There’s travel photography, taking a selfie in front of a landmark, then there’s Travel photography as discussed between photographers Matt Dutile and Philip Lee Harvey. Everything you thought you wanted to know about travel photography but were afraid to ask.
In the following interview Matt Dutile downloads the the Philip Lee Harvey’s Travel photography brain – discover prep techniques, best time to shoot and how to deliver for clients.
Matt Dutile: When it comes to an assignment whether it’s a travel editorial or an advertising shoot, what’s your preparation for that. I am sure each one’s going to have something a little different. But do you have some basic things, like how do you figure out what’s going to work on a location?
Philip Lee Harvey: As far as the preparation for the shoot, if it’s an advertising shoot I’ll do a lot of moodboards so that the Art Director and I are in the same train of thought and they get what we are trying to achieve – that is usually a mood rather than a particular picture. In editorial I am very much concerned with the overall emotion that I want to create from a shoot. You can’t pre-plan them too much because you don’t know if that priest is going to be at that mountain-top at that sunrise. You know the emotion you want, that gives you a lot of opportunity to pre-plan it. I take a lot of visual research with me of the destinations so that I can show a guide or an interpreter, this is the kind of thing to go after, and visually is much better than verbally. Quite often I will say I am looking for this church or this mountain top and if I use a name it may not be the local dialect name or it may be something different. If it’s visual I can show them and they can show their colleagues and we can find where we want to go. I try to look at everything that has been done there before. You should never be so proud that you think you will just find a brilliant location somewhere. There are people who live there who know it better. We always start by finding out what other people have done and that’s a good starting point. If there is a certain mountain-top and you’ve never see a good picture from it chances are it may not exist. Especially now with the internet and Google earth you can actually plan a lot of your journey through things like Google earth.
Matt Dutile: Location work is at the whim of the weather. What do you do if it’s not great?
Philip Lee Harvey: It’s the one thing you cannot change so the important thing is to not go crazy about it. But make sure you give yourself the best odds so you’re only there when it is supposed to be good. If it’s only sunny during the middle of the day you have to be strict and if the light isn’t good enough you keep going back at sunrise and sunset in the time frame we have and hopefully we’ll get it. The secret, if there is one is Know when you are lucky and maximise that opportunity. If the weather is going to be bad you almost want it very bad at least there’s a narrative there.
Matt Dutile: Let’s talk a bit more about the craft of the travel photographer and what is it that separates someone who works specifically in travel and location work versus another photographer who may have great work in fashion, and then just travels with their camera, what makes this niche of travel photographers?
Philip Lee Harvey: The main difference between us and people who are going on holiday and taking their own photographs that we’ll put the effort in every possible minute of the day until we are on the plane on the way home to get what we need. We are addicted to what we do. We keep attacking the location until we get it. It take’s a certain personality to do it. What makes the photographer good in that genre I think is bringing in other influences, crossovers. For example I might use a fashion lighting technique, for a picture of Masai tribeswoman.
It’s really important not to pigeonhole yourself mentally, to say I am a travel photographer so therefore I only ever look at travel photography that’s been done before. Because it’s been done before there’s no point in taking that avenue. It’s much better to say “where’s my influence here?” It might be a film, it might be a painting, it might be music. We’ve used music just to give us continuity throughout the whole shoot – and a mood. It’s not just about creating a strong image. It’s got to have emotion otherwise you are just a guidebook photographer.
I don’t want to say this is exactly what Djenne market in Mali West Africa looks like. I want to say this is what it smells like, this is what it feels like, this is the dust. Try to bring in as much of that emotion as you can. It’s often a case of getting the picture you think you’ve got to get, get that first. Then throw it away. Then look for more interesting things. Otherwise there’s a danger you will stamp-collect destinations.
Matt Dutile: Each location can have many different stories so the question is what the one you want to craft from?
Philip Lee Harvey: Knowing what being on-brand and is about, knowing the people you are working for, knowing the things they like, and then being strict with yourself – if it’s not part of the story don’t waste to much time on it. Let’s say you are doing a piece about spirituality in Burma. You’ve already got your vision, it’s about spirituality and the environment, how it effects people. Don’t go off shooting beautiful landscapes if it’s not relevant. You want a complete package for a good story not one-off great pictures, on their own they don’t really work.
Matt Dutile: You mentioned different kinds of inspiration, music, paintings, are there any ‘go-to’ photographers you went to when starting out or even now that you go to for inspiration.
Philip Lee Harvey: Yes and they change I have a big library of books and DVDs, things that have been useful, like a notepad I have jotted something down on. When I first started I was interested in the early travel photographers people like Frank Hurley who was with Shackleton who was on the Endurance expedition in Antarctica. And then painters like Turner. Turner was a fantastic, if you like, Travel painter who really got the essence and the mood of a place. Caravaggio, great for that chiaroscuro lighting, Monet and the Impressionists, Monet was great at simplifying a scene down and giving you a mood.
Then through photographic history different photogrpahers have brought something new. George Rodger one of the founder members of Magnum, he did brilliant work in Southern Sudan in the Nuba tribe, people like Ersnt Haas one of the first people to really understand colour and colour theory. Then modern day inspirations are people such as Salgado, his professionalism and his eye is unique and his dedication is incredible. I might look at fashion photographer Carter Smith, or listen to music. If I’m doing something in the US I might listen to Ry Cooder, or jazz or blues – to give you an idea of the emotion in your mind. I remember doing a shoot in California about surfing and I remember listening to surf music from the 50s and 60s and a film called Endless Summer by Bruce Brown – we used that a lot to influence what we were doing.
Matt Dutile: I want to ask about what looks like some really fantastic work for Lonely Planet Travel, in particular a story on Ethiopia which echoes some of the topics we have been talking about. How did you prepare? Searching for locations did you have a guide? How many days?
Philip Lee Harvey: I’d been to Ethiopia once before, about 10 years ago, I’d been all over the country but mainly in the South photographing in the Omo Valley. But I knew of these rock churches up in the North, I’d been to Lalibella before one of the centres of these amazing 6th- 7th century churches carved out of rock.
The concept there was how do we make a story about religion run over 10-12 pages, keep it colourful in a very dry place, keep it interesting and keep it current. Not make it look like it’s a historical piece. You still have pilgrims going there everyday from all over the world. But it should be interesting to people who aren’t necessarily interested in the religious aspect.
It started as a conversation between the writer and myself, we talked about the ideal places we’d like to go, we then contacted different tour companies in Ethiopia to see which one would be the right one for us to work with, they then put an itinerary together. We looked at it and juggled it and said ok. Some of it is a wishlist and some of it is due to the logistics and restraints of the time that you’ve got. One of the things I was told by my Art Director at the magazine was just be careful it doesn’t look too dusty, because people’s view of Ethiopia is a very dated one, rooted in the 1980s view of famine and war. And it’s not. It’s colourful and it has this biblical history and we wanted to bring that together in a lively way. We talked about what destinations would be good for people, what destinations would be good for landscapes
We discussed how to bring scale into the picture. Because when you have a church carved out of solid rock, you have no idea of the scale or how epic it is – we worked very hard on making it work. Then you treat day one like it’s your last day! You never know! You try everything you can. On a shoot you are learning a lot, you’re learning the way to do the shoot, you are learning the way to shoot the churches, you are taking the knowledge from one that didn’t work that well to the next one, then trying to make it work.
Having been to some of the churches before, I knew it was going to be technically tricky, it was going to be dark. I didn’t want to light it with flash, I didn’t want to kill the mood. I had a whole bag of different colour temperature torches with me.
I used LED lights I used maglites, different things that would give me different colours and then in very long exposures I would paint the light that I wanted into the roof scene.
I don’t tend to go back that much and look at everything though. I know instinctively if I’ve got it, and I like to think that I haven’t. There’s a danger you think, “yeah, I have that opening spread, that I’ve got the double page spread,” and you don’t try hard the next day. It’s better to think I have something in reserve and can do better tomorrow.
Matt Dutile: Getting up for every sunrise and being there for very sunset is something you beat into to me on our last talk! Before then I had been building in the travel work, but doing it as a photographer who was travelling rather than as a travel photographer. I don’t know why that mental click hadn’t been there before because know it seems so obvious.
Philip Lee Harvey: Once you’ve seen that early morning light, or that late evening light when most people have gone to the bar, once you’ve seen it you’re addicted, and you know that’s your benchmark. That’s when you must work.
Matt Dutile: It’s always a little rough when your climbing 1600 steps up a temple at 4 in the morning. But then the sun comes up and it’s worth it!
Philip Lee Harvey: The feeling of satisfaction when you get that light beats anything.
Matt Dutile: For people who want to get into travel photography, what kind of images do you want to see in their portfolio? How do you build to attract clients in this industry?
It does take a long time. When I see aspiring location photographers’ work, editorially it must have a story. Having one cracking picture means nothing. It’s the same in advertising as well, it’s all about the narrative. If you’re going to Marrakesh, or Fez, or anywhere In Morocco, then you must know what you are going to achieve.
There needs to be the narrative, then the page-layout story, the art director needs to see an opener, with space for type and an understanding of its final use. The Art Director needs to see detail, interiors, lively pictures, unexpected pictures of people, people that invite you to want to go there. And a good colour palette throughout. You may use the same colour palate throughout for consistency or you may use opposite colours. For example if you have a lot of green in your story it’s going to start getting boring. Put a bit of red in one of those pictures and suddenly it comes alive.
On shot is not enough. What’s the story? It’s the same in advertising, there will be a brand strategy, there will be a demographic they are aiming at, there will be a colour palette they will want to use because of their branding – it’s never as simple as one straight picture. Think what the story is, think the emotion, and then work back. Having a brief is vitally important, even if you write it yourself.
Matt Dutile: How important is it today to diversify, to work with multiple clients, to do advertising and editorial and stock?
Philip Lee Harvey: It’s up to the individual, some people do very well by having a niche, by having something special that they do, and they are called by time and time again to do that same thing. Personality-wise I would go crazy, I like new challenges, and I like taking some of the things I might learn doing safari shoot, taking that into an ad shoot for a large bank or something. I’m always being educated by something I’m doing and can take it on to another client. It’s also a tricky one, if you diversify too much no one knows what you do. You do need a brand, to say this is a ‘Philip Lee Harvey’ image. Other wise you end up with mediocre in everything.
Matt Dutile: Let’s jump to ”Why should they still hire us?” With the continuing rise of microstock, shoot budgets shrinking, editorial budgets vanishing, why is more important than ever for companies to work with professional photographers and what is it we are bringing to the table?
Philip Lee Harvey: You said it there, we are professional photographers it is what we are bringing to the table that counts. Digital photography is available to everyone now, but photography has never really been about cameras. It’s been about an attitude, and a way of thinking, and the ability to perform every time. To give your clients what they want and to give them an individual look. Clients want a reliability and a freshness. Nobody wants to keep using the same imagery all the time.
Travel magazines are changing, they are diversifying they are more web-based, there’s more video content now, they will diversify even more, they will have to to survive and we as photographers need to do the same, we need to be open to what clients want. It wasn’t that long ago we would spend four days getting one shot on a large-plate camera for a 48 sheet advertising campaign. That final usage doesn’t exist anymore. They want it to run on the web for a month, they want a thin banner, they want to put it into apps, we have to accommodate that or we are going to be dinosaurs. But the actual process of taking pictures is still there. There is still a need for visual people. Now whether you are actually directing video or shooting video or taking stills you are bringing something new to the table as a visual person that they can’t do.
To see more of Philip Lee Harvey’s work click here
To see more of Matt Dutile’s work click here
To see Philip Lee Harvey’s Photographer’s Eye