Friday, May 15, 2009

How a travel photojournalist travels Part 4

When I get back the first thing I do is collate all the material I've collected. Brochures, maps and business cards go into a large envelope. I then type out my trip notes on the computer and print them out. Then it's time to pick through all the information and choose which points will go into the article. Once I have this rough outline then it's time to write the piece. Without going into the nitty-gritty of writing a travel article, I will mention that you need to look at back issues of the magazine and note the tone of articles they run. Backpacker Essentials usually publishes first-person accounts with lots of information thrown into the mix, but rarely publishes details about prices or opening times. That gives you plenty of chances to put in funny stories about people and places you encountered.

Once the article takes shape you need to match the photos to the writing. I'm a great believer in the adage that a picture tells a thousand words, but sometimes words can do a better job of painting a scene. You need to choose images that complement the writing, not necessarily those that show what you have written about. This is where your choice of timing is so important. By gathering material for the article when the light is bad, you hopefully manage to photograph when the light is beautiful. So your final selection will include photographs of things not necessarily mentioned in the article, and you'll write about things you might not have photographed.

The thing to remember is that you are creating a total package of words and pictures. Resign yourself to the fact that you're not always going to get picture postcard conditions for photography but that you should be flexible enough to come back with publishable images no matter what the conditions. Remember to try and balance the collection of information with the photography. When the light is good snap away. When the conditions are terrible look for information for the article. Having to take care of both writing and photographs often means I'm running around like a headless chook. But I come away having had rewarding experiences that I get to share with the readers. What could be more satisfying? If you'd like to see how I did log on to And if Scott asks if you're a writer or a photographer, tell him both.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How a travel photojournalist travels Part 3

Although on this trip I did have some time to scout different areas and pick the best light to photograph them in, this isn't always the case. Sometimes clients can book your itinerary so full of activities that you don't have any choice but to photograph things at the wrong time of the day. You have to accept that you're there to get an overall coverage of both words and pictures and sometimes things aren't going to work out as you hope.

Cape Tribulation was the perfect example. With only two days there and so many things to see and photograph I really had to prioritise. If the day was sunny I headed for the beach, if it was cloudy I headed for the rainforest. If it was pouring with rain I stoically put up the umbrella.

An assignment like this is always limited in time, which means you have to be flexible. If it does pour with rain concentrate on macro shots of water drops in the rainforest. Look for locals playing in the rain, or trying to ford flooded rivers in their cars. I photographed the inside of the hostels. Think about what can work photographically in adverse conditions. Or just forget about photographing all together and look for material for your article.

I had high hopes of photographing sunrise over beautiful Cow Bay on my second morning in Cape Tribulation but got there to find a horrible, grey day which just wouldn't work photographically. So I wandered along the beach looking for things to write about. I found a dolphin frolicking offshore, a multi-lingual sign warning people about the dangers of swimming in crocodile infested waters, and I talked to other early risers and asked for their opinions and ideas about things to see and do. None of these would have made a publishable photograph but helped to enhance the final article.

Your aim is to come back with more information and photographs than you could ever use in one piece. In fact you ideally want to be able to craft a number of articles from the one trip. My assignment was the road trip but I also got enough information and photographs to write articles about: Port Douglas, the Daintree National Park, nature tours within the park, the coastal road to Cooktown, Cooktown itself, aboriginal tours out of Cooktown and how to travel through this part of the world with children. I also collected stock photos of all of these areas which can then be sold as stand alone images. Just as you need to maximise your sales of one article you also need to maximise the amount of material you collect on any one trip.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How a travel photojournalist travels Part 2

After researching the publication I always get on the internet and visit the library to get tips on things to see and photograph. I look for opening times of museums, famous places that always appear in travel articles and just general information on the areas I'll be visiting.

Having found some great information, and feeling a bit more confident of what I needed to do it was time to bundle my wife and baby son into the car and hit the road. With me were notebooks, pens and a diary, two 35mm cameras with four lenses ranging from 20mm to 400mm, a tripod, filters, lots of transparency film and a couple of big manilla envelopes which I use to keep all my receipts and brochures in. I call these my trip files.

Whenever I arrive in a new place the first thing I do is a scout. I walk or drive around with the minimum of camera equipment, a pen and paper and a compass. The idea is not to do any serious photography but to note which direction buildings and landmarks are facing so that I can choose whether to photograph them in the early morning or late evening. I also jot down things such as prices and facilities available, as well as general first impressions of a place. In other words, during the middle of the day when the light isn't so good for photography I concentrate on getting information for the article. I then come back at better times of the day to photograph.

During this initial scout if I do find the light is nice then I make the most of the opportunity. During my Cooktown scout the museums were all beautifully lit by late afternoon sun and I grabbed the shots. The following two days turned out to be grey and overcast and if I had left the photography for another day I certainly would have missed out. So take those opportunities when they present themselves and never assume you'll have a chance to get a photograph or some information later. Later might never eventuate.

Also don't forget to always keep in mind other customers for your work. Maximise your income by looking out for other opportunities. YHA is a backpacker magazine but travelling with my family meant that I could also write about the trip for that market as well. So I needed to jot down things of interest for people travelling with children. When I visited the Great Barrier Reef I photographed young people suiting up to go diving, and asked them their impressions of the day. I also made note of what facilities were available to keep kids amused and made sure I photographed little ones enjoying themselves.

Another thing I always do is photograph information boards in museums and National Parks. I shoot them with a Coolpix digital camera on the lowest resolution setting. These photos aren't for publication but to save me having to write down all the information. Most information boards are very long and would take me an aeon to write out by hand, but a quick snap of the digital camera and I have an instant copy to refer to later. I always ask permission to do this beforehand.

Because I had an aboriginal culture tour booked on my second morning in Cooktown, I only had two afternoons and two very early mornings to do any work around town so I had to carefully plan my time. Photographically it was important to get an overall impression of the town so I headed up to the Grassy Hill lookout. It was soon obvious that the sun sets right behind the town and everything was backlit so this was a morning shot. Then it was off to visit the various museums and landmarks around town to check which direction they were facing. I always try to schedule tours of the insides of buildings during the day when the light is unsuitable.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How a travel photojournalist travels Part 1

This is the view down to Cooktown Harbour, Cape York in far north Queensland. The view hasn't changed much since James Cook got stranded here a couple of hundred years ago. It seems that everybody liked last week's series on breaking into travel photography so I thought I'd go into a bit more depth by showing you how an assignment comes together.

Pam's Place, Cooktown. A wonderful little hostel right at the northern end of Australia. Run by an incredibly friendly guy named Scott and his horde of equally friendly parrots. I was here to do a story for Backpacker Essentials magazine, the official YHA magazine. As I walked past the front desk one morning Scott pulled me aside, looked me in the eye and said, "Mate I've just got off the phone with the head of YHA Queensland and he mentioned that there was a travel photographer up this way. I said I didn't know anything about a photographer but there is a travel writer up here. So which are you? A writer or a photographer?" If you read last week's blogs you'll undoubtedly know how much joy I had in replying that I was both!

The confusion had come about because Scott had seen me head out each day armed with notebooks and pens as well as copious amounts of camera equipment. A writer doesn't need camera gear, and a photographer doesn't need pens. But I'm a travel photojournalist and I'm going to show you how a work assignment for us differs from that of either a writer or a photographer.

My assignment was to drive from Cairns to Cooktown, stopping off in beautiful Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation along the way. I had an itinerary of some things that they definitely wanted covered, as well as a request to get some material suitable for a front cover and photographs of their properties for use in advertising. The trip would take about a week and they needed the article package a couple of weeks after I got back. So now I had the brief it was time to start the research.

The first thing I needed to do was look at recent issues of the magazine. I was looking for a couple of different things. The first was the photographs. How many did they use? What were the subjects? What did the front covers look like? I quickly discovered that the front cover always runs to a formula. It has to be a vertical portrait of a young person (often female but sometimes couples) enjoying themselves in the great outdoors. The shots accompanying the articles also often feature young people enjoying themselves in various activities, but there were also landscape, wildlife and local people shots as well. In other words I had to make sure I ingratiated myself in with a group of young, happening twenty somethings and also take lots of scenic photos.

On the writing side of things I needed to know what style this kind of road trip article took. I discovered that because such large distances are covered in such a short period of time that no particular emphasis is given to any one place. Instead each attraction usually rated a paragraph or two before the author moved on to the next spot, working on creating an overall feeling of the area as opposed to any one particular feature.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Where it all started

What do you do when you're in a foreign city, it's pouring with rain and you just don't feel like photographing? Well if you're anything like me you head to the bookstore.

Well one particular trip to a certain bookstore in Bangkok changed my life. After killing sometime with my wife at the movies (don't forget to stand up for the National Anthem!) we came out to find it still pouring with rain.

So we hit a bookstore with quite a good collection of English books - seeing as our Thai isn't so flash hot. And I came across a book by a guy named John Shaw. An American nature photographer, his latest book back then was on the subject of running a nature photography business. Aptly titled The Business of Nature Photography it's quite a large hard-covered book. A quick flick through it and I knew I had to buy it and carry it around the world with me.

You see my wife and I were just starting out on a twelve month journey around India, Nepal and South East Asia. I was taking photographs with the dream of becoming a professional travel photographer but had no idea how to get there. John's book put me on the right track.

It taught me about how to approach magazines, how to create a catalogue of my images, how to store my images... basically everything I needed to get started. It also taught me the very important point I made last week about learning how to write to really get ahead in this field. So even though it's a bit old now (nobody uses DOS computer systems anymore!) many of the things he writes about are still very pertinent today.

Nature and travel photography are a different beast from large-scale commercial and advertising photography. You're working in a small, niche market where everybody seems to know everybody. This is a great introduction to how it all works. Not only that but it is full of some of the sharpest, most beautiful images you will ever see. I don't know if there's a sequel coming out, but even if there isn't I would definitely recommend you take a look at this great book. It has pride of place on my shelf and a little inscription I wrote on the inside front cover:

Bought in Bangkok Thailand
August 10th 1998
In the hope that one day I too will be able to make a living doing what I love.

To all those who have the same dream I wish you the best of luck!