Insights and ideas from Wes Nations
Globetrotting with Johnny Vagabond
Wes Nations, a graphic designer from Austin, Texas, dreamed of making an around-the-world trip. In 2010 he finally decided to take the plunge. Today, he is visiting the developing world, taking his time and staying as flexible as possible. His traveling philosophy is what he terms “low and slow.” Through his blog, Johnny Vagabond, which features fun stories and stunning photography, he wants to encourage others to get out and see the world. Here, he shares how important photography and Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® software are to communicating the beauty of different cultures.
Photoshop.com: Which piece of equipment couldn’t you live without and why?
Wes Nations: As geeky as it sounds, I couldn’t do what I do without my MacBook. In addition to producing my travel blog, I also work as a graphic designer so I need a rugged, dependable laptop with the power to run Photoshop, Illustrator®, and Lighroom software concurrently and manipulate raw files without bogging down. If I lost my camera, I could make do with a cheaper model—though I wouldn’t like it—but I don’t think I could survive without my Mac.
Photoshop.com: What role does Lightroom play in your photography process?
Wes Nations: Lightroom is a critical component of my workflow—I think of it as my “equalizer.” I’ve been traveling for a year now on a very tight budget and I’m using prosumer-quality gear. I don’t have a full-frame camera, high-end lenses, or a carbon-fiber tripod. And because I focus on writing as well as photography, I rarely have a chance to plan my travels specifically around shooting. I often stumble into an interesting scene when the light is bad but have to make the best of the situation because I’ll be on a train or bus at sunset.
With Lightroom, I can salvage a flawed or mediocre shot and can make a good shot look great, often in just a few minutes. Finding time to edit is always a challenge on the road and being able to sort through my photos, organize and tag them, and delete duplicates quickly allows me more time to concentrate on editing the best ones and writing for the site. I’d much rather be behind the camera than in front of the laptop.
Photoshop.com: How did you create the result in the Tam Coc river photo? (Image 3)
Wes Nations: I took this shot while I was on a rowboat tour in Vietnam. Even though I arrived early and was on the first boat of the morning, the sun was high by the time we reached this spot and I only had a few seconds to shoot as we drifted by. The image needed to be cropped and rotated and I applied Auto-Tone then increased the brightness and saturation 10 points, boosted the blacks, pushed the midtones, and warmed it up a bit.
The rock wall in the background was too dark, so I used a Graduated Filter to increase the exposure by a half-stop. The lotus plants behind the boat were tilted towards the sun and were too bright, so I used the Adjustment Brush to isolate that portion and decreased the exposure by a quarter-stop. After adding a slight vignette, I decided I wanted more detail in the rock and the grasses, so I boosted the clarity by about 30 points.
The total process took less than five minutes. I’m currently only publishing for the web, so that makes things a bit easier. If I were planning to print this, I would spend more time burning in a few details and such.
Photoshop.com: What is your favorite photo and what grabs you about it?
Wes Nations: I’m a story-teller by nature so I really love photos that not only capture a moment but tell a tale. I took the Ganges Gulls photo (Image 5) from a boat on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India and I have to admit that it was a lucky capture. I fired off several shots as we passed by and just hoped that one of them turned out. Only after I pulled it up in Lightroom and boosted the exposure of the people in the boat did I see the expression of joy on the girl’s face. Both of them were having a great time and I think the photo captures that. I bet the gulls were pretty happy, too.
Photoshop.com: Are you a self-taught photographer or did you have a mentor or teachers that showed you the ropes?
Wes Nations: I’m self-taught and am still learning. I shot a lot of 35mm 10 to 15 years ago, then moved into graphic design and missed much of the digital photography revolution. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve picked up a camera again and I’m really enjoying learning (and re-learning) how to get the most out of it.
Photoshop.com: What do you like most about shooting digitally?
Wes Nations: The instant gratification of being able to review your shots and make adjustments or changes while shooting has dramatically increased my percentage of ‘keepers’ and has allowed me to learn and improve at a much faster pace. After returning from my first trip to India in 1999, it took me a month to scrape up the money to develop all 80 rolls of film and by the time I saw the prints it was very difficult to reconstruct what I’d done wrong (or, occasionally right). And shooting raw is like having a magic time-machine button. Being able to adjust your exposure and white balance after the fact is game changing.
Photoshop.com: How do you know that a photo is really good?
Wes Nations: For me, any photo that can create an emotional response is a good photo, whether it makes me feel sad, uneasy, hopeful, or giddy. I love color and texture and can appreciate eye candy but the really good shots are ones that hit me in the gut.
Photoshop.com: What is it about photography and taking pictures that inspires you?
Wes Nations: Capturing the moment is what it’s all about for me. I’m very visually-oriented and being able to capture a moment in an image that is both visually appealing and also tells a story is the main goal of all of my photography. And it’s proved to be much more difficult than I’d thought.
Photoshop.com: Where have you traveled since your adventure began?
Wes Nations: I started in Bangkok, Thailand in March 2010 and then crossed into Cambodia for a couple of months. From there I rented a motorcycle and rode the length of Vietnam before moving into Laos for two months. I visited India for nine weeks then spent some time in Nepal. I'm now in Chiang Mai, Thailand getting caught up on work and letting my bank account recover.
Photoshop.com: Tell us about a memorable day/location and what made it stand out. Were you able to capture the day in photos?
Wes Nations: I was lucky enough to be in Pushkar, India for the annual Camel Fair and it was an incredible, overwhelming experience. Tens of thousands of villagers converged on the town, bringing with them an estimated 50,000 camels and the dusty hillsides were covered in tents, carts, and cranky camels. The first day was the most crowded and spectacular but I found that I actually got my best shots at the end of the week, after the crowds had thinned. There was just too much going on in the background of my earlier attempts. It was really difficult to separate the subject from everything else.
Photoshop.com: What do you most like to take pictures of as you travel to various countries?
Wes Nations: I love taking portraits of people I meet and I find that to be the most challenging aspect of travel photography. I always try to be respectful and get their permission first, but most people really tense up when they see the SLR. Cultural differences come into play, too. An Indian friend was showing me his wedding photos and when I asked why he was so serious in every shot, he replied, “That is my photo face.” And some things can only really be captured with a “sneaked” shot, so it’s a bit of a dance. I just keep stumbling along, hoping I’ll eventually find the rhythm.
Photoshop.com: What aspect of Lightroom provides you the biggest productivity gains in your workflow?
Wes Nations: Being able to sort quickly through a few hundred shots and delete the duplicates or bad shots really speeds things up. I use a few presets to make my usual basic adjustments and give me a good base to work from, saving considerable time and strain on my fingers and wrists—really appreciated when my desk is a pillow in a hotel room or I’m hunched over a cafe table. I’ve been using Virtual Copies quite a bit to allow me to try different things and being able to reset or back up a few steps when I’ve pushed it too far is wonderful. Copy and paste is very handy too, allowing me to apply basic settings quickly to a series of shots.
Photoshop.com: Do you have a favorite Lightroom preset?
Wes Nations: The presets I use aren’t really stylized presets, but starting points. I generally boost contrast and midtones on every shot, so I have a preset for that. Two other variations use the same settings but add either the Landscape or Portrait profiles for my camera. After applying a quick Auto-Tone adjustment, I’ll decide where to go from there.
Photoshop.com: What advice would you give to new bloggers just starting out?
Wes Nations: Find your own voice and think about how you can separate yourself from the pack. There are over 200 of us stumbling around out here right now and it’s very hard to make yourself heard and to be noticed. Find something you’re good at or passionate about and focus on that angle, whether it is food, politics, photography, or humor. Then, just keep at it and don’t get discouraged; it takes time to build an audience. In regards to photography, only put up your very best work and shoot every chance you get. The travel blog scene is very text-focused at the moment and good photography really stands out.
Photoshop.com: What is the ONE lasting impression you want to leave in your photos?
Wes Nations: I think I just want people to realize that it really is an incredible world that we live in and that things are changing so fast that they really owe it to themselves to get out and experience it while they can. Languages are dying out and cultural traditions are being forgotten or converted into hollow entertainment for paying tourists. If you want to see what things are really like, or learn how people have lived for hundreds or even thousands of years, now is the time. And you don’t have to be rich or a chiseled triathlete, you just have to be willing to take the plunge, open your heart, and make an attempt to connect with the people around you. Everything else takes care of itself.
Washed Out with Warm Tones