Thursday, July 2, 2015

What is the role of a travel photographer? And how should that inform your photography?

Let's get a definition out of the way first. When I say travel photographer I mean anybody who travels, and takes photos. Amateur, pro, beginner, veteran. If you go somewhere and take photos you are a travel photographer. Right, now that that is out of the way I guess we can come to the conclusion that for any of us reading this on a computer, laptop or tablet who has the financial ability to leave the place where we live, well that makes us travellers. If we take photos while we're away that then makes us travelling photographers. And that gives us some responsibilities.

Here in Australia at the moment there is a lot of demonising of peoples from other countries, religions or backgrounds. It's mostly a lot of rhetoric and hyped up political clap-trap designed to fool those who don't know any better. And who doesn't know any better? Those who haven't travelled for one. So that puts you dear reader at a distinct advantage. When you travel and come directly into contact with foreign cultures and peoples you get to form your own opinions first-hand, without the filter of somebody else telling you what you should believe.

But photography then gives you the chance to be one of those filters, or influencers. If you choose to do so. Never before have we had such possibilities to share our work with others. In the days of film you would have to hold a slideshow, or pass around the family album, and would at most reach those in your family and close circle of friends. Now you can reach millions at the touch of the POST button on any social media platform. You have the opportunity to show those who can't (or won't) travel how things really work. Not how mass media wants you to think it works.

So what should you be showing them? Well if I may be so bold as to give some suggestions here is what I think. I think that we travel photographers should be showing what an amazing planet we live on. We should be showing beauty in all its forms. Immediately you might be thinking of the usual travel cliches - Cable Beach in Broome with the camels walking along, sunrise at the Taj Mahal, neon signs of Tokyo. Yes you should definitely photograph those things, one because they're wonderful to see and experience, and two because they are truly wonderful examples of this amazing planet. But if you stop there you've missed the most important bit.

And for me the most important bits are the bits and pieces on the way to those destinations. The street on the way to the Taj Mahal where ordinary people live ordinary lives that are so different from our own. Where shops sell trinkets and foods that you have never seen before, but the locals consider a part of their everyday life. Where grandparents hug their grandchildren, just like in your home town, only whilst wearing a sari, or a kimono (rare these days I know!), or a conical hat. Not because they are trying to impress you, the visitor to their land, but because it is a part of their culture, their way of life. And to them it is nothing out of the ordinary.

Only by showing what to us is extraordinary, but in the light of ordinariness, can we contribute to the breaking down of cultural barriers. By showing those who don't have the opportunity to travel, that we are all basically the same, we stop these idiot politicians and mass media dimwits from trying to shape us all into their view of how the world should be.

So by all means photograph the cliches, but also take time to photograph ordinary life. Ordinary for some, maybe extraordinary for others. In this amazingly inter-connected world (again a first and second world phenomenon I know) we have the opportunity to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves. To say, this is how incredible this planet is and how wonderful the people who live in it are. To celebrate our differences while acknowledging our similarities. To show that we're all in this with each other and the big,wide world is a beautiful place full of wonderful people that are just like you and I and deserving of all the respect and understanding that we seem to sometimes only show those from our close-knit social group.

In short travel photographers can, and should be, the true voice for cultural understanding and compassion. Together we can drown out the scaremongering politicians and headline chasing mass media which seeks to highlight our differences in order to promote xenophobia, rather than highlighting our similarities to promote compassion and understanding. Travel photographers of the world unite I say!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Business advice

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk to first year photography students at James Cook University. It was a really fun couple of hours where I got to talk a little about my niche area of photography as well as answer lots of questions.

I spoke quite a bit about the business of photography, mainly because I believe that the technical side of our art is pretty easy to get a handle on. Practice, practice and more practice. Check your results, learn from your mistakes and constantly improve. It takes time but the overriding concept is pretty simple.

The business side of things is different though. There are many photographers out there nowadays running (attempting to run?) their own business, that really have no business being in business in the first place. I believe the market helps sort out the photographic wanna-bes from the truly gifted artists. Produce enough crappy work and you'll soon get a reputation that will make it hard to get new customers.

Being bad at the business side of things doesn't work that way unfortunately. You can continue working at a loss until your savings run out, and even then people will be happy to pay you peanuts for your hard work.

I told the students to think of their business as an exclusive club. Not everybody gets in. We can only afford to work with the people who can afford us. If you ring a plumber and he quotes you $80 for a job you're not gonna offer him $40. Or if you do you'll get hung up on pretty quickly. Yet photographers seem to like acquiescing to these requests for cheap work at the drop of a hat. One student even raised that eternal fear that if they quoted a price that the client didn't agree to, that client would find another photographer.

Let them! Let somebody else make a loss on that job whilst you bust a hump to find clients who like and respect what you do, and are willing to pay good money for it. If you can afford your own rates chances are you're not charging enough!

Know and understand the value of your work to your customer. What is their return on investment? How much money do they stand to make when they use your fantastic photographs to help them increase their bottom line? That is what you need to be thinking about. Not how much time it takes you to take the photos. Not how many megapickles your camera has. The client doesn't care. They want to know how much money they will make. Hiring a photographer isn't a cost, it's an investment. They want to see a return on that investment. The more money they stand to make the more money you can charge.

So don't be afraid to say no. Be prepared to explain your rates and fees. Explain it in language that a business owner will understand. Show them how much money they stand to make by using high quality photography, and how much they stand to lose by using crappy imagery. Your job is to convince them that you can provide photographs that will have value far beyond and above what it will cost them in assignment fees.

So what are those fees? That is the 64 million dollar question isn't it? And it varies from person to person, country to country, region to region. You need to first of all know your lowest possible number. The figure below which if you dip you'll make a loss. That's no-go territory. Once you know that then, let's be honest, it's a free market. Your job is to get as much money as you can whilst your client's job is to get it for as cheaply as they can. Somewhere in the middle you will come to an agreement. The larger your overheads (including your salary) the higher that fee will be. Don't forget to include a profit for the business so that you can upgrade equipment etc and things will go smoothly.

The main point is to know what you need to charge to make the amount of money you deem necessary and refuse to work for anyone who can't afford it. Let them go to another photographer with either lower overhead, lesser lifestyle expectations or no idea of how to stay in business for the long term.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Not every image has to be award-winning

I gave a talk to first year photography students at James Cook University the other day. It was a chance to hopefully give them a little bit of insight into the workings of the small niche of photography that I work in - namely that of travel editorial and stock photography with a smattering of commercial work here and there.

One of the questions I received was something along the lines of do I take lots of images to flesh out an idea before taking the final shot. Yes, yes and majorly yes.

The digital camera is like a visual notebook for me. I use it to photograph anything and everything that takes my fancy. Whatever interests me. And I'm not necessarily thinking about producing mind-blowing, knock your socks off images every time. Because thinking that I had to do that with every press of the shutter would be too stressful.

You should use the camera first and foremost as a way of expressing how you feel about something. Take the image above. Shot off quickly from the roof of a passing bus it's a bit blurry, slightly noisy and not likely to make it to 500 Pix's image of the day, or the hour for that matter. But I like it. It speaks to me of what enchanted me about Paris. Late night cafes with tungsten lighting, locals walking nonchalantly through what seemed to me to be an amazing place. So I snapped it without a second thought.

And I think it is very important to do so, because you need to tell a complete story of your travel. It's all fine and dandy to wander around and only take photos on a tripod with mirror lock-up when the light is beautiful and the conditions are co-operating, but realistically how often does that happen? And how many pictures do you think you will come away with? Not many I'm willing to bet.

So use your camera to flesh out your ideas and feelings about the places you visit. Photograph anything and everything that captures your imagination. Sure you need to get some amazing images or else you won't be satisfied as a photographer, as an artist. But don't let that be the only images you take. Settle for the less than spectacular when it helps you tell a complete story about a destination.

Not every image is destined for the front cover, but magazines still need lots of  images to fill the supporting roles on the inside pages, and so do your travel albums.

Monday, March 2, 2015

We are all different, yet all the same.

That was the title of a speech I made as an exchange student in Japan way back in 1989. To be honest I can't really remember what I talked about but I do remember I won a brand new Walkman and a very expensive Bizenyaki pottery vase s it must have been pretty good. The guy who won quoted Martin Luther King. But I digress.

It has been a common theme throughout my life and work. The fact that, at the core of it, we all basically want the same thing. To be happy, surrounded by family and friends and to live our lives in peace. It's easy to cast dispersions about another people or country when you don't know them as indivuduals, which is why I've always believed that travelling and really immersing yourself in another culture is vitally important for everybody.

I found this recently whilst in Barcelona with my family. I have to admit I found it hard to photograph there because every time I pulled my camera out some kind local would warn me to put it away lest it get stolen. After a while these well-meaning souls really wore me out.

Visions of dark strangers whisking my camera gear off into the wilds of Spain made it hard to relax, but in the end I came to my senses and realised that I probably needed to be a bit cautious but not paranoid.

Which is what brought me here. To a little park opposite the majestic Sagrada Familia. In the middle of the night. With my own Familia in tow. My wife and two boys - 9 and 11. I knew where the park was, just not how dark it was. I have to admit we were all a bit nervous but figured the thieves were all probably asleep!

And this is what we found when we got to the park. Apparently every night a bunch of locals with little dogs get together and let them play in a big group of semi-organised chaos. They only bring little dogs to protect them from bigger dogs. As the owner of two Chihuahua Maltese crosses needless to say my kids were beyond excited. In fact I think the hour they spent playing with the puppies while I photographed was probably their favourite in their whole month in Europe! This is my eldest in the foreground rushing in for more play time with a Jack Russell.

Many of the people spoke quite good English so conversation bounced along and we learnt quite a bit about life in the city that we would never have discovered as tourists.

An experience that, once again, proved that wherever you go in the world people are people.  Yes there are terrible people everywhere but mostly we're all just kind, friendly people living their lives to the best of our abilities. I think we should stick all racist people on a plane and send them to parks like this all over the world and let them play with the locals and their dogs. And the politicians should be first.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Let me help you sort your images out.

I have a really exciting announcement to make. Well at least I'm excited about it, and so are the clients that I've worked with so far. An expansion of my business into a slightly different, but totally related area.

For those of you who don't know, I've been a photographer for close to 15 years now. Which means that I have a lot of pictures. I mean a truly astounding amount of images on both film and digital format. Now for most assignment photographers work involves shooting a job, sending the images to the client and then forgetting about it. The images get stored on some hard drive, backed up to another hard drive, and then are never seen again.

But for me a major part of my business has always involved stock photography, which involves shooting images and then having them available for clients at some point in the future if and when they might like to license them. Which means that I can shoot a picture and it might not sell for quite a long period of time after the shutter has been pressed - sometimes years!

But when that call (or more frequently these days - email) comes I need to get my hands on a specific picture very quickly. I can't spend half a day searching for a particular image of Paris which might be on one of a number of internal or external hard drives or DVDs. I need to get it out to the client as fast as possible.

All of which means I had to become an expert in cataloguing and sorting my pictures. The screenshot above is of one of my photo catalogues and if you have a look down the bottom right hand corner you can see that there are nearly 50,000 images in there. And I can pretty much find any one of those images in a very short period of time.

How many organisations can say the same thing? In my experience basically none. And this is costing companies a lot of time and money when employees try and go looking for pictures that they know are somewhere, but have no idea where. Or even those pictures that they have on file but everybody has completely forgotten about. What a waste of valuable digital assets.

And this is where I come in. Last year at the request of James Cook University I was hired as a consultant to help them sort out their image library. 45,000 digital files with very little information to tell people what the pictures were of, who took them and any other relevant information. Marketing and Communications were getting bombarded with requests for pictures that they would then have to spend time searching for and delivering to other departments. All of which was a burden in both time and money.

So the first thing we did was do an inventory of their pictures to find out what they were dealing with. All the pictures were on a central server but nobody knew how to find stuff on there. So we created a system whereby all the images were not only catalogued, but staff from the different departments could see all those images, search for those images and then download those images directly from the server. Bang. The whole university suddenly had access to over 45,000 pictures that before they had no idea existed. But Marketing and Communications were still able to control which images were able to be used and which weren't. They were also able to keep track of what licenses applied to which pictures to stop inadvertent copyright infringement - always a big risk for major corporations.

Is your image library in a total state of disrepair? Does it take you hours to find pictures for a specific project? Do you have multiple version of a single image filling up servers? Then I can help you.

As I said, I'm very excited about this expansion of the business because it's something I love doing. I love the look on people's faces when they suddenly realise how easy it is for them to find images, to classify images, to use images in specific projects and to share those images with other staff members.

I rarely post ads on the blog but I'm hoping this one will appeal. If you are interested, or know anybody who you think could use such a service get them to email me at for a no-obligation appraisal and quote. And let's get our digital assets back in order!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What does a professional photographer do?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and he made an interesting comment. We were talking about the business of photography (he's not a photographer or involved in the industry at all) and he made the remark that it must be hard to sell services as a professional when cameras are so good these days that anybody can take a fantastic photo. Ouch.

But you know what? Cameras are really good these days. Fast autofocus, brilliant exposure metering and even the ability to change things up in post-processing afterwards if you want. So what is it exactly that a professional does differently if the taking of the photograph is so easy?

Firstly there's the illusion that it is easy. In the right light, if you're in the right position and there's a nice moment in front of you then everyone's chances of getting a nice picture are pretty even. No questions about it. If we're both standing in front of Uluru (Ayers Rock) during a beautiful sunset we're going to come away with something pretty special.

But what happens for the 99% of the time when the conditions aren't co-operating? What happens when you have to shoot a portrait of somebody outside in the middle of the day? The professional will know to put up a scrim to soften the light. They'll know to break out the lighting to fill in the shadows, and the optimum position to put that light for the nicest effect. They'll also know what to do to the background exposure to create a spectacular effect. And they'll know how to do it every time no matter what the weather is doing. Oh and they'll also know to get on fabulously no matter how much of a bad mood the portrait subject is in and to get legally binding model releases signed so you don't find yourself getting sued down the track!

OK so maybe a deep knowledge of lighting is something that can help separate a pro, but what about those who only use natural light. Let's take a travel assignment. The professional will, before they even leave, have ascertained what direction things are facing. Why? Because if you need to use natural light, and we know that sunrise and sunset are the best times of the day, then you want to know what you need to photograph at what time of the day. East facing buildings are a morning shot, west facing buildings are an evening shot. But the professional will also be on Google Earth checking out if there are any impediments to the sun meaning you need to be there later or earlier than usual. For example here in Cairns the sun goes down behind the mountains at about 5pm. No point finding out that the sun sets at 6.30pm only to find out that everything has been in shadow for the past hour and a half. Research is a huge part of what a professional photographer does.

The professional also knows why they're photographing what they are - the significance of an event, action or object. Take a couple of photographers at the Sumo. One has never been before and just snaps away willy nilly, getting some great action shots. The professional who has done his research is concentrating on the details everybody else misses. The ceremony of purification as the wrestlers throw salt into the ring. The wince of pain as the grand champion bends down on the knee he hurt in training the previous week. Background knowledge is as much, if not more, important as the images themselves. If you know the significance of certain things the photos themselves have more meaning.

The same goes for portraits. I did a series of portraits for James Cook University where we photographed people in various fields of study including Conflict Resolution, Terrorism, Turtle Rehabilitation and Pub Management! Try illustrating some of those in a single image.

Take the Terrorism shoot for instance. I had an idea for a dark, brooding portrait. I had to make sure that the image didn't allude to any particular nationality or religious inclination and I didn't want it to be bright and airy. So we chose to photograph her in her office - at least that was how she described where she worked. Turns out it was a 50cm by 50cm boring grey cubicle in the corner of a tiny room filled with other boring grey cubicles! A visual nightmare. This is when the professional's experience comes into play. When knowledge of your equipment is good enough to be able to cope with any difficulty thrown at you. People with less experience might just throw their hands up in frustration.

And the other differentiating factors come after the shoot is finished. Can the amateur be trusted to have triple copies and back ups of everything they shoot in case of hard drive failure? Can they provide low res jpegs for selection purposes on a password-protected website (so your competitors can't accidentally see them)? Will they invoice on time and in the format that Accounts Payable needs to process it promptyly, or will it require a telephone call or two to sort things out?

So yes, whilst I agree that the advancement of technology has made taking good pictures a lot easier - particularly in the perfect situation - I think when using a professional photographer is absolutely vital is the other 99% of the time. In other words when the shit is hitting the fan and you need someone with the experience to get through with a smile, a laugh and great images no matter what the world throws at you. That's what a professional photographer does.

Oh, the image above was taken on the Japanese island of Okinawa. A tropical paradise famous for its world class beaches, beautiful aqua skies and water sports. Only the week I was there it rained the whole time and the sun never came out once! No point telling your editor the weather is terrible. You need to change tack and find a different angle to your coverage. Anything less would be totally unprofessional.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Big Megapixel jealousy?

So the word is out. We Canon shooters may soon be able to stop feeling inferior to our Nikon brethren with their 36 Megapixel D810. Rumour has it that Canon is about to release a whopping big 50MP beast, which brings up some interesting questions.

Firstly who needs 50MP? I can see how all those glorious pixels would come in handy if you shoot and print huge prints. I'm afraid I can't remember the last time I printed a picture (although my clients use them in print regularly). So I guess that crosses me off that list.

I could also see it coming in handy if you're shooting wildlife and your longest lens just doesn't get you close enough. Just crop a bit out of the middle and, assuming your lenses are up the task, I'm sure you could get a very good, large image. Unfortunately I don't really shoot wildlife either so I guess I'm off that list too.

Hmmm..I'm not doing myself any favours if I really have designs on a new camera here. In fact, truth be known, I can't think of a single use (in my business) for all those pixels. In fact, until the reviews come out, I would be worried that it would be a downgrade from what I'm shooting now. How could that be you ask?

Well at the moment my camera shoots a little over 20MP, about standard for a Canon full-frame camera. But, more importantly for me, it's low light shooting abilities are phenomenal. I regularly shoot it at 1600 and 3200 ISO without the need for any noise reduction work. Hell, as I've mentioned in a previous post, I shot plenty of images in Paris at 12,800 that were perfectly usable for up to A4. The ability to shoot in low light is a godsend for me.

But not only when shooting available light, as in this shot from the Louvre above. I often use the high ISO capabilities when using flash. Why would you do that you say? Because many of my compositions involve blending flash with ambient light to create as natural a look as possible. Sure if my entire frame was lit by flash I could shoot at ISO 100, but I like to retain the natual light of an environment as much as possible. Bumping up my ISO means I can do that easily.

So is this new fandangled camera up to those same levels? Only time will tell but with more than twice as many pixels on a sensor the same size I'm thinking something has to give?

Also there's the issue of increased file sizes leading to the need for faster computers, bigger hard drives, more storage cards, more portable hard drives on the road. I've only just rebuilt my computer and don't really feel like doing it again for a very long time!

Yep, it almost sounds like this is my wife writing this post. Explaining exactly why I don't need 50 Megapixels.

But here's the underlying question that needs to be asked. Will a new camera fundamentally affect the way you are able to create images? Will it enable you to do things you'd never thought of? And will having more megapixels than the photographer next to you mean that you'll create more insightful, thought-provoking images? Of course you know the answer to that one, or at least I do.

Advances in equipment are wonderful when they free your imagination and allow you to create pictures that you could only imagine before. When I was shooting film (yeah I know, I'm old) we were limited to 50 or 100 ISO. Can you imagine shooting documentary travel work on 50ISO? If only I had a dollar for all the pictures I couldn't physically take!

For me the most recent game changers have been (in no particular order) - high ISO capabilities, Wi-fi enabled, GPS tracking. Those things might not appeal to you at all but for me they were all huge game changers for various reasons. 50MP? Meh, not so much.