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How my Career + Gear Evolved as a Travel Photographer

How my Career + Gear Evolved as a Travel Photographer

Remember when photography meant taking 24 photos per roll of film? Crossing your fingers as you waited for the roll to be developed, hoping at least one had okay lighting and colours?

Wow have times changed. While film is still around and a lot of creatives enjoy the process of developing, digital photography has advanced like a tech fueled monster. A friendly one!

This post is going to be a little different to usual. I won’t be sharing any photo tips or destination guides. This time the story is a bit more personal. It’s all about how just over ten years ago I barely knew what ISO is, let alone how to creatively compose a photo (see examples at the end of the article). Over the years my photographic eye has developed alongside my gear and to show how here’s a little bit of an insight into my career and cameras…starting way down low at 4 megapixels of grainy goodness.

My travel photography journey started out with a 4megapixel Sony Cybershot that I took with me at 19 on my first solo trip to Europe. It was too much to carry multiple film rolls so I took the leap and went digital…oh so brave ha! Great for happy snaps, stock standard tourist shots, badly aligned horizons and blurred night shots, it was perfect for that time in my life. I had no idea what I was doing, nor an ounce of creativity or any inkling that photography would one day become my career.

July 2003: I know what you're thinking...this girl got skills!
July 2003: I know what you’re thinking…this girl got skills!

I dropped this camera in Norway when I was up at 2am watching the midnight sun, back in the days when I could watch a sunset/sunrise without a care in the world about capturing it perfectly. I was always obsessed with travel but for my first few trips abroad taking pretty photos was perhaps the furthest thing from my mind, I mean Instagram wasn’t around so why bother right!? (← joke) Not to mention my phone was only for texting and playing that Nokia snake game.

August 2003: This shot would've deserved a few hashtags on Instagram!
August 2003: This shot would’ve deserved a few hashtags on Instagram!

Let’s jump forward to 2007 when I saved up enough money to buy my first DSLR, the Nikon D200 with an 18-200mm lens. In the years since I smashed my 4MP camera, I had started in newspaper journalism and began taking photos for my articles with the newsroom camera. Soon after I was photographing dolphins in the waters off Moreton Island. Nothing too professional, mostly on auto and just as a fun casual job.

In April of 2007 this all changed though. Jetting off to Morocco for a travel writing trip with Lonely Planet, my eyes were suddenly opened to the world of travel photography. I’d always dreamt of being a Lonely Planet writer so was beyond over the moon about the opportunity as a journalist and starry eyed about what lay ahead. Hello DREAM TRIP and guidebook writing gigs!

I practically threw myself into the melting pot of Marrakech with my camera in Program mode. I accidentally fired off the automatic flash in the middle of Djeema el Fna (Marrakech’s busiest square + cultural hub) whilst watching an evening street performance. My bright flash resulted in the show stopping so they could find me in the crowd to demand money for taking a photo (that didn’t even turn out)…oops! I also had my polariser screwed onto my lens crooked so would get dark, almost black corners sometimes. It took me about 8 months after the trip to realise it was screwed on wrong. Genius.

April 2007: One of my lucky shots taken when I wasn't sure of settings or composition.
April 2007: One of my lucky shots taken when I wasn’t sure of settings or composition. I was basically just stalking I guess!?

It’s these situations though that force you to grow as a photographer, to learn in the field with a camera that’s way more advanced than your skill level. I used to think my camera knew best and just went along with however it captured a scene…professional huh!?

By the end of this trip to Morocco I was thinking more creatively, working out how I could compose images and also venturing over to the Aperture mode to control some settings…big step! Photographing locals as they went about their daily life, playing soccer with kids in the medina and capturing the warm Moroccan sun setting over pink rooftops…all experiences that told a story without words because I now had a camera, and kind of knew how to use it.

At the end of this trip something clicked. Firstly, the editor seemed to prefer my photos (dark corners and all) to my writing and I was being asked for more photo features than feature articles. A giant wake up call that perhaps photography could be a career path for me.

April 2007: A village in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
April 2007: A village in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

The two years that followed saw me travelling all over Europe capturing photo features for Lonely Planet and working for a few travel magazines. It’s crazy how one trip can change your life, I also met my partner Clement, but that’s a story for another day.

I’m going to jump further ahead now to 2009 when I opened a landscape gallery and photo lab on the five star Hayman Island among Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef. With my Nikon D300s and D700 (I had upgraded from the D200) I worked every day for the next five years shooting weddings, events, conferences, landscapes and portraits. To say these five years were a steep learning curve is a huge understatement. Learning not only to photograph in whatever conditions were presented each day, I was also the owner of a FujiFilm Frontier Lab and had to keep the chemistry and tanks happy so they could produce the correct print colours. A side of photography I had never even considered before!

my-career-as-a-travel-photographer-by-lisa-michele-burns-of-the-wandering-lens-11 my-career-as-a-travel-photographer-by-lisa-michele-burns-of-the-wandering-lens-10Hayman Island

Suddenly photography projects, marketing demands and clients expectations took front seat over all else. It was the first time in my career that I couldn’t just wander around and take pretty photos. I had to follow client briefs, create retail products, photograph people on the most important day of their lives and then do all the lab work and printing. Not only was I learning on the job, I was learning fast and developed skills to quickly adapt to varying light and movement. No one wants a blurry wedding photo just because the photographer couldn’t get it together in time!

Technology by this stage was making huge leaps forward and to ensure the best possible print quality for my clients I invested in a Nikon D800, a 14-24mm wide angle lens along with an Aquatech underwater housing so I could venture beneath the sea. This investment has seen me through until today. I still travel with this gear four years later (plus an extra body and set of prime lenses) and it has transformed the way I capture the world. My project The World from The Water is something I never would’ve dreamt about all those years ago when I was taking blurry 4megapixel tourist snaps, but now it has become my specialty.

my-career-as-a-travel-photographer-by-lisa-michele-burns-of-the-wandering-lens-7 How to Take Underwater Split-level Photos by The Wandering LensUnderwater Photography by The Wandering Lens www.thewanderinglens.com

Throughout my career you can see from the story above that my gear has grown with me. Photography isn’t about having the biggest and best camera or the fullest lens kit from the get go. It’s about developing your creative eye, learning what you want to capture and then adapting your gear to suit.

Sure you can buy a camera with all the bling and buttons straight up but give yourself time to learn it’s features and develop your style. Buying the big camera won’t make you a photographer, that part comes with a lot of practice and time. Take a peek below at how time, technology and using skills I’d learnt over the years has changed my perspective on a destination. Pretty sure the horrible quality in the ‘before’ shots show that anyone can become a travel photographer #motivation!

improving-as-a-profesional-travel-photographer my-career-as-a-travel-photographer-by-lisa-michele-burns-of-the-wandering-lens-0 my-career-as-a-travel-photographer-by-lisa-michele-burns-of-the-wandering-lens-3

To think of all the places I visited when photography wasn’t a part of my life makes me wonder what on earth I was doing instead…I guess I’ll just have to go back all over again with my DSLR’s in tow and take those photos I never knew were possible back then.

Now it’s over to you:
Have you found your photography grows with your gear?
Or do you upgrade and then learn?
What gear do you currently use?
And more importantly…what was your snake high score?

You can also take a peek at where the future of photography could be leaning here. Thoughts?

Want to get your travel photography career started? Start by Improving your Photographic Eye and Learning Creative Composition to take your photos to the next level. It’s fun I promise!

6 Comments
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  1. 2 years ago

    Interesting article. I got some great advice on gear when I did a one day workshop after buying my first DSLR… ‘When you reach the limitations of your camera or lens, then you are ready to upgrade’.

    • 2 years ago

      Great point Cassandra! There seems to be two methods; the grow with your gear method and the jump in at the deep end method 🙂

  2. Romeo
    2 years ago

    I love your story. I’m really working on my photos so it’s encouraging to know that it took even you a bit to get where you are. Also, I’m going to see if I can find one of them old Nokia with that snake game.

  3. 2 years ago

    Thanks for the inspiration. Looking forward to your JUCY adventure.

    I wish I could remember my snake high score because that make all the hours worth it. I started with gear at the higher end of consumer when I purchased a 60D back in 2012. The best part was meeting my soulmate on the camera aisle. We spent a lot of time exploring and learning our new cameras together, and now we spend a lot of time exploring Australia with our wee one. Still learning the same camera! Although, I find myself reaching its limits with a fast micing toddler in low light. 🙂

    • 2 years ago

      Wow what a great place to meet each other! Obviously destined for a life of capturing the world and no doubt plenty of photos of your little one! A super fast prime lens might help with the low light toddler snapping, although sometimes blurry shots can be pretty cute!

  4. Hannah
    2 years ago

    Ah loved reading this! Thanks for being so honest. It’s nice to know that other photographers go through the same process. I was one of those with all the gear and no idea. I met a famous photographer who told me what to buy if I was serious about photography (which I didn’t even know I was!) so I just took the plunge and bought it. I’m still learning how to get the most out of my equipment but that was only a year ago, and it’s amazing to see how much progression I’ve made. I love underwater split shots too. Yours are great. So inspiring!

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