Daily Portfolio by Neil Buchan-Grant — The Thing About Travel Photography, Lenses and Improvement

By NEIL BUCHAN-GRANT

I grew up in a small town in the east of Scotland, stumbling across photography when I was about 18. It was all I wanted to do for a few years. I shot mostly landscapes around the Fife countryside. Amazingly, all I now have of all that work is couple of boxes of Kodachrome!

I was working in a camera shop when I decided to go to night school and get some missing qualifications I needed to allow me to study photography at University in Edinburgh. Eventually securing the grades, I found myself unable to sign up for the course, having burdened myself with debt, ironically to buy cameras and lenses!

Work and marriage pushed photography out of the picture for many years, then when digital photography started, I bought myself a little compact camera! I soon got hooked again and went through a swathe of more capable equipment. I was never a prolific photographer, only really finding the time and inspireation to take decent pictures when I went on holiday.

Natasha, Steinway Studio, London — Olympus EP3, Olympus 12mm | Neil Buchan-Grant

After a few years of doing that, I entered a competition run by a travel publisher and a national newspaper. I won the first prize of a commission to shoot one of their guidebooks covering Genoa and the Italian Riviera. Over the past few years I’ve shot another four books for that publisher and the whole association with that enterprise caused me to raise my game and get serious about improving my work.

As well as these commissions, and other jobs that occasionally crop up, I regularly go off on my own little photo trips. Europe is such a visually diverse playground. The landscapes and the cultures offer great photographic variety. I’ve also recently been exploring South East Asia and Australia and I’m keen to return.

Equipment

The thing about travel photography is, it encompasses a number of photographic disciplines. Landscape, portraiture, street photography, food photography, interiors, archetecture, macro, you name it, it usually pops up in a travel shoot. So the problem is you need a lot of gear, or it helps anyway! After several years of carrying heavy backpacks with DSLR’s, often in hot temperatures, I decided to move to a lighter system and chose the Leica M9.

It’s an odd camera, there’s no doubt. Great IQ, great lenses, stealthy in use and about as charismatic as any camera can be. But even with the best technique in the world, there’s a lot you can miss with a manual focus camera. The M9 is rubbish for long focal lengths, rubbish for macro, not brilliant for ultra wide angle shooting. So in the real world, it needs to be supplemented with another system.

I’ve been “testing” a whole bunch of cameras over the last few years including many micro four thirds models from Panasonic and Olympus and the APS format Sony NEX cameras. I’ve ended up choosing the MFT system mainly because of the superb range of quality lenses now available and because of the excellent Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera recently released.

Rocce Verdi, Naples, Italy — Canon Ixus | Neil Buchan-Grant

I still carry the Leica but I do seem to be using it less and less these days! The shots below have been taken over twelve years with seven different cameras. My attitude towards equipment is not to get too hung up on ownership. I believe we are all just renting our cameras, the rental cost is the difference between what we paid for it and what we sell it for, divided by the months we used it.

Great lenses are a different story, buy used if possible and never sell a good one unless you’re completely finished with the system it belongs to, or you just like to sleep with it under your pillow.

Improvement

Whatever tools you use to make photographs, there are a few sure-fire ways to help you improve your work that I’ve tried to follow over the years.

  1. Shoot the things you love to shoot! I’ve always been attracted to beautiful landscapes and they are often relatively easy to access, but in the past few years I’ve realised that I love a good portrait. So I’ve made myself, forced myself against a naturaly reserved disposition, to approach complete strangers who’s faces look worth capturing. There’s something about a pair of eyes which can draw you to a photograph that a landscape will never do, it’s a human thing. More recently I have started to work with models both on location and in the studio.
  2. Study great work. It’s only by studying great photography, and by that I mean no more than simply looking at it, that you can improve your own work. When you see the work of greats like Avedon, McCurry or Penn, it gives you a standard to aim at. And just when you think you’ve taken some really great shots, it reminds you, you’ve still a long way to go!
  3. Make your own opportunities. Make connections in your community and in the fields that interest you. Contact people and organisations that can lead to interesting shoots. I don’t really adhere to the often quoted ‘go out and shoot everyday’ philosophy. I think it’s much more crucial to be shooting the subjects that fire you up. An email here, a phone call there and you can find yourself with access to great image-making possibilities. Capitalise on your successes. If you’ve taken some great pictures, use them to create more opportunities, send them to the people who count, people who will like them! It’s amazing how connections can flourish and one thing can lead to another.

Lastly, HCB was quoted as saying “your first 10,000 shots are your worst.”

I reckon that’s a conservative estimate. It’s 30 years since I first picked up a camera and I think it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve started to make some more interesting pictures.

Neil Buchan-Grant is a travel and portrait photographer based in Winchester, U.K.

His website with blog is www.buchangrant.com.

Valya, NYC — Sony NEX-5N, Leica 35mm Summilux | Neil Buchan-Grant
The Alps — Canon 5D Mark I, Canon 135mm F2 L | Neil Buchan-Grant
Catania, Sicily — Leica M9, Leica 50mm Summilux | Neil Buchan-Grant
Theatre Group, Winchester, U.K. — Leica M9, Leica 50mm Summilux | Neil Buchan-Grant
Isle of Lewis, Scotland — Panasonic GF1, Panasonic 14-45mm | Neil Buchan-Grant
Winchester, U.K. — Olympus EP3, Olympus 45mm | Neil Buchan-Grant
Winchester, U.K. — Olympus EP3, Olympus 45mm | Neil Buchan-Grant
Dubrovnik, Croatia — Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic Leica 25mm Summilux | Neil Buchan-Grant
Dubrovnik, Croatia — Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic Leica 25mm Summilux | Neil Buchan-Grant
Panarea, Sicily — Olympus EP3, Olympus 12mm | Neil Buchan-Grant
London – Olympus EP3, Panasonic Leica 25mm Summilux | Neil Buchan-Grant
  • panmoria

    Awesome photography, inspiring post!

    Am at a similar threshold like you Neil were…..
    Going Leica or the MUCH CHEAPER and probably not less stellar Olympus OM-D?
    You mean you’re not using your Leica anymore?
    Leica’s deficits? Oly’s pluses?
    You might help me save a lot of money……. or spend a lot haha!

    Again, great quality, your images.

    Feel the urge to get up and shoot……

    • dierk

      Neil,
      I am very much impressed by you pictures.
      Not talking about gear (not important for most images), I must say, that I 100% agree with your statements 1,2 and 3, exactly my experience!

      My first negatives are from 1955, but since I started digital in 2002 I learned so much more about taking pictures than in decades before.

      As my wife is very ill since many years, my landscape is limited to a few 100m around my house. So I discovered portraits (and stills) and started asking neighbors and people to come to my house, as you mentioned in #1. That makes the “motives” coming to me, very convenient in my situation.

      Thanks again for impressive and inspiring pictures (as you say in your #2).

      dierk

  • Neil Buchan-Grant

    cheers Panmoria, I would say if you get an OMD with the PL 25mm f1.4 lens you’ll have a very reasonable alternative to an M9/50mm Lux combo for a lot less money. The main pluses to the M9 are the full frame depth of field control and the lenses, in particular the 50mm Summilux which I still bring out on a special occasion when I have all the time in the world

    • panmoria

      So you prefer the PL 25mm over the Oly 12mm? What about focusing with the PL?

  • Neil Buchan-Grant

    they’re both great lenses, they just do different jobs, I like the 50mm field of view so the 25mm is my favourite. The focusing is superfast, very accurate and works well with the eye priority of the Olympus AF system.

  • Ron Preedy

    If ever anyone needed proof that it’s the photographer, not the gear, this series is it … See you, Neil? You’re magic :-)

  • On the contrary I’d say Neil enjoys some of the finest gear and shows how important good gear is for really good images. But then again Neil, you let your cameras and lenses shine whereas others simply don’t.

  • PWL

    Ah, another convert to the EM-5. I have a Leica M9 too, but the EM-5 which I got recently seems to have all the advantages attributed to the Leica (small size, discreetness, quiet shooter), plus a whole lot more features–at a fraction of the M9’s price. So I’m afraid that if I don’t watch it, the M9 might end up sitting at home gathering dust while the EM-5 goes out to play…