So far it’s been a busy year with commercial shoots in the South Island, US, China, Norway, Botswana, Fiji and Alaska. But while at home briefly between projects earlier this year I had the privilege of presenting to a few different groups within New Zealand’s very enthusiastic photographic community. One of the questions I always get asked is “how did you become a travel photographer” – or more often worded by the younger members of the audience “how can I become a travel photographer”? (Watch this space for the progress of 14 year old Sarah Albom, my most recent inquisitor and herself a passionate photographer and experienced traveller with 32 different stamps in her passport already)!
And so, during one of these presentations, I made a bit of a joke about it by giving my philosophy on travel photography as “Number 1: Turn Up, and Number 2: Bring your camera…!!” Obviously there is a LOT more involved than that, but when you strip it back to the mere basics it really is that fundamental. You simply have to “be there” – but by that I also mean you really have to “be there” in the moment – and you have to have a camera to record that moment with. After that, everything else is just semantics.
The other question I always get asked is “where is my favourite place to travel”. That’s actually the harder question to answer as everywhere is special for so many different reasons. When offering travel advice to friends and family (something I am reluctant to do as it’s so personal) I always ask first what they are looking for – as everyone has a different viewpoint and different preferences for their travel experience – and secondly where they have been before. The best advice I can give anyone currently planning their next travel destination is to think of all the places where you have already been, and then try and find somewhere the complete opposite of that!
Personally, I love Europe for the rich history and diversity of its nations, and because it’s so easy to find a good coffee there. I DON’T like the long plane ride to get there! I love the Pacific Islands because I spend so much time working up there – particularly Fiji – and so it feels almost like a second home to me. I have made so many fantastic friends over my many years of shooting there…
Asia is a melting pot of culture, amazing food, incredible sights and experiences, and the hotels and resorts I have photographed throughout the region are always pretty mind blowing. The US in winter usually involves a ski shoot and American ski fields are definitely worth a visit if skiing is your thing, they just do everything “bigger” over there… Africa is incredible on such an immense scale it’s hard to explain in words what that continent is like, and I’ve only seem a small portion of it! Being out on safari and experiencing mother nature at the “source” is truly humbling… And yet it is the ethnic cultures still present in some regions – for example the Ovahimba I wrote about in a previous post – that really make this continent so special. And despite the cliche, the light there really is different.
The tribal people of Papua New Guinea are another cultural highlight, in fact if you wish to explore a primitive nation then this would be top of my list of recommendations due to the life changing experience of being amongst such magical, unique – and photogenic – people. And then everyone has heard me talk about Alaska, somewhere I return to again and again because I love it so much. From the Grizzly bears in summer to the extremes of the frozen wilderness in winter, this is a country of true wonder amidst such warm and welcoming hospitality that I simply can’t get enough!
So rather than pick just one, I thought I’d highlight just a few of the countries I have visited – and the images that keep the memories of those journeys alive for me. If you want to create your own travel memories, it really is as simple as making sure you have that camera in your hand at all times, and truly “be there” when you travel. You won’t become a travel photographer by sitting on the couch watching National Geographic re-runs. And likewise you won’t have a true travel experience if you spend your trip with your nose inside your guidebook.
Open your eyes, look around you, and then record what YOU see. Travel Photography 101, simple as that.
The Great Wall of China
I was fortunate to have a spare day off following a commercial shoot I had just completed in Beijing, so I organised to visit a remote area of the Great Wall called “Wang Jing Lou”. To access this section we drove around 3 hours from Beijing to a local village somewhere between Simitai and Jinshanling, from where we were escorted to the wall (another two or three hours walking and then steep climbing and rock scrambling) by a friendly local with no English. The experience of getting there was almost as amazing as being there! As luck would have it the skies were clear, the usual dense “smog” that hides China’s natural beauty was nowhere to be seen and we purportedly had the clearest sunset they’d seen since the Beijing Olympics (when the sky was artificially “seeded” to force rain which would clear the atmosphere). A perfect example of why being a travel photographer always works better when you put in the effort to “be there”!
An island in the Venetian Lagoon of Northern Italy 7 kilometres from Venice. Originally famed for its exquisite lace, Burano is now more well-known for its colourful houses and tiny waterways. The colours of the houses follow a specific system managed by the government – in fact before painting your house you will be advised what colour you are permitted to use! Again I was making use of a couple of days off following an extended commercial shoot in Europe. With no understanding of the Italian language I wandered the vibrant streets on my own before being be-friended by a local couple who happily helped me find some cosy accommodation – and a cold beer – with which to finish my day.
Rice Paddies in Bali
These terraced rice paddies are scattered throughout Indonesia and make a visual change to the white sand beaches we – as westerners – have associated with Bali. Farmed and harvested by hand, Indonesia produces over 70,000,000 metric tons of rice per year, making them the third largest rice producer in the world (after China and India). Needless to say I eat a lot of rice and rice dishes whenever I am working in Asia!
Iditarod Dog Sled race, Alaska
Called the ‘Last Great Race on Earth’ the Iditarod is synonymous with Alaska and a “must” for any winter visit to this vast American State. Competitors travel over 1700 kilometres from Anchorage to Nome by dog team, across the Bering Sea and through some of the world’s most remote and inhospitable landscape. I have watched and even followed this race a number of times and every occasion is more exciting than the last. This years’ race was won by Dallas Seavey, a local from Willow in Alaska (who was the race’s youngest musher to win when he also finished first in 2012) who completed the course in 8 days and 13 hours.
Taos, New Mexico
Although I have travelled to the US many times it has predominantly been for commercial resort photography and so I haven’t had a chance to really explore the rest of the continent as much as I’d like to. However the opportunity to photograph this teepee just outside of Taos was too good to miss and after all, what says “Native American wilderness” more than an Indian teepee? By using a small LED panel inside the tent to give it some light I was able to create a magical image out of this night time setting.
It is hard for New Zealander’s to get a true feel for Africa, a continent over 100 times larger than our own and responsible for 15% of the world’s population – half of which are under the age of 20 and many living in the grip of poverty. But in many ways it also still retains all the magic of Disney’s “Lion King” with vast open savannahs, a myriad of wildlife and proud native peoples. It is believed to be the oldest inhabited territory on earth with remains dating back 7 million years. Which makes the 900 year old tree “skeletons” in this photo – formed when the river flooded to create this clay pan in which the trees grew only to die following severe drought – simply infantile in comparison.
Table Mountain, South Africa
There are a number of natural icons around the world that are recognisable to all, no matter where you are from or how much you have – or have not – travelled. Mt Everest in Nepal, Ayers Rock in Australia, Great Britain’s White Cliffs of Dover, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and the Grand Canyon in the US to name only a few. Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa claims recognition due to its unique 3km wide plateau at the top and was a “must” for me to photograph when I was in the region for a commercial photo tour.
Mount Otemanu, Bora Bora
It’s hard to pick a single image that defines the Pacific Islands. There are so many distinctive sights to witness and capture on a trip to any of these popular holiday destinations. And because I work in the area so regularly I need to pay attention and make sure I don’t take the islands for granted! This image was captured on my first ever visit to French Polynesia and shows the popular “over water” bungalows prolific throughout this region, with Mt Otemanu disappearing into the clouds in the background. The slow shutter speed creates a mystical effect of the water’s surface, adding to the mood of this image.
Eiffel Tower, Paris
No trip to France is complete without a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, rising 324 metres over the surrounding city and 125 years old it is one of the world’s most recognisable man-made structures. For this image I was actually taking an evening walk before commencing my commercial shoot the following day. I had photographed the tower before but was looking for a more unique angle with some nice foreground elements. Et Voila! By climbing down a few rickety old steps to the water’s edge I was able to show the old boats sitting moored along the river Seine, with the tower rising brilliantly in the background.
All images copyright Chris McLennan