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Travelling on assignment

Everyone is travelling these days and everyone, it seems, is a photographer too. So does that make us all travel photographers or just travellers that take photographs? And in any case, what’s the difference?

In this article I want to offer a little insight into the life of a professional travel photographer, together with some tips of the trade. It’s a trade that’s being squeezed from all directions at the moment and like many jobs related to photography, it’s never quite what it appears from the outside. From my own experience I can tell you that travel photography is always hard work, sometimes frustrating, often badly paid and possibly, despite everything, the best job in the world! So if you’re thinking of entering the market, this is for you.

I originally studied Documentary Photography and when I moved to Italy some years ago I figured that until I mastered the language the best thing I could do was to keep shooting in other countries. So I started working for travel magazines on commission around Europe and beyond. In those days it was paid quite well and the photographs, once published, could go to a stock library to bring in some extra income over time. That’s still true today, although prices have fallen drastically.

But although they don’t pay as they once did, I would recommend any young photographer to try shooting some stories for a travel magazine. Don’t expect fame and glory. What they offer you is even more valuable; a fantastic schooling on how to work quickly and effectively on location, covering a broad range of subjects in a short space of time. A typical day might see you shooting landscapes, reportage, food, wine, portraits and interiors, one after the other with minimal equipment and a journalist tapping her feet, wanting to move on because the schedule is so full. There’s no time for relaxing on the beach.

My very first travel assignment had me heading to the Greek island of Lesvos with a Bronica SQA and 20 rolls of film. As always, there was a broad range of subjects to tackle each day. Lesvos, Greece – Sime Photo

The good news is that you’ll come home with stories to make your friends jealous and some images that could eventually lead you into other fields. That’s what happened to me. I started off as a travel photographer and I ended up as a food, portrait and interiors photographer. The travel allowed me build up a portfolio so I could propose myself professionally in each of those specialities. I still shoot for travel magazines but these days it’s always related to food & wine, portraits or interiors.

Ok, so that’s the background. Now let’s look at some aspects of the job in more detail. We should probably start with the easiest and least important thing, which is…

 

Equipment

I have two kits that I’ll choose from, depending on the job; one DSLR and one Mirrorless. For the sake of this article I’ll concentrate on the DSLR. So here’s what goes in the bag:

  • Nikon D800 – this is my workhorse. It doesn’t really excite me, but it always does a great job and never lets me down. Nice big files offer room for cropping if necessary.
  • Nikon cable release – whenever possible I’m shooting on a tripod, with the mirror up and a cable release in my hand.
  • Lenses – for many years I worked with a medium format film camera and just three lenses; a standard, a wide and a medium telephoto. They did me just fine. I still love fixed lenses but the convenience of a zoom is not to be under-estimated and the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 is a quality lens so it stays a lot on the camera. I’ll take some other lenses depending on the job in hand; a 60mm f2.8 macro for food, a 50mm f1,8 if I want to stay small and light, an 85mm f1,8 for portraits and a 24mm PC (Perspective Control) lens to keep things straight in high-rise cities like New York. I have wider and longer lenses but I just don’t often use them for travel so they tend to stay behind.
Some things you can only do with a tripod. Nikon D800 with a 24mm PC lens and 9 stops of Neutral Density filter. Exposed at f8 for 8 seconds on a Manfrotto 055 tripod. Times Square, New York – Sime Photo
  • Polarising Filter – never leave home without one. There are some good articles on here to understand why so do check them out.
  • ND filters (3-stop and 6-stop) – always useful, either for long exposures or for shooting at a wide aperture while keeping below your flash sync speed.. very cunning.
  • Manfrotto Nano Photo Stand – to hold the flash.
  • Manfrotto 055 carbon-fibre tripod – for me it’s the ideal height without having to raise the extension tube so it’s super-stable and light weight. I know that dragging a tripod around all day is not easy but when you need it you really need it.
  • Manfrotto XPRO Ball Head – this is a new addition to my kit. It’s a well made, magnesium ball-head, lovely to use and stable enough to support a professional DSLR body and lens.

 

The XPRO ball head is perfect for travelling with a DSLR. It’s sturdy, smooth and has good sized levers making it easy to use. Prato della Valle, Padua, Italy
  • Nikon SB-800 flash – it’s a classic and just keeps on going. I use it in manual mode, never TTL, so a simple sync cable is all I need to use the flash off-camera without radio triggers.
  • Reflective umbrella – great for quick portraits or for food when there’s no natural light.
  • Small Lastolite reflector – for food with natural light.
  • MacBook Pro to download and view your files late at night in the hotel room. There’s no rest for the wicked.

Ok, that’s all I’m going to say about equipment because, although it’s important to have the right tools, I think the real secret to professional travel photography lies elsewhere. If I had to pick three words to sum it up they would be; planning, content and curiosity. 

 Let’s take each one in turn.

Planning

The internet has made planning so much easier than it used to be. With magazine commissions the picture editor will usually give me a list of subjects or themes that need to be covered for the article so I start by researching them on-line to get a feel for the location or the subject. The same is true if I’m shooting stock.

I try to find images that have been made there already so I can understand what the best viewpoints are. I can also visit virtually on Google Earth to have a look around. I can research the tide times so I know I won’t find a drained harbour or a beach covered in seaweed when I get there. I can check the weather forecast, of course. And I can also track the movement of the sun during the day using apps like The Photographers Ephemeris. These allow me to see the best time to shoot a particular location, even a single building, so I know exactly where to stand, at what time and on what day to get the angle of light I need. There will always be mishaps and bad weather and changed plans but the more prepared I am the better.

While on the subject of light, remember that the sweetest things happen in the early morning and the early evening so plan your day around that. Eat healthily and try to rest during midday hours when the sun is high. Keep your energy for later.

Interesting things happen in the early morning, so plan your day around the light. Trentino, Italy – Sime Photo

Content

This is a tricky one. As a professional I’m usually trying to combine three things when it comes to content. The first is aesthetic, the second is cultural and the third is related to the needs of the client or the market.

In terms of aesthetics, the picture has to look good. Light and composition play a part but I think that goes without saying. There are plenty of other articles here that deal with photo-technique so I’ll only say one thing; take control.

And be prepared for the occasional stroke of luck! – Yosemite National Park, California – 4Corners Images

The second thing I’m looking for in terms of content is some kind of cultural element. The image needs to represent an aspect of the location, the lifestyle or the person in a way that’s clearly ‘readable’ for the viewer. If I’m photographing an Italian guy sitting outside a bar, for example, then I want it to be an iconic image of an Italian guy sitting outside a bar. In a nutshell, it should not be banal. Neither should it be just ‘pretty’. It needs to combine an aesthetic quality with some degree of cultural content. It’s not that I’m thinking too deeply about all this while shooting. These are choices that will happen subconsciously as you’re making the images, especially if you’ve kind of immersed yourself in photography and in visual culture generally. So try and make that the case!

A simple image, but it succeeds in being somehow ‘Italian’. Ferrara, Italy – Sime Photo

The third part of content I need to consider is related to satisfying the needs of the client. Not just as far as the subject matter or the story is concerned, but also in terms of the style of image they usually publish. Is it quiet or dynamic? Classic or contemporary? Straight or ironic? I’ll also need to know if they prefer verticals or horizontals for their layout so I’ll keep the percentage of one format higher than the other while shooting. And for potential opening shots or double-page spreads I’ll leave space for the fold in the centre or for text that might overlay the image. These are all things I try to keep in mind.

One last thing before we move away from content. Have a look at the images illustrating this article. A few of them were quite spontaneous but most of them were pre-visualised. I often work by finding a scene – a ‘potential’ photograph – and then simply waiting until something interesting happens within it. That’s also a good trick for street photography as it lets you stake out your territory in some way. Before firing the shutter, I check that the people entering the scene are ‘on message’ (pushchairs and shopping bags are usually best avoided). In general, just be patient, look hard and take control over the content you’re creating.

Find an interesting background then wait for someone ‘on-message’ to walk through. Bergen, Norway/Sime Photo, San Francisco/4Corners Images, New York – Sime Photo

Curiosity

Let’s be honest, it’s not that difficult to make an amazing photograph if you happen to be standing in front of something amazing. What I think is more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, is to try to really describe a place through your own perception of it. For me personally, it’s the small details I see out of the corner of my eye when travelling which remind me that I am precisely there and nowhere else. I love the idea of walking slowly. The slower you walk, the more your eyes will notice things. Even small details start to have meaning. Take it one step further and you become a storyteller. Rather than thinking of single images, you begin thinking in terms of a narrative; a series of images that can work together to tell a story or that support each other to extend the messages they relate. If you can do that then things can suddenly start to become interesting.

Think how images, even simple details, can work together to create a narrative.
Top: East Village, New York – Sime Photo; Middle: Barcelona, Spain – Sime Photo; Bottom: Naples, Italy – Sime Photo

I should probably mention that much of the time when I’m on assignment, especially when working alone with an open brief, I’m convinced that things are going really badly. That’s normal. The solution, I’ve found, is to talk to people. I need to feel like I’m breaking beyond the surface of things and building some kind of relationship with what’s around me, even if fleetingly. When I’m struggling to find the ‘key’ to a place, often all it takes is one conversation with a stranger or one random photograph that brings the whole thing together and sets me on the right path.

Curiosity, and the willingness to talk to people, is always going to help.

I remember that these photographs of a young baker and an old Triumph Herald in Malta were enough to set me on the right path, visually, for the rest of the assignment. Malta – Sime Photo

Bringing it all home

What I’ve tried to do here is give a little insight in to the life and thoughts of a professional photographer working on a travel assignment. As I said at the beginning, we’re probably all travel photographers to some extent. In the end the difference is not about equipment, it’s not even about who makes the best images…whatever ‘best’ means. I think the real difference is that the professionals have to come home with photographs that satisfy the needs of their client in terms of style and content and they will plan their entire days around achieving that and nothing else. No distractions. A happy client is the only thing that matters if they want to work again.

As such, we’re probably not the most fun people to travel with!

So in summary, what have we learnt?  It’s a tough job and you need to offer something really special if you’re going to make a living from it. Travel photography will certainly give you some amazing experiences and could work as a launchpad towards other specialities. There’s huge competition of course, but I’m optimistic. We live in an image-hungry world and for young, talented photographers with an eye for new markets, the opportunities will always be there.

Colin DuttonOther articles by author

Born in London, 1966. After taking a Degree in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Colin moved to Italy in 2002 where he lives with his wife and children. A professional photographer with clients worldwide, he is specialised in interiors, editorial and advertising on-location. Beyond his commercial work, Colin continues to develop his own personal projects for books and exhibitions and he presents talks and workshops on photography.