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"Don't dream it, do it" – Ulla Lohmann's 5 tips for aspiring adventure photographers

Two scientists silhouetted against the lava lake inside the Benbow crater on the volcanic island of Ambrym.
Adventure photojournalist Ulla Lohmann has led expedition teams to help scientists better understand Vanuatu's volcano complex. Here, two scientists study a lava lake – with a temperature of more than 1,000°C – inside the Benbow crater on the volcanic island of Ambrym in the South Pacific. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens at 126mm, 1/125 sec, f/8 and ISO500. © Ulla Lohmann

German adventure photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Ulla Lohmann began her career in an extraordinary way. Aged 18, she won the German youth science competition Jugend forscht, beating more than 8,000 competitors with her reconstruction of a fossil. The prize money changed her life.

"I invested my €1,500 prize in a year-and-a-half trip around the world, which is when I started to take my first pictures," says Ulla. "It shaped my future, because I became a photographer and a storyteller."

Ulla now regularly works for magazines and broadcasters including GEO, the BBC and National Geographic. Here she shares the pivotal moments in her career and offers advice to aspiring adventure photographers keen to follow in her footsteps.

Men in traditional grass skirts dance in a circle on Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
After fulfilling her childhood dream on Vanuatu, Ulla decided to specialise in photographing indigenous cultures, particularly communities living around active volcanoes. The people of Tanna Island live in the shadow of Mount Yasur, which has been erupting almost continuously since at least the 18th century. Their dances have a deep spiritual meaning and are often related to the volcano. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/160 sec, f/13 and ISO200. © Ulla Lohmann
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1. Carve out a niche

On that life-changing trip, Ulla travelled to the volcanic islands of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean to see an active volcano – fulfilling a childhood dream. "All I'd ever wanted was to see an active volcano," she says. "By coincidence, there was already a team from National Geographic there, so I convinced them I could cook, and they hired me. I was proud to be able to learn from the best – but it also made me realise how much more I needed to learn to get published."

Inspired by the team – many of whom were scientists – Ulla returned to study natural resource management and photojournalism. "With these degrees, I was much more prepared, but I needed a niche, so I specialised in indigenous cultures, particularly communities living around active volcanoes.

"It's a very narrow field but it was my breakthrough moment – a lot of magazines contacted me. I carved out this niche by proposing the right stories. You need to invest your time, money and energy into something you're passionate about. I just do what I love. My motto is: 'Don't dream it, do it'."

An active volcano on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu.
The volcanic complex on Ambrym is the world's largest emitter of volcanic gases – when it first erupted, it was among the 10 largest eruptions in the world. Ulla's images help to fund research to better understand the volcano. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/125 sec, f/16 and ISO640. © Ulla Lohmann
A climber ascending the Totem Pole, a vertical sea stack in the Tasman National Park, Australia.
Ulla is not afraid of pushing her body to its limits in order to get the perfect shot – after seeing an image of the Totem Pole, a sea stack in the Tasman National Park, Australia, she decided to climb it. At 70 metres high and just two metres wide in places, it's known as one of the most challenging climbs in the world. Taken with a Canon PowerShot G7 X (now succeeded by the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III) at 12mm, 1/800 sec, f/5 and ISO250. © Ulla Lohmann

2. Seek never-before-seen photographs

"My breakthrough story was about a tribe in Papua New Guinea who still practise mummification and had never been photographed," says Ulla. "Magazines are looking for photographs that have never been seen before – something visually interesting that tells a story. Become an expert in one area and use a unique style of photography to tell that story. Choose a topic with wide appeal that reveals new things."

Adventurer Laura Bingham stands chest-deep in a river, wielding a machete.

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3. Build adventure expedition skills

"If you want to become an expedition photographer, make sure you know the ropes – learn adventure sports or expedition skills. Make sure you know about ice climbing, ski touring and wherever you can, go where other people cannot," she says. "You will have an advantage as a photographer and get hired because you have specific skills.

"I have to be a full team member: I have to carry the same amount, walk the same distances and do my job – it doesn't matter if I'm a man or a woman. I want to believe that gender does not play a role, but where are all the other female photographers? There are so many great women out there [taking photos] but not a lot of them are adventure photographers."

A wooden walkway traverses rocky cliffs beside the sea.
Ulla needs kit that she can rely on for her adventure photography, and found that the lightweight but robust Canon EOS R was ideal for the job. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-70MM F2.8L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/160 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Ulla Lohmann

4. Make your kit an extension of you

"I can trust my equipment; it's very reliable and I know I won't run into technical problems when I'm in remote locations," says Ulla. "I ask a lot of myself in situations but I also push my equipment."

Alongside a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and a Canon EOS 5DS R, Ulla uses the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R when scaling mountains and photographing volcanic eruptions. Its lightweight body and its touchscreen allow her to focus on capturing images in the heat of the moment – such as when she's "dangling from a cliff on a rope" and can't look through a viewfinder.

Canon RF lenses have also helped her to explore new possibilities. "On assignment for GEO France, shooting a volcano erupting in Indonesia, I took a Canon EOS R as a back-up camera, alongside a Canon RF 15-35MM F2.8L IS USM lens and a Canon RF 24-70MM F2.8L IS USM. I really fell in love with the RF lenses – they're incredibly sharp and fast. I found myself using the camera not as a back-up, but as my main body.

"A lot of the photographs selected [by the editors] were taken with the Canon EOS R. Much of that assignment was in low light, and I can shoot more handheld with the new lenses. The ISO was great, the stabilization was perfect and they were fast. The quality of the camera meets the quality needed for magazines."

A geologist abseiling into an active volcano.
Geologist Basti Hofmann – Ulla's husband – abseiling into Mount Yasur on Tanna to take samples. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 38mm, 0.5 sec, f/9 and ISO1250. © Ulla Lohmann
Three tents erected on the side of an active volcano.
Camping inside the Benbow crater on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 15mm, 2.5 secs, f/6.3 and ISO2000. © Ulla Lohmann

5. Get your portfolio reviewed by editors

"Photograph a story and approach magazines," says Ulla. "I like to meet editors at photo festivals such as Visa pour l'Image. It's always better to pitch in person because they will look at your photographs – just make sure you can explain your story in one sentence."

Emailing editors with just three select photos for review can also work, she says. "Send your three strongest images, then try to get an appointment or an answer. Editors don't have much time, but your pictures get seen and you get feedback. I make a portfolio of new stories every year, pitch it to editors and usually one in 10 works. That's just the nature of the game."

Captivating social media content is also essential, says Ulla. "It helps to have a good portfolio, but a lot of editors browse social media and websites for photographers, so make sure only your best shots are out there."

Written by Lorna Dockerill


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