The Joys and Challenges of Travel Photography
by Brenda Pfeiffer
This article originally appeared in the 2006 edition of Photographer's Market, © F+W Publications, Inc.
“As a travel photographer, I'm at the mercy of whatever conditions are thrown my way. So when I find myself in a tropical paradise during a drenching downpour or at a resplendent festival at high noon, I have to be a master and magician of light,” says Nevada Wier, award-winning travel photographer who specializes in photographing the remote cultures of the world. Wier's journeys have taken her to Southeast Asia, India, China, Nepal, Africa, New Zealand, Central Asia, Mongolia, South America and other regions of the globe.
Having always loved the outdoors, Wier wanted to make a living working in it, so she became an Outward Bound guide. Photography was still just a hobby when in 1978 the Outward Bound program asked her to be a guide in Nepal and to run their trekking program. Eventually, studying foreign cultures and capturing them on film became more important than guiding, and Wier made the natural career progression from travel guide to travel photographer.
Wier has written two books: The Land of Nine Dragons: Vietnam Today (Abbeville Press, 1992), photography from contemporary Vietnam and winner of the Lowell Thomas Best Travel Book of 1992 award; and Adventure Travel Photography (Amphoto, 1993), a how-to travel photography book. She has contributed photos to three other books: A Day in the Life of Thailand (Collins, 1995), Planet Vegas (Collins, 1995) and Mother Earth (Sierra Club Editions, 2002).
Wier works on expanding her travel photography business by continuing to travel and create new images to meet the demands for her travel stock photography. When she's not creating photographs for publication, you will find her teaching aspiring travel photographers. Leading photo tours and travel photography workshops is a regular part of her annual schedule.
At a travel photography workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Wier talked candidly about what it takes to be a travel photographer, the travel photography profession, and how to succeed in the business.
Packing for the Road
Since Wier photographs in a wide variety of circumstances—while hiking, on camel safaris, in cities, rain and shine, hot and cold—she is prepared for everything. She is even prepared for that dreaded missed connection and the possibility that her bag won't show up for the job. The concept of traveling light is wishful thinking for serious photographers. Nothing is easy about shouldering pounds of high-tech equipment and film for the ride. Because new luggage regulations have forced photographers to be extra careful, Wier packs two carry-on bags specifically with bag loss in mind—one for gear and one for film and computer. “With this gear, I can step off the plane and start photographing most situations. I have the most important equipment with me—the backup is all in the checked luggage,” she says.
She counsels: “Be thorough, but tailor your gear sensibly to your own needs. Most people (I hope) do not travel with three camera bodies, two flashes, seven lenses, two tripods and a plethora of filters, batteries and cans of Dust-Off as I do. Traveling light means compromising on gear, but when your camera bag is too heavy, your enthusiasm for photography wanes. Choose your camera bag carefully.”
The biggest struggle for most photographers is approaching people to photograph them. Many photographers think people don’t want to be approached, so they hold back. However, Wier has found that people across the globe are pretty much the same: They tend to like the interaction with photographers. Even if you don't speak the same language, you can still communicate in a universal nonverbal language. She suggests that when you approach someone, give them several opportunities to tell you no. Show them the camera, bring the camera to your shoulder, then bring the camera to shooting position. If the person still is making eye contact with you, assume that you have their permission to take their photograph.
Wier’s motto is "Move in slowly and work quickly." As you meet the person and develop a relationship, you are moving in slowly. But as soon as you decide that you want to take a picture, you have to do it fast. If you spend too much time concentrating on your camera, you will lose the person. “The camera should ideally become an extension of your arm," Wier says.
“When I first started traveling and photographing over twenty years ago I felt uncomfortable, even guilty. Photographing someone I did not know made me feel intrusive, so I stood back with a telephoto lens to discreetly photograph—or so I thought. I know now that people were usually aware of me and probably even more annoyed that I was surreptitiously taking photographs. I did get some great images, but there was an empty feeling; I was a voyeur, a passive observer and not an active participant in the situation,” says Wier.
“I began using wider-angle lenses and thus coming in closer to people. I was forced to be direct and communicate in some manner, whether it was verbal or nonverbal. I discovered that 90 percent of the people in the world enjoy being photographed: It just depends on how you approach them. You have to be in a good mood, open, sincere and possessed of an almost Zen-like beginner’s mind.”
Wier believes that the photographer has to feel comfortable photographing a person in order for the person to feel comfortable being photographed. "I sincerely believe that photographing someone is a compliment. It's a sign that you find the person interesting," she says. “If you have the attitude that the act of selecting a subject to photograph is a compliment, then you open the door to more opportunity. I think the successful photographers are the ones who consistently are allowed to penetrate into the intimate parts of people's lives."
With digital, people like to see themselves immediately. Wier says that if you do take a person’s photograph, as a courtesy, you need to send them a copy. “Always follow through on your promise,” she says, “in order to make it easier on the next photographer who comes along.”
THE BUSINESS OF TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY
The travel photography business is not easy. The pressure of creating new, fresh images combined with the challenge of worldwide travel requires hard work and long hours. “It's difficult to make a living as a full-time travel photographer,” says Wier. While she doesn’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing travel photography, she does want emerging travel photographers to be realistic about creating a formula for success. She recommends that photographers diversity: “Do a variety of things, such as books, cards, stock photography, speculation, personal projects. The travel photography market is not the same as it used to be.”
Wier believes having a good business sense is vital for success. In fact, most of being a successful travel photographer is being a good businessperson. She warns that the business side of a photography career usually takes up more time and energy than the travel. Wier's advice is to keep your day job, find a market for your work, and hire for your business and marketing needs.
She also suggests that photographers research the changing needs and demands of travel editors. The hottest locations for travel stock photography right now are the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe, but photographers need to verify the actual needs of the publications they hope to work for. She also recommends moving beyond travel magazines to trade magazines, where photographers might find fresh markets for their travel photos.
It takes a particular type of person to enjoy the lifestyle of a travel photographer, make a business out of it and, most importantly, have an eye and an instinct for capturing those special moments. Wier says it also helps to develop a personal balance of working with people and enjoying the time spent working alone. And in the digital age, it also helps to know computers and technology. Wier sums it up: "I think photography is hard, but it's one of those lifelong pursuits that I still find challenging.”
Wardrobe and Luggage: Keep it light, keep it simple, keep it minimal. Have a good pair of shoes. Don't buy heavy luggage. Use the duffel-type luggage, to avoid the heavier frames. Wier buys Eaglecreek brand.
Gear: Wier travels with film and digital. She has a compact digital camera as well as a professional digital camera. For digital, she carries several back-up solutions, in addition to the compact flash cards and downloading photos onto a hard drive. She uses memory sticks and external storage devices (digital wallet, pocket drive, compact discs, etc). She uses Ultra II and Extreme compact flash cards for durability and speed.
Flash: The arrival of TTL-balanced fill-flash has helped Wier overcome the tyranny of bad light and the limited contrast range of film. Don't think of using flash only when it's dark outside. Used subtly, flash minimizes unwanted shadows, brightens dark scenes, and highlights areas of interest while preserving the ambient light.
Model Releases: In this day and age, it is vital to travel with model releases. If you travel in countries outside the United States, you need model releases in languages such as Spanish, French, German.
Brenda Pfeiffer is a freelance writer and photographer living in San Diego, CA.†Her photographs have won awards and have been used in advertising, magazines, Web sites and exhibited in galleries.