11 Eye-Opening Things I’ve Learned From Photographing The World

Finding The Universe
Finding The Universe

In 2009, I quit the corporate life in the UK to turn my photography hobby into a profession. In that time, I’ve become a success in my industry, visited dozens of countries, spoken at conferences, led photo tours, won awards, and seen breathtaking sites I never dreamed could exist. I also met my wife and traveling companion, Jessica.

To me, photographs are a reflection of the true version of the world. They show us the world as it actually is, not as we wish it to be. Spending time exploring the world has taught me a lot about it, the people who inhabit it, and most importantly, my true inner nature.

1. We live on a beautiful planet.

Seriously, we have a pretty incredible home base (even if we’re not doing the greatest job of looking after it). This planet is filled with so much natural beauty that it often overwhelms me and challenges me to do it justice in a picture.

I’d defy anyone to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, watch the sunrise over that magnificent landscape, and not feel both awed by our world and humbled by how insignificant we are. Or gaze at the wonder that is Victoria Falls, or the majestic landscapes of the Isle of Skye.

From the tropical islands of the Maldives to the fjords of Norway to the moonscape of Patagonia to the forests of North America, this planet we call Earth is beautiful in every way.

2. We’re all the same.

One thing that travel has taught me is that humans across the world share the same goals. Most of us are basically just trying to get by, live a good life, raise our kids right, and stay healthy, wealthy, and wise. Regardless of where we call home, we’re all citizens of the planet.

This always hits home when I’m shooting people — say, a group of laughing kids in Rio, who really just want to get a selfie with a dreadlocked stranger to show their friends, or sailors racing a yacht in Italy. They’ll often start to open up and talk about themselves: their lives, hopes, fears, and dreams. And it turns out that if you own a stall in Thailand or a bar in the US, you’re not that different from each other than you might think!

3. Photography connects people.

People love a great photo of themselves. I’ve had some great experiences with kids who love to have their picture taken, and right after the shutter is pressed, they run round to see what they look like on the screen before dashing back to pose again.

It’s not just kids, of course. I’ve shot a number of events around the world, from conferences to music festivals and street parties, and the majority of people really love to convey their personality to the camera.

“Just take one more!” is a phrase I’ve heard more times than any other.

We love that perfect pose, seeing our friends in photos, and congregating around a camera as we discuss the picture.

The camera often breaks down barriers, both language and cultural, and I’ve found myself making friends all over the world, in the most unlikely situations!

4. Friendships can be transient.

Friendships are a funny thing. They’re a bit like plants. Some of them need a lot of care and attention, or else they die pretty much instantly. Others you can abandon for ages, and then just pour a bit of love onto them, and they spring back to life like nothing ever happened.

People tend to gravitate toward those friendships that arise out of circumstance, like work colleagues, but you may be surprised by whom you drift apart from when you’re not in constant communication.

This is probably one of the hardest parts of long-term travel, and something that can be a struggle to come to terms with.

You make a lot of friends on the road. Maybe they’re as short as a ten-minute bus ride or a few days of rafting together. It’s OK to connect with someone; talk in depth about your lives, travels, and futures; and then not feel obliged to friend them on your favorite social media networks or write them every Christmas.

Friendships on the road can be rewarding, but they can be fleeting and transient.

5. You are going to fail.

Travel and photography have taught me to be OK with failure. Sometimes that great idea for a shot isn’t going to work out, like when the hike to the summit of the mountain is rewarded with just grey mist instead of a gorgeous sunset.

Sometimes that brilliant concept I pitch a client falls on deaf ears. Or my awesome idea for a road trip across the US needs radical alteration to make it happen.

Sometimes I’m just going to be an idiot and book a flight that leaves before my connecting flight even arrives — like the time I got to Australia a full day later than my departing flight to New Zealand.

But I’ve come to terms with this, that failure is OK. Each failure has a lesson that can be applied to future successes. The more I fail, the more I realize what doesn’t work — and what does.

Failure is a part of life. And without failure, you never really grow.

6. If you want something, you have to get it yourself.

In this big world where no one seems to care, the reality is that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen yourself. Life is like a giant employment convention — if you turn up and just stand in the lobby, no one is going to come and give you your dream job.

I don’t like networking, or trying to promote myself — it’s not something I feel I’m great at (maybe it’s part of being British), but it’s something I had to learn and force myself to become better at if I wanted to succeed. No one was just going to give me anything.

Big projects, like my ambassadorship for Vanguard Tripods, are usually the end result of a lot of effort — pitching, networking, and demonstrating what I can do — effort that, most of the time, I don’t mind. But it still had to be done. By me.

7. “Living the dream” is a lot of work, but passion helps make it easier.

A life of traveling the world and taking pictures probably sounds pretty awesome, a life most people dream of: “to get paid to travel the world.” And I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

But it’s also a great deal of work, what with concepts like “weekends” and 40-hour workweeks being something that other people have. To get to the point of even making a vague living doing what I love, I’ve had to practice, network, hustle, fail, and most importantly of all, work a lot. Overnight success isn’t really a thing.

Plus, I’m always on the hunt for a good Internet connection, I’m constantly on the move, and it’s hard to maintain relationships.

If you love what you do, though, it never really feels like work. On those days where I just want to throw my camera against the wall, it’s clear that you shouldn’t do anything you don’t feel passionate about.

8. You need to be flexible.

I’ve learnt that sometimes you have to be ready to change plans at a moment’s notice. Maybe the weather changes and the light isn’t going to be great, so it might be better to spend the day editing images rather than out in the field.

Being flexible is important. It’s a valuable life skill that can be applied pretty much anywhere. But there’s a difference between being flexible and being a pushover. If a client has a different vision and we can work to make that happen, I’m all for it. If we’re suddenly shooting for twice as long with the same budget, well, that’s when we maybe need to have a talk.

9. You become self-reliant.

Long-term travel and self-employment definitely teach you to take care of yourself and your immediate traveling family. I’ve come across a variety of situations that would definitely have caused me concern prior to starting my journey: getting sick in a country where very few people speak English, having no money, a mugging attempt in South America, and wondering in fact if there would ever be a paycheck at the end of the dream.

These are situations I would never have dreamt of being able to manage — the lack of financial security in particular — but over time, I’ve learnt that I can achieve a great many things without external input. (Or just with the help of my wife, who I’ve also come to rely on a great deal. A great team can do great things!)

10. You are always going to be learning.

However great I might become at photography, and however many years I might dedicate myself to it, I always have to keep learning. Not just because it’s a vast field with a huge array of techniques and subfields but because photography itself is always evolving. From new sensor technologies that allow for better low-light performance to the emergence of 4K (which allows for high-speed burst photography) to updated software for more fine-grained control over post-processing, there’s always something new to learn.

I often look to photographers I admire — like Colby Brown, Trey Ratcliffe, Daniel Nahabedian, Dave Bouskill, Chris Burkhardt, Annie Leibowitz, and others — to try to learn from them what I can do to approach their quality and standard.

11. Nothing can be controlled.

As a photographer, it’s important to get the perfect shot. But many times that’s impossible. You drive all day to get a photo — only for the winds to shift and the rains to come down. The kids don’t stand still, the lion moves just as you’re ready to click, or something mundane like your client’s budget shifts.

When I was last in New Mexico, I had heard tell of fantastic sunsets, which I was looking forward to capturing. Of course, it rained solidly for the entire time I was there and I never saw the sun, let alone the sunset. In Sri Lanka, I had a verbal agreement for a commercial property shoot, but just after arriving, I was told that budgets had been reallocated, and so there was little for me to do but enjoy the beaches and scenery.

These things are constant reminders that no matter how much you try to make things perfect — whether in your pictures or in your life — there’s always one little thing out of your control that changes your plans. TC mark

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