Chris McLennan is a New Zealand-based commercial photographer who specializes in travel, wildlife, tourism, and adventure photography. His award-winning images have been published worldwide. Born and raised in the South Island of New Zealand, he now spends his time travelling the globe—over 45 different countries to date! He runs photo tours all over the world, where anyone can join him on an intrepid-style photographic adventure. And he created photographic app “PhotoTorial,” which has information and articles designed to help users become a successful professional photographer.Chris took the time to share his experiences as a photographer and insbe successful in a very competitive space with us.
Tell me a bit about how you got started with photography.
I began a long time ago, actually, and it started off as a hobby. I’ve been doing it full time now for 25 years. I grew up in New Zealand, and I started out doing a lot of adventure sports and motor racing because I followed my dad around, and he was into motor racing. And the hobby sort of became a passion. I had a lot of people ask me to do commercial shoots for them, and I jumped in the deep end back in 1988 when I bought a commercial photography studio. I stuck at that for two years, then moved my business to Queenstown to pursue my true passion, photographing adventure sports and tourism activities.
How did you move from sports to tourism?
I was living and working in Queenstown, which is a major tourism destination with a lot of amazing attractions and adventure sports. It was a natural evolution there really. The exposure and word of mouth recommendations led to work further afield in Australia and Fiji. Then it went on from there to Asia, the U.S., and Europe, and it has just kept growing. It didn’t happen quickly, but it grew until now I’m working in far flung places all around the world.
And how did that lead to wildlife?
My own personal interests changed over time. When I was younger, I did extreme sports and adventure activities, and now I do wildlife, culture, and landscapes. With a lot of the clients I work for, those are the images they require. They often involve those subjects, and I evolved with it from there. Also, since I’m running photography workshops, that’s what I choose to do: mainly wildlife and landscapes in Alaska, Africa, New Zealand and to Norway in the North Pole now, too.
You’ve been successful for a while. Have you found this to be a lucrative business for you?
Being lucrative in photography these days is getting more and more difficult. There’s so many people doing it. So much more competition. More people getting started and often they are prepared to do it for nothing. Though they soon find that doesn’t work well and they disappear!
It’s not as easy an industry as it used to be. Leading photography workshops is great because you’re dealing with like-minded people and doing what you love doing, and if you manage to make a living—that’s great.
Other than hosting workshops, what are some of your keys to success in travel photography?
I think just doing things a little bit differently. Going the extra mile to get what the client wants and then some. I always try to deliver exactly what the client wants and then I give them my own personal style as well, which, a lot of the time, is the images that are different and unique, and ultimately what they end up using.
I might have a brief from an agency, and I make sure I tick all of those boxes—then give them something different than what they were expecting as well. Do something different, and those are the images that usually stand out and make them want to keep using you. Then other people see your work and want to employ you as well. So developing your own style and getting out of the “cookie-cutter” scenario along with going the extra mile is key.
Could you share any specific examples from a recent assignment or one that stands out to you?
Well, probably the most recent is the Car-L one where we had a remote-control buggy to photograph lions in Africa. Just getting a unique look at them and having the backstory behind it with the video, which has had well over 4 million views now. I think it got 2 million views in the first three days. There has also been worldwide media coverage through many TV shows and publications, including TIME magazine, CNN, and Huffington Post. A bizarre amount of coverage in a short amount of time just for doing something a little bit different.
Where did the idea for Car-L come from?
Having spent time in Africa before, I know you can spend a lot of time sitting stationary in a vehicle looking at animals that might be feeding or resting. Particularly feeding is what got me thinking about it. You’ve got a group of lions or cheetahs that are on a kill, and you basically sit and wait because there’s a bunch of potential shots where nothing much changes. And I was just looking for something different. A different way of getting different angles, of getting up close and low with a wide-angle lens.
That was my idea, really—just to come up with a way to get those angles of a subject that you might see reasonably regularly but getting a bit different look at it. And of course the reaction I got from the lions—their interest in the buggy and the way they stalked it and attacked it, carried it off—made it even better.
How did you go from this idea to making it a reality? It was a custom-build job, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it was. I started building a little buggy out of an old remote-control car that a friend had given me; I had stripped it down and put tripod mounts on it. It was okay, but it was nothing great.
A friend of mine, a business colleague also, saw it and he’s fanatical about remote-control cars, which I didn’t actually know at that stage. He was like, “Oh, that’s not a buggy.” He took it on board and wanted to build something. And then I came up with the idea of putting it in a sound blimp, which is similar to an underwater housing, so the camera was completely protected from dust and dirt and obviously damage from wildlife. We used that as a starting point and bolted everything onto it, building it into a four-wheel-drive, forward-steer, two-engined camera buggy.
We now have the experience in the field so we are rebuilding, and we’ll be doing something different coming up to look forward to.
From the footage I saw, the lions carried your invention off. How did you retrieve it?
They fought over it for a short while and played with it. But once it stopped moving, and they worked out it wasn’t worth eating, they got bored with it relatively quickly. They don’t waste too much energy on things they can’t eat. They moved on reasonably quickly, and we managed to drive up to where it was sitting and pick it up.
What’s your favorite assignment so far, if not the Car-L lions?
That’s a tough question. I go to so many different places, and every place is unique for their own reasons. But a personal passion is Alaska. I go back every year in the summer, photograph grizzly bears, and I try and get back every second year in the winter. I go up and shoot the Iditarod dogsled race and the Northern Lights. That winter environment - it’s definitely a favourite location for me.
You’ve been successful for a while in a tough business. For those who are looking to pursue travel photography, what one piece of advice would you offer them?
Create your own style. Do things your own way. Don’t be afraid to do it a little bit differently. And if you want to keep doing it, you have to think of it as a business, not a hobby. It’s a very expensive hobby. If you don’t treat it as a business, you won’t stay in business.
That’s the one thing I think a lot of people fall down on very early in their photography careers: they’re not looking at it as a business. They’re doing work for free to get their foot in the door, and that’s how a lot of people start. Then they have a very difficult job being able to charge people later. The business side of it is as important as the creative side, I feel.
What are some of your best business tips for those getting started?
Don’t give your work away! Make sure you understand the value of it to the clients and what it can do for them. Help them understand it as well. There are some clients we’ve done shoots for who market new catalogs and brochures and see increasing turnover and numbers on their operations, and they can put it directly down to the change in imagery.
Just try to create an understanding with the client of what the value of photography is. I know they can get photos for next to nothing from various places on the Internet nowadays, but they end up with the same image as everybody else and often substandard images. Make sure that people understand the value of what you give them as a photographer.
You’ve given great advice about being successful in business. What about tips for successfully portraying a culture or location through photography?
You have to stay true to photography but also true to the location, the destination. There’s so much digital manipulation out there now, but when you’re promoting a destination, it’s got to be believable. People have to turn up at that destination and see what they’re expecting. You have to portray it in an accurate way and make it look as fantastic as possible. I think that’s very important in travel photography. If you’re doing it commercially for travel operators and tourism boards and airlines, which is what I’m doing, you have to make it look the absolute best you can, but it’s got to be real.
Ever run into language or cultural issues as you’re traveling?
All the time! In most of the locations I go to, there are language barriers. You just have an interpreter on hand. You also get used to using sign language and coming up with ways to get people comfortable in different cultural situations. Not too difficult if you can’t speak the language, and sometimes it breaks the barriers because you do end up laughing through mixed communication. I find it gives you a great connection with people.
You don’t have the same luxury with wildlife, so how do you get a great wildlife portrait?
Well, it’s getting to know the attributes of different wildlife and the way they act in their environment. The more knowledge you’re armed with before you go, the better. And patience. It’s sort of hurry up and wait. You can spend days waiting for something that might last a few seconds. You have to be very patient, but you also have to be ready at all times to grab the shot when the action happens.
If we’re dealing with dangerous animals and unique locations, or remote locations, you normally go with a local guide at least the first time. That local knowledge and the knowledge of the wildlife is critical and will often make the difference in getting the shot—and keeping yourself and the subject safe.
How do you find a great expert?
A lot of research. It’s easier these days with the Internet. Personal recommendation and word of mouth is often the best.
Did that same research go into choosing SmugMug to host your photos?
Yes. SmugMug gives you a great storefront. It’s visible to the general public, and they can find you. It’s fantastic being able to sell images for people to hang on their walls without us having to put a massive amount of time into it while we’re busy doing other things. They have someone that handles all that for you, which is amazing. It increases my brand awareness as well, especially with the social media tools directing people to the site.
In addition to being able to sell images easily, what other features do you enjoy?
The layout and the way you can customize it so people can easily find what they’re looking for. It is a visual site, and it’s easy for me as a photographer to have my images displayed how I want them, and it’s also easy for someone who’s looking for images to go through your different albums and purchase. The service SmugMug provides makes it easy for the client and the photographer—and it provides an offsite backup of favorite images!