It would appear that Oded Wagenstein has the perfect job. As a travel photographer, his nomadic lifestyle combines his passion for photography with his love of travelling to exotic destinations.
Through a series of intimate portraits, Oded captures the reality and stories of people that he meets along the road. In an era of amateur photographers, he has built a highly successful career as a professional travel photographer; contributing regularly to National Geographic Traveler magazine, teaching, maintaining his successful blog and recently publishing his second e-book; SNAPN TRAVEL – A life time of travel memories in a snap.
I caught up with Oded recently, to have a chat about the shift from aspirant to professional and any advice he may have for budding travel photographers:
You’ve been taking photos for a long time now, what was your first camera?
My first camera was an Olympus point-and-shoot that belonged to my father. Even though it was super slow (even for thirteen years ago), I loved it very much. My editor at National Geographic Traveler once told me, “The camera is just an instrument. The important things are your eyes, your ability to observe, your patience and your ability to understand what you see in front of you.”
I assume you’ve upgraded now – what camera do you currently use?
I use the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, usually with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens. For the really tight close-up portrait work, I use an 85mm.
Do you take all of your equipment with you when you travel?
Heaven forbid! Most of us make the mistake of taking our “entire house” with as when traveling. Or even worse, we go on a shopping frenzy and buy tons of new gear before the trip. Then, instead of having fun and creating great photos, we wind up spending the trip learning how to operate this gear.
I match the gear I take to the kind of subjects I will meet on location. For example, a safari trip in Africa demands different tools then a mountain trek in Armenia. I always travel light, so usually you will find in my camera bag one camera, two lenses, a tripod, and maybe few filters for landscape photography. That’s it!
When travelling, what are your favorite photos to take?
Definitely people! Faces fascinate me and for me, the camera is a tool to make new friends (I did not have too many of those as a kid). I always photograph people close-up, while having a conversation. From the way I see it, conversation is the only way to evoke emotion in portrait photography. When you shoot people from a distance, you only see them at a very superficial level: you see their clothes and maybe their social status, but you do not feel their soul.
When did you shift from an amateur photographer to professional photographer?
Starting from when I was twenty years old, each year, I worked really hard and then “burned” all of my money on traveling the world. Then, I would work for another year so I could get back on the road. No one paid me or gave me assignments. I did it because I felt like it was the only way to become a pro—I had to think like one. I imagined that I had an editor waiting for my photos. That made me to work harder. Over time, I developed a portfolio that got bigger and (I hope) better, until someone finally decided to publish my work and pay for my assignments.
What inspires you?
Almost anything. Photos by Steve McCurry, or music by Claude Debussy. But especially anything new I encounter on location: the local music, food, art, and people.
What do you need to take a good image?
I need to understand what I see in front of me. Everyone knows that they smoke cigars in Cuba and in India they wear really colorful clothes. We live in an era where almost everything has already been photographed. So the only thing I can do is try to “tell” the viewer a story. A personal story about the landscapes I saw, the roads I traveled and mostly, the people I met. A good image evokes emotion and a sense of story within its viewers.
Among your works, which image is your favorite?
I think the image of the old man from Kashgar. He was sitting in a men’s only teahouse in the city of Kashgar, in northwest China. But his face was so interesting that I felt I did not needed anything apart from these deep blue eyes. I connect to most of my subjects, as I will try to know their names and age.
Do you have any advice for budding travel photographers?
The difficult thing about making a living out of travel photography is that today, it’s much easier and cheaper for almost anybody to do it, whether for fun or for work. The world is more connected and with the internet, millions of images are uploaded every day to compete for our attention.
So, if you want to make a living out of it, you need to stand out from the crowd. Professional equipment alone does not mean that someone is a pro. Creativity, curiosity, the love of travel, and especially the desire to work hard are what you need, at least from my perspective.
What is your advice to the average traveler who just wants to take a good picture?
I will say it again: first, stop blaming your gear. That’s the easiest excuse. There are several things that you can do (that are not related to buying new gear) to make your travel photography wonderful. Get up early to catch the golden hour of light. Prepare yourself mentally by understanding the culture’s story, history, music, food, etc. And most importantly, keep it fun! If you find yourself cursing the camera, just turn it off and do something enjoyable with your travel companion.
A lot of people these days tend to take travel picture from their iPhones or Smart Phones. Does an average traveler really need a lot of equipment in order to take professional and memorable photos?
The BEST photos in history were made with cameras much less sophisticated then our modern smartphones. Emotion and composition are here to stay.
When you travel, do you use a guide book?
Yes, but only as a starting point. I always use the help of a fixer, which is a local guide who can show you the best and authentic places around.
Do you have a favorite hotel you’ve stayed at during your travels?
Recently, I was photographing an assignment in Cambodia in the area of Battambang, which is full of rice fields and farmers. It’s very photogenic. I stayed at the Battambang Resort. It’s a small hotel run by a very sweet Dutch – Cambodian couple and this was my best stay in a while. It has only a few boutique rooms. Clean, neat, luxurious and most importantly, they treat you as if you are the only guest around.
Oded provides more advice and tips in his recently published digital book about travel photography– SNAPN TRAVEL – A life time of travel memories in a snap. Stay tuned for more posts from Oded, as he provides us with regular tips and photography advice for travelers. Note: the author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his help in writing this article.