Friday, May 22, 2009

Why travel photography?

A rather nondescript door wouldn't you say? A simple Arabic design surrounded by a whitewashed wall. But an important milestone in my life. This was one of the first photographs I ever took overseas.

By the time I reached Africa I had already been to most of Western Europe with my parents, taking a year and a half off school to caravan it around. So I already had the travel bug but this was my first big trip away alone - a nine month adventure through 'the dark continent' from north to south.

Ever since I was a little kid I'd dreamed of visiting Africa. All I really knew of it was from David Attenborough documentaries and books on African wildlife. I still have memories of my parents waking me up in the middle of the night when I was a very small boy to watch a documentary on cheetahs in our little house in Norwich, England - at the start of our 18 month sojourn around Europe.

Now here I was with 145 rolls of Kodachrome slide film in my backpack (yes it was bloody heavy! but nice and cool in the middle of all my clothes) and my first town was Asilah in Morocco. I didn't end up taking many photos in Asilah as the day I arrived in Africa I phoned home to give my parents the good news, only to be told my beloved grandfather had just passed away. Excitement tinged with sadness, but happiness because I knew he would have been proud of me following my dreams.

Over the next nine months I saw so many incredible sights, ate so many incredible foods and discovered so much about not only Africa but myself as well that at the end of it I was a different person. The things I had captured on film (well hopefully - I didn't get them processed till I got home!), I was dying to show other people. To give them a sense of what I had seen, how amazing this planet really is.

I think at first my desire to travel and photograph was purely a selfish one. I wanted to see and do everything, meet everyone, photograph it all. But gradually as I came towards the end of my trip I changed. I wanted to share these images with as many people as possible. Maybe it was (and still is) idealistic of me but I really believe that the more we know about each other the more we break down those barriers of racism and misunderstanding.

So sitting on my parents loungeroom floor going through 145 rolls of film and sighing with relief when a lot of them turned out, (whether they were good or not is another matter mind you!) I resolved to show them to people. I had no intentions of being a pro at this stage so I organised the dreaded slide shows. I took my friends and family on trips to see the gorillas in Zaire, the Serengeti National Park, the top of Kilimanjaro and a little green doorway in Morocco. And that was, and still very much is, my motivation for being a travel photographer. To show a little bit of the world to other people and try and impress on them how amazing it all is, and how similar we all really are.

Why am I telling you all this? I had an experience a couple of weeks ago which really confirmed in my mind that I'm doing the right thing. As regular readers know I have two small boys, both of whom go to parties for their friends. I was at a party a few weeks back (it's taken me this long to calm down) where I was forced to sit for 30 minutes listening to a whole lot of bull&$%t about how bad this country was, how awful these people were and how our country was the best and couldn't be beaten blah, blah, blah. And try as I may, and protest as much as I could without ruining my son's friend's birthday party I couldn't get through to this person. And I thought if I could sit this person down for an hour or so and show them my images from all those countries he ridiculed maybe, just maybe, I could help change his mind.

And that, dear readers, is why I do what I do and why I would encourage you all to do the same. Rather than keep your travel pictures on your hard drives, offer to put on a slideshow for the local camera club, give a talk to a local retirement home or put on an exhibition. You don't need to be professional, have photographs that could win a Pulitzer or have taken them on the latest big megapixel beast. You need to be passionate about the things you have seen and be willing to share that passion with other people. And that's how we travel photographers can change the world one person at a time!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The most common question...

a travel photographer gets asked is without a doubt - what's your favourite country? Well how do you compare the vibrancy of India, with the spectacular scenery of Nepal or the exoticism of northern Thailand? I know I can't. I have good friends who go back to Borneo every year. They're infatuated with it. But for me my favourite country is always the one I'm going to next. That's just the wanderlust in me.

However, on those days when I don't really feel like explaining this permanent state of itchy feet I point to the little-known nation of Namibia. Formerly part of South Africa, this incredible country is home to some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife I have ever seen.

And one of its more spectacular sights is the Fish River Canyon. The size beggars belief. Second only to the Grand Canyon it's about 160km long, up to 27km wide and 550 metres deep in places. And when we got there there were a total of zero tourists!

You can see the Fish River, from which the canyon gets its name, all the way at the bottom there. And you can see the path to the bottom in the foreground. By placing the path there I wanted to show that you can actually walk to the bottom. I used a wide-angle lens to give a sense of the incredible scale. Remember that the wide-angle increases the apparent distance between objects (making the far side appear a long, long way away) and the farther something is from the camera the smaller it appears - in this case the tiny bit of water at the bottom.

Ideally I would have liked a photo of someone going down the path, but only four people decided to go down and I was one of them. It was a very long, hard walk down but the swim in the water at the bottom was glorious, as was the view back up to the lip of the canyon. The walk back up was torture though.

The next morning when we got up for breakfast my good friend Gordon couldn't find his wallet. Thinking that he'd left it at the bottom of the canyon we drove out to the lip and he started his long hike all over again. Needless to say we gave him hell when he came back up a couple of hours later to find his wife holding said wallet after finding it in the corner of his tent! Come to think of it I could have taken a photo of him going down the path but I was too busy laughing!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Side Lighting

One of the most difficult things I find about writing my blog is matching words with the images. Matching something of photographic instruction with the picture. Because all my images were taken to show something about the subject, as opposed to illustrating a photographic technique, sometimes I find that my posts tend to drift towards pictures that I like, rather than ones that necessarily teach you all something.

So you'll have to forgive me the occasional digressions. As I mentioned yesterday, I've been listening to the wonderful Salif Keita quite a bit lately.

I first heard his music in his home country of Mali, West Africa. After travelling down through the Islamic nations of Morocco and Mauritania I finally felt like I'd arrived in the 'real' Africa. At least the Africa of my imagination.

One of my most rewarding travel experiences was the few days I spent in a Dogon village. The Dogons are an ancient people who, in order to escape invaders, built their houses farther and farther up the sides of very steep cliffs. Still living as they have for centuries, we spent a few days walking from village to village, camping on the rooves of houses as we went.

One of the art forms the Dogons are famous for are their intricately carved doors. Although they are often carved for the tourists, you can still walk through villages and find amazing examples of them on people's front doors. This was one such door. The attention to detail was incredible and I was mesmerized by it. When I first came across it the door was in shadow and I didn't feel the light really captured it at its best.

So I came back later in the afternoon to find the sun raking across the front of it. Side light is wonderful for really showing the texture in something. Texture is good because it really brings out the three dimensionality of objects, makes them almost so real you can touch them. In this case I felt that the side light really highlighted the grain and texture in the wood so you could get a feel for the age of the door as well as the shape of the statues.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Telephoto landscapes

If you think that my posts often seem a little random - telephoto post one day, wide-angle the next - well that's because they are! :)

How do I choose which picture I'm going to blog about? It all depends on what country I feel like going to.

Today I felt like going to Nepal so that's where we are. Nobody ever accused me of being an over-thinker!

This was taken from a tiny little town called Bupsa, in the Himalayan foothills. You get there after walking for a few days from another little village 12 hours or so on a rickety bus from Kathmandu. Most of the walking in this part of the Himalayas is done up and down really steep paths, and most of the really spectacular scenery always seems to be on the opposite side of the valley!

Often the only way of getting a photograph of it is to use your longest telephoto lens. Compositionally though this works out really well. As we've talked about before, the telephoto lens compresses the perspective so that things that are actually quite far apart look close together.

In this particular image, the compressed perspective places the undulating hills close to each other to increse the sense of the patterns stretching across the landscape. The one thing I always try to look for when I have a viewfinder full of a pattern is a break. Something to give the eye a bit of a resting place before it continues on its journey around the frame.

In this image the resting place is the little stone cottage. There is actually a second cottage in the top right hand third, but it's quite hard to notice because it is in shadow. Our main house, though, has bright sunlight shining off it which leads the eye straight to it. Remember that your eye is often drawn to the brightest part of the composition.

Stay tuned for more randomness tomorrow! I've been playing Salif Keita on my MP3 player lately so I feel a Mali post coming on. :)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Monday's Link

Well I hope you've all enjoyed the last couple of weeks' posts on how to break into the travel photography business through writing. It seems we've attracted the attention of one of the authors of the books I recommended and she (there's a big hint who it is!) has kindly agreed to write a guest blog for us so stay tuned for that.

This week's link is a bit self-serving! I just wanted to remind those of you who are here in Cairns that I'll be running a travel photography workshop at the end of June. It's more than half way full and there are only a few places left but you can find all the info about it here.

For those of you who have been inspired enough by the last couple of weeks to look at starting to sell your own work I wanted to point you to what I think is a fantastic site to help sell your stock images. The first thing to let you know is that it isn't a microstock site. If you really want a long-term future in this business, while supporting the business at the same time, I would definitely recommend you stay away from this business model.

But you say, the big agencies aren't accepting work? Well the big agencies aren't necessarily all they're cracked up to be. Something I've found over the last few years is that I'm a lot more successful selling my own stock directly than I am through my agencies - particularly in areas that I specialise in.

So if you 're keen to sell your own work for fair rates and don't mind a little hard work in getting your images ready and keywording them then you maybe ready for these guys. Photoshelter is the name of the company and they are going a long way to help photographers make a living. Great articles on search engine optimisation, what stock buyers are looking for, a built-in ecommerce system as well as your own personal website with search engine embedded. This is the answer many of us selling our own stock have been looking for. Go and check it out.