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Travel photography is one of the more unique genres because it can be so general. It can encompass landscape, portrait, still life, action photography, and so on, with the understanding that these subjects inform a sense of place or location. By name, travel photography typically revolves around areas that are away from home, and are often unfamiliar. The idea of photographing outside of one's innate comfort zone can present a number of challenges, on the conceptual front, as well as the more equipment-related front.
Since the environments in which one is working are not intrinsically personal by definition, personal style is essential in creating a visual story and a reason for certain images to exist. Whether approaching a new destination for the first time or visiting a familiar locale, a sense of place must be developed by the subjects themselves and, more importantly, by the way they are highlighted.
A well-traveled photographer who employs these sensitivities of highlighting the region while crafting decidedly personal imagery is photographer Randy Kerr. Kerr's work has been featured in numerous national publications and he has also received the iPIX Outstanding Achievement Award for Travel. Kerr has visited and photographed in more than 30 countries, ranging from the Himalayas to a river-rafting trip down the Colorado River, and nearly everywhere in between. Splitting time between commissioned work and self-assignments made for print and image sales, Kerr employs a cosmopolitan attitude regarding how he photographs and, more importantly, interacts with each place he visits.
Kerr prepares for each trip by getting a general sense of a place online; familiarizing himself with general terrain, sites, and light; and then begins brainstorming ideas for how he can depict scenes uniquely. The preparation continues in regard to the equipment he brings along; however, his working kit remains relatively basic in order to place more emphasis on working with the subject. "The engineer in me does tend to over-prepare gear-wise, for a trip, but the backpacker in me fortunately wins out and keeps my standard body-and-lens kit manageable even with backup provisions," says Kerr. "I generally travel with two digital bodies, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a smaller APS-C body... my standard grab-shot lens is the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, and I'll have the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM handy for longer-range subjects. I always have fast 35mm and 50mm primes with me, too, for low-light and selective-depth-of-field portrait opportunities." Additionally, "if wildlife opportunities will be available, I'll augment my basic kit with my Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and Extender EF 1.4x III teleconverter."
Furthermore, Kerr takes his streamlined packing strategy and applies it to other aspects of his entire traveling philosophy, following his own travel motto of "travel light, cheap, and often." Of specific note, in 1999 Kerr went on a "round-the-world" trip where he "pared my clothing down to the amount that could be washed in a hotel shower. I ended up traveling through 19 countries in four months with one pair of underwear—not your typical tourist, I guess. When possible, I travel at a lower standard of living than I have at home. I'll spend money on experiences and access to a region's unique features instead of higher-end accommodations, which inevitably homogenize the trip into something that could be experienced anywhere."
After the preparative stages, or rather the pre-preparative stages, Kerr likes to immediately familiarize himself with locations upon arrival without his camera. "On a scene, I initially leave my camera behind so I can walk around and take in the landscape or activity for my own enjoyment first, apart from my viewfinder or other camera trappings." This ability to separate oneself from the act of photographing and home in on the environs helps to strengthen one's relationship with the place, rather than create unnecessary distance due to the presence of a camera or other means that can initially become more of a distraction than a necessity. In order to break out of traditional or obvious images of a scene, Kerr states that he "constantly battles my analytical and literal mind that would normally presuppose how to shoot a scene, say the usual slow-shutter waterfall with wildflower foreground composed for a 2 x 3 frame. Instead, I try to see more graphically, more abstractly, and notice what the scene is offering beyond what I was looking for." He equates this idea of viewing a scene to when he used to primarily work with 4 x 5" large format cameras and how, when composing on the large ground glass, "this valuable disorientation forced me to see graphically and not literally, almost always resulting in far better compositions." Furthermore, "now with the convenience of digital, I find I have to deliberately slow down and take fewer but more thoughtful shots."
This idea of skewing one's vision plays well into working with an unfamiliar landscape, since both subjects and compositions can be seen as abstract at first, yet through the planning stages and then becoming accustomed to one's surroundings, a sense of comfort can be developed to extract more depth from scenes. Such is the case during Kerr's annual trips that he makes to the Chilcotin region of British Columbia, to photograph grizzly bears during the fall months. He has been making this trip yearly for more than 15 years, and visits each year to photograph the bears feeding on sockeye salmon.
The terrain he visits now is no longer new to him, but the internal sensation of visiting a distant landscape with the pure intention to photograph helps to connect disparate ideas into a well-resolved structure that continues to give over the years. This year in particular, Kerr set out to locate three cubs he found the previous year and to document how much they had grown over the past 12 months. In preparing for this anticipated situation, Kerr knew precisely how to prepare as he had booked a 12' zodiac boat with an outboard motor and had a set camp with generators for charging batteries and reviewing images. And in regard to photographing, Kerr remarked, "the lake is notoriously windy and rough, so the stabilized EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM was a necessity, as well as the low-noise/high ISO capabilities of the 5D Mark III, since most of the bears fed at dawn and dusk." Fortunately for Kerr, the bears did return as expected and he was able to make several photographs of them feeding.
Contrastingly, Kerr was faced with another recent situation, in October, 2012, where he was entering a brand-new landscape and a brand new means of making imagery: an 18 day, 280-mile private float trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Acting as the hired photographer, videographer, and general documentarian for the trip, Kerr was faced with a unique challenge as to how to adequately, and creatively, photograph a lengthy trip without many of the modern conveniences to which one is usually accustomed, such as continuous power for charging batteries and the necessity to keep equipment dry and safe.
Kerr learned of his trip just three weeks prior to leaving and "had to scramble to research, obtain, and pack appropriate still and video gear that could be charged by solar power, as well as packing it for protection from whitewater, sand, and dust." Since the duties of cooking, rowing, and all other camp duties were shared by the entire party, he was also faced with the job in being a full-time active participant in the trip, as well.
"Access to filming rapids sequences was quite involved. Our entire party would scout the more significant rapids, leaving me on shore to photograph and film the first few boats' descent. I would then scramble back to join the remaining boats, secure my gear, and then run the rapid without delay so the group of boats could remain close together on the river," says Kerr. In turn, however, this constant juggling of duties resulted in a unique viewpoint of the entire experience. Since Kerr was an active participant, his resulting three-part series blends a wealth of personal experiences as well as more objective viewpoints, and in Kerr's own words, the journey "easily ranks in the top three adventures I have ever experienced."
Whether personally guided trips or assignment adventures, Kerr infuses his work with both an introspective perspective as well as a broad context to place the viewer squarely in the scene. Successful travel photography will always accomplish this, and strive to exhibit self-purposed views within an overly global scenario. In applying this cosmopolitan methodology and local sensibilities, travel photography can feel uniquely stylized, even when depicting subjects that have been viewed by many beforehand. When entering a new location, or more directly a location that is not home, Kerr's comforting quality draws viewers into the resulting photographs and renders a redeeming sense of continuity throughout an expansive body of work that encompasses a multitude of destinations.
RANDY KERR'S FAVORITE LENS
The EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM covers an angle of view between 84º and 23º on full-frame cameras. On a cropped 1.6x sensor, focal-length equivalency is approximately 38.4-168mm. An Image Stabilizer offers up to three stops of compensation for camera shake, making this lens an effective tool for handheld shooting. It contains one Super UD element and three aspherical lenses, which reduce distortion and chromatic aberration across the zoom range. Optimized Super Spectra coatings suppress flare and ghosting. The result is a sharp image with high contrast and true-to-life colors, even at a wide angle. This lens requires a minimum focusing distance of 1.48', and autofocusing remains swift and silent powered by an Ultrasonic Motor. An 8-bladed aperture maintains a natural softness to all out-of-focus elements.