How to Become a Travel Photographer

Chris McLennan is a professional travel photographer working around the world on assignments that have seen him shoot in over 50 different countries. Here he shares some simple lessons in Travel Photography 101.

One of the questions I often get asked is,“How did you become a travel photographer?” Or, more often, asked by younger aspiring photographers,“How can I become a travel photographer?”  Or, in some cases simply, “I want your job!”

During a recent presentation to a photographic club in my home town of Auckland, I made a bit of a joke with my response, explaining my philosophy on travel photography as simply:

  1. “Turn Up”
  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” – and by that I mean not only making the effort to put yourself in locations and in front of better subjects to get the images you are after, but I also mean you really have to “be there” in the moment.  Being any kind of photographer means opening your eyes and looking around you, because how you see things is often very different to how other people see it, which is possibly why you got into photography in the first place.

So being present in the moment, and being fully open to the experience, is an important part of my image making process.  And of course, you have to have your camera with you!  Seems silly, but I take my camera almost everywhere with me, it is part of who I am and I’m sure that is what makes me a prolific travel photographer.  So I reiterate – turn up, and bring your camera.  After that, everything else is just semantics.

Another question I often get asked is “where is your favorite place to travel”.  Which is actually a more difficult 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’ve 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 there 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 seen a small portion of it!  Being out on safari and experiencing mother nature at the “source” is truly humbling. It is the ethnic cultures still present in some regions – for example, the Ovahimba I have photographed in Namibia – that really make this continent so special.  And the light there is truly very different.

The tribal people of Papua New Guinea are another cultural highlight at the 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!

And of course closer to home I have had many adventures throughout both Australia and my home country, New Zealand – both offer a huge range of diversity and incredible scenery, and like they say, “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country”!

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.

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