Photographer Martin Bailey On Turning Passion Into Work

Japan-based photographer Martin Bailey has made a career of traveling the globe and using his lens to capture stunning portraits and natural landscapes. A teacher at heart, he has put his skills to good use, offering photographic expeditions to curious and creatively-inclined students. Just like his camera, his prints have traveled far and wide, displayed in galleries and homes the world over. You can also find his work in west elm’s OFFSET collection, a series of photographs from some of today’s most esteemed photographers. Martin was kind enough to take some time to answer our questions about his process, his travels, and his advice for aspiring photographers. Check them out and shop his prints below!

When did you start taking pictures? What drew you to photography?

I got my first camera in my mid-teens and fell in love with the frozen moment and play of light on my subjects as I experimented. I became more serious about my photography in my early twenties as I ventured into the hills and mountains in the British countryside, and wanted to record the beauty I was experiencing. I moved to Japan when I was 24, and the totally different culture and dramatic landscapes drew me in further still.

I had been a passionate hobbyist, shooting only positive slide film for many years, but for me, the advent of digital, and my first digital SLR camera that I bought in 2002 changed everything for me. I love creating things, and I’m also a bit of a geek at heart. I have owned computers since the mid-90s, so being able to merge my passion for photography with computers, and the instantaneous nature and clarity of digital photography helped me to take my photography to the next level.

The Offset Collection for west elm showcases photographs from a trip to Iceland. Tell us a little bit about that trip!

I have been visiting Iceland since 2013 to run an annual photography tour and workshop there. The participants come from all over the world, and we have an amazing time photographing the dramatic, awe-inspiring landscape of that beautiful island.

You’ve undoubtedly seen a lot throughout your travels. Does anything still surprise you?

Everything still surprises and amazes me. Quite often I’m the first member of my tour groups to be jumping up and down like a big kid with a smile from ear to ear as the natural beauty of our locations blows me away. If I stopped being surprised and excited by the places I visit, I’d stop going.

Have there been any moments you’ve captured that still resonate with you to this day?

I’m so fortunate to have visited many beautiful places, and I have photographs from all of them that still resonate with me today. I’ll mention two of my most memorable here.

The first scenario that comes to mind, is from one of my Japan winter wildlife tours in 2011. We’d been photographing the graceful red-crowned cranes for two days, but it hadn’t snowed, so the scenery wasn’t as beautiful as I’d have liked. After returning to the hotel for breakfast on the third morning in Hokkaido, as we prepared to leave for our next location to photograph whooper swans, it started snowing, so I changed the plan and took my group back to the cranes.

Just as we’d set up our cameras multiple pairs of cranes started to dance in the heavy snow, and it was simply magical. Quite often there are so many cranes that it’s difficult to get a good clear shot of just the two dancing, but these groups were spaced out and danced for a very long time. I had been traveling to Hokkaido in the Winter hoping for this chance for seven years at this point, and I knew as I released my camera’s shutter that I was capturing something that would be very special to me.

As I looked around at my group, a lady from Israel that had been a little under the weather for the previous few days was giggling and dancing around like a teenager as she photographed the cranes. A was deeply moved as I realized what an amazing job I have, being able to bring that much joy and happiness to the lives of the people that I’m fortunate to be able to travel with.

Another scenario that comes to mind, is from a trip to Namibia in 2015 with my friend Jeremy Woodhouse and our tour group, when we visited a remote Himba settlement. I asked a man who I learned was named Hideon, to go inside one of their huts, so that I could photograph him with just the light from the small doorway. He was a little nervous with a stiff expression at first, but he was carrying a small pipe made from a spent bullet shell. Not understanding each other’s language, I gestured for him to light the pipe, so that I could photograph him with the smoke creating atmosphere.

As I shuffled around on the dirt, asking him to pose in a few different ways, we both started laughing. I was loving what I saw on the camera’s LCD, and showed him, which broke the ice further. We ended up laughing together with his beautiful kind eyes leaving me with wonderful memories and beautiful photos.

I recall being in awe of how the camera can bring people together and enable unforgettable cross-cultural exchanges that would probably never happen if it wasn’t for the photograph.

In addition to working as a photographer, you have also written books and taught photography workshops. Why did you start teaching?

I started to blog and podcast about photography in 2005, while I was still working in an IT-related day job. At the time I was taking occasional photography assignments, and have continued to do so, but making a living from photography alone has become more and more difficult since digital commoditized photography. Corporate cut-backs led to me dealing more often with people that had no idea how to price photography, and I have never had any desire to work for less than I feel I’m worth, so I have pretty much stopped marketing my services as a commercial photographer now.

When I quit my day job and incorporated my company in 2010, I was already running tours and workshops, and the plan from the start was to build out this revenue stream as well as my education materials, rather than trying to further enter the market as a commercial photographer, which had already lost its appeal for me.

Six years in, my business revolves around tours and workshops in amazing locations, and I use the photographs that I shoot on these tours to illustrate my ebooks, blog, and educational products. I license my images via OFFSET, and I also sell original fine art prints, as well. I find my current business model to be much more fulfilling and it gives me the freedom to shoot other projects, fulfill print orders and work on other products between tours, while spending quality time with my family.

You provide exhaustive reviews of photographic products and tools in your podcasts. What tools would you recommend to the new photographer?

That really depends on what kind of photographer the person wants to be, but obviously a camera is going to be necessary. I’m a Canon shooter, but most manufacturers make amazing cameras these days, including the now popular mirrorless cameras, although battery life on these needs to improve some still.

The important thing in my opinion is to ensure that the camera you buy has manual exposure controls at your fingertips. Most have manual controls, but some bury them deep in the menus, making the camera difficult to work with. To begin with, fully automatic modes are fine, but I believe that to make the most beautiful and compelling photographs, and to fully understand photography, you have to be able to take full control of the camera’s exposure settings.

For lens choice, a mid-range zoom lens like a 24-70mm lens is a good place to start, but something wider and something a little bit longer greatly increases your artistic flexibility. Quite often, the part of a landscape that is really drawing the photographers attention is a small part of a wider vista. Something like a 70-200mm or a 100-400mm lens can help you to isolate that element and maximize the impact of your photography.

I also recommend that people buy a quality tripod. Pretty much everyone I’ve seen getting started in photography begins with a cheap, flimsy tripod that is also too short in height. After that, they buy a slightly more expensive tripod that is a bit higher, but still a compromise. Only after buying at least two other tripods, often more, do they realize that they really need to invest in something that gets the viewfinder to their eye level while fully supporting the camera, even in windy conditions.

I won’t make a direct recommendation here, but people could save themselves hundreds of dollars wasted on their first few tripods by buying what they’ll ultimate buy right from the start. It’s the one item that will rarely need replacing, so going for the best to begin with simply saves you money.

What artists or photographers inspire you?

At the top of the list is Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian photographer that has created some of the most important bodies of work of our time, such as that found in his books Workers, Migrations, and Genesis. Michael Kenna is another photographer who’s work I greatly admire. Especially his Japan work, as I have visited many of the same locations and can really relate to his style of photography. I’m also a huge fan of Nick Brandt’s work, as well as Paul Nicklen, and Steve McCurry.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I am incredibly humbled by the fact that I can support my family by doing what I love, and as a part of that, enable people to make the photographs of their dreams. We live on an incredible planet, and if we could just stop trying to destroy it, we are fortunate to live in an age when it is accessible for many of us to experience and photograph.

Martin Bailey is a nature and wildlife photographer based in Tokyo. He’s a pioneering Podcaster and blogger, Craft & Vision author, Arcanum Master and X-Rite Coloratti member. Fueled by his passion for nature and travel, and a tireless desire to share his knowledge and artistic vision, Martin is a popular international tour and workshop leader, helping photographers from around the world to experience and capture the wonders of this awesome planet we call home.