Friday, March 27, 2009

What does it take to be a professional travel photographer?

I received an email the other day from a third year Photography student at James Cook University in Townsville. Courtney is putting together an assignment on what it takes to work in this business and had remembered a speech I'd given to her class the previous year. I've given a couple of talks to the JCU Photo Students over the last couple of years, once flying down to Townsville for the day and once via satellite hook-up.

I love to share with upcoming photographers and hopefully they get something out of it that will help them prepare for what is a challenging yet very rewarding career. Anyway I thought you might like to read my answer to her question about what I thought a person needed personality-wise if they were thinking of doing this for a living. Enjoy.

To tell you the truth the industry is changing so rapidly that even I'm not
so sure about what it takes to succeed in this business any more. Speaking
from my own experience up till now though I think that if you have any
chance of making it in the travel photography field you have to really love
travel, before photography even. You have to thrill at airports (even when
you have five hour delays), love rickety old buses laden with chickens and
accept that Delhi belly comes with the territory! You have to get to the
stage where if you had to choose between travel or photography you would
throw the cameras in the bin and keep on travelling. Passion really is that
important because it's what keeps you going through the hard times.

Once you've decided that you can't live without travel and photography you
then have to decide what area of travel you want to photograph. Whether you
want to write feature articles to go with your pictures (a great way to
break in but the competition is intense and the pay pretty lousy.) or
whether you want to work purely on assignment, or shoot stock. I mostly work
in a documentary, natural light style which suits an editorial market of a
certain flavour. I'm not really into the fashion style of photography that
you find in a lot of so-called upmarket travel mags - I prefer my images to
show an area in a way that the vision of the photographer doesn't detract
from the subject. So for that kind of work I need to look for clients who
use that kind of imagery.

You definitely have to be a people person. To enjoy meeting new people, even
when you don't speak their language, and to be able to break down barriers
quickly so you can cut through for intimate portraits and get introductions
to situations you wouldn't otherwise come across. You have to be curious
about the world around you and almost be a nosy bugger to find the inside

Looking at what I've written so far I've noticed that I haven't said much
about photography! I guess that's because for me the photography is just a
natural extension of the travelling. A way of showing these amazing things I
see so that other people can fall in love with it as much as I do. So it
becomes less about photographic technique and more about the subject. So
there's not a lot of ego in travel photography because we're just the
messengers. The bit parts compared to the main actors - which are the places
we see and the people we meet.

Of course the other side of the equation is making a living and here's where
the reality diverges from the fantasy. In the last few years the world has
been overtaken by millions of travellers with digital cameras visiting every
nook and cranny on the planet. Many of them stick their pictures up on sites
like Flickr and would be thrilled to get their pictures published for free.
So that's one area of competition. The other is the government! Look at any
magazine or newspaper these days and you will most likely find all the
images are supplied, for free, by Tourism This or That.

So to compete against that you have to really think outside the box. To
specialise and become known for a certain style, or geographic area or
speciality. Something that sets you apart from the average dSLR toting
tourist. And to do that you really need a lot of knowledge about things not
just photography related. You need to know things like the fact that you can
differentiate different tribes in Nepal by the way they carry goods and
bizarre things like that. The background knowledge will help you capture
images that tell a story, that help magazine editors tell a story, and that
they can't get on Flickr

It really is a constantly evolving industry and the recent economic climate
has made it even more challenging. To tell you the truth I have no idea
where it's headed but I still believe that passion and knowledge of your
chosen area are the keys to a successful career in travel photography.

And that was my answer. Apparently she sat down with a coffee in hand to take it all in. I hadn't necessarily intended to write so much at the start but once I started I couldn't stop! I guess that's when you know you love what you do. When you start yabbering on and on about it and never seem to stop. If any of you are hoping to do something career-wise with photography I hope this has been a bit of help.

By the way the photo I was referencing was the one taken above, which is a Newari man carrying his load across his shoulders. In hindsight it probably wasn't the best example because I am by no means an expert in Nepal, even though I love the place and would fly back in a heartbeat. I guess I used it as an example because it's something small and insignificant but that could make a big difference to the captioning of the image.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't be afraid to show reality

One of the criticisms of travel and nature photography that you sometimes hear is that it's too sterilised.

It presents only the beautiful parts of the world and that doesn't necessarily gel with the reality that many tourists experience when they go there.

I tend to disagree with that opinion. Yes travel photographers try to show a destination in the best light, and photograph the most interesting aspects of a destination but that isn't a fake reality.

It's simply the reality for someone who takes the effort to get up before dawn for that perfect light. It is a real situation for someone who takes the time to get to know a destination to find interesting photographs.

But that doesn't always mean that you can't include things in your images that aren't particularly attractive. The image above was taken in a little town called Chillagoe in far northern Queensland. The town is famous for its old mine site and some beautiful underground caves featuring stunning stalactite and stalacmite formations (which one goes up and which one goes down again?)

Anyway it's certainly not famous for its power poles, or even its pink galahs for that matter. But on my final day of a trip away, as I looked up, this is what I saw. Well not at first, but after a bit of waiting it was.

When I first looked up the left hand bird was closer to the power pole but was slowly moving across to the other galah. I thought to myself, something interesting is going to happen here, and sure enough he went up to her and gave her a big kiss on the cheek!

For me I love the way the soft, natural feathers of the birds are juxtaposed against the harsh, unnatural power poles. Somehow the ugly becomes beautiful in the lines and patterns it forms around the birds.

Travel photographers aren't news photojournalists. We certainly aren't looking for the miserable in a destination but that doesn't mean that the view we show is biased or somehow not real. And if we always show the beautiful it's probably because we're optimists and like to see the world as beautiful. Beside we're not above putting a power pole in every so often just to balance our jaundiced view of the planet! :)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Depth of Field

In keeping with the spirit of my fellow travel photographer Bob Krist and his recent guest blog on Photoshop Insider, this picture comes to you from just down the road. And it was only taken a few days ago.

But this post is not about Bob's great article, although you should definitely go and check it out. This post is about learning new things and re-learning old things.

When working with film on landscape images the common method of working was to close your aperture down as far as possible to get a big depth-of-field. You would be working at around f16, f22 or so to get everything from the foreground rocks to the background trees in focus.

In this shot above, although it's a bit hard to tell from this small thumbnail, everything is tack sharp. And it was shot at f8. huh? I don't get it - at least I didn't get it until I started stumbling across all these articles in magazines and on the net about diffraction and crop sensor cameras.

So in the spirit of learning together, and admitting that I certainly don't know anywhere near everything about photography and that's why I love it so much, I'm going to tell you what I found. Bear with me if you've been prowling the internet discussion groups for a while and this is old hat.

Now I always knew that any lens and film format had its optimum aperture setting - where you would get the sharpest image. For many lenses that seems to be around f8. And if you went smaller than that you would get more depth of field and a slight drop in image quality but nothing to write home about.

Well it turns out that with crop cameras (which basically means everything except the top of the range Canons, Nikons and Sony) when you close your aperture down smaller than its optimum aperture the image quality decreases rapidly due to diffraction. So f16 on your camera is not going to be anywhere near as sharp as f8 or f11 or so. Go figure.

The more I delved into this the more worried I got. How was I going to get really sharp pictures with a big depth-of-field then? Well it turns out that something I always knew in the back of my mind is the saviour. The smaller sensors of crop cameras have a larger depth-of-field at any given aperture. That means that a portrait shot at f2.8 on a crop camera is going to have a bigger depth of field than one taken on film or a dSLR with a 'full-frame' sensor.

Conversely an image taken at f8 is going to have a bigger depth-of-field than one taken on a full frame. Digging deeper I found one article that claims the difference to be about two stops or so. So f8 on a crop sensor is about f16 on a full frame. F11 would be about f22.

So putting aside any arguments about the quality difference between crops sensors and full frame, when shooting landscapes on a crop sensor camera it seems best to aim to keep your aperture in the f8 to f11 range to ensure optimum sharpness. I'm certainly going to be experimenting with this to figure out how badly the image degrades at smaller apertures and whether this is just a pixel peeping exercise, but a lot of pros that I really respect are writing about this so I'm guessing it's true.

Which just goes to show that you can never know everything about this incredible art form we all love. While the basics of light, colour and timing may stay the same, sometimes even the fundamental truths that we've held on to for decades are changing and developing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Resign yourself...

Putting together today's post I was looking through images I took in Africa and the most common thought going through my head was - gee it's easy to take boring animal pictures!

Ever since I was a little kid I'd dreamed of visiting the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. Names that roll off the tongue and documentaries that showed incredible scenes of action and adventure. And when I finally got there I just went crazy and got a lot of really, really.....ordinary pictures.

In fact I saw so many sleeping lions that I just had to take a shot of this lioness because for me it was rather comical that I'd flown half way around the world to get a shot like I could have taken at my local zoo! Sometimes you just have to resign yourself to the fact that the natural world doesn't necessarily have the same photographic aspirations as we do.

Apart from the world being against me, I made a couple of critical errors of my own. One of them was my film choice - which has largely been rendered irrelevant with digital but just to let you know anyway. I spent 9 months in Africa during which time I carried 145 rolls of Kodachrome 64 slide film. This was before I was doing this for a living and it was the cheapest film (and had the cost of processing included!)

Anyway to cut a long story short, it was way too slow for all the great stuff that happened early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I would love to show you all the slightly blurry pictures I have of animals taken just after sunrise. :) Maybe I'll save them for the family slideshow night as revenge for all those years of socks for Christmas.

The other one was going on safari with other people who weren't as interested in photography as I was. The kind who can't understand why you want to sit around watching two cheetah brothers for a couple of hours to see if they initiate a chase.

This cheetah was looking very intently at the horizon and our guide was sure he was eyeing off prey but others in our group decided that it would be much more productive to go and look for leopards.

(9 months in Africa and I never saw a single leopard by the way)

Anyway one conclusion I rapidly came to is that in any photographic speciality to really get great images and reach the pinnacle of your game you need time.

Whether it's camping for a couple of weeks to get great light over the Great Rift Valley, or sitting in a hide for a couple of months to capture an elusive animal, great photography really does take time.

And time is something that we travel photographers often don't have. For reasons of budget, editorial timetables and a myriad of other excuses we often end up in a place for a lot shorter than we would ideally like. Much like any keen amateur photographer on holiday.

So how do we get over this? We resign ourselves to the fact that we have to concentrate on getting as good as nature provides us with, as opposed to what we think we deserve because we've paid so much money for our air tickets.

Oftentimes we might not get the weather we want, the iconic statues might be covered in scaffolding and the lions might all be asleep. But that's no excuse for not getting great images. You have to think, adapt and come away with your own version of your reality - not what you see in the postcards.

And if serendipity is going your way you'll come away with a couple of keepers and a lot of good memories. And just for the record my sleeping lioness has been published in five different countries. Go figure. I guess one person's reality can be something that other people can relate to even if it's not perfect.

Of course for every sleeping lioness you're bound to get a little bit of luck and gorgeous afternoon giraffes. Savour the giraffes and you'll learn to appreciate the sleepers.

Monday, March 23, 2009

War on Photographers

When did photography become something practised by terrorists and pedophiles and nobody else? When did it become such a filthy occupation that we are vilified wherever we go?

Am I exaggerating things? Maybe, maybe not. This Monday's link is more of a rant than a link but it was prompted by this article here.

Printed a little while back in my local newspaper The Cairns Post it tells the story of a local attraction - the Esplanade Lagoon. This is a photo of the Lagoon taken before sunrise.

If you have a read of the article it mentions that one of the reasons that they charge hundreds of dollars for a photography permit is so they can register professionals and make sure they're not pedophiles. I mean call me stupid but if you were a pedophile would you go to the Lagoon at 5.30 in the morning and photograph with a giant zoom lens on a tripod?

Has anybody ever heard of somebody dodgy being arrested carrying thousands of dollars of photographic gear? From what I can see it seems to be mostly camera phones and the like stuck to people's shoes. It is just getting ridiculous.

I've just heard that in the UK they've passed a law that makes it illegal to photograph, amongst other things, policemen! No more travel photos of your friendly neighbourhood bobby. Where does it all end?

It's funny how all these places around the world are cracking down on so-called professional photographers but how do the security guards who have to enforce these rules decide who is a professional? Apparently in many cases it's how expensive your gear looks and whether you have a tripod or not. If you have a tripod you must be a professional. What a joke.

When these rules here in Cairns first came in I rang the local council because there was a clause in the permit contract that said that if the photos were used to promote the local area you didn't need a permit. When I explained to the lady on the phone what I did for a living she told me I didn't need a permit. When I asked if the security guards down there would know this she said, and I quote, "Nah, just tell 'em you're an amateur!" When I asked her if it was official council policy for people to lie in order to take photos she told me that she hadn't said anything.

And that's why I have never been back to photograph the Esplanade. This photo was taken before the permit system came in. In my view they should be paying me to promote their lovely Lagoon not the other way around. The stories about foreign tourists getting thrown out by overzealous security guards makes you cringe for those tourism bodies trying to attract people to our shores.

What's it like in your part of the world? Is photography free and open or are you being hounded? Let me know in the comments as it's always nice to get a world perspective on this.

Rant over! seeya tomorrow for a happier post. :)