10 things I've learned about photography from Jimmy Nelson

All photographs in this article are © Jimmy Nelson and are all owned by Jimmy Nelson. The photographs are used for educational purposes only. I am not trying to claim ownership of any kind.

Jimmy Nelson is a British photographer who is best known for his photojournalism of indigenous tribes all across the globe. A well renowned book of his, 'Before They Pass Away' follows the story of these tribes and displays Nelsons breath taking imagery for all to see. I have learned a lot from Jimmy Nelson and have compressed it down to 10 key points that I feel are most relevant to documentary photography and photojournalism. 

1. Experiment with different formats


Jimmy Nelson has experimented with countess camera types and formats throughout his career, which has both furthered his technical skills and created a wider range within his photography. For his most renowned book 'before they pass away' he shot with several camera types but predominately used a 50 year old 4 x 5 large format film camera. This is why the detail and quality of prints in the book are so outstanding and even though he was using analog equipment the quality surpasses most of the imagery we see today. So try not to get fixed on only one camera body, experiment and see what looks best!


2. There's always somewhere new to travel


By the time Jimmy Nelson was seven he said that he had traveled more places than a lot of people do in a life time. However this thirst, this need to travel has never left him and i don't feel that it's ever going to leave me either. He first knew he wanted to be a photographer when he was travelling across the country of Tibet, the throw away pictures he started to take inspired him to improve his images and from that moment a photographer was born. Even after travelling across the world to shoot the images for 'Before They Pass Away', i'm certain that Jimmy Nelson isn't satisfied and will continue to pursue the unknown. A lesson we should all pay close attention to, it's the unknown that makes life worth living.


3. Try to find true culture


Culture is the fuel that ignites the fire under any traveler, but due to a constantly evolving world it becomes increasingly harder to find a specific culture,  traditional and contemporary culture is easily faked and often done so to make money. True culture exists where it always has; in groups outside of the general public, culture is emotional, it is personal and effervescent. When I say find true culture, I mean you should immerse yourself in an entirely new climate. More often than not after a little time you'll be drawn to the culture in that area like a moth to a flame. If that doesn't work, conduct a little research and target specific area. It worked for Jimmy Nelson and it will work for you if you're determined enough! 



 4. Be patient and keep your finger hovering over the shutter


No matter what your subject, photography always involves a great deal of patients. From shooting to editing, patients is the characteristic that will get you 'The Shot'. Jimmy Nelson is no stranger to this, often spending hours upon hours just framing and coordinating one single photograph. For many of his images he would immerse himself in the culture for days until he was happy that he had formed a bond both with his imagery and his understanding of the people in his imagery. 


5. Love your subject matter and it will keep you inspired


If you believe that what you're photographing has a cause and it's important to you, then it will inspire you to keep striving forward, to keep trying and failing until you create the work you've been visualizing. Jimmy Nelson is no stranger to this, he recalls that when he was shooting a group of Kazakhs in the mountains, the freezing temperatures stopped him from clicking the shutter. This distressed him to no end and he began to cry out of frustration, but then two women from the group who didn't speak a word of English came and sang to him while warming him with their hands. Now if that isn't inspirational I don't know what is! He then proceeded to take two frames before leaving the mountain and the group behind. 


6. Dream big and never stop working on your craft


Although Jimmy Nelson is now a critically acclaimed photographer with several significant photographic projects under his belt, it wasn't always this way. Success is earned not inherited, It took Nelson years to learn and build upon the photographic, lighting, business and social skills that he holds today. As I have mentioned in previous articles it takes at least 100,000 hours to become of master of your craft and possibly even more than that. It was the vision; the dream that Nelson had, that inspired him through all the bad days, all the hardships and it was this that saw him through to the other side. You can't ever stop, give up or let others convince you that your dream isn't worth while. Stick at it! 


7. Be eccentric


There's not much point in travelling to far away places that you may never see again if you're going to shoot in the same style as someone else. Be off the wall! adapt your own style and tweak it with every opportunity you get. I always find myself experimenting with things that would seem foolish to most but if it works and creates my vision, then I would happily appear to be a fool. Everyone has eccentricity within them, it's that spark that you don't quite understand yourself but you feel it and if you can apply it to your photography then your style will be more recognizable. As it will seem so unique in the eyes of everybody else, that it will draw attention and publicity. 



8. build relationships with your subjects and you'll get better photos


It's well known throughout the photographic world that when you build strong relationships with your subjects, you will get to know them better and the better you know your subjects the better your photos will be. I have certainly made a habit of improving my social skills, as to appear more approachable and friendly. I've also found that body language also makes up a high percentage of what you are trying to say. This is essential when photographing abroad where a language barrier is definite and you need to make a good first impression with your subjects. Nelson himself recalls an incident where he embarrassed himself in front of a tribe, by urinating on his trousers and as a result attracted reindeer that broke down his tent. When the tribe learned of this they all shared a laugh and Nelson said that, after that he was more human in their eyes and all remaining ice had been broken between them. 



9. Don't be pushed into changing your vision for others


Nelson's work has faced some scrutiny by critics, that it doesn't correspond to how the world actually is. Well Jimmy wasn't moved by the criticism and you shouldn't be either, no matter what work you produce, there will always be someone who objects to it. That however is the beauty of photography, it's subjective! Nelson later responded by saying that his work has an individual aesthetic and he was trying to visualize true culture in the way that he saw fit. Find your voice and shout with every last breath you have. Don't be compromised!


10. Look Closer


Nelson recalls  being in north Kenya, where he captured the image above and he often asks people what they see. Tall elegant proud people? He states that most people believe that the humans in the image are women, where in reality they are men and not just men, they are samborough warriors. Who are rather effeminate, however the warriors have been known to kill lions with their bear hands, if they threaten their camels. Nelson teaches us to look closer, past our own first world prejudices and past our judgement. We should embraces things as they happen, instead of forming opinions before we see the full picture and learn of it's story. 


Books by Jimmy Nelson