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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The most important thing a travel photographer needs...

I got an email from a young woman the other day asking about how to get started in travel photography. She mentioned that she has just finished high school and done a photography course and is thinking she would like to work in this field. She wanted some advice on what I think her next step should be.

And my advice to her was maybe something she wasn't expecting. I'm sure she was hoping I could recommend another course, or maybe some equipment or books but instead I said she should just travel.

Does that sound glib to you? I didn't mean it to be. I honestly believe that the most important part of the travel photography equation is the travel bit. You have to live, love and breathe travel. There are a myriad of ways to (barely) earn a living in travel photography - from commercial work for upmarket tourist resorts to documentary work on vanishing tribes and everything in between.

The majority of my work lies somewhere in between the two extremes. That means that I'm usually travelling by myself (except on those few occasions where I manage to smuggle the wife and kids along!) and taking care of all the logistics on my own. That means organising flights, hotels, times to be in certain places for the light, knowing what is open when, where to find interesting (and photogenic) characters etc etc.

You can't just walk into being able to do that kind of thing without having some experience travelling on your own -or at least independently. There's a world of difference between having a tour leader hand out your tickets for the New Delhi train and having to queue for hours on end in a mad scrambling rush to try and secure a seat for that same locomotive.

You know how it's really hard to create a great photograph when you're in a bad mood? We've all been there right. The kids are driving you crazy, had a blue (argument for you non-Aussies) with the better half, Mum's on your case. It somehow steals your photographic mojo and you just can't make any beautiful pictures.

Well I'll let you in on a little secret. Feeling nervous, uneasy, unsure of yourself or just generally lost will produce exactly the same photographic impotence and there is no magic pill to solve it apart from feeling confident. That doesn't mean that you're going to fit in straight away anywhere you go mind you.

What it means is that you feel comfortable enough to walk around, get lost and be able to get back to your hotel OK (hint carry the hotel's business card with you). Or you feel comfortable with the local traditions and what you can and can't photograph without offending somebody. Or even something as simple as having a pretty good idea what foods are pretty safe to eat and what you should probably avoid if you don't want to spend the next ten days sitting on the toilet. In other words even though the country may be unfamiliar, the travel routine is old hat.

So before you think about heading down the road of being a travel photographer think about heading down the road of being a traveller. Get as much time off work, school, home chores that you can and head on out into the big wide world. Stick a backpack on your back and have a go. Sure take your camera but don't expect to feel really comfortable and create great images until you feel just as comfortable on the road as you do watching the National Geographic channel on your sofa.

Then when you feel comfortable travelling, I mean really comfortable like an old pair of slippers, then you're ready to start making fantastic images. Oh and by the by, I'd already travelled to over 50 countries before I sold my first ever picture! Travel was already in my blood before I felt confident enough that I could do this for a living and be relied on to bring back publishable images every time.

The picture above is my wife (far right) and our good friends Toine and Elsa. We met while hiking in the Nepalese Himalayas. Here we are checking a map whilst surrounded by a bunch of Khampa tribesman from Tibet who spoke no English whatsoever! We had a great few hours walking with them just enjoying each other's company with no comprehensible conversation whatsoever. That's what makes travel so great.

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