Just over ten years ago, my younger, more naive Self stood at passport control waiting to board my flight to Australia. I was actually going out to look at a music production course and just happened to make a last minute impulse decision to buy a ‘big’ camera (Canon 350d) to take some nice holiday snaps with. I was completely unaware just how much that trip would change my life as it was then that I found two new passions that totally engulfed me. Travel and photography.
I spent the next few years trying to teach myself everything and anything about photography whilst simultaneously marking out places on a map I’d like to visit. I was totally hooked.
Looking back over the past 10 years now, after visiting 61 countries, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. It certainly hasn’t been plain sailing and has required a lot of dedication and sacrifice. With some pretty life changing experiences collected, I can vouch that it’s been worth the hard work and hopefully now, I can pass on some advice to any aspiring travel photographers along with sharing some images I've captured from the last year on the road.
I guess a good place to start is to ask what is the point of travel photography? For me, and on a deeper level, travelling itself has made me increasingly more content with life as the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve gained an understanding as to how the world works, from the rich cultural diversity between us all but the unifying similarities that we share. Ignorance doesn’t lead to progression, so my real aim with photography is simply to share what I see with the hope that it will inspire others to travel, or give people a little insight into how others live. A visual researcher, if you will.
Here are what I deem to be important qualities to have when working as a travel photographer.
Know Your Gear.
Travel photography is quite a broad term as it covers so many genres in one. Everything from landscapes, portraiture, street, food and architecture. Lighting situations can be tricky at times and the action fast paced. You don’t need to have the most expensive camera on the market but with what you do have, it’s best to know it like the back of your hand. I taught myself with help from the internet and books. Looking around your own home, getting out and experimenting, failing and learning from the mistakes you’ll inevitably make it the fastest and cheapest way to prepare yourself.
Honesty for me is the most important aspect to travel photography. With the ease at which your imagery can be seen and shared these days, what you present can be the first time someone comes into contact with a culture or landscape. Staging photographs or digitally manipulating an image with Photoshop to be something it’s not will warp people’s perception of reality. It’s confusing what is fact and upping people’s expectations for when they travel. The world is plenty beautiful and interesting enough to photograph without duping others. I feel it’s a travel photographer’s job to be responsible with this.
Respect is another virtue that it is worth being in tune with, for both the places you explore and the art of photography itself. It really does come out in your work if you’re disconnected with what you’re photographing. You need to immerse yourself in the place and with the people who live there. You can only truly do that if you respect your surroundings. I treat it as if I’m a guest in someone’s house. Being a little courteous goes a long way when on the road.
The Numbers Game.
Facebook had only just taken off and Instagram was nothing but a pile of undeveloped code when I bought my first camera. Instagram has been the biggest game changer with photography and depending on how you use it, it can be a good or a bad thing. I’ve definitely been guilty of chasing ‘likes’ in the past. It’s completely normal to enjoy praise for the things you do but the addictive nature of the social media game can create an unhealthy grip on you. Looking back at my work, there was a period where I can actually see the saturation slider creeping up as more ‘likes’ flowed in for my colourful landscape photos. There comes a point where it feels like you’re not being honest and not respecting the craft. It’s a point where I wasn’t enjoying my own work as I was hiding behind cheap tricks to get my photos seen. Ultimately, if the platform developers decided to change the algorithm, you’re back to square one anyway. It’s best to have fun with it and share the work you love, follow and engage with people you admire. Instagram is a great way to meet local photographers as well. I’ve made some lifelong friends through the platform and my photos and travel memories are the better because of it.
I will add that Instagram is a good enough platform to research new locations. It’s much better to use it quite loosely, just to build up an idea of what to expect and it’s important not to imitate what you see there.
Never Stop Learning.
Complacency will be the end of you. Of course, be confident in your abilities but be modest with the results. I’m currently experimenting with film photography after so many years of being strictly digital. It’s so refreshing and fun to be getting back to basics and approach things in a slightly different way. The character and emotion that film captures is much more powerful in my opinion and only after going back to analogue was I able to replicate it more truly in my digital work. Photography is easy enough to learn but it will take a lifetime to master. I’ve found it hugely beneficial to constantly review my work and plan what my next moves are and what areas I need to work on. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be daunting at times but really, what’s the worst that can happen?
I’ve found it easier to compose images with the idea of asking ‘what can I take out of this, what’s not needed here?’. After all, the great Albert Einstein once said. ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’. That couldn’t be a more helpful statement for photography. What’s the absolute minimum I can put in the frame that will still tell the viewer the story? I find images that follow that idea are the keepers.
Even simplifying my camera equipment has been hugely beneficial. I used to have multiple zooms from a 16-35mm, covering every available focal mm to 400mm. The logic was that I’d have every focal length at my disposal so I’d never miss a shot. I now work with only prime lenses, using the Zeiss Batis lineup. I still have all the areas of travel photography covered with the wide 18mm for land and cityscapes, to the 135mm for portraits and picking out details. Using primes meant I stopped being lazy and zooming with the lens and started to really think about my compositions and zoom with my feet. It’ll force you to get closer to the action and your imagery will benefit as you’re more connected to the scene. Unless you’re photographing a pride of Lions! Zooms are a little better then!
It’s a bit of a no brainer but remember to enjoy the process! There will be times where you will question life as your gut rumbles from being without food for three days, you’re covered in mosquito bites, suffering from sleep deprivation due to being thrown against a train roof as you travel for 35 hours to get to a spot, to then walk away without a single decent photo. But it’s all part and parcel of it! It wouldn’t be fun if it were easy. Right?!