Here we showcase the biggest names in travel photography, and what we can learn from their success
In today’s world of built-in cameras in smartphones, it’s easier than ever to capture a photo.
Even the most amateur photographer can shoot and share images, giving others a peek into his/her view on every culture and landscape, and providing a visual commentary on life across the globe.
Although the blessings that this technology has granted cannot be undermined, it has undoubtedly taken a toll on the careers of professional travel photographers.
Online communities such as Instagram and VSCO have allowed the mass-sharing of photos from around the world, making it increasingly more difficult to stand out among the crowd. With 1,000,000+ photos of the Eiffel Tower, how do you capture a fresh view of such a well-known icon?
To answer that question, we explored the work of 5 travel photographers who prove that it’s possible to thrive in today’s photo-saturated environment. Here, we share their stories, inspiration, and what we can learn from the biggest names in travel photography.
Based in Australia
The first encounter with travel photography for Richard I’Anson came in 1986, on a seven-month trip through Europe and Asia.
He credits that voyage as his first experience combining his two passions – travel and photography – and realizing that it’s possible to create a career out of it. Since then, he has traveled to 85 countries, all seven continents, and documented every step of the way.
Richard has won numerous awards over the years, including being named as Australia’s top travel photographer by Capture Magazine and earning a Master of Photography and one gold bar from the Australian Institute of Professional Photography.
Represented by Getty Images, Richard continues to travel and shoot, but has expanded his talents to include publishing 12 books with Lonely Planet and teaching photography workshops.
He was chosen by National Geographic as one of five photographers to shoot for the series “Tales by Light”, which follows five renowned photographers on their photography expeditions. He traveled to Bhutan, Nepal and India for “Tales by Light”, and his wide range of subject matter is displayed in the episodes. For example, he has visited Nepal twenty times, and India thirty times; there are few photographers who have covered these countries so extensively!
Because of this, Richard is very accustomed to the struggle of producing new content from the same view.
To shoot a familiar subject (such as the Eiffel Tower) from a different perspective certainly poses a challenge, he acknowledges, but his secret to capturing a unique photo lies in the ground research.
Richard will often visit and photograph the same subject several times a day to gauge the best lighting and perspective he wants for the shot. Then, after he’s satisfied with the photos, he will move closer.
Focusing in on a close-up will reveal details of a subject not noticed in shots taken from further away, creating a fresh perception in the photo.
This trick allows Richard to keep producing interesting photos of subject matter that is already highly photographed, and inspires other photographers to keep searching for new perspectives in their shots.
Richard has five categories that he aims to shoot in each country that he visits: landscapes, people, urban environments, events and wildlife.
All are prominent in his work, but his photos of events are among his best shots. He prefers to visit a city during a local festival or celebration, as this is when people are usually dressed in their best clothes, in high spirits, displaying their culture and are more open to being photographed.
When he travelled to Phuket in Thailand, he photographed the famous Vegetarian Festival, in which Thais with Chinese ancestry follow a vegetarian diet, and parade the streets in regalia.
“(Photography) gives an insight into the world at large in all its diversity.”
– Richard I’anson
Richard’s most important piece of advice to the aspiring travel photographer is to pay attention to light.
Sunrise and sunset are the two best times to shoot, but each subject looks its best in a different type of light. Even the most ordinary building can come alive with the right light, and the most beautiful temple can be washed out in the wrong light.
“Good light is simply the best light for the subject that you’re photographing.”
– Richard I’anson
Although he understands the importance of a singular striking image, Richard often compiles sets of images that build on each other, to “best capture the reality of the moment”.
Through photography, Richard aims to show the beauty of the culture, people, and landscapes that each country has to offer, and inspire others to travel and experience the world.
Based in Turkey
“Some people spend more time promoting themselves than being themselves”; Mattieu Paley not only acknowledges this wise observation of his, but strives to break that mould.
A member of The Photo Society (a community of National Geographic photographers), Mattieu has a host of achievements under his belt, including winning a Gold PATA photography award, the Best Landscape photo award at Banff’s Int’l Photo Competition, and publishing 4 books.
In the past, he has worked for NGO’s, but currently travels the world shooting stories for National Geographic, two of which have landed themselves among Nat Geo’s most popular documentary stories of all time.
“To be amazed on a regular basis – it’s not easy, but you can work on it.”
– Mattieu Paley
In 2002, Mattieu and his wife delivered letters to and from family members of the Kyrgyz nomadic tribe in Afghanistan. From that experience (and the photos that he took) sprang the story “Pamir – Forgotten on the Roof of the World”, now a hardback book available on Mattieu’s website.
His most recent Nat Geo story, The Evolution of Diet, delved into the diets of self-sufficient communities.
Travelling to 7 different countries, Mattieu recorded the wide variety of meals that sustain humanity across the globe, and his work in this particular shoot reflects the close connection he fostered with each group that he met.
Despite being a focus of his trip, eating a meal is generally a great opportunity to get to know a client or subject, especially when shooting portraits.
Meals are a universal routine that bring together friends and family, and stories and jokes are often shared around the dinner table. It’s a time when most people let their true personalities show, and a chance for a truly authentic portrait.
In his years of travelling, Mattieu has also learnt 6 languages, which help him to create more intimate images. When he can communicate with his subject, he learns their personal story, and then lets it color and shape the photos that he takes.
“The picture doesn’t stop at the picture – the story is its second layer.”
– Mattieu Paley
His photos have an idyllic and timeless quality; because most of his shots focus on misunderstood and misrepresented communities, Matthieu aims to portray these groups in a softer light.
He has spent time with the last hunter-gatherers in Tanzania and visited the smallest Republic in the world. There is little Mattieu hasn’t done, but he has big plans for his future.
Currently, he is travelling in Southern America and Costa Rica, exploring the meaning of happiness and how it differs from place to place. Stay tuned and watch his latest story unfold.
Based in England
Timothy Allen’s beginnings lie in the highly critical career of a newspaper photographer.
Following an inspirational 3-year voyage through Indonesia and Bosnia, Timothy moved from his hometown of Tonbridge, England, to London to pursue a career in photojournalism.
Working for a newspaper allows travel, certainly, but oftentimes to photograph the worst sides of a country; as Timothy puts it, “It is in the nature of newspapers to report on such things even if they are not necessarily a true representation of the majority of what’s going on in the world”.
He worked for the Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian, the Times and finally The Independent before he decided to quit his job and travel the world by himself.
He searched on Google for “the remotest country in the world”, and Bhutan was the first result. Off he went on a trip to this Eastern corner of the Himalayas, making his way into the Northern states of India.
After meeting a BBC researcher there, Timothy was commissioned to photograph for the series Human Planet. It was with the Human Planet team that he traveled to over 40 countries and visited many of the Indigenous tribes that arguably comprise his best work.
It’s the untouched nature of these tribes that attracts Timothy: their cultures are often so unique from Western culture that every ritual, every item of traditional attire, and every spiritual practice is intriguing to an audience that has grown up in the Western world.
Timothy manages to capture that first-hand wonder in his photos; see for yourself in this photo of the Khasi people of Meghalaya, who build unbelievable bridges out of tree roots.
Timothy received The Pangea Award of Excellence at SIPA in 2016, and was the overall winner of the prestigious Travel Photographer of the Year award.
He believes that photography begins with inspiration, but also requires a great deal of effort, a belief that’s strongly evident in his work. To photograph the hidden Buzludzha monument, for example, Timothy had to brave the harsh winter conditions of a Bulgarian snowstorm to reach the stadium each day.
“The main motivation behind my work is a desire to understand myself and the relationships I have with other people.”
– Timothy Allen
His advice for an aspiring travel photographer is to shoot as much as possible.
By building an extensive portfolio, he says, any company that plans to hire you will see the experience you have, get a feel for the style that colours your work, and can then make the best judgment on whether you fit the job.
And don’t forget – copyright, copyright, copyright! You never know how popular your work may become.
Timothy’s photography demonstrates a marriage of two things: an awareness of light and a poignant situation. To match these can be difficult, he acknowledges, but to take an outstanding travel photo is impossible without both ingredients.
He also warns against copying other artist’s work, but admits that there is a fine line to tread between copying a photo or drawing inspiration from it.
To ensure that you do the latter, his tip is to see if you can improve upon the photo and add your own vision to the subject matter.
Approach the subject from a different viewpoint, in a different light, a different season; the smallest adjustment can create an entirely different photo. If not, then leave it alone.
Timothy is optimistic for the future of travel photography: he believes that the new technology of today is unlocking previously unthinkable opportunities for photographers to travel. Now that equipment is smaller, lighter, and more powerful than ever, there are few places on Earth impossible for a travel photographer to shoot.
Based in USA
You need persistence to make it as a travel photographer, and Jody MacDonald is no stranger to persistence.
She has spent a decade on a 60-foot catamaran, swam with whales in Moorea, and suffered windstorms in the Sahara that felt like “sandpaper against your skin”.
Born in Canada, Jody grew up in Saudi Arabia, and traveled extensively as a child. After studying Outdoor Recreation at university and taking photography classes on the side, Jody knew that her perfect career would be a combination of the two.
Fast forward to today, and Jody has been named the Paragliding Photographer of the Year, owns a kite boarding business and has photographed for some of the biggest adventure companies in the world: National Geographic, Red Bull, Surftech and Patagonia, to name a few.
Jody’s passion for outdoor sport includes sailing, surfing, kite boarding and paragliding; as such, she often finds herself photographing a professional athlete travelling at high speed.
For that, she needs a keen eye, and an in-depth understanding of the sport herself in order to predict where the athlete will move next. This is where Jody’s talents collide, making her the arguable queen of extreme sport photography.
Along with outdoor sport, Jody also has an intense love of the natural world.
The ocean features prominently in her photographic work, and for good reason: it may seem the same everywhere you go, but Jody has managed to capture the sea in all its different characters, including at its most serene and beautiful.
“I’m trying to portray a sense of wonderment and fascination with the world in my work.”
– Jody MacDonald
In particular, she credits her voyage aboard the catamaran as “providing the hardships required to drive her search for meaning”, and with that adventure came a need for more.
“The thing about travelling is that the more you do it, the more you realize how little you’ve done.”
– Jody macdonald
Her advice for taking travel photos that stand out among the crowd is to go with your gut.
Jody first finds a story that intrigues her, then tries to tell that story through her photos. If a subject doesn’t interest her, she simply doesn’t shoot it.
One of her favorite stories to date is that of Rajan, the last elephant alive that was forced to transport logged trees in the ocean in the Andaman Islands.
Jody credits the success of this photo (which won an International Conservation Award) to the passion she had for the story. When you are inspired by your work, others will be too.
Based in China
This two-time National Geographic photography contest winner is very familiar with the unfamiliar.
Take one look through his impressive portfolio, and you’ll find portraits of tribes that live deep in the mountains of the DRC, detailed photos of extraordinary body modifications, and images of the brightly coloured headdresses of the Kalash people from Pakistan.
Born in Italy, Mattia Passarini moved to the UK at the age of 18. Since then, his fascination with travel has only increased; he is now based in China, and spends most of his time exploring the little-visited corners of Asia.
Over the years, he has amassed countless awards for his work: he won 1st prize in the Eyes of Asia Awards, was a finalist in the Kuala Lumpur Int’l Photo Awards, and was named Photographer of the Year in the American Aperture Awards, to name a few.
Mattia’s work spans many genres, including landscapes, nature and street photography.
However, he has most recently focused his efforts on documenting “disappearing cultures”. With the Westernization of the world, Mattia has taken it upon himself to capture the stories of Indigenous tribes, many of which are diminishing over time.
To take the above shot, Mattia had to travel for a week on foot through the mountains. Only a handful of outsiders visit this tribe each year, and they are referred to by the tribe as “the crazy ones”!
Mattia credits the success of his work to the striking features of the people he photographs. Every ethnic group has distinguishing visual characteristics, be it in their facial structure, skin colour, or in the way they choose to decorate themselves.
Lately, Mattia’s work has highlighted the incredible body modifications and tattoos that some groups undertake. Most of the enhancements are of cultural and spiritual significance, and the traditions have been passed down for many centuries.
Mattia’s photos spark many questions, something he hopes to inspire with all his work.
What is important to these remote people? According to Mattia, nature and human relationships. Without the barrage of the online world, these people value the here and now, and place great significance on maintaining relationships with the natural world and their community.
It is a trait we can all learn from, and Mattia strives to continue documenting the way in which these isolated groups live, so that we can all keep learning from them.
“Diversity of cultures is what fascinates me the most, and what drives my work.”
– Mattia passarini
Mattia’s main tip is to be patient. Often the best photo opportunity will come at an unexpected time, and the pace of life in remote communities is much slower than what we are used to. It’s important to be ready to shoot at any time.
Mattia also recommends having an open-mind to every experience for the same reason; you never know if your best photo will be at the top of a mountain or in the middle of the Saharan desert.
“Good photos are made on the camera, not on Photoshop or Lightroom. Think more, shoot less.”
– Mattia Passarini
Currently, Mattia is travelling the icy terrain of the Yamal Peninsula, photographing the Nenet people. He continues to push himself to visit areas where few travellers venture, and let “The Great Human Race” motivate and evolve his work.
These photographers have truly mastered their craft. Through carefully honed techniques, developed and refined over the years, they have created a career out of their two passions: photography and travel.
To summarize, here are their main tips for the aspiring travel photographer:
- Pay attention to light: choose the right light for the subject.
- Get closer: the details on a subject can create an entirely different aesthetic.
- Improve upon other photographer’s work: change the angle, light, or focus.
- Research your subject: understanding what you’re shooting makes all the difference.
- Find a story: if a subject matter interests you, it will likely interest others.
- Be patient: the best photos often come at unexpected times.
- Connect with your subject: to capture an authentic portrait, learn their story.
These 5 photographers demonstrate that a career in travel photography is tangible. All it takes is a love of photography, a willingness to work hard and hone your craft, and a passion for documenting our beautiful world.