My Evolution As A Photographer

This photo, taken in Wadi Rum, has been one of my most popular
This photo, taken in Wadi Rum, has been one of my most popular
A few days ago was the second anniversary of my first daily photo. Since then, I’ve put a photo on my website for over 730 consecutive days. It was originally just a way for me to put something up every day without having to write something. I was just being lazy. Somewhere along the way, photography has become the signature feature of my website. So much so that some people consider my site to be a photoblog, which I something I do not consider it.

When I first started traveling, I didn’t know my ISO from my aperture. I literally was so ignorant of the basics of photography, I’m embarrassed to talk about it. I purchased a camera which was way over my head in terms of my ability that in hindsight I should have been prevented from buying it by the store owner. My initial goal for taking photos wasn’t to put images online, it was to one day be able to decorate the walls of my home when I was done traveling. I envisioned the walls being covered with photos of the places I’ve been. I still might do that, but things have gone in a totally different direction.

One of my first photos from Hawaii. Horrible composition, lighting, exposure. I seldom display these photos
One of my first photos from Hawaii. Horrible composition, lighting, exposure. I seldom display these photos. I want to go back to the Big Island just to reshoot everything.

Getting Started

The first stop on my trip was Hawaii, and I’m embarrassed to look at the photos I took from there now. I was shooting in full auto mode and was saving everything as a .jpg. Quickly, I figured out to save everything as RAW. I didn’t know what all the dials and buttons on my camera did. I didn’t use Photoshop, or any other photo editing program, to adjust my photos. I tried to geotag everything by attaching a GPS to the flash shoe of my camera (which worked but having a Garmin GPS on your camera is really awkward. I’m still looking for a good geotagging solution).

I eventually got better by analyzing my photos and reading online. There is nothing wrong with taking bad photos when you start, so long as you take the time to figure out why they are bad. Likewise, if you do take a good photo, try to figure out what worked to you can replicate the success. I also read sites like as well as listened to podcasts like This Week in Photography and >Photofocus.

It was an iterative process with incremental improvement. There was never a “ah ha!” moment.

Taking photos with a more human focus are one of my areas for improvement
Taking photos with a more human focus are one of my areas for improvement

Where I’m At Now

I now consider myself a good photographer, but not a great one. My photos tend to be of the postcard variety. Given the travel focus of my website that is not a bad thing, but I think I still have a lot of room to grow. I’m at a point where I feel comfortable giving advice to people who are starting out in photography, but I still listen to photography podcasts and blogs because there are still many things I have to learn.

Here are areas I think I need improvement:

  • One weakness I have is that I seldom take photos of people. This isn’t a technical or artistic limitation, it is just a personal one. I don’t feel comfortable asking people to take their photo. This is something I’m going to focus on more in 2010.
  • I’m running into limitations on my gear. I’ve had several times when the low light capabilities on my camera prevented me from getting shots. Likewise, my lenses are very slow. I’ve had my current camera (Nikon D200) for almost three years now and I am due for an upgrade. I’m looking at the Nikon D700 but am hoping they come out with a D700s which supports video. I’d also like to get a few more lenses. Specifically, I’d like to get a cheap, fast 50mm lens. The thing preventing me from getting a D700 is that I would need a new set of FX lenses for the full frame sensor.
  • I recently broke down and purchased two flashes: SB-900 and SB-600. I’ve been reading The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes by Joe McNally (the first photography book I’ve ever read) and have been lusting after what I can do with a flash. There is a lot here that I need to learn. Even using a flash to even out ambient lighting outside will improve many of my photos. Using a remote flash with colored gels will let me get more artistic. I’ll be trying to make more photos instead of just taking photos.
  • This photo taken by lantern light of workers in the Solomon Islands is one of my personal favorites.
    This photo taken by lantern light of workers in the Solomon Islands is one of my personal favorites.
  • I’ve been visiting many places first and foremost as a traveler and as a photographer second. I’m going to greatly slow down my travel in 2010 (more on that later) and focus on creating better, more in-depth content on my site. This will involve going to places with the intent of taking photos. I can’t stress how much this matters when trying to get good photos. A pro photographer on vacation with their family will probably not take as good of photos as when they are on assignment just because of time and focus.
  • My knowledge of Photoshop is still pretty basic. I need to learn more about Photoshop and how I can get the most out of my photos. I suppose actually reading a book or watching some video courses online wouldn’t hurt.

Doing Something With My Photos

You also might have noticed that I’m very fussy about using my own photography on my website. With only a few exceptions, I will only display photos that I’ve taken. There are only a few instances where I have used a photo that someone else has taken. I plan to continue doing that. It not only makes legal issues cleaner, but it is a matter of pride for me. Once I have removed every last photo hosted on Flickr (a process I’m still working on) I’m going to make my daily photos 1,000 pixels wide (they are currently 600px wide). This should really make them even more special.

I’m also going to start selling prints and licensing them for use in publications and other websites. If you are interested in using my photos, feel free to contact me. If you are a blogger with a personal website, just contact me if you are interested in using my photos. I often allow permission for individual bloggers to use my photos with just a link and attribution.

I’m rather clueless in the world off-line world of publications. I’d love to see my photos published, if only for vanity’s sake. One of my long-term goals is to get a photo in National Geographic someday. If you work for a publication or know someone who does and would like to use my photos, free to contact me.

I’ve come a long way since I purchased a camera that was way over my head and set out to go around the world. I hope to keep taking photos and improving my photography for years to come. Someday I might even print some out and put them on the walls of my house…if I ever settle down.

19 thoughts on “My Evolution As A Photographer”

  1. Thanks so much sharing your journey on this and your goals. It’s always helpful to follow other people as they seek to improve in travel writing and photography. Hope it’s going well with taking photos of people! I have trouble doing that as well unless I’m able to spend some time with the people and get to talk with them first.

  2. This post was somewhat of an aspiring read. I am constantly taking pictures myself when travelling and have just recently got my first DSLR. However, because of you I have started searching for online tutorials on how to improve, and now I cant wait until next month when I take off for my journey around the world.
    Hope my pictures turn out as amazing as yours!
    Happy Travels:)

  3. Nice to see people evolve as photographers, I only picked up my first dSLR this year and already have improved, I will make photography a bigger focus from next year.

  4. Good luck with the selling and especially the National Geographic (one of my life goals as well).

    I have to say though, the most rewarding thing I’ve done is get my pix printed and decorate my living room with them. I sat down and cried when I got them all hung it was just amazing to see my work displayed.

  5. the best way to practice is go out there and click, click, click your camera! of course a good camera helps, but just go out there and have fun!!! great progress, Gary!!! you have some amazing pics of your journeys!

  6. Gary, I enjoyed reading about your photographic progress. Good photos make such a difference on a blog, especially one that focuses on travel. Good luck with selling your photographs. I’m looking forward to reading more about your efforts.

  7. Great post Gary! There’s absolutely no better way to learn how to be a better photographer than to get in there and do tons of photographs.

    This is why the daily photo practice is starting find the true talent hidden in every potential photographer.

  8. Hi Gary, your photography skill did improve a lot since last time ( I think about 1 year ago) I visited your blog… :) Now what I see you is a travel photographer with lots of passions on travel and photography, just what National Geographic keens on…

  9. This is a great post Gary! Can totally relate to what you have written. My first trip was to the awesome land of Ladakh and that was when i bought my first bridge camera. Whenever i see those photos, i feel i did gross injustice to the beauty of the place.. I want to go back there again just to take awesome pictures again.

    And primarily I am a Landscape photographer. For some reason i just can’t point my camera at strangers faces. So when you work on it next year, do let us know how you got over the wierdness and asked them for a shot! :)

    And using your photos on your site makes it more personal and represents your perspective better. I do the same too..

  10. In my older travel photography you would not know that there were other people there with me. I would wait for people to move and shoot landscapes without people or without faces. I still like some of these but getting the people in the picture is more interesting / challenging.

  11. great post you have come a long way and I see good things in the future for you. To have the opportunity to do what you are doing is PRICELESS you will always be richer for it. thanks for sharing along the way

  12. I agree with you Gary the picture with the lantern is perfect! Wether it was on purpose or a lucky shot doesn’t matter and goes to say “people don’t care what camera you used to take the picture when it’s framed on the wall”

    Even Trey Ratcliff says his first pictures were horrible and wishes people not to see them but now he’s top in his class when it comes to HDR and is considered an expert in the field.

    I have been following your site for a year and 1/2 now and can say I have seen some great improvements in your photography. You started doing HDR and find it giving your portfolio a wider range and your weekly adding more and more stunning pictures. People are always hard to shoot, esp if you want to get close (why having a good 300mm lens is always helpful) and is even worse when you don’t speak the language. I have this issues all the time but i over come it by this:
    1) I just shoot people as much as I can on certain days! I try to stick with people working on the streets, selling crafts, food exc exc. They always seem the most open and friendly and most often then not I get a candid shot of someone. If they actually look at me while shooting I’ll always walk up and try to say hello and show them the picture on the LCD screen. This goes a long way most of the time.
    2) I always hit up hotel staff, tour guides and bar/restaurant people. They seem to be as local as one can get, more often speak my language (or at least a little) and usually they are more open to you because you are a customer.

    Question: Do you use Adobe Lightroom at all? If not it’s great for quick post-editing and can allow you to edit 200 pictures in a fraction of the time of Photoshop. What i use when i travel and can get through 16gigs of pictures from a days shoot in a matter of a few hours.

  13. Great article, I’ve found that most people don’t mind their photo taken, and it’s definitely worth asking when you’ve got a great character in front of you just begging to be captured.

    On Geo-Tagging, There is a new product available, it’s a GPS for the hotshoe, that’s compatible with the Nikon cameras to do in camera geotagging. It’s much less expensive than the Nikon branded product. I use the same company’s stand alone GPS logger, and I’ve been very pleased! I can’t wait until Canon has a product that does the same for my 50D.

    Great photos!

    Andrew Rodgers

  14. Good you I find very difficult to take pics of people, find once you ask the “naturalness” of the photo is lost and they’ll often pose. Also agree re buying a “camera beyond one’s means” never ceases to amaze how many people I see with pricey digital slrs shooting on full auto, all they’re doing is weighing their pack down.those darned camera salespeople!

  15. Thanks for sharing your photo-journey. When we met in Bali (feb 08) and I saw your gear, I figured you’d been into photography for years!

    I look back at the photos I took on my first stop in French Polynesia (dec 07) and cringe. The cloudy weather didn’t help, but in terms of volume, there just weren’t a lot, and I’ve found that taking a lot of photos of the same sunset or object invariably gives me a better chance at getting a really great one out of it.

    Like you, I didn’t take a lot of photos of people on my trip. That’s why I’m excited to feature a new photo/interview series at Go Backpacking by one of my contributors, T-roy.

    • Dave, taking your time over a shot can equally help to get a great photo. Rather than just taking multiples.

      • You’re right, of course! I was thinking mostly of sunsets, where I’d take one or two dozen shots as the light constantly changed. This was my approach to make up for my lack of how to handle different lighting situations.

        I guess I got use to always taking photos on the move – from speeding taxis, buses, walking on treks, and tours, etc.

        At the start of my trip, I relied on automatic settings (Canon Powershot), but I did progress to manual after a few months. This required more time per photo, of course.

  16. Top notch post Gary! Definitely struck a cord with me, as I find myself working through a similar process. I finally sat down and set to learning the basics behind ISO etc. after years of relying on my natural eye and the automatic settings. No leaps and bounds, but it definitely is a slow but beneficial process. There’s also something very challenging about taking shots of people. “Where are all the people” is one of the common criticisms/questions I get when showing friends my travel shots.

    Also, kudos on avoiding outside imagery. I’m of the same school of thought. This is your place, your window, and should represent your content. That’s what gives it value!

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