Have Camera, Have Lens, Will Travel: 21 Months of Adventure Photography

How professional photographer Don Mammoser spent 21 months straight traveling the world with just one lens

Bay Of Kotor, Montenegro - Adventure Photography

Bay Of Kotor, Montenegro. Montenegro was the first stop on our long journey and a place we came back to when we needed to work and save a bit of money. We took a local bus to a lookout point we had seen earlier. The day was completely overcast and the clouds were very low, hiding everything. After Anya and I explored the small town of Perast, the clouds started to lift and this amazing scene appeared before our eyes.

“Explore every place with endless curiosity, dream, let go of all preconceptions, and happily embrace anything.” These were some of the words I lived by when, in 2011 and 2012, I traveled continuously all over the world for 21 months. I was very happily living out my lifelong dream of getting a one-way ticket (to anywhere) and traveling everywhere my whims took me for as long as I had a few dollars in my pocket. Oh, and as a professional photographer who has far too often carried far too many cameras, heavy lenses, big tripods and photo accessories, and whose back forbade him to do that again, I dreamt of, and succeeded, in going light, as well.

I’ve always been a believer that what matters most in life is to see, experience and appreciate as much of our amazing world as possible. Being a professional photographer gives me an awesome excuse to do just that. I must get up before the sunrise to see how the light changes as it screams across, say, the plains of Bagan, Myanmar, or the crowded and dusty streets of India, or the deep blue waters of a South Pacific island location. Being a photographer influenced my long journey every step of the way. I was continuously searching for the next scenic overlook, the next interesting person who had photogenic character or the next beautiful wildlife specimen that I might capture for just a moment with my camera. I was open-minded, flexible to whatever came my way, and I looked deep into the heart of the places I went. I also took a lot of photos.

The best travel photography departs from a common postcard and captures the way of life of the people who live in a given location. Of course, the photographer does his or her best to do that artfully through lighting and composition.

In 21 months of traveling, I honestly don’t know how many images I took, but it was well into the tens of thousands. The images showcased on these pages are just a few of my favorites, and I had difficulty narrowing it down to these few. It should be no surprise to readers of this magazine that the world holds endless photogenic opportunities, and all we need to do is open our eyes and minds, and use our abilities to capture them.

As I tell people about our journey—I traveled with my friend Anya, who then became my fiancée, who then became my wife—folks often ask the usual questions of where we went and what we saw and how much it cost, but rarely am I asked why we went. It seems that most everyone understands why someone would undertake such a journey. The simple answer I give if anyone does ask why is just that I wished to embrace the world and experience life. Plus, I love photography. All very simple and very true reasons for our 21-month trip.

Getting in close to people with a camera is challenging. Be genuine and open as you’re taking photos, and people often will respond in kind.

So, then, I’ll first write the answers to the most common questions I get: How did I manage to take a 21-month nonstop trip? And how did I manage my photo gear? And where did we go?

Tad Fane Waterfall, Laos. We were in a very rural area of Laos called the Bolaven Plateau. While talking to a local shop owner, we learned that there were several waterfalls in the area. He drew us a rough map on a half-sheet of paper and rented us a small motorbike. Anya and I spent an entire day exploring the area, finding waterfalls and photographing everything. This double waterfall drops over 360 feet into the canyon below. I felt supremely honored to be able to witness such amazing natural beauty.

Well, for finances, I merely saved some money each year for about three years leading up to the trip. It actually costs a lot less for such a journey than you might imagine. There are still lots of places around the world where a careful traveler can live on $5 a day. Yes, $5. That’s not a misprint. And Anya and I traveled on a budget, saving money on things where we could in order to spend it on experiences, local tours, local guides, etc. Everywhere we went, we traveled as locals, stayed with locals and ate as local folks do—this is always the easiest way to spend less money.

Plus, we traveled light. This was one of my main goals, as I had no financial backing for this journey. I couldn’t rely on someone else to pay for extra baggage or overweight bags. Besides, I love traveling light and moving fast. When you need to get on and off several local buses every day, or are traveling by dugout canoe up the Mekong River or by cycle rickshaw in India, having a lot less stuff makes for a lot more happiness. So, you ask, what did I bring for photo gear?

The Taj Mahal is on many people’s bucket lists to see and photograph. Here’s a different look at the famous tourist attraction from a more unique perspective than the usual postcard.

I brought a Canon EOS 40D and the longest, most versatile lens then available for that camera, a Tamron 18-270mm ƒ/3.5-6.3. This outfit gave me the 35mm equivalent of 29-432mm with a stabilized (Tamron calls it Vibration Compensation, or VC), reasonably fast, autofocus lens. Sure, sometimes I wished for more wide-angle when under an architectural masterpiece, and sometimes I wished for more telephoto reach when we saw elusive wildlife, but 99% of the time, that 29-432mm was all I needed. My only accessory was a polarizer for my lens. I also had two extra batteries and a good-sized JOBY GorillaPod tripod. We photographed every day, almost all day, especially when we got to a new place and didn’t need to “move on” till we decided it was time. My equipment held up fine for the entire 21 months.

Indian Woman, Ranthambore Fort, India. India is the most culturally rich, colorful and varied place that we visited. Every person is a photo opportunity, every street holds endless possibilities. I loved this colorful moment, but it only lasted a second until the woman changed her position. Because I had just one lens and was ready, I managed to capture a few frames before the moment passed.

Of course, I wanted to protect my hard-won images, but I didn’t carry a laptop. So, as we went, I backed up all my photos onto a small paperback-sized hard drive I carried with me simply by visiting computer centers to burn the images and to make DVDs. Those discs were sent by post to a stateside address of a family member, and I carried an extra DVD copy with me, as well. This allowed me to reformat my memory cards, knowing I had three copies of each image.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Hot air balloon is a popular way to experience this place. The Tamron all-in-one zoom was indispensable, allowing for nearly unlimited compositions as the scene changed.

Anya and I brought just midsized travel backpacks, which weighed under 25 pounds each, but they still felt awfully heavy when we had to carry them across a remote Philippine island or when strapped to the back of a motor scooter in Vietnam. Still, we felt liberated and carefree whenever we saw tourists with humongous, wheeled suitcases that weighed more than they did. And, everywhere we went, local people were happy to meet us, happy to have us visit their part of the world and happy to help us out when we needed help.

Sumatran Orangutans, Indonesia. My Tamron lens and Canon DSLR provided enough zoom power for larger and/or friendly wildlife. At an orangutan sanctuary on the island of Sumatra, Anya and I spent five days with a local guide and several of the area’s orangutans. Many of the mothers carried babies, and we witnessed and photographed tons of sublime and wonderfully tender moments that week.

The world is much safer and people are a whole lot friendlier than the news would have you believe. In 21 months on the road, Anya and I experienced many hundreds, if not thousands, of small gestures or big helping hands, where a local person was merely interested in making sure we were safe, happy and okay. As only one example, in a deserted mountain area in northern Vietnam, we were trying to get to a far-flung national park and had gone as far as the local bus service went. Walking the last, dusty, 22 kilometers to the park entrance seemed our only option—and not a fun one at that, with full packs under a hot, tropical sun.

The Pyramids, The Giza Plains, Egypt. A severe sandstorm engulfed the area on the first day, blocking any views. Since we had as much time as we wanted in each destination, we waited out the storm, and I finally got this view from out in the desert that I always had wanted to witness.

After just 10 minutes of walking, I heard a vehicle coming. It was a bus full of teenage school kids heading to the national park, and I flagged it down. Even though there weren’t any empty seats on that bus, the kids and their driver welcomed us aboard and cleared two seats for us. Then they proceeded to gather around us and showed their excitement at having English-speaking “guests” aboard their bus, talking, being honestly friendly, snapping photos with their smartphones and even exchanging email addresses with us (we still keep in touch). They were genuinely happy that we chose to visit their part of the world.

In the 21 months that we traveled, we visited 23 countries. We started in Eastern Europe, moved from there to the Middle East, then North Africa. We then spent a month in Sri Lanka and 42 days in India. From there, we traveled to Turkey and then back to Eastern Europe, where we stayed put for four months and worked tourist jobs in friendly Montenegro on the Adriatic Coast to save some money. After a great summer living with a Serbian family, off we went to Hong Kong and China, then to every country of Southeast Asia, staying about a month per country. We finished up with a summer in the Siberian part of southcentral Russia.

Obviously, a journey across the world like this, for 21 months, changed my life in innumerable ways. I’m now married to my travel partner. I now have tens of thousands of amazing images from places that not everyone gets to see, and I have a much deeper appreciation for the simple help that kind strangers often offer. Thank you to Anya for your open mind and your willingness to “go anywhere.” Thank you to all those who we met and who often pointed us in the right direction.

I had so many supreme photographic moments on our journey that my images and their stories could fill volumes. If anyone were ever to ask my advice about going somewhere, about stepping out of his or her comfort zone, I’d simply say, “Go. Go now. Don’t hesitate, travel light, and seize the opportunities that await!”

Tamron 16-300mm

Canon EOS 70D

Time Passes, The Tools Get Better
On his epic 21-month trek, Don Mammoser used a Tamron 18-270mm lens exclusively. This kind of all-in-one zoom enabled him to travel light with an equivalent focal range of 29-432mm on his Canon 40D DSLR. That was in 2012. If he were making the trip today, he likely would be using Tamron’s newest all-in-one zoom, the 16-300mm Di II VC PZD and the Canon EOS 70D. The 16-300mm has Tamron’s Vibration Compensation technology, and the 70D is an excellent still camera, with Canon’s latest motion-capture technology and an articulating touch screen.

Don Mammoser is a professional nature and travel photographer and writer. He has written a series of travel-related ebooks that discuss where, when and how to photograph iconic destinations around the world. They can be found at amazon.com under his name. Don leads exceptional, fun workshops and photo tours to North American and international destinations. Visit www.donmammoserphoto.com.