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Guidebook Pro Helps Travelers Take Better Pictures

A block north of Seattle's Pike Place Market, on the stairs behind the narrow glass door of a little-known hotel called Pensione Nichols, sits a world traveler Richard I'Anson. Wearing a V-neck sweater and a five-o'clock shadow, the photographer is sipping herbal tea, waiting patiently in the fading golden light that streams through floor-to-ceiling windows behind him.

I'Anson is nursing a case of laryngitis, caused by the 22 days of speeches he has just given about his recently released Lonely Planet book, Travel Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures. In a low voice, as the sun sets over Puget Sound, he talks about his work as a travel photographer, his techniques and the life he chooses.

I'Anson's book tour has sent him jetting across the United Kingdom and the United States, ending with 10 days in his home country, Australia. It's from there that he has continually embarked, over the past 14 years, to capture the images that have appeared in more than 150 Lonely Planet books and editions.

His new book is the first opportunity I'Anson has had to explore the notion that making photos is only half of what's involved in travel photography. The book runs through the technical part, including the basics of gear, film and composition, in clear and engaging prose. But its greatest treasure is the photos I'Anson has chosen to include and the extended captions he has written. These reveal the rarely told, far-and-away more interesting tale of how travel photographers learn to make themselves "absolutely comfortable, immediately, anywhere."

I'Anson says this is the key to being a good travel photographer, and it's an absolute prerequisite to becoming a great one.

"I like everywhere I go. I love going anywhere. I don't deliberately try to come up with preconceptions, and if I have any, I don't bring them with me."

On the other hand, he says, "I don't trust anybody in terms of personal safety and security. I've had no problems, but one of the reasons I have had no problems is that attitude. I am not fearful of anything or anyone, but I also am not naive.
 "I always feel comfortable and confident wherever I am. And I certainly aim to give that impression, because it is dangerous not to. There is no question that if you can appear like you belong there, people will leave you alone."

Through his photos and captions, I'Anson says, he has attempted to offer an intimate look at a world that may be slipping away. Ironically, that slippage may be due in part to his own success: Once the dominion solely of adventurers, the world's remotest corners are increasingly overrun with adventure tourists.

"I see insensitivity by tourists all the time," says I'Anson. "I don't think it is done on purpose. -- One of the difficulties is that if one person approaches a local person and says, 'Can I take your picture?' and the person says, 'Yes,' then the rest of the group feels that they also have permission."

It's the accidental tourist who sees in a bustling street scene in India the single photo that sums up a subcontinent.

I'Anson, on the other hand, has made finding that kind of photo his profession. He recalls wandering down a rain-soaked street in Amritsar and seeing an old man hunched over in a doorway.

"It was miserable out. He was actually half-hidden under a blanket. But I was drawn to see if I could take his picture. Before I even approached him, I knew the shot. Before I moved anywhere, the 100mm lens went on. The light was all set. With that lens, I know how far away I need to be.

"I treat all photos as if I have only one chance. I don't assume they will give me more than one frame. That first one has to count. The second, third or fourth is a bonus. You can cover yourself with those. I get the composition right the first time. I am pretty good at that. All I will do is a bit of bracketing; I'll confirm the focus. Then I will just watch the eyes to be sure they don't close."

L'Anson has brought back almost the same shot from several different continents. It's that expertise that he documents in the main narrative of his book. In the captions, he describes how he goes far beyond this almost clinical execution of his assignments.

Whether profiling India's Taj Mahal at dusk, marveling at a dust storm over the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, or simply searching out a new angle on an often-photographed Malaysian mosque, I'Anson seems intent on entering into these worlds and bringing back in his photos a living moment.

In the book, I'Anson describes and shows the difference between personal and commercial appeal, what catches a photographer's eye and what an editor wants. Side-by-side examples and captions in the book show readers both types of shots, and explain that a photographer must sometimes distance himself from his creative urges to complete his assignment.

"When I shoot the Potala Palace, it's a straight, classic shot. That's what I have to come home with. That's what the client really, really wants. The next shot I show [in the book] is the same shot, a couple of hours later in a dust storm. The thing is, that [first shot] is what the client has published for seven years. This [dust storm] shot is clearly an unusual shot, but they have never, ever published it once.

"While I was there on assignment. I made that decision to stay there for two to three hours, and possibly get nothing, on their time, because I actually felt that the second shot, if it might come, would be a winner that they would also like. As it turned out, they preferred the standard shot." He is comfortable with such a decision. "I can shoot the range, as long as I deliver. I could never predict that that second shot would not be used. You just really don't know what they are thinking.
"The fact is, the dust storm might not have come, or the light might have just gone low, with a golden glow, and that may have been suitable."

When I'Anson is shooting stock photography, he may give himself more leeway to go after a quirky shot. "In the book there is a shot of kids sleeping on the street in Calcutta," he says. "My client who sent me to India would never ever use that shot, because it is adventure travel. They want the colorful India. That's a case where I would go out early in the morning and shoot pictures that weren't relevant to them, but I wouldn't do it at the expense of what the client was demanding."

The bottom line on creativity, he says, is that "you have to do your own books to get some of your best work published."
Though he took his first travel photos as a child when his family moved from England to Australia, I'Anson broke into the field as a pro during a three-year fit of wanderlust that led him throughout Asia in the late 1980s. During two trips, the first for seven months and the second for two years, he developed the tough veneer and sometimes intense photographic style that allowed him to reach a wide audience in his Australian homeland.

Following his second trip, I'Anson gathered up a photo portfolio and approached the Melbourne-based travel guidebook firm Lonely Planet, adventure travel outfitter World Expeditions and an Australian airline's in-flight magazine. His first sale was to Lonely Planet publisher Tony Wheeler, inaugurating a decade-long collaboration that continues to this day.

Much has changed since those first assignments, says I'Anson, but much has stayed the same.

"I love to be able to experience the full range of the traveling," I'Anson says. "When I traveled on my own budget with my wife, we stayed in really cheap places, as you do when you are traveling for two years as part of that backpack scene. Even within that, we always budgeted to stay in a palace in India, or a five-star place in a big city after three or four months on the road. We always did that, and I still do it.

"I have to say that my standard of accommodation generally has lifted substantially, due to a lot of things. One, I have stayed in enough cheap hotels. I don't need to prove anything anymore. When you are being paid to take pictures, you are carrying a lot of expensive gear. You are carrying incredibly valuable film, and it needs to be safe. And you need to be comfortable. You need to be able to get up with your alarm clock and not trip over people.

"You need to be in control, and you can't necessarily get that in the really cheap places. Mostly you need security and location."

I'Anson says the exciting thing about his early assignments was that he got immediate income, retained copyright to his work and was able to begin building the stock archive that has become the basis of his career. He now focuses his efforts on just a half-dozen clients while deepening his relationship with Lonely Planet Images, a stock agency he started for the company two years ago.

L'Anson saw the need for Lonely Planet to have a bank of digitized images available to use throughout their publications, and saw the opportunity to market the photographs over the Internet.

The nascent agency, starting just with I'Anson's stock images, has gathered the works of more than 200 travel photographers into its fold. It offers 60,000 images online and has another 15,000 waiting to be digitized.

Today, the agency has 16 staff members in Melbourne, and planned offices in Oakland, Calif. and London.

I'Anson's experience allows him to sort quickly through the submissions, recognizing those images that are easily marketable and those bodies of work that offer something more. It's a logical endeavor for a photographer who's comfortable searching the planet for new images to spark a traveler's interest.

John Callan
Story Author: John Callan

John Callan, a former editor of PhotoMedia, is a freelance writer based in Woodinville, Wash.

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