What is it like to be a Lonely Planet Photographer?
Who knew traveling as fun as it can be, can be made into a wonderful profession? Travel photography has become a very common trend nowadays, but in comparison to all the luxurious travel and photos, Micah Wright has shown us that a simple backpacker can make travel photography an enjoyable experience. He is a writer and contributor for Lonely Planet and his photos give us a completely new outlook.
(feature image by interviewee @wrightontheroad)
Here’s what Micah has to say about himself and how it all started:
1. What does photography mean to you?
I guess if I had to give an answer to this a couple of things would come to mind. First, it has always been a means to an end. It really provided me the opportunity to travel and experience cultures and activities that I never could have afforded to do so before. I had started traveling late, in my early 20’s as a simple backpacker with no intention of being a photographer. I worked and saved every penny for more traveling, but I always would have to return home too soon due to an empty bank account. I had yet to discover the opportunities of working abroad and the clever ways that a traveler can help sustain travel. I realized that I might be able to trade my education in photography to be able to continue to travel. A light bulb turned on and here I am today!
You can travel on the very cheap, but it requires a lot of time invested. So in lieu of time and never really having money; working as a photographer has really helped me into unique new experiences.
It also is a way for me to share my adventures with others and forever capture experiences that mean a great deal to me. In my youth, I hated being in photographs and thus taking them as well. When I got older I realized how special those childhood images were. When I decided to take up photography and continue to learn the craft, I focused on capturing these moments both for myself and for others. I love being able to provide lasting images of priceless memories to those incredible people that I have come across on my journeys. I know how much these images often end up meaning to people.
2. You do different genres of photography. How do you motivate yourself to do so?
It is just natural I suppose. I am a very curious person and I want to experience and succeed in everything that comes across my path. I was raised as a dedicated athlete from a very early age so I had an ingrained sense of competing, giving 110%, and excelling in everything that I did. That has somewhat carried over into my photographic make-up. I don’t really consider myself a photographer and I certainly don’t consider myself one of the most creative people in the craft; but I can say that I work extremely hard in every aspect of my photography. The time I put in is ridiculous.
I am very lucky in the aspect that I have been able to focus on various photographic genres. Photography is not my career, nor my main source of income. I have consciously chosen photography to be part time work (for the time being). I have a lot of part time jobs that help pay the bills so that I can have freedom to photograph things of interest and explore new photographic avenues. But someday soon, I do hope that will change and I will find a line of photographic work that I can focus on and support myself with.
I started shooting weddings full time and could have made a very good career out of it; but it started to get redundant and I found myself having to focus specifically on weddings. I wanted to shoot, not because I had to pay bills, but because I was really interested in the people, the event, the location, or situation. I still shoot weddings on occasion and I love it. I usually have a very good relationship with the couple or there is something unique or interesting involved in the shoot. I love that natural feeling of being excited to shoot something new. It really keeps me refreshed and enjoying what I am doing.
About 2 years ago I really started to get into live music photography. I had shot DJ’s and the Electronic Dance Music scene many years ago and really loved the wild and artistic environment, but I always wanted to get into covering more live bands. I was really bummed out when I found that even after paying for tickets, I was unable to bring my camera into an event to shoot bands that I loved so much. I did not mind paying, but the photo restrictions were frustrating. I almost did not want to go to shows anymore due to the fact that I knew I would be unable to capture and share something that was so important to me. It is kind of the curse of being a photographer. I hate the weight and bulk of camera gear slowing me down, but I can’t bear the fact of being somewhere special and not being able to capture a unique moment. As I continue to improve as a music photographer, my musical interest and photography style continues to change along with it.
3. As a travel photographer, what has the experience taught you so far?
I’m always asking myself this same question. What have I really gained from it all? The experiences are incredible and the people that I have met all over the world are all priceless. It has made me the person that I am today. But I’m still waiting to see how exactly this will all pay off in the long run.
I have experienced so many different ways of life, so many different viewpoints, so many rights and wrongs. I feel that I now have an extremely open mind and I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I have learned that there is always another side to things. I think you learn how wrong you have been and how little you actually know. I still remember how naive and narrow minded I was as a first time traveler setting foot in Europe, but I did not know any better. I was just a kid, full of passion and drive to explore; but I felt like I owned everything and was entitled to it all. I’m embarrassed about that attitude now, but it was something that I learned from and I understand it when I see others with the same bravado.
You learn the things that are most valuable to you. I realize how important family is; along with the importance of those friends at home and your friends traveling with you at the moment. You learn how delicate and precious life is and how much joy can be found in the simplest things in life. Once you put off the stress of normal day-to-day life, work, routine; you become free to think, relax, and enjoy. It’s amazing the things your mind comes up with when you just give it time to operate outside of the routine.
I always recall how happy the children and families are in third world countries. Of course there is also much pain, suffering and tragedy there as well, but in most of the villages, I see happy families working together and children playing freely and happily. The families and parents sit outside and talk and watch the world around them. I feel they are more intent on enjoying the small amount that they do have rather than being unhappy that they don’t have more. Such stark contrast from most living here in the USA.
Another big thing that I have learned is how to live with others. I usually stay in hostels and dorms and often the bigger the dorm the better. When you are traveling solo, a dorm room provides all of the company you could ever want (or not want). It can be difficult, but you learn to appreciate people for their interesting and unique behaviors. These strangers become your only line of support and friendship. You put up with their differences and enjoy them for who they are; or you just end up on your own.
4. Which camera gear do you prefer, Nikon or Canon? Why?
I am a Canon user. I was Nikon user in university. Along with my first job (as a studio photographer), came a brand new Nikon digital. The Nikon D1 ($5,000 USD, 2.7 Megapixels) was one of the first mainstream commercial digital cameras. I was sold on it immediately, but I could not afford one for personal use, so I carried on with my Nikon film bodies. When I moved to London, I worked as a paparazzi. I was shooting film while the professionals next to me was using digital gear and instantly transmitting images over their mobile phones. When they went home, I got to take a 2-3 hour bus ride at 2am to the office to drop off film. I would sleep a couple of hours and then head to my day job at 7am followed by anther night on the streets chasing around celebrities. I wanted the ease of digital badly. When I returned home, the Canon 10d ($1,500) had just been released and I felt that this was the first truly affordable DSLR that was on the market. Nikon had yet to release a digital for anywhere close to this price point. I saved up my money to purchase it and have been with Canon ever since.
5. What is your advise regarding camera for amateur photographers who want to pursue photography more?
Almost all DSLR camera bodies are amazing these days. The quality and technology has come such a long way and continues to improve quickly. It is true what they say, invest in the lenses first and then the body. You will keep on purchasing new camera bodies, but the lenses far outlive the camera bodies.
The mid range DSLR’s all have great quality and I usually advise people on picking one of those up. For most amateur photographers needs, those will far exceed your photographic needs. The only real noticeable difference would be how tough the body construction is. While the pro models can take a serious beating, the amateur ones need to be treated a little more delicately. Not until you get into a lot of the higher end or niche photographic genres do you have need of the more precise abilities of the professional tier bodies.
I also advise to look into used professional models. A top line cutting edge $5,000 camera body today could be half that in 2 years and then under $500 shortly after. It still will provide for almost any amateur’s photographic needs.
In regards to weather to purchase Canon or Nikon, I usually direct them to purchase a brand that their friends have. Those two brands are so good and so similar, I feel that there is not that much of a difference. But if your friends have the same brand; being able to share equipment can be invaluable.
6. Have you tried shooting with an iPhone/ any other smartphone? If yes, how do you feel about it?
I shoot with my iPhone at times. It looks incredible on the small screen and is so useful in posting images quickly to social media. But after seeing the quality of the images enlarged on screen or printed, all of the flaws immediately pop out. There is just no comparison to a proper DSLR. So I don’t do too much serious photography work with the phone as I would rather create something with the best possible quality that has the opportunity to be enlarged and printed for commercial use. But I’m amazed at how great images look these days on smart phone screens.
7. Having a focus in photography is important, but being the innovative person you are, how do you inspire others?
I’m not sure how much I inspire people in terms of photography. I think people enjoy my images and it shows them beautiful parts of the world that they may not be able to visit firsthand. I think I inspire people more to travel or to enjoy a life of more freedom. Most people easily get stuck into a job or career and spend the rest of their life working the entire year and settling for two weeks off for vacation. I could never really abide by that. I don’t have kids or debts or things of that nature keeping me in one place, so I am unique in having the freedom to pursue many different passions and adventures. One of these days I may come to really regret not taking a more stable path in life, but who knows; I haven’t yet.
For a lot of younger people I think I inspire them to take more time in traveling, exploring and learning about one’s self. My generation and the youth today I think are more inclined to take a different path in life. I think we have seen our parents work the same job for 40+ years and have tried to avoid that. I think there will come a time naturally where you will settle down but until that time I think it is very important to explore outside of what you have known your entire life. When you get the chance to experience the way other people live, how other cultures operate, and see how beautiful the world is; you become a more complete and knowledgeable person. In many countries, it is common for students take a gap year (traveling for an entire year before starting university or careers). This is something that I wish was more commonplace in the USA as I think it would give today’s youth so much more information on the world about them. A year on your own, living out of a backpack stuffed with a handful of possessions and surrounded by random strangers across the world really changes you.
8. How do you define yourself in terms of yourself and photography?
If I could answer that, I think I would be a lot more successful. If I knew exactly what type and style of photography that I wanted to focus on; it would be easier to build a client base, financial streams, and master that genre. But as it is now, I have been enjoying learning new aspects of photography. It keeps things new and entertaining. It’s a bit stressful at first as you are never completely comfortable with a shoot if it is always something new, but it is always more exciting. I’ve always been able to deliver above and beyond, regardless on the shoot subject. And it is fun to watch your skill improve in these new areas. I think it really helps one become a better overall photographer.
I never really consider myself a photographer. I hate to say it, but it seems that I am more of a wanderer and adventurer; someone who is seeking new experiences and learning new things. Photography has been a way to capture and share some of those beautiful things in my life that I have been able to experience. I have been blessed that I do make a small amount of income from my images, but nothing to support myself with. Maybe someday this will develop into something to provide the financial needs to make it into a career.
9. Would you consider writing a book to share your experiences in future?
I would love to write a book and share my images and experiences at some point! It has always been a dream of mine. I think it has been a pretty amazing and interesting ride for me thus far. But who knows. I would love the chance to share my stories and especially my love for traveling throughout the worlds hostel systems. I think this is a very unique experience that allows a traveler to get closer to the locals, other travelers, and learn a whole new life altogether. So many great experiences originate from these hostels. I actually wrote a television screen play revolving around the Hostel life. It never went anywhere but the characters you meet and situations that naturally occur there are so entertaining!
I do keep a basic diary and take note of exceptional happenings (which seem to be every day while traveling) and it would be great to someday set down to putting it all together. That would indeed be quite a project!
10. As a photographer, in what ways do you feel you have grown over the years?
I certainly have grown more confident and comfortable with what I produce. I don’t think I will ever be truly happy with the images that I have taken, but with a lot of them, I feel it gets my ideas across and adequately relates the feelings I had while immersed in the experience. I’ve always had a problem with too much content. There is so much I want to say and share. I’m still far too longwinded in the image and verbiage department but I’ve gotten better at editing down. A good tight edit down to the fewest images needed to relate an idea is invaluable. Nobody likes to see repetition of the same thing over and over again.
11. Given the opportunity in future, would you use your talent and passion for projects that make a difference like Photographers Without Borders? Would you consider joining them and volunteering?
I was very intrigued to hear this. To be honest I had never heard of Photographers Without Borders, and was very excited to look into it. Being able to make postcard images and entice viewers to get off their seat and travel to exotic locations is great; but I’ve been long looking for more meaningful projects and outlets for my images and travel experiences. I’d love to do more work with Non-Profit’s, Charities, NGO’s and similar. I’d love just to go and volunteer as a worker first and photographer second.
This was a difficult question for me to answer. I have often discussed this with many other travelers over the years. There are a lot of organizations out there that seem to be operating in corporate interest foremost and the well-being of the people second. It has always left a poor taste in my mouth after hearing stories like this and I generally denounced any charity organizations that you had to pay for. In order to get a more balanced opinion of volunteer work, I recently discussed this topic with trusted travelers that have put extensive time into the volunteer field. After speaking with them, I realized that I am not informed enough on the subject to give proper representation to the issue.
I did learn a few things from them though. Even though there may be a lot of organizations out there which operate in a less than honest fashion; there are also a lot of extremely helpful ones. Minimal fees and program/applicant regulations are normally a necessary part of the processes in order to ensure the most beneficial help in the long term. Administration, oversight and direction are crucial in the long run and care needs to be taken that volunteers with the right intention are not doing something detrimental to the local good. There are great opportunities to do real good in a community if the right organization is chosen. Take great care in researching these organizations and ensure that your money is truly going to the people in need.
Personally, I’ve always envisioned myself doing more long-term volunteer work at some point. In my line of travel, I usually am surrounded by people traveling without time constraints. They often find a place that they fall in love with and assimilate themselves into the culture and local community. In becoming part of the community, there are often lots of opportunities to share your expertise with the locals and help in that manner. I’ve thought that this would be the ideal situation for myself. Develop a relationship first and then let them offer to accept whatever help you can provide.
In looking into PWB, I was a bit unsure. I think it is an interesting opportunity for those looking for a quick trip and hoping to take moving photographs and get published; but I was a bit disillusioned by the charges involved and the shorter lengths of time. It seems to be a good idea because it sounds like it brings helping hands to those in need and offers some quick media exposure. I would love to see a lot more transparency from this company. Upon inquire PWD were not willing to provide me with further details until the application and membership fees were paid. I think I would rather go there as a regular volunteer in a village and be a photographer second, after building a relationship.
12. Having traveled the world in various circumstances and worked as well, what are your hopes for the future? What are your future plans?
At the moment, I have no plans and am not sure of what comes next.
I suppose I’d love to be able to work as a photographer and call it my career someday; but the right career opportunity has not come by yet I guess. So I believe I have kept my future open and unknown for that reason; I’m always waiting, keeping myself free and available, eye’s wide-open, for the next opportunity to come along. I’m amazed at the amazing opportunities that have come across my doorstep thus far!
Life does pass you by rather quickly, but I’m always trying to stay confident that the wind will continue to blow me in the right direction. In the meanwhile, I just try to enjoy life as much as possible, share my time with family and friends, and dive head first into any interesting photographic opportunity that comes my way.
In my travels I have run across so many in need. There are so many opportunities out there to help and assist by just going. Once you are there, I believe you should be working, living, eating side-by side with the families and organizations. If there is a need there and your help is wanted; then there will be a place for you. I feel that you need to spend months in your volunteer work in order to get a real image of what the situation is and develop a real connection with those that you are helping. And if the donation is financial; it is so much better to be able to directly offer it to the village, family, orphanage, hospital that you have a personal connection with.
Micah being the creative photographer he is has been able to share with us how he would love to work more as a volunteer and reach out to helping others. In his own words: “There are so many opportunities out there to help and assist by just going.” It has been a humbling experience to be able to share his adventure, passion and photography with us.