How Lonely Planet Changed My Life Ten Years Ago

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My Path to Becoming a Travel Photographer

I had always been obsessed with travel but ten years ago something happened that changed my life forever.

I don’t normally write personal posts on The Wandering Lens but I wanted to share a little insight into my journey to becoming a travel photojournalist. Today so many people get caught up in the world of social media, attempting to be the next big thing or go viral and I wanted to take a step back to share how my career path developed, mainly to show that not every path is the same and that it’s important to forge your own. It can be a little wobbly, take some detours or end up being all about luck and timing but having an end goal or dream usually means you’re already going somewhere.

I used to record and replay TV shows like Getaway or The Great Outdoors on my VCR wanting to be the presenter who seemed to be having the time of their life somewhere exotic. Of course at the time I could barely brush my hair let alone look presentable in front of a camera but the dream has always been alive to see the world in any way possible.

In high school my answer to the career counsellors ‘what do you want to do?’ question was simply, I want to travel. You can imagine the look she gave me.

It’s probably important to note here that I had absolutely no intention to be a photographer. None. Photography was even an elective at my school but it never crossed my mind to take that class. I had zero interest in using a camera and didn’t even have a mobile phone because they were basically just bricks back then.

I wanted to be a pilot instead. Or a tennis player but that required too much running.

How I Became a Travel Photographer

Skip forward to two years after school when I began flying lessons and got air sick all over the cockpit of a little Cessna plane while dipping and weaving above Bribie Island in Australia. I happened to be starting out during the whale migration and my instructor loved dropping altitude to check out the whales as he spotted them…not great for my woozy head that can barely manage the movement of a carousel.

After three lessons and some serious patience on his behalf he calmly suggested that maybe flying wasn’t for me…unless I wanted it so badly that I could overcome the air sickness. Also he probably got a little tired of cleaning the plane. Yuck.

Like most people, the thought of vomiting through every lesson for the next few years didn’t appeal to me and I quickly realised the only reason I wanted to be a pilot was of course to travel.

Switching my interests to journalism I got back on track with my desire to be like the lady on the travel show and at the age of 20 enrolled in a Bachelor of Communication majoring in Journalism. Studying via distance education I also scored a full-time job as a journalist at my local newspaper and began balancing a full-time degree and full-time study with the idea that one day I’d be writing for guidebooks. Working on the paper for just over a year I managed to zip through my degree using articles I was writing during the day and somehow ended up completing it within 18 months.

Hello freedom!

The next part might seem a little random but for some reason now feels like it was meant to be.

After graduating I took a job photographing dolphins and outdoor activities on an island resort off the coast of Brisbane called Tangalooma. It was a job that I saw advertised online and something about it just drew me in and I immediately applied despite my only experience being that I had taken some photos for my articles at the newspaper.

Here is where my life changed a little at first. I fell in love with photography. Not just the cameras but the ability to work outdoors in the sunshine, photograph coastal landscapes and capture smiling faces as people fed dolphins, wild dolphins by the way! Being in the elements as waves (and dolphins) crashed into me with the challenge of capturing the shot became so addictive.

How I Became a Travel Photographer

In the water photographing the wild dolphins that arrived each evening after sunset for some fish. Also just a side note for anyone worried about the dolphins, we always stood behind them so the flash didn’t hurt their eyes and some nights if they weren’t hungry, they simply didn’t come to the beach. But when they did it was such a beautiful experience to be in the water with them, sometimes they would even cruise past and give you a little nudge then look up to say hey.

How I Became a Travel Photographer

During my time on the island I was still of course obsessed with travelling and writing so on an apparent whim I entered a writing competition with the guidebook giant Lonely Planet. The winner would score a trip to Morocco and a foot in the door to work with the company I had once listed as my dream job before starting my journalism degree.

Skip again to about four months later and I put a $2 coin into a little internet kiosk (this was before WIFI) for 20 minutes of connection to check my emails which at that stage I did only once a week. Oh to go back to a time when connectivity didn’t exist right!?

Opening my inbox I saw an email with the subject line reading “Lonely Planet Bluelist Competition: Winner”. Completely forgetting I had even entered, I opened it and quickly read about a trip to Morocco, they’d pay for my flights and I’d be travelling with two Lonely Planet authors who would teach me the ropes of how to write and research for guidebooks.

Actually the exact first paragraph is below…

“Congratulations – you are a winner of the Lonely Planet Bluelist Competition.

No – I’m not joking. We loved your list, and want to send you to Morocco with a couple of Lonely Planet authors.”

Yeah, right. Sure.

I still remember being so shocked at the email that I sat there a little silent and just stared at the screen. Did I even enter this and if so, are they actually serious!? My friend was sitting beside me on the other kiosk and I asked her to come over and read it too. She of course lost her mind and put another $2 in the kiosk so we could stare a little longer.

Not wanting to be uncool or seem too eager, I didn’t respond that day.

Instead letting the thought of being whisked off to a country that wasn’t even on my radar completely consume me for the next two days. I found the entry I had written so I knew at least I did actually enter and then just read the email and arrangements over and over again.

It was real. I had won and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to Morocco to pursue travel writing.

Little tip – enter competitions and take chances, even if you forget you took them in the first place, they’re totally worth it!

Staring out the plane window as I flew into Marrakech way back in 2007, the red city revealed itself. A maze of ochre coloured buildings, hazy desert plains and snow covered peaks of the Atlas Mountains appeared in the distance; a total contrast to the warm landscape below.

A big part of me knew that trip was going to change my life before I even stepped off the plane.

For seven days I was immersed in the culture of Morocco and treated to an intensive real world insight into the life of a travel writer. There were four winners from around the world and we explored the enchanting medina of Marrakech, the captivating seagull mecca of Essaouira and the mountain villages and Kasbah’s of the High Atlas Mountains near Imlil. They were our classroom for the week and I could not be more grateful for the incredible experiences I had. Learning about writing reviews, researching destinations, planning, writing, editing, formatting and so much more, it probably sounds tedious to some people but for me this was a dream. A huge thank you to the amazing Alex Leviton and Paul Clammer for their guidance that week, I know I’ve thanked you since but yeah…let’s do it again!?

How I Became a Travel Photographer

A little boy that came to my rescue after my bicycle tyre punctured. His brothers and I played soccer while we waited for his older brothers to help fix the tyre.

How I Became a Travel Photographer

My favourite image from the trip mainly because after I took it I felt so Lonely Planety!

How I Became a Travel Photographer

Views from the Kasbah du Toubkal in Imlil, High Atlas Mountains.

How I Became a Travel Photographer

Essaouira, where the seagulls hover above the harbour like little white poop droppers ready to attack. The town itself though is such a contrast to Marrakech with it’s striking white buildings and chilled out coastal atmosphere.

Upon completion of the trip we were lucky enough to be invited to pitch article ideas to the editors of Lonely Planet. As a freelance writer this is such an important element of maintaining clients, I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to learn how to pitch properly!

Pitching articles about the people who work in the medina, the magic of the Djeema el Fna food stalls and a very generic story on sidewalks with supporting images, Lonely Planet came back to me with a surprising suggestion.

Let’s do a photo feature.

Photography had of course started to interest me after working with the dolphins and before the trip I did purchase my first ever DSLR but I still never thought photos would ever be my thing over writing.

But the response to that pitch changed my life. The idea of one editor completely made me reassess what I wanted to do and was all I needed to make photography my focus.

I’d love to link to the first photo feature I had published with Lonely Planet but as it was 10 years ago, they’ve of course updated their content, thank goodness.

How I Became a Travel Photographer

Me learning the lesson to walk quickly through the Djeema el Fna and to not make eye contact with the snake charmers. I do love this photo though, mainly because Paul Clammer, a Lonely Planet author is standing in the background, clearly knew better and waited patiently as I unwillingly played tourist.

Also just to finish the story off for now, after Morocco I decided to ditch my return flight to Australia and stayed in Europe to continue working as a freelance wannabe photographer. I moved to Dublin which was the only city I could apply for a working holiday visa in and because I liked the idea of listening to Irish accents.

It turns out this choice must’ve been a pretty good one because soon after arriving in Dublin I met Clement, my French partner who is still carrying my camera bag ten years later. I even think I’ve managed to pass on the travel bug to him after ten years of nagging to go somewhere new all the time.

How I Became a Travel Photographer by Lisa Michele Burns of The Wandering Lens - Travel Photography

If you’re looking to start out in travel writing or travel photography I just wanted to share my story to encourage you to go for it. Ten years ago I didn’t know how to edit properly, I couldn’t tell you barely anything about camera settings and snapped away happily on automatic, hoping for the best. Now travel photography is my business, my passion and my lifestyle. It’s a crazy job but also requires so many hours behind the computer each week to make it work. This isn’t one of those I quit my job and now live happily ever after articles, it’s seriously hard work and while luck, commitment and creativity play a big part, nothing is more important than dedication.

It’s about the chances you take, the emails you send pestering people to look at your work and the countless hours you put towards following your dream. The story above is just a skimmed version of the lead up to 2007, I didn’t want to bore anyone! Since that year though it’s been one non-stop adventure of ups and downs, highs and lows, I could almost write a book after the adventures I’ve had and one day might actually make time to do so, even if it’s just for my kids to read one day…one day waaay in the future haha.

To read more about becoming a travel photographer I’ve written a guide to get you started here – How to Become a Professional Travel Photographer.

If you’d like to join me for an adventure, keep an eye on my Workshops + Photo Tours page where you’ll find updated info on all the upcoming trips!

I’d love to hear where you are on whatever path you’re following so please feel free to comment below and share links to your writing or photography no matter how good or bad you think it is…

How I Became a Travel Photographer

Lisa Michele Burns

Lisa Michele Burns

Photographer at The Wandering Lens
Lisa is the founder and photographer behind The Wandering Lens. As an Australian currently based in France she's never in one place for too long and is always looking for the next destination to photograph whether it be above or below the water. With 10+yrs as a professional photographer, all advice found on this site is from Lisa's personal experience on the road.
Lisa Michele Burns

52 Comments

  1. Michela

    July 29, 2017 at 2:45 am

    Thank you Lisa for sharing. I could’t even imagined you dreamt of being a pilot 🙂 anyway, seeing your nowadays photos make me think ten years ago you already deserved this experience even if you “snapped away happily on automatic” because you are very talented and you own what’s matter in photography: a curious and creative mind. Keep showing us the way you see the world with your camera, I love it so much!

    • thewanderinglens

      July 29, 2017 at 7:58 pm

      Thank you so much Michela for this lovely message! I really appreciate you saying that 🙂
      Hopefully one day we’ll meet up for an adventure somewhere!

  2. Sarah Shumate

    July 29, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Although I already knew most of this story, I can’t even tell you how much I enjoyed reading it again! You might be a photographer, but you’re still an incredibly talented writer, too!

    But seriously, a pilot?! Ha! Flight anxiety must not have kicked in until later in life, huh?

    • thewanderinglens

      July 29, 2017 at 8:02 pm

      Haha umm yes, back then I didn’t even consider turbulence or where I sat in the plane to minimise risk! I LOVED flying, luckily I’m starting to like it again…depending on what type of conditions there are up there 😉

  3. Ania | Snow to Seas

    July 29, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! It was really inspiring to read! I never thought about entering any competitions before, so thank you for the suggestion. Your photos are beautiful 🙂

  4. Bernie

    July 29, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    Life’s all about taking those chances. Great advice on being ready to just go for it, even when you don’t think you *are* ready. And loving your pictures too, although that should probably almost go without saying.

  5. Sara White

    July 29, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    What an incredible opportunity, Lisa! It’s amazing how something that can seem pretty insignificant at the time (like just entering a contest) can suddenly turn into this fantastic platform to boost you into the career that’s right for you. Also, I think it really serves to emphasize how important it is to enter contests, submit to various publications, and generally just keep putting yourself out there, because you really never know when something might click into place.

    (By the way, I browsed through a bunch of your other posts. Your underwater photos are truly stunning!)

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 2:02 am

      Thanks so much Sara! I completely agree, it’s amazing what can happen once you put yourself out there and open yourself to opportunities you never knew existed!

  6. Caroline

    July 29, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    What an amazing story! I’m always entering competitions and have won a few good things but nothing anywhere near as amazing as this – your talent is unbelievable! What a fantastic story. Good luck with many more years of travel and photography!

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 2:00 am

      Thanks so much Caroline! Funnily enough I haven’t really entered many competitions since this one…I think it would be a bit too hard to beat haha.

  7. yasmin

    July 29, 2017 at 11:44 pm

    Wow I feel so inspired after reading your story! I love it when people just follow their heart and go for what they feel is right. Everything just fell into place for you, because you just followed your gut feeling and you’re doing what you love. Awesome! And your pictures are amazing! I just started blogging recently, I was too scared to start for years but I’m happy I finally did! And after your story I feel even more motivated :).

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:59 am

      So great to hear Yasmin! It definitely feels like now it all fell into place but I left out a lot of the story where times were a little tough living abroad. All worth it though! Best of luck with your new blog 🙂

  8. Eva

    July 30, 2017 at 12:37 am

    Thank you for this personal post, for me it was a very good read. I’ve been practising photography for many years now, but I always feel like I’m probably still not good enough to turn this into something bigger. Plus, as English is not my first language, I also feel like I am far from being able to compete with other people out there. I take immense satisfaction and gratification in photography, but then I see other people succeed (in the blogging world for example) and I always think that maybe I overestimated myself. Probably success is truly for the brave and I am not brave enough to put myself out there a little bit more.
    But reading your story gave me some great motivation. Maybe I should try to be a little bit braver. So thank you for this post, you are an inspiration.

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:57 am

      So lovely to hear from you Eva! I know exactly what you mean about watching other people succeed perhaps faster than you or get better clients etc. It’s really a matter of staying focused on your own path because as it’s a creative industry, the career path is different for everyone! Definitely stick with it if it’s what you want to do, perhaps try to find your own unique style or product and approach clients 🙂 I offer mentoring if you’re keen to chat further about ways to take your career forward! Just email me via hello@thewanderinglens.com if you want to chat!

  9. Kavey at Kavey Eats

    July 30, 2017 at 12:52 am

    What a wonderfully uplifting post to read, I really loved it. So lovely that you took a chance entering that competition and how it changed your life so completely. I love that! I’m a believer in fate, I think and it seems this was yours. Thank you for sharing!

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:53 am

      Thanks so much! Looking back I’m definitely a believer in fate too, it’s just a matter of trying to enjoy the ride and not stressing too much about decisions along the way 🙂

  10. Tina

    July 30, 2017 at 12:56 am

    Love this! I would never have dreamed of entering a contest, but you’ve helped me look at it as an opportunity!Thanks!

  11. Leigh

    July 30, 2017 at 12:58 am

    What a cool story to share! It’s funny what we *think* we want to be at 18 vs 40…so different, for me at least!

  12. Amanda

    July 30, 2017 at 2:59 am

    An inspiring story that really shows if you want something and keep trying it will happen. Also a reminder that travel writing and photography is hard works and lots of hours spent at a computer. Thanks now I must go and enter that photo competition that I’ve been dithering over 🙂

  13. Helene

    July 30, 2017 at 4:32 am

    Very inspirational, thanks for sharing! I love photography too and it’s really interesting to read the story of someone who made it as a professional photographer. All the best in your career and love your blog!

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:50 am

      Thanks so much Helene, really appreciate you taking the time to comment 🙂

  14. Sally

    July 30, 2017 at 5:08 am

    Wow, I love this! Kudos to you! I’ve been obsessed with writing & travel since I was little- it’s that one dream I never let die. I’m a blogger now and had my first article accepted for a guide book- woohoo. Yes, it’s lots of hard work, luck, and taking those less-traveled paths.

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:50 am

      So exciting Sally! Congratulations on your guidebook feature, that’s huge! Hard work always pays off 🙂

  15. Candiss

    July 30, 2017 at 6:22 am

    Thank you for sharing your journey. This was a well needed reminder to start pitching again/ more or else I won’t be getting anywhere!

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:49 am

      Great to hear Candiss! Pitching can be a struggle sometimes huh!

  16. Nicole

    July 30, 2017 at 6:36 am

    What an amazing story. I suffer with a lack of confidence that I am trying to overcome and I usually see competitions and don’t enter because I don’t think I’m good enough. Thanks for the reminder to enter anyway, you never know what could happen.

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:48 am

      Thanks for sharing Nicole, definitely try to put yourself out there! I struggle with self-confidence too and am always sure there are better photographers, writers or editors than me but…it comes down to having a unique voice and believing that what you say or capture matters. It’s a lot easier to do from behind a computer screen I’ve found 😉

  17. Justyn Gourdin

    July 30, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    Hey girl! For one I love this post. What a cool experience and honestly, a great opportunity. I just wanted to reach out and say thanks for sharing! And also, I LOVE the name of your blog! How cute is that. I Can’t wait to read more and check out your photos from all over

  18. Karen

    July 30, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Hi Lisa, this is a beautiful story and intimate insight into your journey. Your heart guided you to where you were meant to be. I too love photography and albeit an amateur, I love that I can use it to capture our experiences as we live, work and travel around Europe full-time. Your post inspires me to keep going with the regular contacting of magazines to feature our ‘stress to happiness’ story, which we’ve had no uptake on yet. Keep focused on what your heart desires and it will take you where you need to be. Thank you.

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:39 am

      Thanks for your lovely message Karen! Your journey is so inspiring too, I love your blog! Definitely keep going with getting your story published, sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking it to fit or finding that one publication who gets it. Happy travels x

  19. Lotte

    July 30, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    Your story is such an inspiration! Lonely Planet is my travel bible so thank you for creating the shots that inspire me to visit faraway places I never heard of just because they look so hauntingly beautiful!

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:33 am

      So great to hear Lotte! The blue logo had always meant “travel” for me and like you I get so inspired by images!

  20. Rajlakshmi

    July 30, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    Your story is so inspiring… I loved how you followed your dreams and how the opportunities slowly opened for you. You learnt flying too!! wow that sounds so exciting. I have motion sickness too, so I can understand how it feels when the altitude drops 😛
    I love reading your story. You are an amazing writer.

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:32 am

      So good to hear from someone who gets the motion sickness haha, total head spins 🙂 I really appreciate your message!

  21. Suzanne

    July 30, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    This was very interesting to read. You had luck but especially very much dedication! Really nice to read how things went. Enjoyed it a lot.
    About myself. I’m still at crossroads. Love photography and writing and graphic design, and I’m working on my own website. Don’t know where and if it will lead me anywhere. But if you never try you won’t know. It’s still super small but you can check it out on http://www.frompalmstopeaks.com

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:31 am

      Great to hear Suzanne! I love the name of your site. If it’s something you are passionate about then it’s definitely worth pursuing! Where are you travelling next?

  22. Ana Ro

    July 30, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    I simply loved your story. And the detail about the coin for internet connection – I do remember those times. 🙂

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:28 am

      Haha weren’t they the best!? Limited to 20mins then you continue on with your day without distractions 🙂

  23. Desiree Chance

    July 31, 2017 at 1:48 am

    It’s so important to follow your intuition and keep yourself open to new opportunities. You never know where it will lead you, or what you will find that can change the course of your existence. To me, that’s one of the most beautiful parts of travel. You have quite a story, and seems you’ve still got so much more to tell!

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:27 am

      That’s such a great message Desiree! I completely believe in always keeping yourself open to opportunities and new projects that come your way, no matter how big or how small they are. It’s all an adventure!

  24. Alex

    July 31, 2017 at 2:22 am

    I love this post. Thanks for giving us a reason to believe in our travel dreams–sometimes it seems out of reach, and this post helps a lot. Also, gorgeous pictures. <3

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:25 am

      Thanks so much Alex! I completely know the out of reach feeling and even still look back on my own story when I need a reminder and say “oh yeah, it can happen”! Hard work pays off 🙂

  25. Erin

    July 31, 2017 at 4:38 am

    This is such an inspiring story! I’m so happy you found a career that you’re passionate about! I would have reacted just like you when you got that email from Lonely Planet. How exciting that must have been once it sank it that it was real! Since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. A job like that has always seemed unattainable though. I have lots of interests. So, I’m working on a science graduate degree right now. However, last fall I decided to put together a photography website in my free time (even though all I can afford right now is a point and shoot camera). I then read that you should always have a blog to go with your photography website. That was the first time I considered having a blog, but I knew right away what I wanted to write about: travel. Even though I’ve only written a few posts so far, I love it! I’m realizing that in the future, I would like to pursue photography/travel writing more seriously (maybe someday I actually will work with National Geographic ha ha). Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. It gives me hope and reminds me to be persistent even if it seems like a long shot.

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:24 am

      Thanks for sharing your story Erin! National Geographic Magazine would be amazing wouldn’t it!? I’d totally settle for Nat Gro Traveller or even their Website too haha. Great to hear you’re starting out sharing your work online, it’s amazing the opportunities that open up once you simply put yourself out there. I’ll keep an eye out for your name in the credits of Nat Geo 🙂

  26. makenzie

    July 31, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    I love this story, such an inspiration! And what an opportunity to start your travel journey. Although photography is something i just enjoy as a hobby, it is something i plan on working on as i love love loveeee taking snap after snap. great story and so glad i found your blog as im sure you will help me progress behind the lens 🙂

    • thewanderinglens

      August 14, 2017 at 1:21 am

      I’m so happy you found me too Makenzie 🙂 photography is such a wonderful way to help you see the world and everyday things with new eyes! Best of luck with your photos, if you’ve ever got any questions feel free to email me!

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