Chris McLennan is a New Zealand based travel photographer who works for tourism industry clients around the globe. He has photographed in over 50 different countries to date and has received a number of international photography awards. He is an ambassador for camera brand Nikon and computing giant HP. He also holds endorsement relationships with Lexar, Lowepro and AquaTech. Actually to call him a travel photographer is something of a misnomer, as Chris works across travel related genres such as lifestyle, adventure, wildlife and natural history with equal aplomb. The fact that all of these necessitate travel – because his clients and shoot locations are spread all over the globe – is perhaps the strongest link. In this feature, we’ve chosen to focus on his lifestyle and adventure imagery. Spending any time on his website and blog certainly leaves the viewer with the impression that Chris must spend a good portion of his life in hotel rooms, and he will almost certainly have developed the ability to sleep on airliners.

Chris grew up in the rural farming community of Riversdale, not far from Queenstown in New Zealand’s picturesque South Island. Chris began his photography career in 1988 running a wedding and portrait studio out of Invercargill. But it wasn’t long before his love of skiing and the magic of the Southern Alps pulled him to the bright lights of Queenstown, where he set up shop and pursued commercial clients in the adventure tourism sector. He has worked on commercial shoots in over 50 different countries to date and his stunning travel imagery has been recognised with a string of international awards. Chris markets his images through a stock library and has a range available for sale as prints through his website. In addition to shooting commercially, Chris provides guidance and inspiration to photography enthusiasts globally through a range of Photo Tour workshops on offer each year which have seen him take guests to locations as photogenic and unique as Norway, Alaska, Papua New Guinea, Africa, Fiji and New Zealand. As we began the process of compiling this feature, ably aided by his wife and business partner Catherine, Chris was in the beautiful Fiji Islands on yet another adventure, returning in the nick of time to help us to gather the necessities. We chatted to Chris about this trip, and his career.

f11: Welcome Chris, what can you tell us about the assignment you’ve just returned home from?

CM: I’ve been in Fiji for a month working for Marriott, who have just opened their first Fiji property, the Marriott Momi Bay Resort, featuring over water bures and a stunning horizon pool. Marriott recently acquired Starwood hotels, which is a hotel group that I’ve worked with around the world for many years now. To shoot for Marriott or Starwood you need to be a brand approved photographer, and there are very specific guidelines and requirements for the shoot. On this trip I photographed not only the new Marriott property but also updated imagery for the other Starwood Fiji properties as well. 30 days straight with only 3 days off was a pretty tiring month, but at least the weather was great!

f11: Your wife Catherine is obviously integral to your business, and part of the support structure that makes your busy schedule possible. Can you expand on the way you two work together, and does she accompany you on some shoots?

CM: Catherine and I used to travel together in the early days, as soon as we got married she started working full time for the business and so she traveled with me on nearly every shoot. But over the years – and since having kids – our individual areas of responsibility have changed a bit and of course the business has grown, so now she stays at home and takes care of pretty much all of the business side of things, while I do all of the photography. And that way, when we do travel together it can be an actual holiday, instead of work!

f11: Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ year for you, and what percentage of the time do you spend travelling on various assignments here and abroad?

CM: My assignments change annually but funnily enough there does seem to be a pattern of sorts. I have a few regular trips each year (the US in February, Alaska in July, Africa in August/ September), and quite a few regular clients. So often I’ll have a schedule of sorts planned in advance for each year, and any new work just gets slotted in around that. I also try and take a month off every summer during theschool holidays. So usually I’m flat out from February through November, and hopefully a bit quieter during December and January. Catherine keeps track of the days away each year as this is needed for my travel insurance, and it is usually around 200+ days away from home on average.

f11: We’ve elected to show your lifestyle and adventure imagery in this feature, but is there any one genre of photography which feels less like work and more like play when you’re working within it?

CM: Mostly I love to take photos of anything outdoors, from scenery to wildlife, lifestyle, culture and adventure. So it is less about genre and more about the type of project I’m working on and what that gives me the opportunity to shoot. A commercial shoot that lets me get outdoors – such as my work for Snowshoe Mountain Resort in the US – can be a lot of fun. However over the years I’ve built up a range of Photo Tour products which now take up around half of my working year, and guiding guests on these tours is definitely a different vibe to my commercial work. It’s still ‘work’, because I work hard to make sure my guests have an incredible experience on the tour, and there is a lot to manage. But creatively it’s a wonderful opportunity to share the whole image making experience with others and I get a lot back out of that. So if I had to pick, then these trips would be the least like ‘work’ and the most rewarding photographically, and from the experience and perspective of helping others. I also get to travel to locations that I choose, so that’s a bonus as well. Having said that, a lot of my regular clients around the world have become great friends over the years too, so working with them on exciting projects can make the whole ‘work’ aspect a lot more fun as well.

f11: What was your earliest exposure to photography, do you remember when this came on to your radar and when exactly the bug bit you?

CM: I can remember using my dad’s camera as a youngster, maybe six or seven years old. I got my first point and shoot as a teenager followed quickly by my first SLR. I used that to take photos of my dad who built and raced classic cars. It was when I was taking photos of a street race – the Nissan Mobile 500 – and those photos were published in the local newspaper that I first realised the possibility of taking photography more seriously. I took a night course in photography (literally a few evenings of my time), and it all fell into place after that.

f11: What was your pathway into the sort of professional photography you do now, and how did you transition from working in the wedding and portrait studio where you started?

CM: I knew I didn’t want to be doing weddings and portraits, simply because I was far more interested in getting outdoors with my camera and photographing the kinds of adventure activities I liked to be doing. So it was a fairly obvious step to close up my studio in Invercargill and move the business to Queenstown, which was somewhere I had spent a lot of time with my family growing up. Of course I loved the mountains and the skiing and the outdoor adventures offered by this region. I had to start from scratch trying to find clients, so it was a lot of door knocking and networking and going that extra mile to try and secure the work. But over time the results started to pay off and from there, it was really just word of mouth that helped me spread my client base further afield and eventually offshore.

f11: Who were your career influences and mentors, and is there any one person who you feel made the biggest impression on you in terms of your own direction?

CM: To be honest I was so busy trying to do my own thing I didn’t really stick my head up long enough to look around and see who else was out there. I am probably a lot more aware of other photographers now than I ever was back then. Plus, there weren’t a lot of us around in those days and the internet and social media didn’t even exist. So I didn’t have any mentors and I can’t think of any specific influences. I am completely self-taught, as I don’t think the night course really counts! And even today I still try and figure things out on my own, learning through experimentation, practise and thinking outside the square.

f11: When did you transition from film to digital capture, and are you 100% digital now?

CM: I can’t remember the exact date, but I was pretty early into digital as soon as the first ‘affordable’ DSLR cameras became available. I shoot fully digital now and can’t imagine going back to film. I know it can provide some fantastic creative options for those who like to create abstract and artistic works. But from a commercial perspective digital is really the only option for me, and I much prefer it.

f11: You are technically very accomplished and using new technologies in your photography, is that experimentation and innovation part of what keeps the flame burning brightly for you?

CM: Yes definitely, that’s a huge part of what I do and when I’m not out there taking photos, I’m still busy thinking of new concepts and ideas in my head and looking for the next opportunity to try something new. Whether it’s a client shoot or a personal project, I’ll often have an idea I’ve been waiting to try, or a new way of photographing a subject or topic I’ve photographed before… I can remember back in the early days my brother (who was an engineer) making up brackets and mounting gear for me back when you couldn’t buy those kinds of things, because I was always trying to put my camera in places where a camera wouldn’t normally go! I used to fly a parapente when I lived in Queenstown and he helped me make up an extendable arm on a pivot with a mounting bracket, which I used to take photos flying over Queenstown (now used by commercial pilots). I’ve always tried to think a little bit outside of the box and when I get to put one of those concepts or ideas into action it’s a huge buzz and definitely keeps me coming back for more.

f11: That leads us nicely in to the topic of drones, tell us about your use of these, and are you shooting stills and video for clients?

CM: I started using drones just to shoot high res still images and my first UAV’s were rather large customised drones carrying various mirrorless cameras. I never wanted to go down the pathway of the smaller drones with the GoPro style cameras. I was only interested in creating high res quality images that could sit alongside the rest of my work. So it’s been a huge process learning about drone technology and the different options to get decent cameras up in the air. Commercially, nearly every client shoot I do now requires some drone photography, and more and more recently they are asking for video as well. I also shoot on the DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus which is a great portable option, and it’s such a buzz to fly!

f11: How much equipment do you typically travel with these days, and what was required for the recent trip to Fiji?

CM: That changes depending on the project, but for Fiji I had a full commercial stills kit (three camera bodies, lenses, speedlites, filters, Quadra lights, tripod and light stands etc), as well as the drone and my underwater kit. So it’s a reasonable amount of excess baggage!!

f11: Have you always used Nikon equipment, and what has kept you with the brand over recent years?

CM: I started my career on Nikon way back in 1988. When my vehicle was broken into and all my gear was stolen, I transitioned to Canon as that was the most cost effective way to replace my kit at that time. But I eventually moved back on to Nikon gear and absolutely love it. Having used both, I do try to avoid the ‘my camera is better than yours’ dialogue. As your readers will be well aware, it really is the five inches of brain power behind the camera that makes the difference and the best way to create great imagery is to use the gear that best suits your needs and personal preferences.

f11: Have you played with medium format digital, and is this something you would ever consider for your line of work?

CM: I haven’t used it and given the nature of my work and the travel involved, plus the long lenses and equipment required for wildlife photography, it’s not something I would consider at this point.

f11: Do you do any post production work while you travel, or is this all done on your return home from each assignment?

CM: It depends on the job. For commercial hotel and resort shoots I will often do the majority of the post production while on site, sometimes sending image files back to the office (via whatever wi-fi connection exists at the location) for Catherine to do the extra touch ups such as removing air conditioning vents, signage and the like. But for the rest of my shoots, I leave the post production until I’m back in the office and do it all then. The only unfortunate element of that is that I have a stack of images from various trips which I haven’t even looked at yet! I tend to pick out a few favourites at the time, and often the rest get forgotten until I have time to go back and process them fully.

f11: On the subject of post, what’s your typical workflow and what do you use to catalogue your library of images?

CM: I use Lightroom to import, catalogue and process my RAW files, and Photoshop for any additional touchups that may be required.

f11: Are there any trends in photography today that don’t sit well with you or align with your personal approach to the art form?

CM: Not really, I’m pretty relaxed about all the various methods and styles out there and other people’s approach to photography. It’s such a subjective art form and I tend to simply concentrate on my own work, especially when I’m busy with commercial shoots, or coming up with new ideas or projects for myself. In fact if there was one thing that did bother me, it is when I hear photographers critiquing other people’s work in a way that is negative or discouraging. I’d rather give positive feedback to encourage others to keep trying to figure out what’s right for them and the way they want to approach their photography. Stay true to yourself is the advice I usually offer.

f11: Assuming that these are not top secret, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

CM: Nothing top secret. I’m currently on holiday in the South Island with Catherine and the kids for the school holidays, and two days after we get back I am up to the Bay of Islands for a client shoot, followed by another extended shoot in Fiji for a couple of clients, and then off to the Maldives for stage two of a previous shoot I completed at the Sheraton Maldives Resort. That takes me through to June when I head off to Norway for my Polar Bear photo tour on the MS Freya out of Longyearbyen. I am taking eleven guests on an icebreaker for ten nights and can’t wait to get there. I then head to Mexico for a personal trip, followed by my Grizzly Bear photo tour in Alaska in July. I am then in Botswana and Namibia from August through October guiding four more photo tour groups, followed by a South Island photo tour back here in New Zealand during November. So I only have half of November left for commercial work before hopefully hitting the Christmas holidays in December. Whew!

f11: Can we expect a book from you in the future, is there something you’re working towards as a publishing project?

CM: I am always thinking about a book and would love to publish something, but I never seem to find the time. And every time I think I have the right selection of images ready, I go on another shoot and end up with yet another collection of favourites! So it would be hard to be content as the minute I print something I’d find myself wanting to update it!

f11: Thanks Chris, its been a pleasure to feature your work and share part of your story with our readers.

When not travelling the world in search of his next photographic adventure, Chris enjoys family life split between the wild West Coast of rural Auckland and his mountain hideaway in remote Glenorchy deep in the South Island. We hope you’ll enjoy the imagery on display here, and that you might be tempted to take a deeper dive into the significant collection on his website.

As featured in f11 Magazine, June 2017:

View an online copy of the full magazine (June 2017 issue) here.

Or Download a PDF of the article only here.

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