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Expedition photography

by Edward Childs

Reproduced from in focus 27 (May 1988)

During their photographic career, many people feel the urge to go somewhere exotic to pursue their hobby on a more adventurous scale. Expeditions are made to all parts of the world - Truk Lagoon, the Great Barrier Reef, the Outer Hebrides, the Norwegian Hords, Stoney Cove ... the list is endless. They all require two inputs from those involved - organization and commitment - and nobody looking for an extended holiday should consider accepting the position of expedition photographer unless they are prepared to commit time, both before and after the expedition, to this type of work.


Preparation is of vital importance, and success on the expedition and afterwards will be directly related to how much time is put in. First and foremost, establish the exact nature and purpose of the expedition and your role on it. Invariably you will be required to do both land and underwater photography, which requires even more equipment for proper coverage. Establish who pays for the film and who owns the copyright - avoid signing away the copyright if possible. Try and persuade the other expedition members before you go that the photographer needs freedom to take good pictures and is not just a spare expedition member with a camera strung around his neck!

The next step is to research the area / country and the type of conditions that the expedition is likely to confront. Research can be through a variety of sources - reference books, the Royal Geographic Society, people who have visited and dived that location before. Research for the photographer should establish the availability and cost of photographic equipment, materials, film and processing in the host country. How long long does it take for E6 / K64 to be processed and returned - is local processing good - (Have test rolls done.) What facilities will the expedition have for equipment maintenance and storage' Is there a power source for recharging batteries and flashguns - Are there adequate freshwater supplies for cleaning equipment; will there be refrigeration facilities for film - Research should also look into local diving and climatic conditions which will influence final choice of equipment.


Equipment is always a problem for the expedition photographer as by the time he/she has all the equipment thought to be necessary, he/she is either broke or has only enough room for swim wear before being clobbered by excess baggage charges. Final choice probably depends on what camera system the photographer uses (amphibious or housed SLR), but the following could perhaps be considered.

Two camera bodies are a must, both for back-up and for variety of film, and compact cameras are also useful for shooting print film. A large plastic ice box filled with foam and a little silica gel is useful for on site storage and can usually be purchased locally. Cleaning materials and spares are definitely required (usually a large number for other members of the expedition who won't have their own) and can be carried separately in a BDH box. Spare bulbs can be carried in film pods wrapped up in cotton wool. A mini tape recorder can also be useful to record details of pictures as they are taken. A black dark bag is also a necessity for all those times cameras have a problem whilst a valuable film is inside. These are just a few items that I have found essential or useful on expeditions and most photographers have their own lists. Finally, get cameras, flashguns and housings checked prior to the expedition and then test them yourself in a swimming pool.


Film is a personal choice and it is best to stick to the film you are used to especially if you are unlikely to see any results during the expedition. Quantity depends on budget, sponsors and expedition requirements. It is best to take too much than to continually have to restrict pictures during the expedition. Type of film should include print, black and white and slide. and other films, such as infra red, can produce interesting results.

Much of your film and other bits of equipment. as well as finance, can be obtained through sponsorship. Only hard work and a lot of time will produce sponsorship but perseverance should yield results. Always follow letters up by a phone call, its surprising what a personal touch makes to the end result. Sponsors normally require some kind of feedback after the expedition so don't forget them once you have disappeared to sunnier climes and always follow up an expedition with an expedition report. A sponsor who doesn't get feedback and/or publicity is unlikely to sponsor other expeditions.


Finally in expedition preparation, the photographer should be looking to likely markets for pictures taken on the expedition. It helps to know what angles and stories different Journals want, and by trying out the market it is frequently possible to find people looking for certain pictures who will use material if it is suitable. This could be anything from marine calendars to brochure covers.


Once at the expedition site, it is important to establish an area, protected from the elements, for the photographic equipment, cleaning and general maintenance.

Your role

There is one particular problem that most expedition photographers have to overcome. That is that the role of expedition photographer is frequently not the most popular amongst the other expedition members, often through jealousy. Photographers are seen as the person who does no work and spend most of their time getting in other peoples' way. At the same time photographers are seen as spare members of the expedition, who can fill in slots as and when needed. Of course all this should have been sorted out in the preparation stage, but if the problem persists, be prepared to compromise and put down the camera and lend a hand - but make sure its always handy just in case something interesting happens. Posed pictures for sponsors and newspapers cause more trouble than any other type of shot, so try and avoid ordering people around as much as possible. The photographer who is unobtrusive usually ends up with better results.

Getting results back during or after an expedition is frequently disappointing as the images lack something that makes them exciting. The action that was happening in front of the camera has failed to be transferred onto the film. There may be various reasons for this but my experience has been that boring pictures result because I have not thought enough about the final image. This could be because I was shooting film indiscriminately (maybe a fault of having too much film) resulting in a series of snap shots or that the situation did little to inspire me and so I didn't looking for alternative angles to capture the image.

Think images

When taking pictures on expeditions, I have found that by thinking of the following rules I have achieved a far higher rate of acceptable pictures. These are of course only guidelines, but they may help create better images.

1) Be selective and concentrate on detail.

2) Investigate unusual angles that the picture can be taken from and use of bright colours for impact (especially underwater)

3) Think of the end product - what can the picture be used for, is there a story- Story line and detail are perhaps the most important factors since a good story line will sell in magazines and a picture with detail will normally create more Interest.

Photographic subjects are endless but by dividing up pictures into groups will enable the photographer to ensure all necessary pictures have been taken - there's nothing worse than returning home from an expedition only to find that one particular sponsor's shot was forgotten. This is where the recording of pictures taken as the expedition progresses is important.

Photographic groups could cover the following

1) Portraits - mainly mug shots for magazines.

2) Sponsor shots

3) Training and project work

4) General coverage of expedition

5) Abstract and link shots - useful for slide shows.

Divide the expedition members into groups - are there any who have particular sponsors or where a good story could be lurking-


Post expedition is when the photographer finds he/she has a lot of work to do. Once out of the field film has to be developed, equipment overhauled and reports written up. Each expedition will have different needs for the pictures taken, but it will be the photographer who has to record and file away each slide. This job is perhaps the most important of all, as by filing - either by film/date/subject order - it can be established exactly what material is available for promotions and publications. Slides left in boxes will easily be forgotten and are hard to view. After a three month expedition I would expect to have somewhere in the region of 2 -3,000 slides.

Promotion and publicity should be a coordinated effort by the expedition team, so that all potential outlets for articles are approached. The initial budget should have included a small amount for producing a portfolio of the best or most informative slides. A well presented portfolio will be much better received by magazine editors than a handful of slides. Many people also don't take as much care of slides as the photographer who shot them, so if you do have to part with slides, pass on copies first or the originals In glass mounts.

Sponsors frequently want pictures soon after the expedition has ended, so they can gain maximum publicity, perhaps in conjunction with newspaper articles. Always record who has been given what slides. Project reports should also be completed as soon as possible after the expedition and the photographer would normally be expected to make a contribution to the expedition report.

The end results will invariably have a direct baring on the amount of preparation that occurred before the expedition. Foresight and a knowledge of the subjects to be photographed should create good images, which can be used by magazines, and hopefully enable the photographer to participate in further expeditions on the basis of previous success. To be an expedition photographer requires dedication (and a silly pair of shorts).

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