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The Ethics of Travel Photography

When is it OK to take a photo? When is it not OK?

I ask myself these questions on every trip. More specific questions include:

Should you ask? Will asking someone permission ruin the candid nature of the photo? Is it OK to not ask? Is it OK to take photos of someone’s property? Of someone’s children? Is it OK to take pictures of poverty? When is it exploitative? Is it OK for me to be in the photo myself? If I got inspiration from a particular photo, is it OK for me to take a photo of the same spot? Is it OK for me to imitate a concept? Is it OK for me to take a photo of a remote, beautiful or environmentally fragile place and post it on my social media channels with a geotag?

I could keep going, but you get the point. There are endless questions you can ask yourself when it comes to the ethics of travel photography.

There are no hard and fast rules for ethics when it comes to taking pictures when you travel, but just because you bought a plane ticket doesn’t mean you bought the rights to photograph every person and thing you see on your trip. There is so much to consider when taking photos while traveling, no matter what your subject is.

CONTEXT

As a traveler, you need to consider the context of your presence. Many lives have been and will be disrupted by tourism. Wherever you are, do the people actually want you to be there? Are you a welcomed visitor? This question is applicable for any situation you find yourself in with a camera. Be aware of the climate you are walking into (literally and figuratively), and understand that you are in someone else’s space, and that it is not a space you are inherently entitled to be in. Do not make yourself an intruder by acting entitled to anything, photos included.

Showing respect comes in many forms. Learn some of the language. Learn what kind of behavior is accepted, and do some research on what is found to be disrespectful in each place. Tune in to your intuition when it comes to feeling out a place or situation. Smile. Be considerate and pay attention to your surroundings.

Be careful about your language, before, during and after you travel. Many adventure photographers might describe the places they travel to as “unexplored”, “uncharted territory”, or “undiscovered”–– but these words invalidate the experience and history of indigenous groups who may have been living in the place for a very long time. I have certainly been guilty of using these words, and I am sure I’ll be checking myself on stuff like this forever. We need to remember that we are just guests passing through someone else’s home, and that should be greatly respected.

Something I think about often is the phrase “take a photo.” In many places Westerners travel, white Europeans have a violent and brutal history of taking things already: land, resources, and people. Knowing that you will be taking something away from your travels in the form of your experiences and images, ask yourself what you plan to give back. I am not necessarily talking about money or physical gifts, nor am I referring to temporary help in the form of voluntourism. I’m talking about being a net positive during your travels if at all possible, by thoroughly considering the context of every place you travel to and acting from the foundation of that knowledge.

PERMISSION

Should you ask permission to take someone’s photo? My answer to this question is yes, in a perfect world, you should. But do I always follow that rule? No, honestly I don’t.

Here’s an example: If I am shooting on a telephoto lens at a market and see a lady selling fruit and want to document that scene, I’d argue it is the right thing to do for me to walk over to her, ask if I can take her photo, then go back to my spot and get the photo once I have her permission. However, this might change her pose, or she might get confused at why I am going so far away, or the right moment may have passed by the time I go ask her and get back to the spot. So in these scenarios, I usually take the photo and ask for forgiveness afterward. In full honesty, sometimes I don’t ask for forgiveness. If they don’t notice me at all, sometimes I leave it at that. Some photographers would never do this. Some do this all the time. There are no clear rules.

She never saw me. Is it wrong that I took this photo? Is it wrong that I am posting it here?

 

If you’re looking to photograph a candid moment, it’s not really possible to find out if someone is OK with it until after the fact. This is a decision and viewpoint every individual photographer has to develop for themselves. My personal opinion is that if I am generally welcome in the space (with my camera), not being obtrusive, and not exploiting someone or their property, I usually feel comfortable taking the photo.

If you do get someone’s attention, you can usually tell if they do or do not want their photo taken.

“It is always important to respect others boundaries. The other person always does something that tells me it is okay for me to take their photo. A smile goes a long way in street photography. If you show openness and just overall friendliness, it makes the other person somewhat comfortable if that makes sense. If they show any sign of aggression or “no photo!” I simply walk away respectfully.” –Travel & street photographer Paola Franqui, aka monaris

When I am interacting with someone, that interaction is more important to me than the photo I might get. Be more interested in the person than you are in the photo you might take of them. The photo is just a bonus.

I might say hello or sit down with someone if it doesn’t feel awkward. I might buy something from them if they are selling crafts. If they continue talking with me, I might point at my camera and ask if is is OK to take their photo. If they say yes, I will show them the photos after, and we might continue talking. I’ll stick around for a while if we are having a good time. And sometimes, the camera can be a conversation starter once you are acquainted–– sometimes people want to show their friends and have you take more photos of them. It all just depends on the situation.

My camera is in my bag. These kids were curious about me, so I went up to them taking cues from their moms to see if it was OK. The kids cautiously approached, and I got down on their level and showed my hands up to them, both to show that I intended no harm and to invent a game with them. My friend Corey took this photo, but not because I requested him to. I didn’t actually end up taking any photos of these kids or their moms, I just enjoyed the interaction and didn’t take my camera out.

 

People are not museum exhibits, so don’t treat them like they are. It’s so important to be open. Talk to people. Learn some of their language. Learn their name. Learn how to say it correctly. Sit with them if they welcome you to. Be willing to laugh at yourself. And consider doing all of this before reaching for your camera.

When it comes to photographing children, I personally very rarely will ever photograph a child without the explicit permission of their parent or guardian. Sometimes that permission is a nod or a smile. Consider what you’d do in your home country and go from there.

Sometimes when we travel, our excitement clouds our judgment and we do things we would never find appropriate at home. Take a moment and filter yourself. You want your photography to be an act of respect, not an act of exploitation. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you look at a photo you took and it makes you feel uncomfortable, well, it probably feels that way for a reason.

For me personally, taking photos of people on my travels felt awkward at first. I learned what is and is not OK because I learned to form a relationship with the people I am photographing. When you form a relationship with someone, even if it is a brief interaction, you learn a bit of their story and you can tell relatively quickly if it is appropriate or not for you to document it.

INTENT

Why are you taking the photo? What is the story you want to tell? It helps to get clear on this.

As you know, travel photography does not exist for the photographer to brag about all the cool places they have gone, so if your reason has something to do with showing off your travels, I urge you to re-consider your intention. Most locals don’t care about being a part of your “authentic” travel experience. 😉 So if you are photographing another human being, ask yourself why. What are you hoping to convey with the images you are taking?

The reason I bring up this subject is that images are powerful, and storytelling is a skill. My hope is that photography does not contribute to the exploitation of (often poor) people around the world, but the fact is, I would not be writing this saga of a post if it did not carry that possibility.

Speaking for myself personally, I hope to communicate the beauty of a person, but not oversimplify their situation. I hope to show the complexity of their culture, not exotify it. I hope to make my viewers think deeper, not gloss over images of the planet they live on. I hope to show what is real and true, and never sugarcoat things for my own benefit or the comfort of my audience. And I always hope to preserve dignity.

What you intend to communicate is up to you as the artist. Make it a deliberate choice, then do everything you can to bring that intention to life.

COMPENSATION

Should you pay someone to take their photo? When would this kind of thing be appropriate? This can be a complex issue, and may or may not be appropriate depending on context and where in the world you are.

If you took a photo of the guy selling onions at a market, then buy a couple onions. Yeah, I know you probably have no use for onions, but it’s the right thing to do, in my opinion. If you took a photo of a woman selling bracelets she made, buy something. It is a pretty simple thing and creates a relationship with them besides just you taking their photo and leaving like many other tourists might.

In some areas of the world, posing for photos can be a way for people to make money. Recently I spent some time on Inle Lake in Myanmar, where many fishermen do not actually fish–– instead they pose in traditional outfits for tourist boats. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On one hand, posing for tourists may be preferred work and/or easier physically, depending on the individual. On another hand, an income earned in this way is dependent on foreigners… often of the same race as the people who make decisions that harm the country/location in question. This is a rich and deep issue, and I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.

Another question: from a journalistic standpoint, if you pay someone to pose for you, is that photo really true and authentic? If it is set up, is it warping the fundamentals of photography? Is staging OK if done outside of the context of documentary-based work?

I hope that by asking yourself these questions, you can form your own opinion.

RESPECT

So far, a lot of what I talked about here has a lot to do with respecting people and culture, and I think that is obvious. But this can and should be stretched to more specific things–– as travelers, I believe we should be respecting rules, regulations, guidelines, laws, traditions, private property, privacy, and wildlife.

Just logistically speaking, not abiding by rules in certain countries could get you in trouble or even land you in jail. But in terms of basic empathic and considerate behavior, it’s important to think about whether or not it is appropriate to photograph certain things. Religious structures, sensitive ceremonies, and certain celebrations or traditions, for example. You are representing not only yourself, but foreigners as a whole, and your behavior (positive or negative) reflects on other visitors as well.

Within this topic is respecting Leave No Trace principles if you’re outside or camping, and abiding by regulations that prohibit drones in certain areas (US & Canadian National Parks, for example).

For wildlife photography, feeding animals is never OK in my opinion. I believe you should pay attention to an animal’s cues–– they will show you how they feel about your presence. If you are scaring or threatening them, their body language will tell you that.

I shot this photo on foot, following our experienced guide. We were tracking these rhino, and it was clear that mom was protective over her baby. She did not notice us in this moment. I’m sure that if she did, she and the calf would have run away quickly. If we were visibly bothering her, I would not have felt comfortable taking this photo.

 

Sometimes, the respectful thing to do is to put your camera away.

VISITING A TRIBE

Because we are talking about travel photography, I think it is worth talking about tribal visits. Visiting with a tribe is something travelers might seek out to learn about a culture different than theirs and expand their travel experience. If you are visiting with a tribe, make sure you are doing it in a way that the tribal members have approved, and that your visit actually benefits them (read: you are paying them directly). I have heard stories and can certainly imagine that it is easy for tribal members to get ripped off here, so do the necessary research that your money is actually getting to them, and that it is not being pocketed by your tour guide or driver.

Tribal visits are one way for tribes (common in Africa, but also Asia) to make money, especially as the lasting impact of colonialism and climate change has drastically changed their way of life. Some tribal visits can be booked through tour companies, or you might try to get a word-of-mouth recommendation for a guide once you’re on the ground. Unfortunately, not all visits are positive experiences for the tribe, or for the visitor.

Being respectful does not come easily for all travelers. I watched a carload of tourists unload in a Thai hill-tribe village, distribute candy and whistles to the village kids along with flags from their home country, take photos like they were at a zoo, and take off again loudly in their 4×4’s. I asked a local woman I was sitting with what she thought of this. She said, “not so good.” I can’t even imagine what an understatement that must have been for her, and how ironic it was that she was saying it to a western tourist (me).

Even looking at this photo still makes me feel gross. You can see the tourists surrounding the kids, all taking photos of them from above with their phones.

 

In another scenario, I watched tourists pull over at the entrance gate of a luxury resort where tribal members were selling jewelry. They got out of their vehicle, took photos of these people, and got right back in to check in to their chalet… a resort built on ancestral homeland, from which the indigenous group receives little to no money. Can you see why these behaviors are completely inappropriate?

I am willing to bet if you are reading this that you are not looking to treat people like this, but you should know that it happens, because you will see it happening all around you especially if you are aware of it. So please be intentional with your actions, and ask your fellow travelers thoughtful questions about their behavior when they take photos on their trip.

If you want to bring a gift to a tribe, make it something that the people actually want or need, not just candy or a noisemaking toy because that’s what you think they’d want. Do not go if you are sick. People living in remote areas often do not have access to the same healthcare that you do. Ask permission if you are not sure: permission to take photos, permission to pick up a toddler, permission to enter an area of the village. Don’t assume you are entitled to anything. The terms of your visit should be agreed upon, or you should not be there. If you are considerate and the group welcomes you, visiting with a tribe or local indigenous group can be a great experience, and one I would recommend.

Colby Brown bringing our payment into a Himba village we visited. We bought food for the village based on their requests.

SELFIES

It is no secret that social media puts the focus on the individual. People are now personal brands. I would also argue that it has become cool to show photos of yourself doing altruistic things. Did you really volunteer if there’s no picture of you surrounded by 5-10 smiling (non-white) children, who are just so “happy even though they have nothing”? I am not only referring to the do-good stuff, but also just fun and out-of-the-ordinary travel experiences. Did you really eat a fried bug if there isn’t a video of you to prove it? Did you really saunter through the market if your friends and family don’t have visual proof? I am not saying this type of imagery is inherently negative, but I want to encourage us to think more about it.

Be careful what you pose with, and how you pose with it. Be respectful of religious sites, family businesses, statues and the like. The same goes for people. If you want a photo of yourself with local kids, ask yourself why. What is the photo about? If you’re in it, then well, at least partly, the photo is about you. I know you probably don’t view other human beings as accessories, so make sure that isn’t what you are accidentally communicating photographically.

I don’t think there is a hard line that says all of this type of imagery is problematic, I just think it is important to consider it. Having a photo of yourself in a place can be a wonderful reminder of your time there. I have lots of photos like this of myself. But I know looking back which ones were in good integrity, and which ones I took so I could later post them on Facebook. At the time, I might have told myself I was taking those photos with clean and clear intentions, but when I reflect back, I know it was just because I wanted to look cool and worldly. The only person who will really be able to tell is you, and you will know in your gut what feels right and what feels icky.

Vintage Erin. Here’s me and a couple of friends in Myanmar in 2014. We were hiking in the hills with a guide from a family business in Kalaw. These girls asked to do our makeup with thanaka (common for women to wear on their faces in Myanmar), and I didn’t feel weird about this photo being taken afterward. They were giggling and smiling, even though the girl on the left looks rather serious in this photo.

POST-PROCESSING

With powerful editing tools, we are able to easily change many things about a photo, from the color of the sky, to the scale of just about anything. A photographer’s editing decisions can transform an image to something much more impressive than it was as a RAW file. However, extreme editing of images can be misleading in certain scenarios. It is up to the photographer to decide what is acceptable.

When it comes to respectfully displaying culture through your photography, the amount of editing you do matters. Whereas I might get super creative with colors and lights/darks in my landscape images, I would never make any huge changes in a photo of a person where it mattered to their story. I don’t want to tell a story that was not true to how I saw it. Alternatively, I might edit an image heavily if the edit lends itself to the way I felt when I took the image.

One recent example of a choice I personally made in post-processing is in my images from visiting a Himba village in Namibia. I didn’t want to evoke a possible feeling of pity from the viewer, so I chose to Photoshop out a couple of flies and some stray stuff from my subject’s face and hair. Was it the right choice to make these edits? I’m not sure there is one. Here’s the before and after:

 

In another case, I changed the colors in the sky drastically. I liked this change stylistically, and I felt that the edit was consistent with how the scene felt in the moment. I posted this image on social media, and it’s likely that my audience assumed that these were the natural colors of the sunset that night. They weren’t.

 

Editing is a stylistic choice. Personally, I usually do not like to stretch my images too far from the reality of how it felt being there, but “too far” is completely relative. Some photographers are digital artists too, and create mind-blowing fantastical composites of their images. I think these are completely valid (and beautiful) too. What are the limits of photo manipulation? Should an image only be allowed to portray 100% reality?

You may completely disagree with my post-processing choices here, and that’s OK. These decisions are up to the individual to make.

POSTING & PUBLISHING

Most of us want to share our work, but with the ease of sharing online, you don’t always know where your photo will end up, or what the ramifications of that might be. Here’s an example: the featured photo of this article. I had this woman’s permission to take her photo, but did she know it would be used in a blog post and that thousands of people would see it? I can’t be sure. And yet, I am making a conscious decision to use her photo because her pose and expression communicates discernment, something I want to convey in this blog post. Some people might not agree with my choice to use this picture of her here, and I would understand that.

In the outdoor community, it is common for people to get upset, and rightfully so, if someone posts a photo of a tent at the edge of a pristine alpine lake, or a photo of a hammock set up across fragile trees. Not only might these activities be harmful to the environment and prohibited, but the act of posting images like this on social media could mean that more people go to these areas and engage in these activities, which then creates a domino effect. Monkey see, monkey do.

I should be aware that if I post something on Instagram, someone else might emulate my behavior.

 

Once you post a photo, it departs the confines of your camera, computer and imagination and gets given to the viewer… and to the internet. You don’t have control over an image anymore after posting it on social media. Ask yourself what that photo will mean when it stands alone, without your words or experience or defense.

Think twice before posting a photo that oversimplifies a complicated issue or displays something out of context. I’m not saying it’s always wrong–– I am just saying it is worthy of your consideration.

If you have taken photos of an endangered species, especially one that faces a poaching threat, be sure to wipe your metadata. Poachers have been known to take advantage of the ignorance of tourists by using their geotags and metadata from their images to locate individual animals. Here is an excellent resource on removing metadata, compiled by photographer Olwen Evans and shared with me by Rob Moffett from Ongava Game Reserve.

It’s entirely possible that someone could unknowingly publish a photo that could identify someone breaking the law or doing something that could be seen as such by their government. Sometimes as the photographer, we get swept up in the moment and in our own excitement of documenting and creating, but something that seems arbitrary to us could heavily impact someone else.

INSPIRATION VS. COPYING

There are so many photographers that inspire me, and I follow most of them on social media. As with any art form, as artists, we’ll always be inspiring each other and drawing our inspiration from the community at least some of the time. Everyone does it, and it’s not like there are that many truly original thoughts, concepts or ideas in the world.

When is it OK to get inspired by someone, and when does that turn into straight up copying them? Where is the line? I think it is usually clear to see when an image is an exact copy, versus cases where someone may have been inspired by another photographer and shot the same location, or a different scene in a similar style.

I am all for inspiration, but much like plagiarism in writing, exact copying is never OK.

Personally speaking, there have been cases where I have noticed people taking my writing word-for-word, or certain phrases that I always use, and putting them in their Instagram bios or on their blogs. Usually these are folks who are aspiring bloggers or photographers themselves… and I do notice. If you copy another photographer, especially one you look up to, it does not reflect well on you.

Getting inspiration from someone else is fine… we all do it! And it is totally expected that we experiment with different styles, especially when starting out. But there is a line between inspiration and stealing.

SELLING & LICENSING

If you end up with the opportunity to sell your images, either as prints or by licensing the rights, congrats! It is exciting that people want to purchase your work.

If the photo in question is a portrait, and you do not have a signed model release, you will have to ask yourself if it’s in your integrity to license or sell a print of that photo, knowing the person in the photo will never see any of the money you made. They might never know you did it, but that doesn’t make it right.

On the other hand, selling a print of a portrait might mean your work is displayed in someone’s home or office. Maybe it’s a conversation starter. Maybe it touches someone and encourages them to see the world or research conservation issues. Maybe this is a stretch… but maybe it’s not.

If you plan to sell your photos from the beginning, I recommend making sure you can legally (and ethically) shoot at your proposed location, and that your models, if applicable, are fully informed and have signed something confirming their understanding.


There are photographers I greatly respect with a wide range of opinions on everything I have discussed above. My opinions are not unique, but there are plenty of folks who oppose them, too. These can be incredibly controversial issues and are questions every individual photographer should ask themselves.

Any photographer can tell you that they have taken photos they should not have taken. Our stances on issues change over time. I am sure I have invaded privacy, and even exploited people for the sake of a photo, and that is both selfish and self-involved. If this happens to you and you feel as though you have overstepped a boundary, learn from it and apply that moving forward.

Photography is powerful. I have always believed that. As the photographer, you have moral and ethical responsibilities. By taking a photo, and by sharing it, you have the responsibility to preserve and communicate your subject’s dignity. Do not take this responsibility lightly. Like so much else in photography, travel photography requires being in tune with your intuition–– paying attention to what feels right and wrong, and using your intellect on top of that to question the implications of the photograph you are taking.

There is a lot to think about here, but it is all in the interest of being the best and most responsible photographers we can be. Hopefully by thinking through these topics, we can create impactful images that catalyze and promote positive change in the world.


This is a hefty topic, and I’m sure I left some things out that should be discussed. Let me know in the comments.

Feature photo of a Himba woman in Namibia in her village outside of Opuwo, taken with permission.

INSPIRATION JOURNAL TRAVEL

Travel Won’t Fix You

Travel won’t fix you. Maybe that’s a strange thing to say, and maybe you disagree. Maybe you have had an experience so profound that it did turn you into a better version of yourself. So let me clarify.

Some of us are guilty of driving off into the sunset and thinking that is the end of the story–– poof, our worries are over.

The story never ends with just us and the sunset. For travel to be a permanent fix, you’d have to be running forever. And running, well, it takes energy and stamina and a lot of drive, and it can get uncomfortable quickly if you’re not used to it.

I don’t know if you’re looking to be fixed or righted or patched up in some way. I know that’s not what travel, by itself, does at all. Indeed, flinging yourself into the unknown is rarely comforting.

So if you are wanting to be free of your imperfections, do not seek travel. Should you find yourself chest deep in worry, know that the view from the airplane window will not absolve it for you. And if you head down the road looking for that something you can’t quite name… well, the act of seeking offers no guarantee of defining it any sooner.

I don’t share this in order to be discouraging… that’s the last feeling I want to leave you with. I promise there is hope in here.

I want you to know that travel isn’t going to fix you without your participation. Throughout my adult life, and perhaps throughout yours, there was always this hint that travel is the miracle cure for dullness, for heartbreak, for existential crisis. But in my experience, travel made all of those things way worse at some point before any of them got better.

I sought travel for the first time when I was 21. I, like many, was guilty of romanticizing it–– I thought cobblestone streets and port wine on the river would result in the clarity I was so desperately seeking. I was a student of many things, but I wasn’t truly learning from life quite yet. I was a stubborn student of myself alone, thinking I knew everything in my short existence.

Travel, like many things I thought I understood, kicked my ass.

Another time I hoped for a quick fix, I moved to Australia for a year with $800 cash and a backpack. What could go wrong? Sitting in my room in a suburb on the outskirts of Perth, I stared at emails from friends telling me just how lucky I was. Meanwhile, I was just getting by. No fireworks or exciting love story. Just working a full-time retail job like I could have done at home, except with less friends and more depression. But it’s supposed to be better than this, I thought. It’s supposed to be exotic and fun and adventurous, right? Funny thing… you will not enjoy something if you’re constantly labeling your experience as lesser-than.

I remember biting off more than I could chew on more than one occasion. More than one solo trip I thought I could conquer. More than one hotel room I didn’t leave during daylight hours. More than one landmark I did not visit because I was too anxious to go alone.

I have done stupid things in more countries than I can count. Fell in love once, lust more than once. Hiked up mountains unprepared, stood on a volcano in a thunderstorm like a human lightning rod. Not smart. I trusted the wrong people and offended the right ones, got ripped off and fooled and hurt and embarrassed. In New Zealand, my ex-boyfriend and I had a screaming match in our car in the pouring rain. Travel didn’t fix us then. I still feel the heartbreak of that scene, the bruise of it. But travel had no way of holding me back from myself–– instead, it peeled away all the layers of home to show me who I really was, and why I made the choices that I did. Through all of it, the stuff I’ve shared publicly and everything I never will,  I feel lucky to be alive and carrying all of those experiences with me.

No matter how hard a trip was, no matter how tough it was, or how broken I felt, I kept coming back. I kept making it work. I kept saving money for the next trip, or applying for the next job in a new place, or couch-surfing in whatever city I could get a cheap flight to.

Yes, there was fear that felt bigger than me. There was my heart beating fast in my chest on trains and in taxis and other places that should have just been easy. There was disappointment and boredom and anxiety and enough dread to fill a mid-life crisis. There was challenge and pain and joy and triumph, too. Because the things I dealt with in my life were never going to just disappear and be replaced by what I thought travel would be. Travel just added another layer. A thick one.

I began to see that although travel would never fix me, it would give me more challenge to work with. It would help me build my toolbox, so I kept coming back to it. Travel requires you to do more. It requires deliberate choices. It puts all of the weight on your two shoulders and asks you to name the specifics of each day, each moment.

When I thought travel would spit me out clean and whole, I was wrong. I wanted travel to scoop me up in big comforting arms and sing me to sleep. But it doesn’t do that. Travel is far more discerning than that–– it’ll put you through wringers you didn’t know existed. Travel had me overcoming impossible odds, finding serendipity and meeting God, though I could have never identified any of that at the time.

So when I say that travel won’t fix you, know that I mean it lovingly. I mean it with excitement and joy and incredible hope.

It does not fix you and does not make you more comfortable in your pain. It does not soften loss. It will not gloss over the mistakes you’ve made, or patch a broken heart. It can’t promise to heal you or give you clarity, regardless of if you are looking for it or not. But maybe after all the miles you’ve walked, and the stories you’ve lived, travel will present you an opportunity. And maybe in that, you’ll find the strength to fix yourself.


Model: Adaeze Azubuike.

MENTORSHIP PHOTOGRAPHY TRAVEL

How to Become an Adventure Photographer

I often get questions from people who want to be where I am at in my career in travel photography. How do you get started? How do you get paid to travel?

There’s a big part of me that thinks I am completely unqualified to dish out advice on this topic. The reason why I am taking it on is because it’s a question I get very often. I’m sure this is because social media makes it seem like I’ve arrived. I don’t feel that way. I am proud of where I am, but I hope that this is the beginning of a very long journey. This is just what I know so far.

I can admit that what I do as a photographer and writer/blogger is fun and interesting, but it isn’t easy or secure. People say they want my job, and my immediate reaction most of the time is, “are you sure?!”

This is a commitment to chaos. It’s a full-time, moving, shaking, uncertain, demanding, daunting, messy life. It’s one that I chose with my full heart, so I completely understand why others might want to choose it too… but that doesn’t mean it is simple.

Though I was always interested in adventure photography, doing it as a career felt very elusive to me, and now I see why. It’s because it is an adventure you build yourself, not a trail you follow. What I hear constantly and consistently from my friends and mentors in this industry, is that there isn’t really a right way to go about things. You just have to start where you are and jump in the deep end without floaties.

My start came when I got fired from my 9-5 abruptly after working in the adventure tourism industry throughout college and for a few years afterward. I decided to put my energy behind this blog, which was previously just a hobby. I posted consistently here and on social media, regardless of whether or not people were reading. For the first couple months, I cut my expenses and lived off savings. After that, I found projects I wanted to get behind and showed why I was qualified to help with them. I compiled my best work so I could be ready to show people if I ever had their attention long enough. I interned, I assisted people I admired (I still do this), I tried to make myself valuable while I was learning. And when necessary, which was often, I house-sat, dog-sat, baby-sat. I worked at a restaurant. I picked up odd-jobs along the way.

This career doesn’t happen overnight. Those success stories do exist, but they’re rare. It takes time, consistency and investment, and you will not see the reward right away. So first, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. If it’s for fame and recognition, it’s going to get old real fast. You’ll need a strong drive to get you through the moments of standing knee deep in frozen mud at 4am or when you’re sick in an airport far from home. The glamorous adventure of it all wears off eventually, so photography has to mean something more to you. If it does, keep reading.

Editing in a budget hotel room at 1am. Not uncommon.

Editing in a budget hotel room at 1am, charging every item possible. Not uncommon.

 

YOU HAVE TO START

When you don’t know how to start, ask yourself what your best guess is, and do that. You always learn more doing something than you do sitting around waiting for the answer to appear. Most of the time, you have to invent the answer yourself. So if being a photographer is what you want, start taking photos with the tools you have.

Good news: it’s not really about the gear or whatever formal photography education you may or may not have. Don’t let the idea that you need a traditional background get in your way. Many photographers have never even taken a photography class. Will it help? Absolutely. Should you take a class if you can? Sure! But taking classes will not turn you into a great photographer overnight, and neither will the most expensive gear. Only practice and experience over time will do that.

Learn your camera. Use it in as many situations as possible. Use it on every mode. If and when you get stuck, YouTube is an amazing free resource that makes it incredibly easy to find the answers to many technical questions. If you’re ready to invest some money into your knowledge base, CreativeLive is an incredible resource.

CreativeLive is an online education platform offering tons of classes–– everything from photo editing to confidence to technical aspects of business. I put together a list of my recommendations here.

Getting started can feel messy, but there will never be a perfect way to do it, so do your best with what you have

FIND YOUR UNIQUE VOICE

Figure out what makes you stand out. Do this by experimenting often. Try anything that seems mildly interesting.

Seek the places and people that inspire you, and ask yourself why that is. Tune in to your unique creative voice and follow it where it leads you. Whatever you experiment with doesn’t have to be your thing forever–– you can shoot portraits today and something else tomorrow. You can play with whatever editing techniques feel interesting. The point is to create and refine, eventually getting to a point where your work looks like yours. This is a long and frustrating process, so remember to let it be fun.

Own what you create. Your work doesn’t have to appeal to everyone, and if it does, chances are you are diluting some part of your creative voice. The point of art isn’t to be a crowd pleaser. Say no to the wrong things so you can operate at 100% for the right things.

Always run your own race, never anyone else’s. Even if my exact journey were completely replicable, I wouldn’t tell you to go do exactly what I did to get here, because it wouldn’t be the same. Find your lane and work within it.

MAKE YOURSELF KNOWN

Share your work wherever you can, online and off. Buy a domain and reserve the same name on all social media channels. If that isn’t available, figure out something else you like (I only started as @ErinOutdoors because there are thousands of other Erin Sullivan’s out there). Having a website or blog in addition to social media is always a good idea and separates you from just Instagram.

Social media is a big part of being a photographer today. Make a schedule for posting. Create and share consistently. Set short term and long term goals. Refine & move forward. Pay attention to what is working and do more of that thing.

Figure out how to self-promote. Be confident and know where and when to show/talk about your work. So much of this is about confidence. Notice what you say and how you sound. People don’t hire folks who are “trying to be a photographer.” They hire photographers.

UNDERSTAND THAT THIS IS A BUSINESS

Without business, creative ventures fall apart. Everyone wants to be a travel photographer, so this field is extremely competitive. Those who are successful not only take great photos, but they also have business smarts. They create multiple income streams. They understand what investments are necessary, and what the returns will be on each of them.

Set financial goals and break them down with where you would like that money to come from. Then get to work on each specific goal. Everybody’s breakdown is different. If I ever feel lost with regard to what to pursue next, I look at what people are already asking me for. It can be easier to fulfill a product or service when there is already demand for it.

If you want your photography business to be truly sustainable, consider thinking a few years down the road with what you’d like your ideal life to look like, realistically. Though full-time travel and moving from job to job might be super appealing right now, perhaps in ten years that’ll be really exhausting. It is also worth thinking about where you want your income to come from, and how you can maximize control over these streams.

GETTING CLIENTS

I and many other freelancers have many clients to balance. Getting your foot in the door is a strategic thing sometimes. When I was starting out with brand photography, I worked with smaller brands and start-ups on a trade basis–– they didn’t have a budget and I was looking for experience, so this was mutually beneficial. I helped friends out with their small businesses to build my portfolio. Many folks in the industry are passionately against ever doing work for free. My personal opinion is that it can be a good way to learn and build your portfolio if you are transitioning from hobbyist to professional. Just be aware of how your work is evolving, and when is the right time to stop working in exchange for product so you aren’t taking away paid work from yourself or other photographers.

Do the work you want to get hired for. For me personally, I want a brand or publication to already know who I am when they hire me. I want my body of work to speak for itself. The brands and publications many of us want to shoot for aren’t looking for newbies, and that’s a good thing. People in the industry constantly have an eye out for talent. If they start seeing your name and work over and over again, they might reach out eventually. This isn’t something you should ever count on, but is always something to work toward. It is always OK to wait to reach out to a brand/company until you feel your work is good enough.

If you aren’t shooting directly for brands or publishers, other ways to make money include stock photography, portrait/wedding photography, selling prints, and hosting workshops. Take inventory of your skill set and go from there. Build out your deliverables in a way that provides value to the client, but also maximizes your ability to do the work well.

UNCERTAINTY IS INEVITABLE

You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. This isn’t a job for the faint of heart. It’s really easy to romanticize it when you’re not living it–– but it takes guts and resilience to do this.

If you ask different photographers and writers what their paths were like, I’m sure you will get a wide range of stories and answers, but there are consistent themes around uncertainty, creativity and perseverance. This lifestyle is ripe with unknowns, so if you don’t like those, this career might not be for you. I think that goes for any entrepreneurial venture, but especially this one given all of the dynamic aspects that come with frequent travel.

BE A GOOD PERSON

This is an industry that requires interacting with other people and working on a team. Things go wrong all the time, so you have to be flexible. Being a good person is something you should do for obvious reasons… but it also impacts your business. This industry is small, and people talk. If you are a royal pain in the ass, most of your peers will hear about it. If you gossip about someone in the industry, they will find out about it. Alternatively, if you are fun to be around, helpful, and genuinely interested and supportive of other people’s work, working in this industry is not only enjoyable but it becomes a team effort. This job is way more fun when you have friends that you truly love working alongside–– and when you can genuinely celebrate each other’s successes instead of being bitter or jealous of who got the job.

There are jobs I have gotten and bids I have won because I am extremely flexible and understanding with my clients. I have been assigned to trips because it’s known that I am well-experienced with travel and able to handle dynamic situations. If you are generally a positive person with a good outlook on life, any project will be much more enjoyable than if you are cynical or negative.

GO ON ADVENTURES

Perhaps this is obvious, but if you want to document travel, then you have to travel. If you want to shoot in the outdoors, you have to go outdoors.

There is nothing wrong with you if people aren’t throwing free luxury trips at you from day one. Maybe that is something you will work toward. For now, maybe it looks like planning weekend trips with friends, or getting up in the middle of the night to experiment with astrophotography or long exposures in your city.

There is no right or wrong way to do it, so find inspiration and go.

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Remember that you are not a failure if it doesn’t work right away. I made plenty of mistakes and I am 100% sure I still will.

My personal journey started with working as a wilderness guide and adventure trip leader. I always used photography as a way to capture and share memories from my trips. It wasn’t until the last few years when I started pursuing it professionally–– and it has been full of trade-offs and sacrifices in the name of my craft. There is no way in hell that this is an easy path, and I doubt it ever will be. But I know I am here on this planet to compulsively tell stories. So I do.

Life is the biggest scavenger hunt you will ever go on. You will get clues and you will follow them. They’ll come in the form of teachers, opportunities, rejections, successes, failures, challenges, and anything else you decide to learn from. You will take what you can from each thing and add it to what you already know. You’ll re-work your knowledge, you’ll practice it and then you’ll change it again.

When answering the question of how to become an adventure photographer, I am reminded that I am still figuring out the answer to it myself. But this is what I choose. Actively. Every day.

And in fact, it is the choosing in itself that might be the most important thing we do.

Ending with some words from photographer and filmmaker Andy Best:

Grateful to be back in the Pacific Northwest and thankful my work allows me to travel the globe. Many ask, how? I try to answer as many as I can, I promise you that. Some assume that I must have an inheritance or that I have a golden key. See I feel that @Instagram over the years has created this illusion that one can become a filmmaker or photographer overnight without any effort. Or by following in the steps of others may unlock some sort of fortune or even fame. To those I say good luck, because behind the scenes of this craft is a very uncomfortable world of work, a serious grind, and a lifetime of dedication. And I do mean lifetime. Do not be fooled into thinking that the windows shared on this platform come easy. To that I also say, what do you desire personally on your journey? Are YOU satisfied? Can you rest well knowing the story you’re writing? If you really desire to replicate my journey, prepare yourself for failure, prepare yourself to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and prepare yourself to give up everything as nothing comes without very serious sacrifices. Only then will you find YOUR golden key. Meanwhile, I’m stoked to be headed home from many nights away from my little family. #wearestillwild #lovethegrind

A post shared by Andy Best (@andy_best) on

Similar posts on the blog for you to check out:


 

Feature photo by Renee Hahnel. Third photo by Colby Brown.

OUTDOORS TRAVEL

2017 Gift Guide

Somehow, the end of another year is here and so is another season of holiday gift giving. Whether you enjoy giving gifts or dread the holidays, I have some ideas for you! Here is my 2017 list of Erin Outdoors approved items, full of products I have been loving in the past year at every price point to give you some inspiration for the adventure-seekers in your life.

PHOTOGRAPHY

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Sony A6000 Camera with Kit Lens / $498
This is for the person in your life looking to get started in photography. This camera is my Number One Recommendation for a starter camera due to the amount of features it has for its price point. It comes with a 16-50mm lens, which is great for shooting in the outdoors and traveling. This is a mirrorless camera, which makes it smaller in size compared to many DSLRs–– great for someone who is on the move frequently. If you’ve got more of a budget, the A6300 would be the next step up.

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Peak Design Leash Camera Strap / $39.95
A reliable lightweight camera strap for a smaller mirrorless camera. Peak Design’s products feature attachment points that can be unattached super quickly for when you don’t want to use your strap–– a big upgrade from the strap that comes with your camera. If you are shooting on larger cameras (Sony full-frame or larger), I would up-level to Peak’s Slide strap instead to give you more support.

peak design everyday

Peak Design Everyday Camera Pack 20L / $259.95
I used a handful of camera bags this year from a handful of brands, and this one is my favorite. It keeps your stuff accessible, the customizable dividers make sense and are easy to use, and it doesn’t look like your dad owned it in the 90s (no offense, dad). PS– Nope, it doesn’t come with all the stuff in that photo. 😉

Memory cards / $30+
A practical stocking stuffer for any photographer in your life. If you’re giving this to a pro, make sure you buy a fast card (a la 300mb/sec write speed). If they’re newer to the craft, lower speeds are just fine.

TRAVEL & OUTDOOR

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Cotopaxi Roca Duffel Bag / $99.95+
This has been my go-to bag for most of my trips this year. I own the 50L and 70L sizes and find both to be great. The 50L can pretty much always be used as a carry-on size, whereas the 70L is better for when you’re going to be checking your bag or want some extra room. The bag is water resistant and durable, which matters if you’re as clumsy as I am (or if you go to extreme places).

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Cotopaxi Dopp Kit / $19.95
These bags are awesome. I use them for toiletries, lenses, and loose cords. Each one is unique in color, so you will always be able to tell them apart.

TSA approved lock / $10
These just give me peace of mind when I’m checking a bag halfway around the world.

Tea Tree Special Conditioner 10.14 oz.

Travel Size Tea Tree Shampoo & Conditioner / $10 each
This year, I put a bit more care into my beauty & hair routine. My hair stylist told me it’s important to travel with quality haircare, so this is my go-to for most of my trips. I use the same shampoo & conditioner at home and fill up the travel sized bottles in between trips.

Bumble & Bumble Pret-a-Powder Mini / $13
This is the dry shampoo I use on most trips in-between washes. It does a good job of absorbing oil and smells great, plus it isn’t aerosol, which is something I’ve been trying to get away from. This tiny bottle goes a long way!

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Moleskine Cahier Journals / $20 for 3
These were on my gift guide last year… sorry to be so predictable. But they’re awesome. Still. They’ll probably be in next year’s gift guide too.

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Leatherman Juice CS3 Multi-Tool / $29.95
I have become quite familiar with Leatherman’s products over the past year through working with them, and this is one of my favorite tools they make. It just has three things–– a bottle opener, a corkscrew, and scissors, so it’s great to keep stashed in your backpack, car or suitcase for moments when you might need it. I haven’t had any problems taking this tool with me in my carry-on, but keep in mind that TSA can confiscate what they want, so carry on at your own risk.

tarte glow to go

Tarte Glow to Go Highlight & Contour Palette / $23
This is a great, easy palette for traveling that I use every day that I wear makeup. If you are curious how it will work on your skin tone, look at the product page at Sephora and scroll down to see looks from girls of all colors on Instagram.

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Ursa Major Traveler Skincare Set / $41
Ursa Major’s simple ingredients and clean scents make for refreshing products for your skin. This kit includes some of their most popular products, sized for travel. Their deodorant is a favorite of mine as well.

travel pillow

Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow / $19.95
I never fully understood anyone’s obsession with travel pillows… until this one. I bought it for camping and loved it, so it’s become my companion on long haul flights. It comes in a few sizes– the small one is enough for me personally.

OTHER IDEAS

Ubuntu Made Bandanas / $18
Some of my favorite bandanas are from Ubuntu Made–– an organization that employs and empowers moms in Kenya. Each print is limited-edition.

Books /

  • From Excuses to Excursions by Glo Atanmo. For anyone needing a kick in the pants to get out and see the world. This also happens to be written by one of my favorite humans. (Print version here)
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. For anyone who could use a reality check. Mark Manson is one of my favorite bloggers and his work has always inspired my blog. His book is excellent.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. For someone who would like a powerful novel that makes you think about culture and history.
  • Braving the Wilderness by Dr. Brené Brown. Dr. Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame is fascinating, and her latest book is a deeper dive into what it takes to be brave.

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Kotah Bear Jewelry / $25+
I love rings. I collect them everywhere I go. Some of my favorites were purchased from Kotah Bear and are from different Indigenous tribes in the American Southwest. Native-made jewelry should always be purchased from Native people. Here’s your opportunity. Kotah Bear is owned by husband & wife team Kotah & Missy, friends of mine who I met on Instagram.

cotopaxi outdoorsy shirt

Cotopaxi Outdoorsy Tee / $22.95
In case you need to remind anyone how outdoorsy you are… there’s this shirt. I like the men’s colors better, so that is where the link will take you. I have both colors.

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Natives Outdoors merch / $25-30
Supporting the visibility of Native people outdoors is important. This year Natives Outdoors started making shirts and hats featuring Native artists for anyone to buy and wear. My favorite is the Ganado Tank.

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Science and nature inspired prints from Brainstorm / $40+
These prints are inspired by the outdoors and are a fun way to brighten up your indoor space. I enjoy the Northern & Southern Hemisphere Star Chart prints… allows me to study constellations instead of fully zoning out in moments of daydreaming.

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Dr. Roebuck’s FACE Moisturizer / $45
This is a new product for me, but in the past month it has been a total treat for my skin, which gets exposed to lots of elements throughout my travels. I am always wary of products that say “anti-aging”, and almost never seek them out, as personally I’m not trying to go against aging–– but this cream has totally hydrated and calmed my skin. You can also pick it up in travel size as part of this kit.

Volunteer your time / Free
This is one of the best gifts on here. Invite your friends and family to participate in a give-back day with you where you clean up an area, spend a few hours at a soup kitchen, or dedicate some time with a local organization.


Whatever you end up buying this year, consider that where you spend your money is important. Consider the ethical and environmental impact of what you are buying overall, and consider that some companies are better at things than others. Consumerism by nature is not environmentally friendly–– that is no secret. Assuming you are going to participate (I am!), ask yourself how you will do so thoughtfully.

I hope this list gave you some inspiration for whatever gifts you are giving this year, or helped give you ideas for what to ask for yourself. I hope you have a happy and healthy holiday!

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may get a small commission if you choose to buy something. These links help me keep this blog full of meaningful content and ad-free, so I really appreciate your purchases!

TRAVEL TRIP REPORTS

Two Weeks in Namibia

Last month, I spent two weeks in Namibia. It all started because of this Facebook post:

I met my friend Colby Brown at a Sony conference. Colby is a fellow photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery, creating images and leading workshops all over the world. He also runs a humanitarian organization called The Giving Lens, and he’s got about 10 years on me in terms of experience and expertise in the photography world.

I saw Colby’s post and thought: well, I guess I should probably go to Namibia. I did some math, looked at my schedule, and booked a ticket within 24 hours. The next challenge? Plan a two-week photographic adventure in Namibia during high season on just a few weeks’ notice.

I’m no stranger to last-minute trip planning, but it helps to have experts on your team. We consulted with Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa for help with the details. Chris and the EA team were extremely helpful in their recommendations and feedback on our itinerary, especially when it came to creating an authentic experience with responsible travel in mind. Chris literally wrote the book on Namibia and I highly recommend his expertise to anyone who could use a hand planning a spectacular trip. Here is a ton of bookmark-worthy info about travel in Namibia on the Expert Africa site.

Expert_Africa

the people to consult if you need…well… experts.

 

Before this trip, I honestly didn’t know much about Namibia. I knew it was vast and has a small population (2 million) relative to its massive size, and I had seen a few photos of its seemingly endless desert courtesy of my friend and fellow blogger Glo Atanmo… but I wasn’t prepared for the stunning landscape and fascinating culture I’d experience over the course of my two-week trip.

I hope this post gives you some helpful info and lots of inspiration to go experience Namibia for yourself!

Mars or Namibia? (it's the second one)

Mars or Namibia?

 

WHEN TO GO

Generally speaking, dry season (winter) is May to October, and wet season (summer) is October to April. If you want to see wildlife, it’s best to go during the dry season. Many of our guides said it that it’s harder to see wildlife in the rainy season because animals don’t necessarily need to go to a watering hole for water, plus there are more obstacles in your line of sight (i.e., lush vegetation). Keep in mind that Namibia’s dry season is also its high season for tourism, which means that you may want to book earlier than you normally would. We got lucky with a lot of our bookings, but had to be very flexible when it came to dates in case our first choice was booked. Of course, this was our fault… but maybe you won’t do things as last-minute as we did. 😛

Our trip spanned two weeks in the middle/end of September. It was generally quite hot (in the 90’s Fahrenheit) during the day, cooling down at night. In the southern parts of the country, it wasn’t as hot during the day (70’s and 80’s Fahrenheit), but still warm.

WHAT TO PACK

I travel frequently, and as a result, I can pretty much pack for a two week trip on command. For this trip, I swapped some items in my normal summer attire for more conservative (but lightweight) options. My denim shorts were replaced by lightweight pants, and I brought neutrals instead of bright colors. For shoes, I brought my Blundstone boots and a pair of comfortable sandals–– these were more than enough. I brought a sweatshirt and my Cotopaxi Kusa Bomber for cooler nights and mornings.

 

In terms of luggage, I recommend a soft-sided duffel rather than a hard-shell suitcase for easy loading when it comes to safari-style travel. I brought my Cotopaxi 50L Roca Duffel because it’s water resistant and durable. I also brought my LowePro 500 AW II as my camera bag, and my Ubuntu Made Canvas Tote for items I wanted easily accessible during the day.

Cotopaxi Roca 50L

Cotopaxi Roca 50L

 

Generally speaking, if you forget something, you can probably buy it in Windhoek. But preferably you’ll remember whatever you forgot before heading into the bush. 😉

OUR ITINERARY

Namibia is a large country full of amazing sights, and the distances between the things you’ll probably want to see are far. Unless you have endless time, you will probably have to make choices on what you want to see. Our top priorities were wildlife photography, the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, and spending time with the Himba people, so that’s what our itinerary reflects.

Our options were to try to cover more places (and therefore drive more), or spend more time in fewer places and drive less. We opted for the latter. We didn’t want to feel rushed, and as photographers, we wanted to have plenty of time to get the shots we were looking for.

A note about cars: For this itinerary, a 4×4 was an absolute must. The parts of the trip that required the 4×4 were the last 5km to Dead Vlei, and the drive out from Opuwo to camp with the Himba. Other than that, the roads were excellent and 4×4 was not required. We rented a double-cab truck and it worked great.

Click on photo for map on Google maps.

Click on photo to access this map on Google maps.

 

Day 1: Arrive Windhoek airport, drive to Sossusvlei (drive time 5h 40min)

We arrived, picked up our rental car, snacks and water (get a lot, it’s dry out there), and headed south. Our goal was to get to the dunes–– we had a sunrise helicopter flight booked for Day 2.

Days 2 & 3: Sossusvlei

In Sossusvlei, we stayed at the Sossus Dune Lodge (operated by NWR), the only hotel inside the gates of the park, and the place you must stay if you would like access to the dunes at sunrise or sunset and don’t want to camp. The exception to this is camping at Sesriem Campsite, which allows you to enter the park 1hr before sunrise if you stay overnight. There are a handful of other nice spots to stay outside the park, but the gates are closed between sunset and sunrise, so if you’re a photographer and good light matters, do yourself a favor and book the Sossus Dune Lodge. It’s expensive, but this is your only option to be in the park at sunrise/sunset.

My first impression of the dunes was from above, and holy crap, what a unique and spectacular landscape! The colors that appeared as the sun came over the horizon were gorgeous reds, oranges and purples, and the different shapes the dunes formed were nothing short of art. I highly recommend a doors off helicopter flight if you are able. We booked through the adventure center at the Sossusvlei Lodge.

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We spent another sunrise exploring Dead Vlei, a very interesting and alien-like desert-scape consisting of dead trees scattered among a dry clay flat, surrounded by orange dunes. It was definitely worth being there at sunrise to watch the way the light played on the dunes as the sun came up. Note that you need a 4×4 to drive the last 5km to Dead Vlei, but there was a vehicle that left with some of the other folks who were staying at the Sossus Dune Lodge, so this is an option if you don’t end up renting a 4×4. Definitely do confirm this with them in advance though.

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Our sunsets were spent driving the road towards Dead Vlei, stopping to photograph whichever dune seemed interesting… which was… well, lots of them, obviously.

Days 4 & 5: Erindi Private Game Reserve (drive time from Sossusvlei 7h 17min)

We woke up early for the long drive and checked in to Old Trader’s Lodge at Erindi Private Game Reserve in the afternoon. We headed for lunch on the incredible deck overlooking a large watering hole, where we were greeted by a herd of elephants. So cool! We ate all of our meals on the deck, and also found it to be a great place to do quick edits of the (many) images we captured while on the Reserve.

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We spent two full days at Erindi, and our guide Warren ensured our morning and evening game drives were excellent. Warren was extremely knowledgeable about all of the animals we saw. We had a great time with him!

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Day 6: Cheetah Conservation Fund (drive time from Erindi 2h 30min)

After our last game drive at Erindi, we drove to the Cheetah Conservation Fund and stayed at their new Cheetah View Lodge. In the morning, we watched the CCF staff run the cheetahs and did the behind-the-scenes activity they offer as well. It was great to learn about some of the programs the CCF is doing to protect the species. Worth a stop.

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Days 7 & 8: Camping with the Himba outside of Opuwo (drive time 6h 48min to Opuwo, then 1-3 hours to a village depending on where you go)

Through a contact we through a friend, we were able to hire a guide in Opuwo and spend a couple of days with a Himba village. This was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. There is a lot to unpack here regarding visiting the tribe in a respectful and responsible manner, and I’ll write a longer blog post to discuss this.

The main points? Don’t be the tourists that show up bringing no gifts, take photos for five minutes, and leave. Hire a guide/company who contributes (do the research!), buy staple items the village needs and/or make a monetary donation, be inquisitive and ask questions, and always ask permission before taking photos of people. Put respect above all else. If you’d like to see more photos from our experience, as well as more information on many of the people I photographed, I posted an album on my Facebook page here.

Some of the kids playing with our cameras :)

Some of the kids in the village playing with our cameras 🙂

 

Days 9 & 10: Okuakuejo Camp at Etosha National Park (drive time from Opowu approx. 5h)

Etosha National Park is on everyone’s list, and for good reason. The park covers over 20,000 square km, and with a self-drive option, you can explore on your own or opt to join a drive with a guide. We decided to take our chances and drive ourselves, but we were not disappointed. Within our first half hour of driving in the park, we came across three male lions walking along the road. Once they moved into the bush, I captured this image, one of my favorites from the trip.

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The perhaps obvious drawback of Etosha is that it does feel a bit like an amusement park at times because of the self-drive aspect. Cars and safari vehicles pack into a small spot to catch a glimpse of the wildlife–– it’s anything but private. If you’re after a more serene wildlife viewing experience, a private game reserve is worthy of a splurge.

In Etosha, we stayed at Okuakuejo Resort, another NWR property like the Sossus Dune Lodge. It seems to be pretty unanimous that this is the place to stay in Etosha if you can. It’s got a pretty stunning watering hole where we watched a couple of gorgeous sunsets. Here’s a shot from our second night–– we could not have asked for more!

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Days 11 & 12: Ongava Private Game Reserve (drive time from Okuakuejo 30min)

Oh, Ongava. I didn’t want to leave! Ongava Private Game Reserve was a massive highlight of this trip for me, and I’m so glad it was our last stop. It was the perfect place to celebrate the beauty of Namibia and wrap up such a fantastic trip.

We stayed at Ongava Tented Camp, which consists of eight luxury tents immersed in the bush in a classic safari style. The best part, in my opinion, is the glorious outdoor shower each tent includes. We ate our meals under a thatched roof with a waterhole front-and-center for wildlife viewing at all times of the day and night. Ongava’s attention to detail was impressive, especially in the way that they put nature first in everything they do–– indeed “Nature First” is their motto. It was inspiring to hear about their commitment to conservation and their plans for the future as well.

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Our guide Michael was extremely knowledgeable and we enjoyed all of our drives with him. Wildlife highlights at Ongava included lots of lions (with cubs), cheetahs (with cubs), and white rhino, which we felt very lucky to see! FYI: the animals at Ongava do not wear tracking collars (which are common on other reserves and parks), which makes them both easier to photograph and maybe slightly harder to find.DSC08368

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Highly recommended.

Day 13: Drive back to Windhoek (drive time from Ongava 4h 30min)

After our final drive at Ongava, we headed south to Windhoek. A friend recommended Joe’s Beerhouse, where you can get pretty much any type of meat you want. Colby ordered a skewer of pretty much everything (and contemplated going vegan in the aftermath!). This place is worth checking out for the decor alone–– it’s a beer house meets safari meets Caribbean beach bar. Quirky.

On our last night, we stayed at Etango Ranch Guest House due to its convenient proximity to the airport. It was easy and a good place to re-pack our bags for the journey home.

Day 14: Fly out of Windhoek

Goodbye, Namibia!

OTHER HELPFUL INFO

Some places we skipped on this trip, but that are worth considering: Caprivi region, Swakopmund, Fish River Canyon, Twyfelfontein. Colby went to Kolmanskop on his own before I arrived.

Colby's view photographing Kolmanskop.

Colby’s view photographing Kolmanskop.

 

A note about booking NWR (Namibia Wildlife Resorts) properties (for us, that was Okaukuejo and Sossus Dune Lodge)–– these are government-run, and it can be hard to hear back from them! I found emailing to be inconsistent, and ended up calling their Windhoek office directly to make our bookings. I then paid for one of the bookings online, and one in person.

Etosha National Park is a must, but I do recommend splurging on a few nights at a private reserve if you are able. This will get you closer to the animals and provide a more intimate experience. Of the two we visited, I would book Ongava for a quieter/more relaxed stay, and Erindi if I was traveling with family or small children.

Driving times between the places you’ll want to see are long! Make sure you’re prepared with podcasts and some great playlists. Our rental car didn’t have an aux cord input, so we bought an FM transmitter like this one in Windhoek. I recommend bringing one with you just in case!

In general for trip planning, your options are to join a pre-designed trip with other travelers, or to plan something on your own. If you’re a less experienced traveler or would like to have a social trip, group trips are a good option for you. If you’re wanting something a bit more tailored to your preferences, planning your itinerary on your own is what you’ll prefer. If you want to do less work in the planning stage, you can hire a specialist to plan and book your entire trip for you. As stated above, we tasked Expert Africa with this for part of our itinerary and they were great.

If you are looking to join a photography tour, consider Malcolm Fackender’s Spotlight on Africa, who currently has tours available for July/August 2018. I’m sure Colby and I will each be leading trips in Namibia eventually–– until then, if you want to go on a trip with either of us, you can check out Colby’s photography workshops here and my trip offerings by clicking the “Trips” tab above (or just follow this link).

MY PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR

Here’s the list of photo gear I used on this trip:

For wildlife photography, the winning combination by far was the Sony A9 with the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 lens + 1.4x Teleconverter. Due to the high frame rate and awesome autofocus, this made my job so easy when it came to capturing images.

If you want to see an updated list of my current gear kit, click here.

This was an epic trip and I loved sharing it with you on social media! If you have more questions about Namibia, photography, or travel in general, please let me know in the comments or shoot me an email at info@erinoutdoors.com. Thanks for following along.

TRAVEL

How to Come Back to Reality after Traveling

Welcome back.

If you found yourself to this post, I’m gonna assume you’re struggling to get back into your everyday. So first, welcome back. And second, you’re not alone if you’re feeling the post-trip blues.

You’ve had an experience that completely shattered your routine– an experience that other people could never understand, because they weren’t you. Travel can be transformative and impactful, and it’s no surprise that arriving home after a big trip can be a rough landing.

Anyone who has traveled has most likely dealt with the dread of the aftermath– you are no longer on your trip. You are no longer studying abroad, or teaching English, or on your wilderness trip. Wherever you went, coming home can somehow feel harsh and uneventful at the same time.

However you feel, it’s OK. You are not the first or last person to feel the way you do.

However you feel, it might be a bummer or less than ideal. But the fact is, you are now home. And you have some options. You can marinate in your misery, or you can try to move through and eventually out of it. Which one sounds better?

Here are some tips from my experiences coming home from big trips or stays abroad.

FIND YOUR HOME GROOVE

When I got back from nine months in Portugal, waking up in my own bed felt foreign but mildly familiar… like a dream that I could only barely remember. Getting back is going to feel weird– you’re not heading to your usual café for breakfast, you’re not greeted by the same smells or sights as you were on your trip, and that can be underwhelming and just plain strange.

Trust me, sitting inside in your anxiety cave is not going to make you feel better. You have to get out.

Find things in your home country that speak to your highest excitement. Explore the places you haven’t explored yet, travel domestically, make it a goal to meet new people. Find things that you are excited to build into your routine– force yourself to get up and get into that groove. The hardest part is getting yourself out the door.

SHIFT YOUR FOCUS

Instead of focusing on what your home country lacks, focus on what you loved so much about your trip and incorporate more of it into your home life. Nope, you’re not going to get the *exact* pastries you used to get in Paris, but maybe you’ll discover a new bakery or even learn to make them yourself.

Instead of, “Man, it really blows that I don’t have the same view here as I did in Florence,” can you shift to, “My view in Florence was gorgeous and I’m so thankful I got to experience that”?

Don’t let your fond memories drain you. Let them inspire you instead. Watch the language you use and the story you are telling yourself about being home. Choose to rephrase the story to one coming from a place of abundance instead of a place of lack.

APPLY WHAT YOU LEARNED

If a part of your heart misses your trip, it must have meant something to you. It must have taught you something.

Your trip most likely taught you how to be more independent. It probably forced you to be friends with different types of people. It probably got you outside of your comfort zone. It probably put you in situations where you had to order food in a different language, or ask for directions, or communicate in a new way. And you can apply many of these takeaways to your life at home.

You had an amazing experience abroad, and that is noteworthy. Now how can you bring some of the learnings into your day to day life? Ask yourself this question and take it seriously. Build upon your newest foundation.

PLAN SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO

If you can’t seem to get out of this funk, if the black hole of boredom seems never-ending, plan something that truly excites you. Maybe it’s a creative project. Maybe it’s a trip with friends. Maybe it’s some solo time to do some soul searching. Maybe it’s a big move. Whatever it is, let it be something to look forward to.

Mix it up and sprinkle your weeks with fun activities, You time, and things that interest you. You’re not going to get through this lull by keeping everything the same.


If you are feeling like you want to escape, can you view your everyday with the same amount of curiosity as you had while you were traveling? Can you challenge yourself to see it with new eyes?

Whatever blues you may be feeling, I totally get it. But you have to look back on your trip fondly without dwelling on the negative stuff. You are the only one who can make this shift. Love the memories and the relationships you made. Take what you learned and use it. Although it’s hard to come back, it’s far more important that you went in the first place.

PACKING LISTS TRAVEL

Packing List: Adventure Travel in Europe

This is what I brought for a 5 week summer trip to New York City, Connecticut, London, Greece (islands and mountains), and Ireland.

I pack my stuff in a 50L duffel bag (Cotopaxi 50L Chumpi Duffel) and a 26L backpack (Cotopaxi 26L Cusco Backpack) as my daypack. Please note that if the airline is weighing your stuff, you MAY have to check your duffel bag, so make sure you can put all your valuables in your daypack just in case, and weigh your bag beforehand so you know what to expect. Every airline is different.

In general, I find that it’s always better to bring too little rather than too much stuff. As long as you have your necessities, you can buy most things abroad. There are a couple of items on the list below that I forgot to mention in the video! Use your best judgment and keep in mind what you typically use on a daily basis.

MY BASIC PACKING LIST FOR ADVENTURE TRAVEL

  • Shoes – I don’t mind the extra weight because I like variety.
  • Shirts – 9, a few of which can be dressed up
  • Pants & Shorts
    • 2 jeans – one nice
    • 2 shorts – one nice
    • 1 flowy beach pant
    • 1 running shorts
    • 1 pair leggings
    • 1 pair cozy sweats
    • NOTE: I trade out one pair of jeans for more leggings and running shorts if I know I will be doing a lot of hiking or other outdoor activities on the trip.
  • Layers
    • 1 cozy sweater/sweatshirt
    • 1 warm jacket – I bring the Cotopaxi Kusa Bomber
    • 1 rain jacket if you’re going somewhere it’s for sure gonna rain
  • Underwear – Lots. I bring 14+ pairs.
  • Bras – 7 sports bras or bralettes
  • Swimsuit– 1 or 2. I forgot this in the video. SORRY!
  • Socks
    • 1 cozy
    • 3 athletic
    • 3 casual
  • Bandanas– I bring 4.
  • Laundry bag
  • Tech etc.
    • Camera with Internal Camera Unit (alternatively, I recommend using a camera bag instead of a regular backpack if your trip is very photography focused)
    • Lightweight tripod if you are planning on shooting night photography or lots of self-timer shots
    • Batteries
    • Mophie charger
    • 2 hard drives or back-ups for your data
    • Camera battery charger
    • Converter if necessary
    • Memory card reader
    • Memory cards
    • Laptop
    • Laptop charger
    • Phone charger
    • Headphones
    • Small multi-tool that’s “travel friendly” – I have the Leatherman Style PS. Be aware that TSA can take anything from you, depending on the agent!
  • Small TSA approved lock
  • Toiletries (all under 100mL and can fit inside a 1 quart ziplock bag)
    • Shampoo
    • Conditioner
    • Body wash/soap
    • Facewash/makeup remover
    • Dry shampoo
    • Deoderant
    • Makeup
    • Tweezers if not in your multi-tool
    • Curling iron (if you’re me)
  • Journal
  • Paperback book or kindle
  • Wallet with cash, credit cards, ATM card and ID
  • Passport
  • Water bottle
  • Ibuprofen and/or small first aid kit
    • Bandaids
    • Betadine (also doubles as emergency water treatment)
    • Alcohol wipes
    • Earplugs (if you are a light sleeper like me, these are a lifesaver)

Some parting words…

On my first trip abroad, I packed as if shirts did not exist anywhere else. Spoiler alert!!! They do. Also, you can buy pants abroad. And toothbrushes. And most other necessary items. Over the years, I’ve noticed that I never say “oh damn, I packed too light.” It is always the other way around–– I am usually kicking myself for overpacking, wishing I had left more room to bring home cool stuff from my travels or just traveled lighter in general.

Overall, my advice is to pack for the type of adventure you are going on. I have traveled with suitcases, expedition packs, duffel bags… and this is what works for me! Know that you will most likely not get it perfect the first time, and that’s OK! You will figure out what works and what doesn’t while you’re on the road– follow your best guess now and you’ll learn to adjust where necessary.

If this video was helpful, let me know in the comments below!