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German travel photographer Holger Leue has been capturing the world’s finest travel destinations for more than 20 years and has built up an impressive publishing catalogue of over 100 books and calendars that chronicle a life spent on the ocean wave. CPN Editor David Corfield learns more about his craft and discovers how Canon DSLRs and lenses keep his work – and his business – at the cutting edge of quality...
No photographer’s route to the top is ever the same. Take Holger Leue, for instance. A photojournalism graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz in the USA, he quit his job working for local newspapers and headed to the other side of the world to capture the drama and beauty of New Zealand. This was more than two decades ago and he hasn’t stopped travelling since.
“I have always had a camera with me, even as a small child,” he admits. “But the real change came for me after I had to document the Loma Prieta earthquake in California in 1989. I have immense respect for photojournalists but I realised that documenting hard news was not for me. So I sold my car and my computer and packed up my apartment to head to New Zealand for three months with the hope of photographing a coffee table book about the country. It was a calculated risk, plus I was much younger and it seemed like the right thing to do. It was a long shot but it worked out.”
Leue’s entrepreneurial flair is one of the reasons he has managed to remain successful in the travel photography business for so long. Along with an affable nature, his friendships are many and varied, and it’s the personal touch that helps win him the clients. “I‘ve always maintained a close connection with the travel industry and work hand-in-hand with PR agencies, cruise lines, airlines and tourism boards. There is a mutually beneficial collaboration, sometimes with clients going out of their way to provide me with an opportunity to capture the best views. In return I offer them access to some of the resulting imagery.”
He continues: “I spend a lot of time knocking on doors and visiting trade shows, in particular the ITB in Berlin, Germany, regarded as the world’s leading travel trade show. This is where the entire travel industry and key decision makers flock to in early March each year, and I am there usually for three days of non-stop meetings. This lays the groundwork for where I will photograph for the next 12 months.”
Leue is a relative newcomer to social media but recognises its potential for marketing. “I use facebook on a professional level and I find it a valuable marketing tool for a lot of my friends and acquaintances are in the tourism industry,” he says. “But I am lucky in that I have a lot of very established clients and at the end of the day I am a firm believer in that the highest quality prevails. There are a lot of smartphone photographers out there taking snapshots with filters applied and bombarding social media with plenty of hashtags and, yes, some of the images are striking. However, I do believe that there is still room for traditional travel photography crafted with heart and soul. There is such incredible image saturation now, which must make it extremely hard for photo editors, and that is why niche agencies such as LOOKphotos with high-quality images in well-organised collections continue to thrive.”
Leue’s relationship with Canon goes back to January 2005, which is when he determined that it was the right time to switch to digital. “I used to work with a film rangefinder but it was Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark II with its full frame sensor that convinced me to change,” he recalls. “I have stayed with Canon ever since and I’m delighted that the models have not just improved over time, but have become smaller and lighter. For a travel photographer this is of utmost importance!”
“I now use an EOS 5DS with an EOS 5D Mark III as my back-up body. The 5DS has not just met, but exceeded my expectations. I don’t use any special custom functions with it as I already love the design and the ergonomics coming from the EOS 5D Mark III. These bodies are just the best; they are intuitive. I view the 50.6 Megapixels not just as a creative advantage, but also a unique selling point as I can offer my clients file sizes which would permit them to print billboards.”
“As a travel photographer you always weigh the options as to what equipment to take. I usually carry three L-series EF lenses: a 16-35mm f/2.8, a 24-105mm f/4 and a 70-300mm f/4-5.6. Around 75 percent of my work is shot with the 24-105mm. I try not to change lenses too often and after a year with the EOS 5DS I still haven’t had to have the sensor cleaned. For some reason it seems less prone to dust.”
Leue is a huge fan of the EOS 5DS but notes two points: “If there are two aspects I would like to see improved it would be to have GPS in the body plus the digital noise at high ISO is quite significant. But I understand the noise is because of the high-resolution of the sensor, hence the limited ISO range. Those are only two minor drawbacks and they are hardly criticisms. The 5DS been with me a year now and it has proved to be my workhorse camera.”
“I have taken the camera to the icebergs of Antarctica with an EF11-24mm lens which was a fabulous combination to work with and I have been to tropical climates where it also performed flawlessly. Not a single thing went wrong with it.”
“I even used the EOS 5DS for a video I made during a six week-long Antarctica project aboard Poseidon Expeditions’ MV Sea Spirit, where I worked not just as a photographer but also as a photo lecturer. Video is not my primary focus but it was a wonderful hands-on experience being able to make a film like that. It’s an amazing part of the world and the video made the experience all the more vivid. I edited most of the film myself and then for a tighter edit I used an outside source.”
On his stills photography workflow, Leue shoots RAW every time. “I shoot RAW in combination with S2 JPG for initial viewing right away. I recently came back from an assignment in Myanmar with nearly 12,500 exposures and filtered that down to just under 2,000 and each of these RAW files I converted to a TIFF in Lightroom where I did the post-processing. I prefer not to outsource this stage as only I can give the images the precise look I envisage. So I do all this, which obviously takes time, and then I do the captioning and cataloguing. It’s a system I am comfortable with and it works for me. For every day that I am out in the field, I spend pretty much a whole day in the office to complete all the follow-up work.”
“When I post-process my images I always aim to place a particular emphasis on the colour. A kaleidoscope awaits to be discovered and my clients like that very much. Of all the amazing destinations I have been to I must say that New Zealand is my favourite because of the combination of its incredible natural beauty, colour and also the authenticity of it all. It has superb infrastructure and very kind people. Plus my first couple of books were on New Zealand so it has a special place in my heart.”
“I always retain the right to co-market the imagery I shoot for clients, either marketing it myself or through the picture agencies I am affiliated with” (a significant amount of Leue’s work is represented by Getty Images and LOOKphotos). “I never offer exclusivity deals to my clients as I find that counter-productive. For the tourism clients that I have, my supplemental channels to promote the product worldwide is of significant value and a unique selling point for Holger the travel photographer.”
Leue earned his considerable reputation by photographing coffee table books and travel guides. “This started two decades ago at a time when the German travel book market was huge. It is decreasing now, as indeed most print-based publications are, but Germany had a huge amount of interest in travel pictorials focusing on distant lands and I feel fortunate to have been part of that boom. A handsomely produced coffee table book can be a truly beautiful showcase but nowadays people don’t seem as keen to spend money on such products any more.”
“I once also self-published a luxurious coffee table book about the circumnavigation of South America by German cruise ship MS Deutschland and also a handful of calendars. It worked out well but it’s not something that I would wish to do on a large scale. There are true publishing specialists out there that can do it even better – it’s important to remain in an area that you are strongest in.”
“Personal networking is still the best way to market yourself," reckons Leue. “I went to a tourism industry dinner recently where I was able to discuss informally my work and that later resulted in a commission. You have to work in areas where you are trusted and respected and where you are the expert. At the end of the day, it’s not just world-class photography that makes the difference, but also a good nature and a personal approach. And if I can inspire people who have enjoyed my images to pick up a camera themselves, then so much the better. Everyone wins!”
© Lars Boehnke
Holger Leue is regarded as one of the premier travel photographers. His work has been published in more than 100 books, travel guides and calendars, as well as in many magazine features. He is regularly commissioned by a variety of international publishers and publications, tourism boards, cruise ship lines and airlines. "The well-being that I experience on location," he says, "is reflected in the quality of the imagery." To date he has completed photographic assignments in over 100 countries.