I'm fortunate to be a regular recipient of questions from students and fellow photographers so, in order to try and do justice to the requests, I've compiled a series of questions and answers from a selection of interviews with various magazines and web sites.
Five Top Tips for Photographers
Practical Photography Magazine Interview
Let’s start with the basics – what is travel photography through your eyes and why are you drawn to it?
In a traditional sense, travel photography is often associated with ‘exotic’ locations and far-flung adventures. You might expect to see sun-drenched beaches and vibrant festivals where the locals wear colourful clothing, eat freshly-caught shellfish and smile all day. It’s a kind of aspirational lifestyle genre at the furthest end of the definition. I often think of it as the flip side of a more gritty, photojournalistic approach. If you sent a photojournalist and a travel photographer to the same location, one might return with images of civil unrest, poverty, war and neglect whilst the other might make the same place look like a tantalising holiday destination. Neither is more or less accurate than the other. It’s simply evidence that there’s rarely ever one, incontrovertible truth, only different but equally valid perspectives.
I started out looking for more of that I call the ‘Sunshine and Smiling Faces’ style of photography. The kind of stock images that sell to tour companies and glossy travel magazines. I think anybody who does that quickly realises that there’s always much more to a location. To not have delved a little deeper would have felt disingenuous. As a result, I’ve been able to cover a really wide range of subjects, from upbeat adventure experiences to NGO projects and current affairs news stories. My gear includes sunglasses, ski goggles and a gas mask. I’m equipped for sun, snow and tear gas!
‘Travel Photography’ is a convenient shortcut for people to quickly get a handle on my work. However, it’s probably more accurate to say that the defining characteristic is that I’m trying to convey something of my own experience. Most often, that’s a sense of child-like wonder and enthusiasm. The locations are largely incidental and my work probably doesn’t fall neatly into any category. However, ‘Travel Photographer’ is a handy description and it helps boost my Google search ranking!
How would you describe your style? We think you have a very particular way of working with and using colour…
That’s such a difficult question to answer. It’s probably best left for other people to describe. I think having a consistent style is probably beneficial in a commercial sense, especially when it comes to potential clients being able to see what you can offer but I’ve never approached it in a very conscious way. I am, however, obsessive about colour fidelity and have a very carefully-managed colour workflow. My cameras, monitors and printer are regularly calibrated and I’m proud to be an X-Rite ‘Coloratti’, which sounds like I have mafia connections but just means that I’m able to talk with tedious authority about Colour Spaces and Camera Profiles. I often think it’s a shame when I see photographers going to great trouble and expense to photograph something remarkable and then losing colour detail and fidelity in the processing. It’s all part of the process, whether we like it or not and we should pay more attention to how our images are rendered.
Break your job down for us – what percentage of your time is spent travelling, taking pictures, editing, marketing, and answering annoying journalist’s epic Q&As?
I really wish I could say that I spend 90% or more of my time with a camera in my hand but the reality is that self-employed freelancers are primarily concerned with running a business. Like any other, that requires time spent marketing, doing accounts, liaising with clients and doing all the admin necessary to support a commercial venture. I completed an analysis recently and my time breaks down into five roughly equal slices of about 20% each. 1. Assignment planning and preparation, 2. Taking photographs, 3. Editing photographs, 4. Marketing & Client Liaison, 5. Emails and Admin, including accounting, insurance, visas etc.
Travel photography must seem like a very glamorous job to some, but the realities of any job are rarely as glitzy beneath the surface? What won’t you read in the sales brochure? What do we really need to know about this job?
It’s true that the job is probably very different from what people might imagine. Glitzy? Not so much. Having said that, the standard response is to reel off a list of hardships and hazards: the long plane journeys; overcrowded trains; early starts; no time off; freezing/boiling/humid conditions (delete as applicable); the threat of malaria; dengue fever and the inevitable and regular assaults upon the stability of one’s lower intestine…
Those things are all unpleasantly real but, firstly, they’re easily outweighed by the positive aspects and, secondly, it’s a choice. To complain about them would be churlish. It’s a lifestyle that I worked hard to achieve, I love the work and so, for me, it remains the most glamorous thing I can imagine.
How do you see the world? Faces, colours, events… what makes you want to take the photos you do?
I grew up in a small, mostly rural community on the Isle of Wight at a time when the opportunities to travel just didn’t exist as they do now. We never went overseas, unless you count the Red Funnel ferry to Southampton. My adventures took place in books and on ponderously slow bus journeys. When the chance to travel finally presented itself, it was a revelation to me. I’ve never lost that sense of enthusiastic wonder and although I’ve lived in Thailand for eight years now, I still grin every time I get in the back of a tuk-tuk, which I must have done thousands of times. I’m probably doing nothing more than trying to capture some of those experiences for my own delight. Consequently, everything intrigues me. This week I spent forty-five minutes photographing the smoke rising from incense sticks in a temple. Subjects don’t have to be astonishing, they can be everyday things but if you’re enchanted by them, you’ll want to do them justice by photographing them in the best way you know.
What is it that pushes your buttons in terms of excitement and job satisfaction? What makes it all worth it?
Commercially, I love it when invoices are paid on time. That’s the uninspiring but truthful answer. More poetically, I’ve reached the point in my career where I’m more able to direct my time and energy towards the things that I find most alluring. The promise of a new destination is always exciting. I’m currently packing for three assignments: the first, trekking a pilgrimage route in Italy; the second travelling by train in Sri Lanka and the third creating a story about the beaches of New Zealand. I can’t imagine not being excited by the prospect of those jobs. After that, I return to Nepal and Bhutan. The job satisfaction comes firstly from being able to manage that work in a professional manner and being able to rely almost solely on my own abilities to do so. It also comes from presenting a finished product to a client who responds with the same delight and enthusiasm that I felt when making the work. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to work with several NGO clients over many years and, between us, we’ve succeeded in building a really comprehensive archive of projects. Having a body of work to look back on is very satisfying.
Describe the highs and lows of your career so far – where have you been, what have you seen, who have you met, what will you tell the grandkids?
The list of highs would be long indeed. The lows are few and far between. I was the victim of a half-hearted mugging attempt in Rio many years ago and I had a phone stolen in Hanoi once. Other than those minor irritations, I’ve never really had any truly horrible experiences. There have been the occasional illnesses and I’ve learned the benefit of consuming lots of live yoghurt but I have to think hard to remember the low points. There are hundreds of memorable highs. Seeing the sun rise over Machu Pichu in Peru, watching a thunderstorm light up Machapuchare mountain in the Nepal Himalayas, being charged by a bull elephant in the Masai Mara, delivering fresh lobster to the King of Tonga… it’s a long and growing list. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. However, it’s often the less epic things that are the most touching. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been invited into somebody’s home or been shown genuine warmth and hospitality by people who have far less than me in a material sense. I was photographing the devastation caused by the earthquake in Nepal last year when I met three elderly women who’d lost their homes and were trying to retrieve a few possessions from the rubble. It was heartbreaking. They stopped and chatted with me, then lit a fire and insisted that I eat with them, sharing what little food they had. That kind of generosity is humbling in the extreme and prompts a reassessment of your own place in the world. I wouldn’t swap that experience for all the tea in China and it’s made more remarkable by the fact that it’s not an isolated example. I’m met with that kind of warmth on every job I do.
What challenges does travel photography present, physical, mental or otherwise, and how do/have you overcome these?
Obviously, the best travel photographers must be sturdy, muscular and dashingly handsome ;-) More seriously, patience and resilience are both necessary traits. Both physically and mentally. Long journeys can be tiresome, there are often many hours spent waiting for transport or waiting for the right light or waiting for some combination of seemingly random factors to coexist. Then, when something happens, it’s probably going to require swift and decisive action to capture it as you want. A sense of adventure would seem like an obvious pre-requisite but I think that if you’re really passionate about something, patience and resilience will inevitably be afforded to you. We all know how it feels to be doing something that we’re not enthusiastic about. It’s a chore. If travel photography feels like a burden then, without wishing to state the obvious, you should probably do something else.
Talk us through your mental and physical approach to taking a photograph – at what point does the actual picture-taking process begin?
Thinking about that now, I realise that for many assignments, I’ll begin to compile a shot list in my head many weeks before the job begins. For many clients, that Shot List is formalised in some way, either during a conversation or by email. Having a list of specific images helps us both manage our expectations and the process of compiling it allows me to get an appreciation of what the client needs. For articles and stories that I’m pitching to a potential client, such as a magazine editor, I’ll include a summary of the style and content of the images I expect to create. In many ways, I’ve begun to consider compositions, perspectives and light long before I reach the destination. Of course, on arrival, everything may have changed and that’s when some flexibility in approach is essential but the core approach will remain consistent.
Talk us through your kit bag and techniques – what do you use, why do you use it, and how do you use it? Are you a get it right in-camera kind of guy?
I’m a geek so I love messing around with camera gear and am a technological magpie. I have a couple of Canon 5D MKIII bodies with a big selection of lenses, from 16mm to 200mm including several prime lenses, a Tilt/Shift lens and a bundle of weird and wonderful accessories. That’s my main, go-to working kit. I know it well and muscle memory allows me to use that gear without having to think about menus and buttons and dials. For personal work and when I need to travel light, I use a Leica M with various prime lenses and a Sony A7RII, which has a Voigtlander adapter to take the Leica lenses. The quality of that combination is wildly impressive. I also have a converted Canon infrared body, and some old film bodies, which I use occasionally. I rarely travel without a Fujifilm Instax camera or printer because being able to give instant prints to people has proved to be a wonderful way of opening doors and sharing the experience. Most recently, I got my hands on a Polaroid SX-70, which takes Impossible Project film. It makes a noise like a rocket taking off every time it makes a print, it’s clunky, unwieldy and heavy. It can only accommodate eight prints and each one takes an hour to develop and the results are often blurry. I love it.
Yes, I think getting it right in the camera is a really important skill. I’m disappointed to hear photographers talking about how more megapixels will allow them to crop without losing quality. A great deal of the enjoyment of photography is the challenge of converting a scene into a framed composition. That requires creativity, imagination and a little toil. I ran a workshop with the incomparable William Albert Allard recently and it’s fair to say that after the students’ first review session, none of them dared mention the word “crop” for the rest of the week. But that’s passion. You only have to glance at Allard’s beautiful work to see what passion can achieve. Why compromise?
How important is light? Do you chase it? Is there such thing as ‘perfect’ light where travel photography is concerned?
I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘perfect’ light. I believe that a good photographer will be able to make reasonable work in almost any conditions but, nevertheless, light is crucial and really is our only tool, when you think about it. I’m certainly always aware of the light, the direction, how fast it’s changing, whether it’s bouncing off any nearby surfaces, whether it’s creating catchlights etc. Yes, I’ll ‘chase’ the light, in the sense that I’ll make everything else work towards putting me where I want to be at a certain time. Pleasing light can make even the ugliest of subjects beautiful. I recently laughed at myself for taking photographs of the usually unattractive public toilets at Yangon Railway Station in Burma, thinking ‘Why are you taking this photo? It’s never going to be published.’ but the light was great. So I’m pleased to see that photo in the short list of pictures you chose to accompany this interview :)
What’s your attitude to Photoshop and how much editing is involved in a Gough original? What are your limits? How do you create the Gough look?
I use Lightroom rather than Photoshop and although I still have Photoshop, haven’t used it for years. Lightroom does all that I need and more. I’m not wildly enthusiastic about time spent in front of a computer screen so have tried to reduce time spent on post-production. Presets can be useful to a point but, generally, each image will require individual attention. I rarely spend more than a couple of minutes on an image. I’ll correct the white balance and any lens distortion (avoiding the built-in vignette correction, which rarely helps), then make very slight adjustments to clarity and vibrance. I never change saturation. I never, ever add sharpening. If a photo is out of focus, it’s out of focus. I kick myself and move on. I may add some general dodging and burning adjustments but try not to do anything that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve in a film darkroom. That’s all. I’ve compiled a book and series of video tutorials that explain by entire post-production workflow (available here), which many photographers have said has been really helpful. Post-production is a necessary evil and it’s worth spending time understanding how to make it work.
Digital Photographer Magazine Interview
Have you always been interested in photography?
Our family had a 110 Instamatic camera camera when I was young. It came out for holidays, birthdays and at Christmas. I was certainly captivated by the results and the growing collection of family photo albums have become treasured family heirlooms. There was something magical about being able to capture fleeting moments and no doubt that was where my fascination with photography began.
How did you get started?
In my former incarnation, I was a Systems Analyst. I took a one-year sabbatical, bought an around-the-world ticket and set off, equipped with a Canon EOS-1 and a couple of lenses. I shot as much as I could, hoping to build a portfolio that would be of interest to the big stock agencies. Looking back, the results weren’t that impressive, but having that time and freedom was invaluable as it allowed me to build the skills I would need to become a professional photographer.
What got you interested in travel and editorial photography?
I think my first interest is in travel, the photography is a consequence of that. I always enjoyed exploring, visiting new places. Photography offered me a way to open doors and, importantly, a means of earning a living whilst doing something that I really enjoyed - and still do.
What do you find most exciting about travel photography? Why?
I’ve yet to find anything that can beat the anticipation of arriving in a new location with a camera in hand. No matter how many guidebooks you’ve read or travelogues you’ve seen, nothing can prepare you for the reality of a new destination. I still feel like a child in a sweet shop when I’m documenting a new place. Everything seems photogenic. I particularly like searching for the best light, returning to a location when I think the light will be most favourable. It’s like a game, in some ways. Perhaps it’s a replacement for the hunter-gatherer instinct. Hunting out the best light, gathering the best perspectives…
What’s in your kit bag?
The contents of my camera bag are dictated by the nature of the assignment. For NGO and most editorial work, I carry two Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIs with a selection of lenses including 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 50mm, 85mm, 24mm TS-E, Speedlite 580EX II and remote trigger plus all the paraphernalia that goes with that. I don’t have any lenses slower than f/2.8 because I often need to work in low light and want that narrow depth-of-field. I’m most often working with lenses wide open.
For stock photography and personal projects I use a combination of a Leica M-P and Sony a7RII but use Leica lenses on both bodies. Again, wide apertures are essential for me and I like the fact that manual focus slows me down, forces me to compose carefully and think more.
Do you have a favourite go-to lens? What is it?
I firmly believe that a good photographer should be able to work with pretty much any lens so, without wishing to be glib, my favourite lens is the one that’s on the camera. Having said that, I do have a special fondness for the Canon 85mm f/1.2. It can be hard to use and the depth-of-field is so shallow that it’s easy to lose critical focus. However, when it’s sharp, it produces the most wonderful bokeh and makes portraits really special. Those extra stops from the wide aperture really make a huge difference in low light too so if I had a “Desert Island Lens”, it would be the 85mm.
Do you have a favourite country/place to photograph in? Why is it your favourite?
Genuinely, wherever I am at the time is my favourite place to be. I think it would be a challenge to do my job if you weren’t fascinated by each and every place. I don’t suppose there’s a place on earth that doesn’t have something to offer. However, I’m especially fond of Asia, where people tend to live their lives on the street much more than in Europe and North America. I relocated to Bangkok in 2008 because South-East Asia has so much photographic potential. Photographers can find engaging subjects literally every time we step onto the street in that part of the world. I’m running a photo workshop in Nepal in March next year and I’m really looking forward to introducing the group to some of my favourite places. I’ve been visiting Nepal regularly for 15 years so I’m becoming familiar with how the light works in different locations at different times of day.
A lot of your images are very engaging. How do you go about achieving this?
Thank you. I don’t think there’s a secret. If a photographer is engaged with their subject, the results will show evidence of that. That’s true for portrait, landscape, fashion or any other photographic genre. I know that my best images have been made when I’ve been most fully engaged with my subject. If you’re not interested in something, why bother photographing it? That would just be a chore.
Is there a trick to approaching people that you wish to photograph?
Not a trick as such but my mantra is “Tea first, photography second”. What I mean by that is that I tend to chat with people first. I’ll buy something in a market and chat with the stallholder. Often, I’ll find a place where locals are drinking tea, something that happens all day every day in the streets in Asia. Once some rapport has been established, photography will naturally flow from that. I like making the photography a collaborative effort, with me and my subject working together. People are much more interested when they feel a part of the process. I love to share prints from an instant camera or, at the very least, share images from my camera’s LCD screen. Also, I don’t shoot and run, which I think is the temptation for photographers who are nervous about photographing people. I work slowly and deliberately and often take 12-15 photos of one person, giving them time to find a position, pose and expression where they feel most comfortable. I never give money for photographs, that sets an awkward precedent, but I will buy goods from shop owners and market traders or find some other way of balancing the equation.
For you, what makes a good travel shot?
I think the best travel shots reveal something about the photographer as much as they show a person or place. That might sound a bit abstract but photographers are not robots. We have a reaction to a place and to people we meet. Showing some evidence of that, whether it’s joy, fascination, intrigue or even hesitation or fear is what makes a travel photograph stand out from something that a robot with a camera could have taken.
Do you enjoy shooting any other genres?
Frankly, I don’t really see photography in terms of genres. I might shoot landscapes or cityscapes, portraits, street photographs, macro, abstract… it all blends into one thing. They’re my images, my interpretation of the world and I hope that they defy pigeon-holing. I’m not even very keen on the title of “Travel Photographer” because I think the definition can be restrictive - although it does help with Google search engine rankings!
Do you have any plans or projects coming up?
Always! I have a number of NGO and editorial assignments coming up. I’ll be shooting more stock photography in Europe next year. I have ongoing personal projects, including documenting the story of how tea is cultivated and processed. I’m writing a book and about a thousand other things. I never run out of inspiration, only time.
Travel + Leisure Magazine Interview
How long have you been a photographer?
As a full-time professional, about 15 years but as an amateur, probably since I was given my first camera, a 110 Instamatic. Once I realised what it could do, I was hooked.
Who are some of your clients?
I shoot stock photographs for Lonely Planet, Getty Images and 4Corners and have completed assignments for commercial and NGO clients from around the world, including Sony, 3M, Diethelm Travel and the Hungarian and Vietnamese Tourist Boards. My work has appeared on everything from postage stamps to billboards and has been featured in the Guardian, Sunday Times, New York Times, Geo and National Geographic Traveler magazines.
What have been some of your more memorable assignments?
I shot the cover feature for Vanity Fair's Travel Edition last year, which took me on a whirlwind trip to Bali to photograph everything from beaches and resorts to local markets and religious ceremonies. That was a tough assignment ;) Over the years, I've documented festivals, ceremonies, cuisine, culture, protests, riots, humanitarian crises, NGO projects and all manner of human activity around the globe. It's hard to pick anything specific from such a wide variety of work.
Did you have a different career at some point?
In my previous incarnation, I was a Systems Analyst. It was a great job but I find that working as a photographer exercises both sides of my brain and satisfies my analytical, technical interests whilst giving me an opportunity to pursue and realise my creative aspirations. It's a great mix.
How would you describe your own photographic style?
It varies according to the job, to be honest. When I started out, it was very much "blue skies and smiling faces", the sort of images that would not look out of place in a Lonely Planet guide book. More recently, however, I've been working in a more editorial style, telling the visual stories that lie one step beyond the usual tourist scenes that we're all familiar with. Both approaches are rewarding but I am finding that the more in-depth, journalistic approach is taking me beyond the obvious.
How does your particular style influence the workshops that you run in Bangkok?
Workshops are invariably relaxed affairs and reflect my approach to photography. We go on-location and photograph some of the engaging street scenes that are to be found in Bangkok. We don't hurry, we spend time deciding what our aims are before we even pick up a camera and I hope to instil a sense of patience in my fellow photographers. Interacting with the people who work in the markets that we visit is an important part of the process and I ask photographers to make their enjoyment of the location their first priority and their photography a secondary concern. Good street photography evolves from our participation and involvement in the surroundings.
To which parts of the city do you take participants and why?
We usually visit Chinatown and the delightful Pak Khlong Talat 24-hour fruit and flower market. I like to introduce photographers to these locations as, despite the fact that they can be very busy, they have that uniquely Thai atmosphere of being pretty laid-back. Street vendors and shoppers alike are very friendly and tremendously hospitable, which makes our job much simpler and these are parts of the city that visiting tourists rarely see - it's what I like to think of as the "Real Bangkok".
What time of day is the workshop? Why then?
We divide a full-day workshop into two halves, catching the morning light in one location and the early evening light at another. It's important to take a break during the hottest and brightest part of the day and this ensures that we are photographing in the most favourable light conditions. This reflects the way my day is structured when I'm on assignment so it's useful to introduce workshop participants to this approach.
What are common mistakes you see?
Fortunately, the most common mistakes are easily rectified. Having an understanding of apertures and shutter speeds and their relationship to one another when making an exposure is important and we discuss how different exposure settings can be appropriate for different subjects. Simple things like how to hold the camera steady can yield quick improvements but there are techniques for the more advanced photographer too and, as I know from my own experience, there's always something new to learn.
What do you suggest budding photographers NOT worry about?
Gear! I encourage photographers to come to workshops with the minimum of equipment. Not only does it mean that we have less to carry, which means that we can move around more freely, it removes the temptation to concentrate on camera equipment and, instead, we focus (pardon the pun) on our surroundings.
What are your top tips?
My motto has become "Take more photos of fewer things". I ask photographers to spend more time with their subjects and to photograph them in a variety of ways before moving on. Workshop participants are often surprised how much variety can be found on a short walk through the market. Our aim is to give ourselves the greatest amount of choice when we get home and begin the editing process. It's also important to take the time to see how a subject appears when reduced to a two-dimensional rectangle and only with perseverance can we see what compositions will suit a subject best.
Tell me a little bit about how you got started in photography. – what drew you to photography to begin with, your photo education, how long you’ve been shooting?
I've been a full-time professional travel photographer since 2003 but dabbled as an amateur, shooting stock for some years prior to making the leap. I'm self-taught with no formal photographic training but spent long hours studying stock library catalogues, which served as my photography text books.
How would you describe your photographic style? Do you have a signature photographic technique that distinguishes you from other photographers?
I'm proud to say that I'm a travel photographer, in the traditional sense. I hope that my images celebrate the diversity to be found in different cultures and my delight in photography stems from discovering that no matter what our cultural backgrounds or ethnicity, we share a common humanity at heart. I like to think that my photographic style, if there is such a thing, is informed by the delight I find when exploring new locations and from the enriching and uplifting experiences that travel invariably brings. I guess I'm an optimist at heart and I like to think that my images are generally optimistic too. However, I've begun to explore more editorial subjects recently and that's required a shift in style. I still seem to be drawn to the optimistic side of the stories that I cover and find great satisfaction in identifying the silver lining - it's always there but sometimes it takes some effort to see it.
Do you have personal philosophies that drive your work?
I often say that I'm a traveller first and a photographer second. I think that's an important distinction and I am occasionally concerned that some photographers seem to make the image-taking their priority, sometimes at the expense of respect and appreciation for the destinations they visit and the people who they photograph. Hopefully, that's a factor that's changing as we all become more educated about cultures different from our own. Photography is a means of communicating an experience but we need to have had the experience in the first place if our photographs are to communicate something meaningful. I think that my life would be much the same even if I could not use a camera - it's a means to an end and if I couldn't photograph then I'd learn to become a better writer or a more talented sketch artist in order to capture and communicate the experiences that travel brings.
What are some of the pivotal moments that have shaped your career? – mentors, inspiration, early career milestones, landing big gigs etc…
When I was a teenager, I read Don McCullin's autobiography "Unreasonable Behaviour". I've re-read it every couple of years since and have recently opened it again. McCullin's images couldn't really be further in style and content from my own but his drive and desire to communicate the things that he witnessed inspired me and helped me realise that photography could be used in a powerfully positive way. That book lit a fire in me and eventually provided the determination to try to make a living through photography. I admire McCullin's determination but it's his sense of justice that seems to have provided the imperative for him to photograph - that's a great inspiration.
At what stage of your career would you consider yourself? – emerging, established, working, veteran, reinventing yourself … any other term you want to use
I think that's a question best answered by others and depends very much on their perspective. Some people might consider me to be established because I have regular work and have begun to build a reputation and profile. However, I'd definitely say that I'm still an emerging photographer. Perhaps we never really stop emerging, certainly in terms of defining our style, which I hope, for me, will be something that continues to evolve and improve.
What do you think are some of the secrets to your success as a working photographer?
Good question. You know the phrase "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"? That's me. To begin with it was self-belief without any real justification, I set out with what I now see was naiveté but it allowed me to build the self-confidence in my abilities that a more realistic appraisal of my talents might have diluted. Since then it's been tireless effort, motivated by the fact that I don't ever want to consider doing anything else. I often recommend that aspiring photographers have a "Plan B" because that seems to be a sensible approach but the truth is that only having one option makes success really crucial. On a more practical level, it's been taking pains to appreciate exactly what clients are looking for and then ensuring that I'm shooting what they need and not what I think they need. I try to deliver on deadline, don't offer excuses and always aim to provide a little more than was requested. It's the small things and attention to detail that can tip the scales in your favour.
What are you working on now? – any interesting projects, assignments, new clients etc…
I have a lot of interesting work planned and this year promises to be the busiest yet. I'm continuing to build and refine the content that we deliver at the photography school in Bangkok that I founded (www.bangkokphotoschool.com). I have assignments booked for China, Korea and across South East Asia; am excited about teaching with Karl Grobl, Matt Brandon and Marco Ryan in Siem Reap in the summer and continue to work on personal projects in India and Nepal. I have plans to lead a tour to Bhutan in the Autumn and seem to be working on about ten different things at once. I never take the work for granted and so am really enjoying this period when I'm beginning to be able to pick and choose the assignments that I accept.
How do you use your PhotoShelter website as a tool for your business? – sales, prints, delivering files to clients, proofing, promotion?
Photoshelter has become such an integral part of my workflow and, firstly, I rely on it to provide me with an online archive. It also provides the basis for my online portfolio and has been a source of many new contacts. Most importantly, however, it allows me to deliver high-resolution files to clients no matter where I am. Once the files are uploaded, providing I can get an internet connection, I can release press-ready files to clients. That kind of access has allowed me to make sales from far-flung locations and when clients have plenty of other photographers' work to choose from, that's a crucial advantage. Clients love the ability to download comps and to create lightboxes and Photoshelter now provides all the tools that I need at the business end of my workflow.
First, a little background. You were a systems analyst before you became a photographer. What led you to make the switch?
I had always been a keen photographer in my spare time and had held an ambition to make photography a full-time career for many years. I used to contact stock photo libraries, pretending to be a potential buyer, in order to persuade them to send me their glossy catalogues. In those days stock library catalogues were big, beautifully produced books containing thousands of images. They were wonderful source of inspiration and information. I studied them in order to learn what images would sell and to gain an appreciation for the style of travel photography the editors might be interested in.
And how did you do it? Did you reduce your hours first or did you have assignments ready for the day you left?
Eventually, I took a one-year sabbatical and bought an around the world ticket. During that year, I travelled to South America, across the South Pacific, through Southeast Asia to India and Nepal. I was trying to build a portfolio suitable for stock sales. However, by the time I got back to England I had become so accustomed to that lifestyle that I couldn't really see myself going back to work in an office. At that point, I really had to make my new career work. So I devoted my time and energy to it and, thankfully, that hard work is beginning to pay off.
You’ve said there was a learning curve at the beginning. What surprised you and what did you learn?
I have often said that the greatest thing in my favour was my tremendous naiveté. If I had know just how difficult it is to make a living as a freelance travel photographer I might never have considered it. The list of things that I had to learn is far too long to include here. Let us just say that I had everything to learn. I suppose the one thing in my favour was my tremendous passion, in fact it's more accurate to say that it was an obsession. Honestly, I think anything less than an obsession is not going to be enough. To have any kind of success, photographers need to be beyond passionate. It really must be the only thing you can contemplate doing and it's important to realise that it's much more than just a job, it has to be a way of life. In conversations with friends the subject of "work/life balance" sometimes comes up. That's not really something I have to be aware of because, without wishing to sound glib, my life is my work and vice versa. I don't think there's been a day in the last 10 years when I haven't been involved in photography in one way or another.
How did you find those first travel commissions?
With great difficulty. The secret, if you can call it that, is to think about doing an editor's job for them. Editors are busy people and if you can provide them with a complete package, with tightly edited images in a style that is suitable for their particular publication together with words, at least in the form of comprehensive captions, then you are presenting them with a much more attractive proposition. When it comes to commissions for travel companies or NGOs, the same remains true. It's important to have a good grasp of what, exactly, each organisation is trying to promote an end to edit your submissions or proposals to be appropriate. Commissioning editors, advertising professionals and marketing experts don't offer assignments based on what photographers want to provide, they choose photographers who they think can deliver what they need. That might be the most important lesson. To provide what buyers want not what you would like to supply.
When did you start teaching and how do you divide your time between teaching, commissions and stock photography?
I started teaching shortly before a move to Thailand and have since established the Bangkok Photo School and have taught over 300 students in the last four years. I really enjoy teaching and is no better incentive to learn a technique than knowing that you're going to have to teach it. I tried to divide my time equally between teaching, assignment work and stock photography. It's a difficult balance to achieve but I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to divide my time between those three.
Are there any days when you wish you were back working with computers?
Finally, what advice would you have for someone thinking of chucking in the day job and shooting full time?
I would suggest that anybody considering such a move should give themselves at least 12 months grace, when they don't need to earn any money. The worst thing would be to leave a regular income in order to pursue a dream which, ultimately, will come with some harsh reality checks. Pursuing a dream is to be encouraged, but I've seen lots of people who have struggled a great deal when the realities of the dream come apparent. I think maintaining some kind of regular income is probably a good idea and I would encourage people not to start thinking about a career change until they are debt free and have enough money in the bank to support them and their family for at least a year. Travel photographers don't need to visit exotic locations to produce content. Every location is "exotic" to somebody and there will be opportunities on your doorstep, which you might overlook because you are so familiar with them. Photographing in your spare time is a good way to begin and will allow you to spend time getting to know the market and building a network of useful contacts. Travel photography may seem like a glamorous occupation but I can assure you that I spend very little of my time photographing in exotic locations. 80 to 90% of my time is spent processing, marketing, developing networks, writing, applying for grants, answering emails, updating my accounts, chasing invoices and doing all of the administrative tasks that are a necessary part of running a business. I'm not just a photographer, I have to be a marketing expert, an IT Guru, an administrative assistant, and much more besides. I wouldn't change a thing of course but I wouldn't want anyone to labour under the full suppression that working as a freelance photographer is an easy life. And if you set out on this path you are either going to have to work very, very hard or live very, very cheaply. Probably both.
You know, so often it’s just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping down in a cloud of dust: sitting down on the ground with people, letting children look at your camera with their dirty, grimy little hands, and putting their fingers on the lens, and you just let them, because you know that if you will behave in a generous manner, you are apt to receive generosity in return.