TRAVEL

What it takes to be a travel and adventure photographer

Ulla Lohmann has travelled the world, documenting her adventures in images and videos. Here she reveals what life is like as a travel photographer – her riskier shoots, how to cope with setbacks and what you need to succeed.
A man sits in a small inflatable boat inside a stunning cave lake, with bright green water and overhanging rocks.

Expedition and adventure photographer Ulla Lohmann shot this image deep inside Križna Jama cave in Slovenia, famous for its emerald-green underwater lakes, as part of her work on a TV documentary. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 22mm, 1/20 sec, f/2.8 and ISO8000. © Ulla Lohmann

"I like challenges," explains Canon Ambassador Ulla Lohmann, who has been a travel and adventure photographer and videographer for over 25 years. "For me, change is really good and challenges bring change. If things are too comfortable, they get boring. Any challenge is just an opportunity to work harder for my projects and to feel how much I want the story to be published."

Ulla's home is in Germany, but her work for organisations including National Geographic, GEO magazine and the BBC, has taken her to dozens of countries. Her particular passion is volcanoes and she has sometimes gone to extreme lengths to get the images she wants. One of Ulla's most dangerous shoots involved abseiling 600 metres inside an active volcano on the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. The unique and spectacular shots she took, just 50 metres from the lava lake, were the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. "The volcano felt so big and powerful and it made me realise that we humans are so small," she says, "but at the same time it really made me feel alive."

Travelling to exotic locations and shooting for prestigious publications and websites is a dream job for many people. But carving out a travel and adventure photography career isn't easy. To succeed, you need a range of skills and personal qualities including the ability to spot a unique story, excellent organisational skills and an unquenchable thirst for adventure. Here, Ulla discusses the kind of single-minded determination that has enabled her to succeed in this competitive field.

Black volcanoes are silhouetted against a deep blue background, with bright red and orange sparks and shoots of lava emerging from them.

Ulla photographed one of the world's most active volcanoes, located on the island of Stromboli, off the north coast of Sicily, in late 2021. "The main challenge when shooting active volcanoes is that you encounter a lot of wind on the rim, which often brings a lot of ash, so it's like being sand-blasted," she says. Volcanoes look most spectacular in low light, so Ulla uses long exposures of up to 30 seconds with her camera tripod-mounted. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 400mm, 8 secs, f/18 and ISO200. © Ulla Lohmann

How to become a travel photographer

It can be difficult to become established in travel photography, but in Ulla's case her success was a mixture of serendipity, hard work and seizing an opportunity. She won a science competition at the age of 18 and used the prize money to travel the world and start regularly shooting stories for a monthly magazine in her home region.

While on her travels on the Vanuatu islands in the South Pacific, she met a team from National Geographic. After getting to know them, she offered to work as their cook. "Meeting them made me realise there are people who work as journalists who are storytellers with a science background, and this was the moment when I said 'I'm going to do the same thing'."

To get started, Ulla recognised that she needed more scientific knowledge before she could realise her dream. "I started to study natural resource management to understand the connectivity between people and nature," she says. "I also realised I needed to develop storytelling skills, because a lot of people can take great images but it's the story that makes you unique and stand out as a photographer."

Ulla advises that the key to telling a successful story is finding one where you have expert or insider knowledge. "Look at your own surroundings – somewhere you can access easily and go back to a lot of times. Find what you're passionate about and when you've found your story, stick to it; keep working at it until it looks really good."

If you're travelling abroad, learning enough of the country's language to communicate is important, in order to help unearth unique travel stories. And, as developing a story in the field can take a long time, Ulla says it's vital to keep physically fit. "As an adventure photographer, your body is very important," she continues. "Pack carefully, don't carry too much and make sure you put sport in your daily routine, because being really fit is part of the work."

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The sun rises in the background of a deserted, sand-coloured rock formation.

This image was taken in the Teide National Park in Tenerife, near the 'Finger of God' rock formation just below Mount Teide volcano, for Ulla's 47 Summits project, in which she climbed the highest mountains in every European country. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/100 sec, f/20 and ISO400. © Ulla Lohmann

Learning from setbacks

Only the best stories are published, so it's important, especially when starting out, to take life's knocks and bounce back from them. Ulla's first story for National Geographic, about a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea that took her three years to find, was initially rejected.

"The picture editor looked at only three of my photos before saying no," she remembers. "I could have been devastated, but I was just intrigued – I said 'OK, how can I do it better?' He explained I needed to shoot it more in low light, to shoot with natural light as well as the light from fire and torches.

"Afterwards, I went back and shot the story again. Then, several years after starting work as an expedition cook, I had my first story published. This advice – to photograph the atmosphere and the feeling of a situation and not the object – is something I've carried with me through my entire career and it has helped me a lot."

Ulla poses with her camera in an underwater cave, wearing a red weatherproof outfit and a white hardhat and lamp.

Ulla holds her Canon EOS R5 while on the shoot in Križna Jama cave, Slovenia. She loves using the camera for both stills and video. "The EOS R5 has a very fast autofocus and the image stabiliser works really well," she says. "I love the flip screen, the camera handles really well and I can reach all the buttons very easily. If I'm dangling from a rock face, I can't think about my equipment – I have to completely trust it to perform." © Ulla Lohmann

The robust kit needed for travel photography

Inevitably, travel and adventure photography cameras and lenses are often put through demanding conditions. When Ulla was abseiling inside an active volcano, the rain that fell was turned into damaging acid rain by volcanic gases, However, the highly effective weather-sealing on the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV she was using kept both the acid rain and humidity out.

Ulla has also photographed in a range of other challenging locations. For her ongoing 47 Summits project, she is photographing from the highest points of all 47 European countries, so her kit has to be robust enough to take the knocks it receives on these climbs. "Sometimes, you can only climb these mountains with ropes, so you have to pack really light. Some have permanent glaciers on top, which are very slippery," she says.

At other times, she has worked deep underground, such as in Slovenia's Križna Jama cave. She continues, "It was a big advantage to use the Canon EOS R5 there, because it has great low-light capabilities so you can just use normal torches to light the cave. It's much easier to use than flashlights, and more transportable."

Hear more about how photographers push their cameras to the limits in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

Ulla avoids air travel as much as possible to reduce her carbon footprint. However, when she does fly, she keeps her cameras and lenses, plus a charger, a battery and memory cards, in the overhead lockers. All other equipment, including her tripod and flashgun, go in the hold with her other luggage. All her equipment is insured for her own peace of mind.

She says neither of her EOS R System cameras have failed while she's been travelling, but from an earlier experience she knows she can rely on prompt attention from Canon Professional Services (CPS) if it's needed. "A few years ago, I was travelling across Africa and the mirror on my Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) failed while I was in the Sahara Desert," she recalls.

"Three days after I had called CPS for help, I had a replacement camera delivered to me. Ever since then, I've been in good contact with CPS – they're very helpful with cleaning equipment and doing small repairs."

Two scientists silhouetted against the lava lake inside the Benbow crater on the volcanic island of Ambrym.

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A man stands on a rocky outcrop with his hands in his pockets and wearing a headlamp. The night sky fills most of the image, showing thousands of stars.

Ulla photographed this spectacular night sky on the island of Tenerife, off the coast of West Africa, for her 47 Summits project. "The Canon EOS R6 is perfect for images of the night sky," she says. "It has great low-light capabilities and shooting at ISO5000 was no problem at all." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 13 sec, f/3.5 and ISO5000. © Ulla Lohmann

The ups, downs and rewards of travel photography

Although travel and adventure photography has its obvious attractions – not least the freedom to experience other countries and cultures and the satisfaction of telling unique and fascinating stories – it also has its challenges.

One is 'office work', the sheer quantity of time it takes to research and plan a story – Ulla sometimes spends 10 years or more preparing for a shoot. The other is the amount of time you spend on the road, and she often spends 11 months of a year away from home.

These are not problems for Ulla, though. "I love researching and organising trips, and I travel with my husband and our three-year-old son, so I can maintain my normal family life," she says. "We're home-schooling our son and with the internet it is very easy to keep in contact with my friends. There are always reasons not to travel, but you can always find solutions – if you don't find a solution, it's because you don't want to do it badly enough."

A quarter of a century on from publishing her first stories, Ulla still gets the same enjoyment and sense of fulfilment from her work as when she started. "Every time I'm onto a good story I get goosebumps on my neck, and when I pull it all together and see the final project it's so rewarding," she says.

"I get as much of a thrill as I had in the very beginning, because I realise how powerful stories are, and how I can really change people's lives. When I do talks, I get a lot of feedback from people saying how I have inspired them to realise their own dreams, how I've changed their lives, and this is very fulfilling. It's what makes me do what I do."

Σύνταξη: David Clark


Ulla Lohmann's kitbag

The key kit travel and adventure pros use to take their photographs

Travel and adventure photographer Ulla Lohmann stands holding a Canon EOS R5 in front of a log cabin on stilts in a river.

Cameras

Canon EOS R5

Rethink what you know about hybrid mirrorless cameras. Whether you shoot photos, video or a mixture of both, the EOS R5's uncompromising performance will revolutionise your creativity. "If I take my cameras to active volcanoes, they need to be really robust," Ulla says. "My kit has to be as rugged as the locations I'm working in."

Canon EOS R6

Whatever you shoot, however you shoot it, the EOS R6 lets you be creative in ways you never thought possible. "When I'm on assignment I'll always take both cameras, in case one fails or I need to shoot still images with one camera and either film or create a time-lapse with the other," explains Ulla.

Lenses

Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

Part of the trinity of essential lenses, alongside the RF 15-35mm and RF 70-200mm, the RF 24-70mm boasts a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing. "I recently changed all my lenses to RFs because they are so much better and they work really well with EOS R System cameras," says Ulla.

Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM

Bring distant scenes closer and give your subject a front row seat thanks to brilliant 100-500mm pulling power and outstanding versatility from a zoom that delivers detail, clarity and an exceptional telephoto performance.

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