Backpacking as a photography philosophy

I imagine I am not alone in that it was a life event that really sparked this creative outlet for me. Nobody would have called me a particularly artistic child but something about photography’s combination of technical and creative elements drew me in and when I first moved to a new city, I bought my first camera and taking photos became an entirely new process.

While I had been messing around with cameras, exposure settings and depth of field for years, I had never really thought through the results or immersed myself in the world of photography. In hindsight, it’s funny how quickly I outgrew my starter camera; as an absolute beginner, I only had very basic needs but still quickly felt restricted by the £100 second-hand Lumix DMC-LZ30 bridge camera I had picked up. I needed wider aperture options, interchangeable lenses and could really have done without the comically long zoom range.

It was this ‘world of photography’ that kept me interested at this time; the photographers that shared their process online, the friends that lent me cameras, the workshops run by the university photography society and the new surroundings I had to explore.

In 2016 I started a year internship in the UK’s second largest city and, on my first payday, upgraded to a Fujifilm X-T10. It has since been through a lot and is still my main camera for good reason; despite being the cheaper series with a plastic body and no weather sealing it has survived waterfalls, sustained dents, been melted in the sun, repaired with super-glue and exposed to desert sands. The humble X-T10 has been an incredible tool: accessible but with high enough level features for most photographers.

Again, it was a geographical change that had really given me motivation to shoot and by the end of the internship, I had major ‘itchy feet’. I refused the offer to extend my contract, gave up valuable space in my 40L backpack to photography gear and boarded a flight to Italy.

From then on (pre-covid of course), while finishing my degree in Aerospace Engineering, I continued to fill my summer breaks with 2-3 month backpacking trips, planning my routes around locations I wanted to shoot at and taking photos at every opportunity.

During this, I increasingly became a believer that ‘less is more’ when packing photography gear. I would much rather feel free to explore than have extra equipment weigh me down. So I keep my gear compact with most of it fitting in a small messenger bag – two lenses (XF35mm F1.4 and the workhorse kit XF18-55mm), basic filters, extra batteries and SD cards.

For me, this is really where the Fuji X system shines – I don’t know of any others that deliver this level of quality with such portability. This all works great, but I don’t recommend following my example of hanging a GorillaPod from the strap – I’ve lost count of the number of times it has fallen off! Finally, for video work I can also squeeze a GoPro or DJI Pocket gimbal in the pocket.

On graduating, I flew to Vietnam and then China to live and work in Qingdao (青岛) for a few months – my first time in Asia and a real gateway moment for me. If culture shock can be a good thing, then that is what I got in China – and I can’t wait to visit again when the option returns.

I loved being part of a culture that was so alien to me and pushed myself to make the most of the experience – learning a little Mandarin, visiting other cities and trying to live like a local wherever possible. All I missed from the UK was friends, family… and proper bread and cheese!

With this slower way of travelling, I was finally able to find specifically the kind of images I wanted to shoot. I knew I didn’t have the fearlessness of a pure street photographer, the hiking prowess of a pure landscape photographer or the patience of an architectural photographer.

But I loved all these styles and found I enjoy photography most when combining them with the goal of creating images for one purpose: to invoke in viewers exactly the kind of feelings that travellers experience.

Specifically, I focus on the ‘backpacker’ style of travel in my image – wherever I can, trying to tell a story formed of real conversations, local traditions and lesser-known locations rather than any phenomenon created for tourists.

Just over a month on, I had made it back to Asia to work in Indonesia. Canggu, Bali was a great place to explore on my days off, especially during the Galungan festival with its colourful Penjor adorning the streets. A few weeks later, I had been tempted over to neighbouring Lombok by the towering silhouette of Mount Rinjani and before long I was offered a space on the back of a family’s flatbed truck for the ride up to Sembalun – a town halfway up the mountain.

As the tiny truck crested the highest ridge on the route, I remember the father silently tapped me on the shoulder, smiled and pointed forwards. The foggy mountain view ahead that had just come into view was jaw-dropping and left me somewhat obsessed with capturing something similar.

The next morning I was ready at sunrise but with no internet availability and very limited local language skills, finding a good location to shoot from was difficult. With a composition in mind, I walked southwards around the edge of the town and eventually found my way up to some elevated ground with a clear view of the mountains.

Conscious of timing as the sunrise glow started to fade, and a rare patch of direct sunlight crossed the mountains, I decided to forego my tiny tripod and shoot handheld. I remember particularly appreciating the physical exposure controls Fuji cameras offer as I rushed to select the widest sharp aperture, focused on and exposed for the tip of the mountain ridge. This was the result:

Unlike many of my images, once it was captured this one didn’t take much processing at all. As many photographers have found in the recent year of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns, organising and re-editing past shots can unearth some great images. For this reason, I shoot entirely in RAW, but even with the lockdown I have not caught up with my organisation and editing ‘stack’!

Nevertheless, everyday I find more depth in the editing process and have been sharing the details of my edits on Instagram @jamesonaplane. As a photographer – and not a visual artist – I mostly stick with Lightroom for my workflow, rarely dipping into Photoshop to remove obstructions. That said, within moderation, I am happy to use all the tools at my disposal to enhance the vibe that I want an image to convey.

In particular, I spend more and more time recently on colour grading, often using muted greens and blues to allow the main colours to stand out. When working on dramatic images, I like to sparingly use local adjustments with negative settings of the dehaze slider to accentuate any haze, drama or fog in the scene.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment below, and I’ll help however I can.

James

"Hi, James here! I’m from Brighton in the UK and work a day job in aerospace engineering. When I’m not helping to design planes for a living, you can usually find me seated on one or with camera in hand, ideally exploring a foreign country. Travel is undoubtedly my favourite type of photography but that is deliberately a broad statement - I love shooting landscapes, streets, people and architecture - whatever it takes to visually communicate the feeling of exploration."

5 Comments

  1. Very nice!

    I have the Fuji 18-55mm f/2.8-4, but while enjoying the many excellent Fuji primes, I sometimes forget that I own this terrific zoom. Your photos may have been the reminder that I need to go out with the zoom and use it more.

  2. In love with these photos, thanks for sharing the experience behind them. I’m starting now with fuji, it inspired me.

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