Travel Talks : Focus on Lisa Merrill

September 04, 2013  •  Leave a Comment
Loosely defined, travel photography specializes in introducing or exhibiting the culturally significant, historic, informative, or just plain awe-inspiring aspects of destinations and locales and the people or creatures who inhabit them. There are many sub-specialties - adventure travel, documentary travel, architectural, etc. - but it all comes back to visually telling the who, what, why, where, and how of a place. 

So far this year I've (virtually) met with photographers Sandra Jordan and Hortencia Cisneros who have shared their experiences creating travel photography with a fine art or editorial focus respectively. Photographer Lisa Merrill of Merrill Images has found her niche in conceiving travel images that satisfy the ever-increasing demand for stock photographs used by travel providers and outfitters. I caught up with Lisa after her most recent shoot which took her and her photographic partner/husband John to the Grand Canyon and beyond. You can follow Lisa and John's photographic forays via  and  Merrill Images.

Tell me a little about what drew you to photography in general and travel photography specifically.
We love to explore new places and cultures, and find that photography helps us slow down, savor experiences, see deeply, and connect with people. We were working in real estate development (John) and software marketing (Lisa) when we met in 1990. Together, we pursued our passion for photography via workshops and explorations in the Pacific Northwest, and in 1994 we quit our jobs and traveled extensively in Africa and Asia.

Hundreds of rolls of film later, we created a portfolio of compelling imagery which we submitted to stock agencies. We continue to license our work to clients around the world through Getty, Corbis, and Danita Delimont.

Our photography is always evolving, as we nurture our creativity and grow through new experiences. When we started out we did a lot of nature photography. After a few years we found that we especially enjoy the challenge of capturing the essence and spirit of an individual in a portrait, and exploring the complexities of cultures through photo essays. Meeting and photographing people are our passions, and festivals, markets, and villages with traditional lifestyles fascinate us. We search for the unique in each culture and place we explore.

So you started off shooting on spec - how did you finance those early trips?

Savings. This was before we had children and we found that you can travel pretty cheaply, especially where we were going in Asia. The per day costs in places like Nepal made it easier to explore. For instance, on a trip in 1995 we shot roll after roll of film, occasionally getting a roll developed, but more often sending them back to our preferred lab at A&I in Los Angeles. We didn't see most of our images before returning from that trip - a stark contrast to today's instant feedback with digital cameras. Even now, we still look for ways to defray the costs such as trades.

spiral staircase, Italy: © Merrill Images
Italy / Merrill Images

What type of travel photography do you specialize in? e.g. Editorial? Documentary? Advertising or stock? Fine Art?

The majority of our revenue is from stock photography to clients who license our images for use in travel guidebooks and catalogs, textbooks, websites, and a wide variety of other publications. We also do assignments for tourism clients.

These days, we often combine nature and adventure photography with skiing, hiking, rafting and other outdoor explorations in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Travel photography is truly a fluid endeavor with elements of food, urban, landscape, portraiture, event, etc. photography all rolled into one. When you shoot - knowing that the end user will be a stock client - how do you maximize the cross-niche appeal potential?

We're always looking for something special happening in a place. We plan carefully and look for festivals and cultural celebrations, but maximizing potential requires flexibility and not rushing off to the next thing. We strive to capture the iconic landmarks in a unique way, but then we also seek out our passions like handicrafts, cooking classes, and outdoor activities. We increasingly are looking show the full 'travel experience' including interacting with locals.

Do you have a philosophy about travel photography you want to share? How would you describe your style? Is having a narrative crucial?
We strive to create imagery which is compelling and has a personal connection. Beauty and elegance are important elements of our work; our style is often described as bold and graphic. Increasingly we work to incorporate mystery, intrigue, and humor in our images.

Respect, sensitivity and humility is the foundation of our approach to travel photography. We view every photography encounter as a relationship and mutual learning experience, and are grateful to the people we work with.

(regarding the narrative) We love sharing our work with friends, family, and the students at our kids' schools and would love to have more photo essays published. More and more I want to express the complex stories using a single image: as part of my personal growth, I want to show things in a new way. Layering the iconic with personal experiences is important.

Child in Semana Santa procession, Quito, Ecuador: ©Merrill Images
Ecuador / Merrill Images

Describe your camera kit. Any must haves and favorites? Do you travel "heavy" or "light"?

(Canon) 5D Mark III, 12-24mm Sigma lens, 17-40mm Canon lens, 24-105mm Canon lens, 70-200mm Canon lens, Lens Baby, Canon flash, Gitzo tripod, Kirk Enterprises ballheads, Really Right Stuff quick releases. We especially love the immediacy and context of wide angle lenses for travel photography.

For our adventure travel and rainy day photography here in the Northwest, we used to have really fancy rain hoods but now use a big Ziplock bag and carry a good PackTowel. We also have a Canon G15 and underwater housing for rafting and water based excursions. In crowded areas instead of carrying a backpack, I use a Lowepro sling for easy access. I keep one lens on the camera, another in the sling, and then trade off with John when he's around. At sunrise or sunset, we tend to use our tripods or mono-pod but other than that establish a really good stance, brace against a wall, or just bump up the ISO.

We also travel with a laptop and a portable hard drive which we download to each night. We don't tend to do a lot of processing in the field. If I'm on a photo tour or workshop I might edit or adjust some images to see what's working or not. More importantly, backing up is huge for me since we've had some instances of theft.

Describe your average day while on the road / in the field. (e.g. workflow, schedule, preferences, etc.)

Every day is different depending on where we are, who we're with, and what's happening. Ideally we head out before dawn and explore/photograph until our mid-morning coffee. Mid-day is for resting and scouting opportunities. Generally, we head out again in the late afternoon to photograph intensively until after the "magic light" (magic hour) of sunset and twilight. However, we often photograph throughout the day, especially during festivals, and have many favorite images which were created mid-day.

How do you and your husband divvy up the responsibilities? Does one primarily shoot and the other uploads and performs edits? Or, are you each responsible for your own workflow?

We each do our own initial edits and then jointly do a second pass through what is typically thousands of images from a trip. It's fun to surprise each other and we learn a lot from the process. I really encourage the people I teach to find a photo friend - an additional 'eye' to give you feedback - since it's so helpful when deciding what to further edit and submit. John and I hold joint copyright but I do most of the marketing and prep for submission (including key-wording and captioning) to the stock agencies with the help of our office assistant. 

Although we sometimes photograph side-by-side, we return with a richer collection of images when we explore separately and then come together throughout the day. Early on, we found this to be a good foundation for our partnership and marriage.

Top three things a travel photographer shouldn't leave home without.
Curiosity, humor and flexibility!

What's the best destination you've shot and why.

We're frequently asked this and find it extremely hard to choose from the many special places we've been fortunate to explore and photograph. Ladakh in Northern India stands out as very special because of the stark beauty of the rugged landscape in the Himalayan foothills, and the grace and cultural pride of the Buddhist farmers who fled over the high mountains from Tibet when China invaded in the late '50s.

Monk carrying ceremonial horns, Ladahk, India: © Merrill Images
India / Merrill Images

Knowing the history of a place is definitely part of my research; right now I'm reading about Myanmar (formerly Burma) in preparation for a trip this winter. I love to read and want to know the context of the places I'm exploring. The Rough Guide series always has a great section on literature of or about the region. Another option is to look for local organizations that have a tie with the area and speak with recent immigrants. Also, I increasingly look to partner with an NGO (non-governmental organization) in place to see how we can collaborate and I can contribute to their mission. By learning more about the history in advance, I have a richer experience and that subtly influences my images; sometimes this even leads to self assignments in which I adopt a narrower focus on one aspect of the place or culture.

And the worst (or most challenging) destination and what you learned from it.

Morocco was challenging because of incessant begging and entreaties from people to buy things. This is the case in many countries we explore. We've learned to accept this reality and to approach each person with a smile and a genuine willingness to interact. We often show postcards of our hometown Seattle, and give one as a token of our appreciation for hospitality or willingness to be photographed. Our journey within the smaller southern Moroccan cities was a highlight of that trip and I loved the design, architecture, arts, and crafts we found there. 

[note: While Morocco has the distinction of making the "most challenging destination" list three times in a row, each photographer found a way to grow through her experience and reflects on it when traveling around the world.]

That brings up a good point, since your images are for commercial use and customs and laws vary greatly around the world, how do you handle getting releases (or permission) from your 'subjects'? And what do you think is the photographer's responsibility to that individual or community post-sale?
More and more - because of the nature of our work - we try to get releases. Our agencies will sell unreleased images under an editorial license but it's always best to obtain releases. If I'm traveling with a guide, I'll have them explain the release. When photographing a market vendor or crafts person, I'll often buy something they are selling. We occasionally pay a modest remuneration if someone has spent a significant amount of time working with us to get an image, and always send or email many photos to models after each trip. The postcards I mentioned are a gesture of goodwill; even if they've never seen Seattle they still want to hear the story of it, much like we do about their home. I treat people with respect and take the time to develop a rapport - it's the right thing to do and results in more impactful images.

Considering the well-publicized instances of violence towards women travelers in the last year or so, have you made any changes to the way in which you work or travel?

Yes, I'm very leery of going out at dawn on my own especially in places were there aren't people on the street. In many situations, I'll shoot within sight of John and other fellow photographers. I am aware of it [the need for safety] and I've gotten more cautious over the years. But it's really about trusting my intuition and playing it safe.

How do you prepare for assignments? Shooting on spec? Both?
Extensive research online and via guidebooks and tourist offices, conversations with photographers who have traveled to our destinations, long discussions with clients and locals, and reading as much as we can (both fiction and non-fiction).

Do you ever hire a local guide or driver? How do you normally find them?

Many of the local guides we've hired have been amazing. I find them by asking other photographers who have traveled to that location for recommendations and in return share ours. Sometimes local tourism operations are a good resource but we usually have made arrangements before we visit. I have a list of questions that I send via email prior to the trip and get a sense based on how they answer as to whether they will work out. It pays to make a careful choice since guides aren't cheap and a bad one can be a disaster.
Do you develop a formal shot list or work more intuitively? Which do you prefer?
After so many years in this business, we've developed and memorized a working shot list to guide our efforts, but tend to photograph intuitively and stay open to serendipity.

Rider in tuktuk, Southeast Asia: © Merrill Images
Southeast Asia / Merrill Images

What role does post-capture processing play in your work? HDR?
We process our images with Lightroom and have an assistant who occasionally helps us with this. Haven't gotten into HDR yet.

The stock world has changed quite a bit in the last decade in terms of standards, desired content, licensing structure, and demand. How have you kept ahead of the curve?

We're still with the same three agencies we've been with since 1996. It's often a volume game and what they select still surprises. Although licensing fees have plummeted, we still feel there's still enough revenue there to make it worthwhile but have also diversified the services we offer. We do a lot of direct trades with the hospitality and tourism industries and continue to find ways to augment our stock photography income. To that end, we've recently partnered with the tourism bureaus of the cities of Bellevue (our home) and Kirkland, Washington.

What's on your travel photography "bucket list"?
Bhutan, Bolivia, Vietnam, Burning Man

Why Burning Man?

It's one of those events that we've always been interested in from a cultural point of view. Plus, we've seen many fascinating images from other photographers and are intrigued by all of that creativity in the desert.

Which (travel) photographers inspire you? Who are you watching?

Karl Grobl, Art Wolfe, Nevada Weir, Bob Krist, Phil Borges, David duChemin, Gavriel Jecan, Stuart Westmorland, Steve McCurry, Brenda Tharp.

Where to next? What are you working on right now? Is there anything else you would like to add?

Nicaragua and Myanmar this winter!

We're currently working on processing images from our recent work for a Grand Canyon rafting outfitter and the City of Kirkland, Washington.

Remember that travel photography begins at home!

Merrill Images also engages their local community through their work with youths via Social Venture Partners in addition to conducting workshops for photographers of all ages. Visit Merrill Images for more details. 

Thanks Lisa for sharing your time and passion!
John and Lisa Merrill, Merrill Images
photo credit: Chad Coleman, Bellevue Reporter

Publications and Awards
National Geographic Traveler
Seattle Times
Art Wolfe Environmental Photography Invitational Contest


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