My big break

NPhoto - - Contents - Keith Wil­son

Dan Bal­lard shares the story be­hind the shot that led to his ca­reer as a travel photographer

Travel photographer Dan Bal­lard has vis­ited more than 50 coun­tries across five con­ti­nents. His work has been pub­lished in nu­mer­ous mag­a­zines, in­clud­ing Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, Dig­i­tal Cam­era and N-Photo. To see more of his work visit www.dan­bal­lard­pho­tog­ra­phy.com

Dan Bal­lard grew up in a vil­lage of 75 peo­ple in Colorado where most peo­ple never ven­tured be­yond the state bor­der, let alone over­seas. Yet he grew up with a pas­sion for travel and pho­tog­ra­phy, thanks largely to his mother, who was also a pro­fes­sional photographer (“She shot Nikon, which is why I do”), and a grand­fa­ther who re­galed him with sto­ries of his jour­neys. “He had hitch­hiked up to Alaska and fixed tyres on the side of the road to get there. When I was grow­ing up, he was al­ways talk­ing to me about trav­el­ling.”

So, aged 20, Dan de­cided he wanted to be a travel photographer, and fol­lowed his grand­fa­ther’s ad­vice to see the world. How­ever, his early images proved dis­ap­point­ing: “I would travel to all these coun­tries and I’d love the ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says, “but then I’d come back and show peo­ple the images, and I just didn’t feel they ex­pressed that emo­tion at all. It was al­ways such a let down.” He con­tin­ued to feel this way for the first few years of shoot­ing pro­fes­sion­ally. “The one thing I could never do was re­ally ex­press how I felt about a place through my pho­tog­ra­phy.”

All that changed in 2009 when he made a three­month trip to South­east Asia, and found him­self wan­der­ing through a rice field in Laos late one af­ter­noon. “I had been in the area for about a week at that point,” he re­calls, “just walk­ing through the rice fields for hours and hours, try­ing to look for mo­ments, for things hap­pen­ing. I was try­ing to find some­thing to put in front of those in­cred­i­ble hills with the low-ly­ing mist and the sun break­ing through. I could tell it was go­ing to be some­thing cool if I could just find a sub­ject.”

The break­through

Dan fit­ted a 20mm f/2.8 Nikon lens to his D700 when he found his sub­ject: a woman walk­ing down the path ahead of him. “I got one or two quick shots and she was gone.” Look­ing back, he be­lieves this im­age marked a break­through in his at­tempt to con­vey the essence of a lo­ca­tion. He ex­plains: “Even though I had been shoot­ing pro­fes­sion­ally for a few years be­fore I took this, noth­ing be­fore it re­ally cap­tured a place in the way that I wanted it to. This im­age made me re­alise it was pos­si­ble, and re­ally af­fected my later work.”

It also in­spired Dan to change the di­rec­tion he was tak­ing with his work. “At the time I didn’t want to be a travel photographer, I wanted to be a land­scape photographer that in­cluded the cul­ture, so this im­age rep­re­sents a lit­tle of that tran­si­tion.”

Seven years on, this tran­si­tion has proved to be in­stru­men­tal in Dan’s suc­cess, and his stun­ning travel images have since ap­peared in Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, Trail Run­ner, Men’s Jour­nal and nu­mer­ous other in­ter­na­tional pub­li­ca­tions.

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