags to the bike, and rode like crazy to the Seville bridge. I got there thirty seconds before the sun went down.”
Explore your own area before trying to tell the story of a faraway place. It’s all about observing and having enough time to return to the same place as many times as you need to.
“I love the light at sunset, but sometimes, you reach your destination, and the sun doesn’t give you a good show. There are very few times when you will not need to do anything more than pressing the shutter. This was simply one of those times, with the pier, the sun, the boat, the mountain, and the reflection– an unusual gift!”
“As photographers, we rarely ever take a look at our own houses. In this case, I went out to feel the coming storm, and I found an interesting contrast of light. After shooting the image, I thought it was not an especially amazing one, but it was truly mine. Everything in the picture I made with my hands: welding the stairs, building the whole room with the windows, from the basement to the roof, from scratch. There are few times we can say, “That’s my work” and “That’s my picture” at the same time.”
Find a vehicle that allows you to see the world at the right speed. Don’t miss things along the way because you’re so set on where you’re going. The middle part of your trip will probably surprise with amazing moments of light. Sometimes, it’ll be generic subjects, like clouds, stones, a track itself, a visitor, a dog, or any local wildlife. These surprises are a gift, but you have to be open to receiving them. Things usually happen when you’re “on the way” somewhere else.
“I spent the night in Pamplona. It was a cloudy evening, and it was also my last chance to get a sunset there. I spent an hour sitting on a bench, certain the sun would come. I swear it came for four seconds, and I stood up and took my shot. The next day, I began my first bike trip from Roncesvalles to Santiago. I was so excited.”
“This is a Castile-style recipe I recreated in the studio. After a hard day of biking, we reached an amazing hostel. It was an old convent subsidized by the town hall with very low rates for certified pilgrims. That night, the owners divided all the pilgrims into five rooms. Oh my God, the guys in our room loved this recipe, and each of them ate a couple of plates! I could not describe the torture for my olfactory senses all night long. The next four nights, my friends and I shared private rooms in hotels instead of pilgrim hostels.”
I prefer to use the bus because I can travel with my bike in the trunk. I pack as little as I can. The photo gear that is the most difficult thing to decide when it comes to packing. It’s a delicate balance; when I take the lightweight gear, I’m more limited when editing, but when I take my full-frame gear, the mountain climbs become hard, and I’m left fighting with myself. I usually bring my full-frame DSLR camera with a soft wide angle pancake lens, a 1” sensor or APS-C sensor camera, and a small tripod.
“I take care and keep my eyes open while traveling. This is a Mediterranean olive harvest.”
The other day, a friend asked me about what app I use to get the colors in my pictures. He was looking at these special, natural light images that took me time and tons of patience to get. In some ways, we are becoming more and more lazy about getting results. We love to shoot and then get a filter app and be done with it in no more than a few seconds. I agree that some filters can fix some deficiencies in certain images, but we cannot spend the rest of our lives thinking that we will find the right filter app to fix all our light issues. It does not work like this. You have to work at it!