When we think of a typical “travel photographer,” we tend to envision National Geographic shooters encumbered with piles of gear and a single photographic objective that they pursue with neurotic devotion. Bill Weir, however, uses travel photography differently. It’s a part of the multi-discipline creative process involved with creating his CNN TV show, The Wonder List. It’s a combination of TV, social media, and online photo galleries all designed to tell a single story. We asked Bill for some insight about how he approaches his photography and some tips for traveling the world with cameras in tow. (Season 2 of The Wonder List premieres Sunday, March 20th at 10 PM on CNN.)
You have been doing broadcast news for decades, but how long have you been interested in photography? My dad gave me my first camera when I was twelve, but in those days I could afford maybe two rolls of film a year [laughs]. I wasn’t getting the reps until everything moved to digital. I’ve always really loved photography, but there has never really been a place for it in my previous broadcasting gigs. Part of the concept of this show was really to expand the concept a little bit, beyond the actual show, using other creative channels.
Has your photography evolved since it became such a big part of your job? A lot of it just came by soaking up as much knowledge as I could from Philip Bloom, my director. When I first got the show, I knew I wanted to find the best DP I could. I was one of his fanboys. I loved his site and his tips. I called him and told him about the show and a couple days later we were having gin and tonics together. He knows more about camera gear than I’ll ever know, so just to learn at his elbow along the way is a real gift.
Ultimately, it’s just like anything else in life, it’s the reps. Every trip out, I take exponentially more photographs. Now, I’m averaging two to three thousand frames per trip. You almost can’t help but get better each time when you’re getting that much practice.
**What kind of kit do you typically bring with you on an expedition? ** I use Canon gear. This season I’m shooting with an EOS 5DS R. I was on a 5D Mark III last year and now I’ve switched over to the new camera. I like to be able to carry everything on, so I typically bring as much gear as I can possibly fit in one bag. I usually bring five lenses: A wide-angle, a 50mm prime, a macro, a telephoto, and a standard zoom like the 24–105mm.
Many travel photographers I talk to like to choose the smallest possible camera they can, but on the show, I see you with a giant zoom lens slung around your neck. Do you find that the flexibility is worth the added bulk? I try to mix it up as often as I can. I’m not covering breaking news and I can take my time in a spot. I’ll try a shot with three different lenses. Some of our episodes are about people. I went to Iceland and it wasn’t just about the landscape, but I wanted to get stories about people. Namibia and Botswana was all animals while on safari. I find myself going toward the big lenses.
You don’t get sick of carrying all that stuff? I found this amazing lens bag made by Hold Fast. It’s a suspender-type leather strap that lets the bag rest out of the way. I keep my main camera on a sling so it’s always right there and three lenses behind me.
How do you decide on the locations for your shows? And once you have picked a place, what is your research process like? It usually starts with the germ of an idea. For example, I wanted to tackle the ethics of big game hunting, so we picked a country based on that storyline. Botswana has banned hunting altogether in its public places while right next door they use hunters as part of their sustainable-use conservation. I do as much research as I possibly can on all the angles of that particular story.
Then we find the characters. We find the people in these places that help take us through these global issues. We’re doing stories about population growth, climate change, and species extinction; these are big existential questions, but they only work if we see them through the eyes of a single character.
With all that planning, are you still discovering new angles when you arrive or are you sticking to a rigid structure and schedule? The joy of my job isn’t anything like I’ve ever experienced covering news at the network level; they give me time and space to explore. I go to these places for two weeks. There are always characters and story angles that we discover after we arrive. There’s no way we could know until we get there.
The Wonder List TV show is at the center of it all, though. My priority has to be the show. If I’m going to sit down and interview the president of Iceland or the king of Bhutan I know what I’m talking about. We have a vision for how the TV show should go visually, but it’s all the spaces in between where I have my camera at my hip and I’m looking to capture the experience as it unfolds. That becomes something that works on a different level than the show. It’s great for an online experience and for social media. It really adds to the experience of the show.
Are you shooting video for the show as well as the photos? We have a very tight, small crew. Everybody has to do everything. There are times when I’m actually shooting video that’s going to end up in the show, or I’m setting up my own time-lapse shot to show a scene. A lot of times, if we’re in a location and I know my guys are focused on getting B-roll and I can wander, I’ll go out and shoot as much for myself as I am for CNN.
**It sounds like you’re really committed to using all types of imaging tools that are available to you, which is something I personally wish more people would embrace rather than getting locked into one discipline. ** We want to use every possible tool. We use drones whenever we can, but it’s not always allowed. Those creative constraints really make you think about how to make something sing in other ways. We use super-slow-mo and hyper-lapse. We’re trying to create timeless love letters to the planet as it exists today. After doing years of sort of disposable breaking news television, I feel like I’m creating something that’s much more permanent that people can look at years from now and it will still hold up.
Do you think this multimedia approach is going to become more prevalent in the TV world? I would hope so. The thing that I try to impart to the photojournalists in the news business that I have worked with forever is giving themselves the creative permission to try these things. In certain genres, you get stuck in ruts. People think “Oh, that’s for documentarians to play with,” or “A Steadicam is a feature filmmaker’s tool—why would we ever use something like that?” I’d love to break that. The problem is that a lot of times in newsrooms, the photojournalists aren’t given the time to just go lens-hack and come up with their own signature visual style. Usually it’s about crashing it and getting it online or on the air as fast as you can. Quality be damned.
Do you think this kind of things gives amateurs and enthusiasts more opportunities to try something like this? We live in a golden age of image gathering right now. You can buy equipment off the shelf that was unattainable when I was a kid. When you see Kickstarter videos that have higher production values than the stuff on TV, you know you’ve reached a point where the audience isn’t going to settle for sloppy B-roll. Every year our eyes become trained to expect even more.
None of it matters unless you have a compelling story. Visually speaking, there has never been a more exciting time to live in this world.