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Photographer Lisa Michele Burns began her career as a journalist, and taught herself snappy photography skills. She developed her signature underwater photography after a chance encounter with some dolphins on a summer job. Culture Trip talks to her about her big break with Lonely Planet, why she loves the Instagram community, and why she just can’t pick a favourite destination.
Hi Lisa. How’s it going?
Great, thanks! I’ve just returned from the Greek Islands and am preparing to head home to Australia for a few months over winter!
Sounds fabulous! Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? Did it give you a certain kind of feeling that you knew you’d it was something you had an affinity with?
I wasn’t actually one of those people who was given a camera at five and just fell in love with photography. For me it developed naturally alongside my journalism career. I started taking images for my articles in a newspaper and then took a summer job as a photographer where one of the roles was to take photos of dolphins! It was a mix of the landscapes, wildlife and water that brought out my affinity toward photography.
How has your work changed and progressed since your career started?
I think the word dramatically is a suitable answer here! When I first started I had no idea what settings to use, nor any idea of what I wanted to capture or a style I was aiming to achieve. I never studied photography, I simply purchased a decent camera before I set off travelling to Morocco and taught myself how to use it along the way. Water now plays a huge part in my work and is the main inspiration behind where I go and how I see the world.
Who or what are some of your influences?
I’ve always been captivated by the photographers of publications like National Geographic that immerse themselves in a culture and capture incredibly enlightening images. Following the work of underwater photographers now also is extremely motivating. Seeing how some deep sea dive photographers and free divers capture the world below the surface is an endless inspiration. I need to learn how to hold my breath a little longer before I join them!
Do you edit your photos?
Absolutely, however I always stay close to the natural setting to ensure the image reflects the colours and patterns of the environment. I edit to keep a consistency throughout my work, I prefer soft tones and warm hues rather than big bold colours so I have a simple Photoshop Action I created and apply to most images that ties them together. You’ll never see me replacing the sky or adding elements to a photo…if I didn’t see it through my goggles or with my own eyes it won’t be in my work.
Do you feel a divide between your commercial work and your personal photography. If so, how do the two differ?
I actually don’t see a huge difference lately. I tend to work with clients that wish to capture a particular point of view and that’s usually the reason the hire me. I have, of course, done photoshoots in the past where it was interiors or an event that wasn’t something I would typically choose to photograph, it’s all a learning experience though! Personally I love working in the water, whether it’s the sea, a lake, a pool or a fountain. This past year I’ve managed to include this in my commercial work so it has been great to finally see a blend between the two.
Do you have a favorite travel destination to shoot?
I love the colors and culture of villages in Italy and France, the water and tropical vibes of the Cook Islands and the Maldives then the frozen and dramatic mountainous landscapes of Iceland and New Zealand. It’s far too difficult to choose just one destination, I’m constantly visiting new places and continue to be amazed by the variety of landscapes out there. My recent trip to Iceland in January though was almost overwhelming. I drove solo around the country to photograph not only the popular waterfalls and glaciers but the hidden beaches and roads not on the tourist maps. After nine days of hardly talking to anyone and just photographing the landscapes I don’t think I’ve ever been so exhausted and excited at the same time. It was truly a life changing trip that wouldn’t have happened had I not become obsessed with photography!
What is it about underwater photography that draws you to it?
I love the creative effect that water adds to an image. Having the surface visible can create a beautiful blend between the world under and above the water. Water is also completely unpredictable so it’s a constant challenge to capture a split-level image and sometimes a wave can roll in and make an image even better than I had hoped.
How does landscape and underwater photography differ as subject matter for you, both practically and creatively?
I try to merge the two together in my work with the split-level perspective. Showcasing the two in a single image is a fun way to change up the traditional landscape photograph. Practically, if I’m taking photos of a landscape that doesn’t involve any water, it’s much more simplified process. I’m quite laid back and don’t usually travel with a tripod or any fancy gadgets. When it comes to landscape photography I prefer to just drive around scouting locations and then snap away without much fuss. Underwater photography takes a lot more preparation before and after: checking the conditions of the sea, tides and light then preparing the camera and housing to ensure there won’t be any unexpected leaks underwater. Creatively though, once I’m in the water I love every second of it regardless of whether I walk away with a great photo or not.
What is your proudest achievement as a professional photographer? And what is your proudest achievement from your personal archive?
Having my first photo feature published by Lonely Planet was a huge moment in my career, however, my answer for both questions is probably the same; the first shoot I did for my project ‘The World from The Water’. Having spent over a year researching and preparing for the project to begin, jumping in the water for the first shoot at Riomaggiore in Italy was an incredible feeling. Once I got out of the sea to check the images I felt so proud to have captured exactly what I’d been envisioning for so long. Awards are a great achievement but I prefer the feeling you get after a successful photoshoot, nothing beats it! Especially if you leave with sun kissed skin and salty hair.
Do you have any advice for photographers wanting to turn their hobby into a career?
Go for it. Don’t get held up on not having the biggest or best camera, just keep taking quality photos and working on creating your own unique view of the world. There are so many avenues for having your work seen now so be sure to grab a piece of the online realm, create your own website and social media accounts purely to showcase your photography. Having a point of difference goes a long way in the world of photography; don’t follow trends, be a game changer and let your artistic ideas free!
When did you start use social media to your advantage, and how has it impacted your career?
I was a little late to the social media party. I’ve only really focused a lot of time on social media in the past two years and it’s definitely helped to grow my career and get my work seen. Instagram has been a huge contributor to obtaining new clients and helping to promote the destinations I visit. I also love the little communities social media creates, having regulars that comment on my work gives me such a warm, fuzzy feeling. It works both ways too, it’s so exciting to see what others create and I love supporting photographers who produce incredible and individual work!
What motivates you to continue to take photographs?
I’m yet to find a destination where I can’t take a photo, I think the travel bug is still alive and well inside me! Being inspired by landscapes and the always changing environment of the ocean keeps me occupied and excited to continue down the path of photography.
What’s next, Lisa and the Wandering Lens?
Next up I’m heading home to Australia for three months to meet some exciting new clients and also photograph along the coast of Queensland. I’ll be heading to New Zealand and the Cook Islands again during this visit…two destinations I’ll happily visit again and again! The Wandering Lens is growing rapidly and I have a lot of content to share from recent trips in Greece, Iceland, France and Switzerland along with some exciting announcements about workshops and mentoring for photographers hoping to take the next step in their career.
It sounds like you have many more exciting adventures and photography opportunities ahead of you! If you’d like to follow Lisa’s travels, head to her website The Wandering Lens.