Last weekend I flew to London for the annual Explore expedition planning conference at the Royal Geographical Society (the one chance I get to catch up with a lot of people I wish I saw more often). On the Sunday I joined the expedition photography workshop to share my thoughts on the storytelling medium of the still image, and figured it was worth reproducing that advice here.
The word ‘storytelling’ is key, because the typical focus for attendees of this conference is a journey of some description, and what they want to communicate through their photography is the story of that journey. So while the conference focuses on geography-themed expeditions and scientific fieldwork, much of the advice applies to budding photographers going on all kinds of adventures.
(I confess to having felt like a total imposter on this panel, which also featured the likes of Martin Hartley, probably the best polar expedition photographer in the business, if not one of the best expedition photographers full stop. For me, as someone who uses photography extensively but would never call themselves a professional, Martin held (and still holds) near-godlike status. As the organiser said, though, the workshop needed a variety of perspectives to work best for the audience, and that of a self-taught generalist with a proven track record was just as appropriate as a world-class pro in a specialist field.)
With that in mind, then, here are the top 10 tips I presented at the workshop that helped me improve my skills over the years:
1. Remember the golden rule of storytelling – especially when you depart
The photo above is one of two terrible photos I have of the start of my biggest ever adventure (trying to cycle round the world). Why? I was so busy getting ready to leave that I forgot the simplest thing of all – that every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.
This rule has been around as long as people have been telling stories. The story of a journey generally begins with the days, weeks or months leading up to departure. You will be busy, and your mind will be on other things – but take a moment to step back, maybe once a day, and grab a picture or two (or ask someone else to do so).
Take it from me: you don’t want the first decent photo of your grand expedition to be taken a few hundred miles down the road (see below).
2. Learn that good photos don’t just magically happen
Every professional photographer is aware of the importance of timing and, relatedly, patience in creating good images. On a journey or expedition you will often find yourself so immersed in the flow of things that it’ll be tempting to shoot all your images from this vantage point.
The photo above, on the other hand, was snapped one evening in Montreux, Switzerland, by a passing photographer, about three weeks into our big ride. He’d got chatting to us and kindly offered to take a group photo, which took a couple of minutes to arrange and compose. The image remains one of the best we have of what became a multi-year expedition, and one of the few in which all three of us appear together.
The lesson here for travel and adventure photography is similar to the first: sometimes it’s necessary to press the pause button on what’s happening and spend a little time setting things up. This is especially important if your project is likely to have any future media demands – sponsors, potential press coverage, and the like – in which a small number of key images representing your trip will be essential.
Bonus tip: That same photographer also swapped out one of our do-it-all superzoom lenses for a fast 50mm prime of his own before taking the shot. This was the first time I’d appreciated the importance of lens choice in image quality. For my current setup (see below), the lens cost twice what the body did. You’ll hear plenty of pros echoing this kind of thing.
3. Think also like a record-keeper (as well as a storyteller)
Sure, you want (and perhaps need) to produce images that are going to look good and tell a story in a presentation or on social media or in the printed press. But what you might also want to consider is that photographs can be useful simply for future reference, as a record of where you were, who was there, and what you saw.
This can be incredibly useful when, for example, writing retrospectively about an experience or event and wanting to describe the visual aspect in detail. But such records might become relevant in unpredictable ways, too, because you’re capturing moments in time, and none of us can predict how things will change; only that they will.
Case in point: the photo above was taken at the Temple of Bel in Tadmur (aka: Palmyra) in Syria in 2009. As you may recall, in 2015 the temple was blown up by ISIS. Thus a previously mundane image gained new meaning; it became a record of what we lost in one of the most condemned acts of cultural vandalism in recorded history.
What this means on the ground is that you should always have a camera to hand, and get into the habit of photographing everything. Memory cards and batteries are cheap and abundant, so (unless you’re shooting film) there’s no excuse not to. Smartphones, too, are great for this – especially if set up to automatically back your images up to the cloud via Wi-Fi or mobile data.
4. Post your best photos online (but not for the reasons you think)
I began to upload selected photos of my adventures to Flickr in the late 2000s, a couple of years before Instagram was invented. Flickr never gained anywhere near the popularity of the latter, but it did attract a greater proportion of actual photography enthusiasts and professionals. As a result, sharing my work there was a hugely useful learning exercise for a couple of reasons.
The first was that I was compelled by the bandwidth limitations of the time to be very selective. This wasn’t just about judging the quality of individual photographs, but also about curating series of images that I felt represented my journeys as broadly as possible.
The second was that I received quick and direct feedback from the community. I could easily see which images people responded to most strongly by the number of views and comments they got, and this, in turn, helped me understand how to improve future images.
The mass social media of today (Instagram, Facebook) performs a similar function, which is why I suggest using it to publish at least some of your images. Note that this is not about competing for the most ‘likes’ with other users, but about measuring the responses to your creations against each other to see what you can learn.
Sometimes posting photos online can have unintended consequences, of course, like Sudan Airways stealing the image above for their website homepage. (I sent an invoice to their accounts department but never heard back.)
5. Sometimes, take selfies
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help wondering exactly what is wrong with those individuals who insist on publishing to the world a never-ending stream of images of their own face. Is it some kind of existential plea for acknowledgement? Is it rampant egoism; the belief that a pixellated rendering of one’s beauty must be made available to 7.5 billion other humans? Perhaps it’s the inward-looking variant, narcissism, in which seeing one’s own image in lights is what ignites the dopamine kick? Could it be part of cultivating and maintaining a carefully crafted personality brand? Or is it just the thoughtless imitation of a trend?
Sorry… where was I? Oh yes. Anyway. Sometimes, on an expedition or adventure, taking the occasional ‘selfie’ (or self-portrait, to use the proper term) is absolutely the right thing to do, because at some point in the future you will probably find yourself in a situation that requires you to show that you were there too. The photographer is as much a member of the team as everyone else. I am guilty of excluding myself from the photographic records of a great many worthwhile endeavours simply by the fact of always being behind the camera.
The image above was supposed to be a regular self-portrait. I’d balanced the camera on top of a concrete roadside mile marker, set the 10-second self timer, and walked back into the shot. Then the wind caught my hat; I pivoted to catch it and jam it back on my head; the resulting photo captured me mid hat-adjustment, and became the cover image for my first film and book. (There’s a bonus tip for you: never delete a photo just because you didn’t mean to take it.)
This, by the way, is one of many very good arguments in favour of packing an otherwise cumbersome tripod. Or selfie stick. Or occasionally getting other people to take photos. Or getting inventive with the self-timer. You get the point, though: make sure you’re in a few photos yourself!
6. To tell better stories, learn to look more closely
Some people like to quip that by ‘living life through a lens’ you’re missing out on what is actually happening. I disagree.
Besides knowing of no expedition photographer who actually lives his or her life ‘through a lens’, my experience of regularly being in ‘photographer mode’ is that it encourages a more conscious treatment of what is being seen. The reason for this, I think, is that when you’re looking for images that tell stories, you’re apt to consider small details more closely, because the details are often what bring stories to life, especially when captured in combination with context and characters.
The photo above isn’t remotely interesting from a technical point of view, but (I think) it says – with a dash of humour – a good deal about cross-cultural juxtaposition in small-town Mongolia. But if I hadn’t been looking for such stories while hanging around outside the village shop in Hatgal, would I have spotted any of that? Maybe. Or maybe not.
7. Get to know your equipment, early and intimately
Several days or weeks into your trip is not the time to start learning how to use your camera. You’ll feel like you do when you try to cook a meal in a kitchen you’ve never used before, spending so much time figuring out where things are and what they do that the results will end up suffering.
The photo above was taken through a new waterproof housing I’d bought for my and Leon’s source-to-sea attempt on Iran’s longest river. It was the first time I’d used it, and consequently the first time I noticed that it was total crap and that all my photos were coming out blurred and distorted. Don’t do this.
Instead, spend as much time as you can using your gear before it matters. Take it everywhere and shoot everything. Ideally, do this for weeks or months before you set out. Maybe sign up for a 365 project. Your photos will improve drastically as a result. I guarantee it. (You’ll also take more of them because doing so will be less stressful.)
8. Get very comfortable with photographing people (especially strangers)
Whether it’s you and your teammates, the people you meet along the way, or both, your stories are almost inevitably going to involve people and have those people and their motivations at their core. So it’s paramount that you get used to taking photos of them. If you appear nervous or self conscious about this, your subjects will probably feel the same.
The image above is of two of my teammates from the Transcaucasian Expedition (left and right) with a hiking guide we’d met in southern Armenia (centre). Armen was – and still is – the only blind hiking guide I’ve ever met, and I did my best to capture this unusual arrangement in a thought-provoking image (with his prior consent).
And how exactly do you take photos of people? Martin answered this best in the workshop: smile, then ask permission, and 99% of people will be more than happy to be photographed. With the 1% who aren’t, say thank-you and find someone who is.
9. Remember those who’ve helped you, and say thank-you with photos
Particularly on ‘serious’ expeditions, it’s likely that there will be stakeholders in your project beyond you and your team. Have you considered what kind of images would be useful to them? Have you had a conversation about that aspect of your relationship? Do you have an agreement with them, and do you understand their expectations?
The above shot required at least two hours of drone setup, test flights for composition, waiting for clouds, and finally driving our sponsored Land Rover around in circles with two-way radios to coordinate between the photographer (Dave Katz, who also snapped the title image of this article) and the driver.
It was worth it: the final image featured in countless communications, including on one of the opening slides for Explore that year.
Even if you’re lucky enough to have a purely philanthropic sponsor, attention paid to capturing images specifically with them in mind will pay off. It will make them feel appreciated, for one thing, but more likely it will help them amplify your efforts and put your project on show in places you’d otherwise not be seen.
10. Don’t forget the ice-beard selfie!
Finally, if you’re going somewhere cold, for goodness’ sake make sure you get a self-portrait of your silly ice-beard (this goes for the ladies too) so you can use it on social media and for your speaker profile in the Explore handbook for years to come!
Comments? Questions? Anything to add? Fire away below…
You’ll notice that this article says nothing about camera equipment or how to operate it. That’s partly because it doesn’t really matter, and partly because there are so many websites that do gear and technical how-tos to death. (You should read them. One of my favourites, by the way, is Digital Photography School.)
If you must know, I currently shoot with an M.Zuiko Digital 25mm f/1.8 lens on an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II body – a premium prime on a compact mirrorless body with loads of spare batteries and memory cards. This setup suits me at least as well as any chunky SLR-based rig I’ve ever owned, and is a heck of a lot more portable. I also shoot a ton with my amazingly capable Nexus 6P, and occasionally take to the skies with an intimidating DJI Inspire 1 Pro drone carrying a Zenmuse X5 camera (the lenses are interchangeable with my handheld).
Does this mean you should go out and buy the same gear? No. This is just what works for me. I can’t say what’ll work for you. All I can do is reiterate the importance of choosing the right tool for the job.