Sometimes you need to have experienced some of the frustrations and drawbacks of old technology first hand to realise just what a blessing the brave new digital world happens to be. Certainly seasoned travel photographer Timothy Allen wouldn't be in a hurry to turn back the clock, and the advantages that have come the way of professional photographers over the past decade thanks to the move to digital have proved particularly beneficial to his business and have helped to simplify his life no end.
Take DSLRs, for example, and the happy knack they have of accommodating hundreds of images on a single memory card, cutting down on the need to carry film all over the world in sometimes far from ideal conditions while braving the vagaries of X-ray machines en route. Timothy has no truck with the notion that virtually unlimited shooting capacity should naturally lead to poorly thought through pictures: "The more pictures you take the more experience you gather and the better you tend to become," he asserts. "To my mind there is no such thing as one decisive moment: rather there are lots of them, and the more pictures you take, the more likely it is that you will come to recognise them."
Not that Timothy is in the habit of machine-gunning his subject with his camera just because he can. With a background as a press photographer working for The Independent he is well versed in the art of having to get the picture at all costs and of using flash to supplement the available light when necessary. These days he tends to work to his own deadlines, and the pace is slower and altogether more considered. "I would never use flash on a job now because I'm not after that kind of picture," he says. "I'll look for the light and will work with my subjects to get the pictures I want. I'll largely use prime lenses because they're faster and I prefer the quality they deliver. I'll also usually have a relationship with my subject and my pictures won't be grab shots. The way I work is that I will have taken the time to get to know something about them and they will know I'm there."
Not only is it easier to take pictures, it's also much more straightforward to share them and, crucially, to find a market that might be interested in paying money for them. "I'm a great believer in Creative Commons," he says. "People are welcome to copy and use my pictures online for free provided that it's for their own use and that I get a credit. If someone has a commercial use for my pictures in mind then they need to get in touch and negotiate a fee, but it all helps to get my work out there."
Blogging in particular has proved to be a good way to promote certain images. "There is an amazing response to things that go up online," says Timothy. "I've blogged pictures that might have been taken five or six years ago and have never sold in all that time. I did that recently and within two weeks of sharing the story of how they had been taken I'd achieved six sales."
Another major advantage of an ever more connected world is that Timothy has been able to build up an international network of connections, people he can communicate with and who can help him to complete his assignments. "These days I never normally go off on a trip on my own," he says. "I'll have an assistant with me or someone who can act as a guide on the ground. I get so much more out of a trip if I have someone with me who can communicate with the people I'm photographing and can tell them what I'm doing and what I need.
"I've been travelling for so long that I now know people in virtually every country in the world, but if I do go somewhere new then I've got the facility to make the connections I need. For example, I had an exhibition in Sofia, Bulgaria a while back and made connections with people while I was there. When I then planned a trip back there to shoot pictures, I got in touch with people I had met through Facebook and I asked if anyone was up for organising a trip. I ended up getting a response from someone who was a web designer who took two weeks off and set everything up, including a microlite flight through the mountains for a set of pictures I had envisaged.
"I think he had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, although generally these trips probably aren't as much fun as most people seem to think they are!"
World's best job?
It's a pertinent point because, to the outsider, Timothy appears to have one of the world's most enviable jobs. As well as travelling to some remarkable places and being in charge these days of setting his own agenda for stories to cover, he had the chance for two years to work on the epic BBC series Human Planet, an exercise that raised his profile to an altogether different level.
He's taken his brush with fame in his stride: "I've now got people who get in touch all the time to offer to assist me for nothing," he says. "The fact is, however, that when I get to a place I'm no different to anyone else: you wouldn't get a foot in the door by watching me work."
Remarkably open to others who would love to emulate his lifestyle, Timothy provides a wealth of invaluable information on his website - a definite place to visit if you ever aspire to make money through travelling - and he even throws out an invitation for others to join him on his expeditions."If you discover that I happen to be working in the same country as you, I enjoy having enthusiastic people shadow me whilst I work," he writes, "but you must be responsible for locating me and funding your own expenses."
Timothy works these days with three Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies and his regular kit includes fixed 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 200mm and 400mm lenses. He invariably chooses to work close in to his subject and so the longer lenses are not called into action too often and he has one zoom, a 16-35mm that gives him a little extra flexibility when necessary.
"I switched to digital very early on," he says, "being given a Nikon/Kodak crossover DSLR camera by The Independent in 1999. I remember that it was bulky and expensive. I did love digital technology though: up until that point we were scanning everything and it took forever and the quality was poor."
The breakthrough camera from Timothy's point of view was the original Canon EOS 5D, and he would still be using that model today if it wasn't for the HDSLR capability of the 5D Mark II. "I needed the video facility," he says, "and I've used that a lot over the past few years. In fact, on Human Planet my camera was put in a waterproof housing and was used for a few of the underwater shots. It was much smaller and easier to handle than the dedicated broadcast cameras, and footage from the 5D sat happily within the final edit."
Technology proving its worth yet again, and Timothy is convinced that photographers in general, and travel photographers in particular, have never had it so good. "There never has been a better time to get involved," he says. "If the quality is there in your pictures then people will find them. You can put them up on your website, you can circulate them through social networking and you can blog about them, and it will get your work out there.
"Photographers complain about the difficulty of finding markets, but there are more outlets out there than ever. Ten years ago the magazine rack in WHSmith might have filled one wall and now it's way bigger. There are people out there who want to use your work if it's good enough and it's easier now than it's ever been to find them."
After graduating with a degree in zoology, Timothy spent three years backpacking in Indonesia and then got his break with the Sunday Telegraph. He then spent six years working for The Independent and joined the Axiom Photographic Agency in 2002.
Taken from the May 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine