What Obama’s Photographer Learned About Travel

Marine One descends outside Petra, Jordan, in March 2013.

During his eight years as the chief official White House photographer for President Barack Obama, Pete Souza, the former director of the White House Photo Office, traveled to all 50 states and more than 60 countries. Those trips added up to more than 1,300 flights on Air Force One and nearly 1.5 million miles.

“My job was to basically tag along with the president and visually capture the professional and personal moments in his life,” said Mr. Souza, 62, who was also the official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan.

He shot almost two million images during his tenure with Mr. Obama, and his new book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” released in November, has 315 of the most memorable ones. Besides the tension-filled shot of Mr.Obama and his advisers in the Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden mission, there are several pictures from the president’s travels including an image of him with his family in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro at night in the fog and a picture of him looking at the Great Wall of China.

Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Mr. Souza.

Can you share some of your most memorable trips with President Obama?

Early on in his presidency, we went to Egypt, and on the last day, we went to the pyramids and got to climb inside the Pyramid of Giza. I had never been to Egypt before, and the experience of being inside that pyramid is something I won’t ever forget. Prague was another great trip. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of history and old architecture, and it was also the first time I went there. Also, I traveled with the president to Hawaii every year, which is a fantastic locale. I liked the beach, the sun and the food, especially the sushi and the grilled opah [a variety of fish].

What about standout trips with President Reagan?

I took my first trip to China with him, and going to Beijing and seeing the Great Wall and Forbidden City and walking through Tiananmen Square stick in my mind. They play such a big part in Chinese history and to see them firsthand was special. My trip to Russia with President Reagan had the same sense of historical resonance. I saw Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and we also went to St. Petersburg, where I got to visit the Hermitage Museum.

Outside of your professional travels, are there particular destinations you enjoy photographing?

Rather than specific places, I like taking pictures of anything that’s new and different to me. Although my years in the White House had me traveling the world, my trips weren’t about exploration, and when I’m not working, exploring is what I like to do.

In your opinion, do travelers who want to take photos of their trips need to invest in a camera or is a phone camera good enough?

It depends on what you want to do with those shots. I use the camera on my iPhone all the time, and it’s perfectly acceptable. You can even enlarge the images you take from your camera phone, but if you’re looking to blow up your pictures to a poster size, it’s better to have a digital camera because you’ll get better quality shots. Brands like Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fuji and Leica sell digital cameras in a range of prices.

What’s your advice for taking great travel shots?

You can take pictures of anything, including landscapes, people and historical sites, but most tourists are typically out sightseeing from the late morning to midafternoon. The best light for photographing, however, is during the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower on the horizon. Some night shots, with lights and shadows, can be especially dramatic. I also encourage photographing in bad weather, such as rain or snow, because these settings yield interesting pictures.

How should travelers photograph iconic sites such as the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal?

The tendency is to shoot iconic sites up close, but I think it’s more fun to take pictures of them from a distance. A picture of the Eiffel Tower that incorporates other parts of Paris is more unique than one of the Eiffel Tower alone.

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