Updated: October 16, 2018 | Contains affiliate links

Interview with travel photographer Tim Makins

He has visited 136 different countries, and all 7 of the 7 continents. Had breakfast at Tiffany’s in New York. Hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu (twice!). Bare-back riding on elephants – just him and the elephant. Been in a Space Shuttle trainer, touched a Saturn 5 rocket. Slept on a deserted desert islands. Been arrested and interrogated by Russian police (falsely !). Short of breath deep in the tunnels of the Potosi silver mines. Panned for gold in the Brazilian jungle, and found some. Climbed to 16,300 feet in Nepal, 17,500 feet in India. This is just a brief list of what Tim Makins has been able to do as a freelance travel photographer. Tim is always traveling, and I really mean always; every single day. Recently, I had the privilege of asking Tim some questions about travel photography. So keep reading my interview with travel photographer Tim Makins.

What do you look for when you take a picture?

Its the WOW images. You look at them, and you just know: WOW. So how to judge them? How to be objective? I used to be with Lonely Planet Images, when they still had their own photographers, and their Best of Year galleries were a good benchmark.

Goreme, Turkey – Hot-Air Balloons over Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys
Interview with travel photographer Tim Makins 1Photo by Tim Makins – Read the story of this photo

Nowadays I like sites like 1x.com. Once you know what a top photo is, you just have to be honest with yourself when looking at your own work. If you can’t do that, you might as well not bother.

What are some simple tips for taking great travel photos?

Just one word: Composition. It’s all about composition. You first need to learn it, then you need to learn how to spot a good composition, then you need to practice at photographing a good composition until you can do it without thinking. As a travel photographer I rarely get to ‘arrange’ the shot – its all about spotting a good scene from what’s already there. You need to be able to do it quickly, too. A good shot might only be there for a second or two, and then its gone.

I might add two extra tips: walking, and fixed lenses. To find the best photos you need to walk around a lot, viewing a scene from all angles, comparing the shots from different viewpoints and in
conjunction with available image elements that may enhance the scene.

Esperance Australia – Two girls resting at Thistle Cove
Interview with travel photographer Tim Makins 3Photo by Tim Makins – Read the story of this picture

On the subject of lenses, I would advise the beginner to leave their zoom lens at home and stick to fixed lenses. The image quality will be better, the available aperture will be wider, but most importantly it forces the photographer to walk around to frame their image, rather than standing in their first position and zooming in or out. In doing so you will see how other elements in the picture inter-relate with each other to improve or degrade the composition – this is what makes a good shot. A zoom lens does have its uses, of course. Sometimes it is not practical to move closer or further away, so your zoom is useful to frame the shot to the best of your ability, and maximize the scene that your sensor will record. However, the real use for a zoom is to simulate the effects of a variety of fixed lenses to alter how the different elements of your scene appear in relation to one another. You have moved around until the composition looks its best, you have got all of the elements of the scene just where you want them: now is the time to use your zoom to adjust how each element presents itself in comparison to others. Sadly, too many people just zoom in and out, thus missing the critical earlier stages in defining your composition.

How do you pick the spots you travel to?

This is nearly always because a place interests me, though of course all places are interesting in their own way, and the longer you spend in a place, the more interesting it becomes, the more you find out about it, and the better your photos will be.

Negombo, Sri Lanka – Boy watches Oruwa outrigger fishing boat
Interview with travel photographer Tim Makins 5Photo by Tim Makins – Read the story of this photo

Do you do any image processing and selecting while you travel?

As mentioned above, I travel full-time, 365 days per year, 24/7, so yes, all my image processing and selection is done while traveling, plus writing new articles, keeping up with the correspondence, and all the many other administrative tasks that running websites require. From time to time I’ll schedule in a bit of downtime in a location I am interested in, where I can spend a set number of hours per day working on photos, though in my time away from those tasks there are still useful photos to be taken, such as those gathered during a three months break in Kerala when I got a lot done on a tiny total budget.

How do you think about creating metadata for your images?

Like everyone else, adding metadata to images is not one of my favorite tasks but I realize that for my images to be found by photo buyers, they have to have a good range of keywords and other tags added to them if they are to be found.

I try to think like a buyer: if someone wanted my image, what words would they be putting into the search engine? This rules out a lot of the superfluous words that some  photographers pad their images with. One issue that many photographers fail at is remembering to include keywords from a sufficiently wide range of descriptive terms that properly describe and identify the scene in front of them:

  • WHO is in the image? All about the people in the image: their Age, Relationship, what they look like, what they are doing, what their Occupation, Participation, or Hobby is.
  • WHAT is the subject in the image? Describing the Objects and their Materials, their Number and their Arrangement in the image.
  • WHERE was the image taken? Describing the Geographical Location where the image was taken, and any Celestial, Land, Marine, or Water Features.
  • WHEN was the image taken? Describing the Time of Day when the image was taken, the Season, plus any special Festivals, Celebrations or Ceremonies.
  • WHY was this image taken in the first place? Describing the Activity happening in the image, the Adjectives describing the subjects of the image, the Concepts that tell the story of the image, and the Emotions that talk about the feeling behind the image.
  • HOW was it made? Describing the Photographic techniques that were used in creating the image and which will help photo-buyers narrow their choice to your photo: lighting, background, format, framing,perspective, or dominant colors.

Kovalam, Kerala, India -Indian fishermen wearing lunghis haul in their nets from the beach.
Interview with travel photographer Tim Makins 7Photo by Tim Makins – Photo story and metadata

To do this quickly and easily I use my own Lightroom Keyword List, which is available through its own website. Its carefully designed to help and guide the photographer to identify all aspects of the image, rather than just the ones than immediately occur to him.

Besides lenses and camera what gear do you always bring with you when you travel?

Well packing for a life on the road and continual travel is quite an art, as weight is always an issue and I regret carrying stuff as much as the next guy. With budget airlines its doubly difficult as they have such tiny allowances for non-checked luggage, though there are ways around this – removing cases and extras to your checked bag, and making use of other places to carry items – for instance you might be allowed an extra laptop bag, which often isn’t weighed, and there are no rules to say that it can’t also contain lenses. Equally, there are no rules limiting what you have in your pockets, and none of the airlines have yet started weighing passengers, so you might find an overcoat with roomy pockets quite useful.

How do you ensure your photos are safe with you?

I use a combination of multiple hard drives and online storage. Two-terabyte USB drives are quite cheap these days, and with a good internet connection many items can be archived in ‘Cloud’ storage or on your website, though you need to watch the terms and conditions as some hosts forbid saving items that are not web-accessible.

How do you make a living with your travel photography?

Isn’t it annoying when you get stuck on a question?! Do I make my living at photography? Well yes and no. I am a professional photographer, who sells travel images from all over the world to people all over the world, but its also just a part of what I do.

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‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is sound advice which I follow to spread my income sources through a number of different areas, so if one fails, I have something else to fall back on.

Recently, an important path has come from sales of my Keyword Catalog for stock photographers and image management professionals. I also sell maps for ham-radio operators. Digital products are a useful way to go to generate revenue. Make a loaf of bread and you can only sell it once. Create a digital product: photograph, map, music, book, guide, movie or whatever, and you can sell it an infinite number of times, once you find the buyers!

I’m still stuck on this question, though. ‘How do you make a living?’ For many years I have been looking at this question from both ends, and testing how others make their way through life, and how their experiences can teach me something. Western society expects us to work hard to earn money, then use that money to pay for a range of goods and services that will keep us fed and watered, fit, healthy and happy.

In the ’50s and ’60s, the trend was for the media to educate us to do some things for ourselves, but these days any TV programs on ‘Do It Yourself’ concentrate on the mess people have made themselves, before they called the professionals in. Luckily, there are still some people, mainly to be found online, who challenge the ‘earn and spend’ model for a happy life, and help others break free of the easy-living eye-candy traps that big business tries to lock us into. For me, ‘having a living’ is far far more important than ‘making a living’. I use a variety of different ways to progress from day to day without being locked into a ‘normal’ life of 9-5 slavery to the big corporations.

I would encourage everyone to really ask themselves how much actual cash do they need to fulfill their vision of a ‘happy life’? Are there ways to achieve happiness without needing cash? I ask this because at the end of the day, the less cash you need in life, the easier and happier your life will become. You’ll still need some ‘stuff’, of course, but surprise-surprise, buying new is not the only way to get a lot of what your life requires. You might find something that has been discarded, and repair it. You might create something out of other discarded materials. You might hire something when you need it, or borrow it from a friend in exchange for a loan of something of your own, or a loan of your time to help with one of their projects.

You might re-use an item in a totally different way than which it was intended. You might grow something your self, or farm it. Or you might just do without. Its a good idea ask yourself if you really need this item: does it make such a difference to your life that you are prepared to work long and hard to get it? You might also question the impact of getting an item: what resources are used in its construction, what damage occurred during their extraction, manufacture, and shipment to you? Do you feel happy with all of this?

Its important not to think in terms of ‘black and white’. Sure, you won’t make your own eyeglasses or mobile phone, but if you save money in other areas, it takes less of your life to gather the actual cash required for the items you can’t obtain in other ways. Less money needed equals less time required earning it, which equals more time available to do the things in life that are important to you. You only get one life, so you may as well make the most of it. Unless you are a Buddhist – they get two or three!

I have many interests that I devote time to, but currently travel and photography are very important to me. In 2006, after 12 years restoring an abandoned house in Ireland, I sold up and have been travelling full-time, and building a large portfolio of travel images whilst I go. I have visited over 130 countries, and had many amazing experiences in the last 8 years. You can read about some of them on Tim’s website (see resources below).

Bangkok, Krung Thep, Thailand – Baked Banana Seller at Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
Interview with travel photographer Tim Makins 9Photo by Tim Makins – Read the story of this photo

One of the first questions anyone asks me is: ‘How can you afford to travel so much?’ If you’ve read what I have written so far, you will have some idea: minimize your needs, and life becomes easier. Avoid expensive destinations and life becomes easier still.

There are many places in the world where its still possible to live for small amounts of money, whilst seeing incredible sights and learning exciting things from the countries and people you are visiting. There are a variety of places where you can still live for 10 USD per day: that’s an ‘everything’ cost, including food, transport, and a small hotel.

Another option is that of voluntary work: 4 hours work per day in exchange for food and accommodation. Some useful sites for this are listed in the resources below. There is also ‘WWOOFing’, which is very similar. To find out more about that, just Google ‘WWOOF’ plus a country of interest. Combine this with a destination served by one of the cheap airlines, and you could spend months overseas with little expenditure. Not only do you meet interesting people, learn about new cultures, and see new sites, but you have 20 hours per day to do anything you want to. For a photographer, this might be an excellent opportunity to build up a portfolio whilst living practically for free, or using the time to process an image-backlog built up on other journeys.

OK, that’s enough for one question!!

Where do you sell your photos?

I sell to anyone who needs high-resolution quality travel photos: this might be books, magazines, online sites, advertisers, or other media outlets. I should make more of an effort to contact magazines and other publications, but time is always an issue. The website does some of the selling for me, as do my agents, Getty, where I have many images available for licensing within their Lonely Planet Images collection.

Travel photography resources from Tim Makins

GnomePlanet.com is Tim Makins’ website
Read more about Tim Makins and his travels.
Photo-keywords.com is Tim’s website for keyword catalogs
Kerala is an example of a low cost area
1x.com is a good website for judging how good your photos are
Workaway.info provides information about working abroad
Helpx.net provides information for staying abroad

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