In our age of abundant travel imagery and ubiquitous cameras, it’s easy to step onto a plane with your story already written. You see the classic shot of a perfectly symmetrical Taj Mahal and begin dreaming of the photos you’ll capture in India. These images help justify the cost of airfare and precious vacation time. However, it takes true daring to go somewhere without even knowing what you might photograph, or even see.
His images capture an ephemeral moment or story that result from both preparedness and open-mindedness. We caught up with the travel and adventure photographer to learn more about his travel style and philosophy behind the lens.
How did you get into travel photography?
I first got into photography with my smartphone. I had a Lumia 1020 which is still one of the best smartphone cameras out there. I got a gig selling photos from the phone to Nokia, where each month I would get an assignment for a certain style of photography. The assignments were a lot of fun. They forced me to be creative with different styles of photography. One month would be water-focused photography; the next would be people-focused. In 2014 I spent my summer in Seattle and that’s where I really got into the idea of telling stories with photography - taking a few trips out into the Cascades and out to Pacific Coast at La Push, WA. Those experiences crystalized for me how the one augments the other. Travel has always been a passion of mine, and photography added a creative challenge to it that made the whole experience more rewarding.
"La Push, WA" – I actually took this with my smartphone back when I was just starting out with photography. The coast of Washington is mostly undeveloped, and you can camp out right on the beach. The mornings are usually foggy, so when the sun starts to burn it off you get these amazing streams of light coming through the trees. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
How would you describe your artistic point of view?
If I have a signature style, it’s that I like to integrate off-camera flash into my photography to add some dynamic texture to my subjects, and open up a wider range of light environments to photography. In a broader sense, though, I just try to focus on capturing the sense of place that I am experiencing as I travel. I try not to force a certain style on the place, but let the place lead me to the compositions that tell its story. This requires a bit of patience, waiting and watching and talking to people before I start capturing photos.
"Fisherman by Boat in Thailand" - I am probably most proud of this shot, not only because I love the color and composition, but because of how it came together. This was taken on Koh Lanta, an island in southern Thailand. I found the boat the day before while scouting out sunrise shots on my motorbike. The next day I got up before sunrise and motorbiked back to the spot. The island was dark and silent, except for the sound of the morning call to prayer at the mosque. I had never experienced anything like that before - it was really incredible. At the boat I was setting up my flash (to illuminate it against the rising sun), and this guy randomly walks up to me through the marsh and just points to himself, and then points to the boat. It was just a “coming together” moment for me - I had been practicing off camera flash photography, bought remotes, brought a lot of gear, scouted out, and all that preparation proved its worth in this totally unexpected moment.
What kinds of subjects/environments are your favorite?
People in their natural environment, just doing their thing. I love capturing people doing the ordinary, and then adding this element of drama with off-camera flash. When working with strangers this can be tough because you have to work so fast and sometimes the shot just doesn’t turn out before people move on. It’s also a bit nerve-wracking because I’m actually a bit shy working with strangers, but when the composition comes together, I get this exhilarating feeling of having captured something meaningful while overcoming my fear.
"Children in Village" -- I did a three-day trek through the Namtha NPA, a “protected” jungle outside of Luang Namtha, in northern Laos. The trek was amazing; think banyan trees, banana trees (which we ate… I had no idea you could eat the tree itself), and Akha women foraging for bamboo shoots. We passed through a village where again I just set up my flash on a little rise to balance whatever I could shoot against the setting sun. There was this guy in a pressed white shirt on his motorcycle, and I asked if I could take his photo. Soon a semicircle of about thirty men and children were watching me, jumping into frame for photos. It was a proper photo shoot with 10% of the village population. I love this picture because of the composition and the whimsical look of the children, which was caught by chance - they were laughing and jumping around the rest of the time.
What, in your opinion, makes a travel photo compelling?
Something that tells a story about the way you experienced a place. Travel is a two way street: what you bring to the place and what the place brings to you. If you’re in the city, street photography offers endless opportunities. Try to integrate what stands out to you the most, it could be the street hawkers, it could be the art, it could the motorbikes that everyone is riding. If you’re out in the rural areas or in the wilderness, try to get up at sunrise to capture a few shots - that’s when landscapes really come alive.
How much planning do you do for shoots when traveling? How much is spontaneous?
On my trip through South East Asia last year I did a lot of pre-planning. I brought a lot of lighting gear that would hold up to the demands of traveling in a backpack. When I would arrive in a new place, I would rent a motorbike and spend part of a day scouting out the surrounding areas for good photo opportunities. In Thailand I would mark these places using downloaded maps from the app HERE. I would drop stars (pins) on the spots that looked good and would come back when the lighting was better. This lead to some chance encounters with a few locals that were spontaneous in the moment, but never would have happened had I not scouted things out the day before. In Laos - where neither Google nor HERE maps have anything close to an accurate representation of the actual road network to offer - I just scouted out and did my best. I even used some hand drawn maps that I found in villages and took pictures of them with my phone. This lead to a lot of really hilarious conversations where I was pointing to a hand drawn map (in English) to locals and they were looking at me like, who is this guy on a mountain bike in our village pointing at his phone?
"Noodle soup stall in Bangkok" - Spending a day, or several days, just taking the boats up and down the Chao Praya river and walking the neighborhoods of Bangkok is a great way to get to know the city. This soup stall, which I found in an alley in Chinatown, really captures the vibe of the street in Bangkok. It’s crowded with people, food stalls, and motorbikes, but is somehow calming and serene at the same time. If you’re in Bangkok, skip Khao San and Sukhumvit and meander around Talad Noi, Chinatown, and the Lamphu Canal - you’ll see more of Bangkok and fewer cargo shorts.
You've taken some great shots of children and locals on your trips. How do you approach them?
My favorite shots of children and locals have happened through a combination of spontaneity and preparation. I never walk up to someone and point a camera in their face. I just don’t feel comfortable doing it. The best moments have come when I’ve set up some lighting equipment to just shoot a landscape where I want to illuminate something in the foreground or balance something against a sunset. It usually draws some curiosity, as I explain above in the caption for the picture of the fisherman by the boat and the kids in Laos.
Do you ever have moments when you travel when you don't want to capture a photo? How do you decide when to “unplug” from the lens?
Yes there are a lot. It’s cliche but I like to work hard and play hard. When I go out and shoot I’ll spend a whole day, or a whole morning, or a whole night - whatever the place has on offer - and have my camera with me all the time. When I’m done though, I’ll go lock it up in my room or stuff it into my bag so I’m disconnected from it, which allows me to focus on the people I’m with or that I’ve met on the trail. As I’ve said, I try to tell a story with my photography, and if all I’m doing is just taking photos the entire time - what story is there to tell?
With the growing popularity of cell phone cameras, filters, and apps, some people think traditional photography is a dying craft. What's your take on this?
My father was a professional photographer in the traditional sense. He shot film, he had an intimate understanding of aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and ambient and artificial light that allowed him to confidently shoot a wedding, a safari, a landscape, without being able to look at the back of the camera to see how it came out. That is a true master skill, and I can’t think of a single person I know that shoots film these days. So in that sense I think traditional photography is already dead, but only in the sense that film was a traditional technology. Photography is an art, not a technology, so I don’t think that can die. Yes, anyone can put a DSLR on auto-mode and take well-exposed, high resolution photos now, and these days you can do the same thing with your smartphone camera - even National Geographic has had cover photos from smartphones. But not everyone will take time to contemplate the elements of composition, of storytelling, of capturing an image that conveys something more than just being well-exposed and sharp.
"Granite face over the Merced River, Yosemite" - This was taken a few months ago in Yosemite. Fresh snow had just fallen and the beauty of the valley was elevated. Yosemite has some serious magic, and I think this photo captures some of it.
If you were to walk out of your hotel room and carry one camera setup, what would it be?
When I’m going out for a whole day and don’t want to carry a lot of gear, I’ll take my Canon 5D Mark II and a 24-70mm 2.8 aperture zoom lens. This is a very versatile lens; you can do street photography, landscapes, portraits, star photography, just about anything.
Have you found that the clothing or gear you've worn has impacted the shots you are able to get when traveling?
I try not to bring very many clothes, so I pack one outfit that is similar to what I would wear in DC, and the rest is functional for treks, motorbiking, beach, whatever. I do a lot of trekking and motor biking when I travel so functional gear is just so huge, and without it I feel I would be restricting myself from plunging through the jungle to get a shot of a river, or scrambling an incline to get a better vantage point, because normal clothes would just be in tatters from that. Social context also has a lot to do with how people will interact with you, so for instance in northern Laos, where the people tend to be much more conservative, both your clothing and your conduct matter more.
What is your travel fashion style?
In the city I try to have a good pair of chinos and short-sleeve button up shirt with a pair of low-key sneakers. If I’m in transport mode I just dress functionally, and if I’m out on a multi-day trek I stash all my extra stuff with the outfitter and wear whatever will allow me to retain some semblance of dignity without showering.
How do you travel with expensive photography gear, especially in areas where security is a concern?
When I travelled through South East Asia last year, I had a Chrome camera bag that could hold a really great photography kit, but could also fit inside of my big traveling backpack. The upside of this was that I was totally discreet when in transit. The downside was that it was a pretty heavy setup. I think the biggest security issue to keep in mind is staying in a place where you can lock your stuff up and be confident about it - which means avoiding hostels that cater to partying backpackers which are by far the most likely people to nab your stuff. When you’re on the street with a really expensive photography kit, you’re going to look like a tourist, but you are a tourist so don’t worry about it - just be yourself and be aware of what’s going on around you.
Where is your dream destination for photography?
That’s so tough! Can I say a ten-year trip to everywhere? I’m most excited about Mongolia right now. It’s just so vast and epic and diverse. I want to be able to work with some of the people out on the steppe, capturing the traditional nomadic lifestyle and also the mashup created by development which I find very fascinating.
A lot of travelers are aspiring photographers. How do you practice your craft without ruining the magic of travel?
It can be a struggle. I think it helps to be deliberate, especially if you are traveling with someone else. Decide when and what you want to be shooting. Usually the middle of the day is a bad time to be shooting because the sun washes everything out, so you can get your gear for early morning or late afternoon/sunset. Shoot one day, then don’t shoot the next. It’s whatever works for you, but you really don’t have to have your camera on you 24/7 when traveling to get amazing travel photos and be able to tell a story.
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