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For Travel Photographer Dan Tom, It’s About the Journey

By Charles Purdy

In 2008, Dan Tom went to South Africa with a church group. A graphic designer with a background in fine art, he was assigned the task of documenting the trip on video and film. This experience had a profound effect on Tom, and it opened his eyes to a new form of artistic expression.

Visiting Dan Tom’s Instagram page is like taking a solo vacation. The landscapes and portraits that he shoots on his journeys are not only beautiful but also full of feeling—some are calming, like his golden-hour images of waves on a Tahitian beach; others have more of a story to tell.

Tom describes his photography as “travel with some lifestyle elements.” He says, “For me, travel and exploring new places are what inspire me the most and what I gravitate toward when I shoot. This is what motivates me to buy a plane ticket to somewhere new and just go.”

“I don’t want to characterize my work as adventure photography,” says Tom. “I see it more as exploration—exploring new places, meeting people, and documenting my experiences and the beautiful places I go to.” (These two photos were taken on a journey through Vietnam.)

AN EYE-OPENING JOURNEY

Tom’s love of travel, photography, and the combination of the two was awakened on a trip he took almost ten years ago. He explains, “I went to South Africa for a two-week mission trip, working with kids in an orphanage in a small town. We were all assigned roles, and I was assigned to document the trip. I created a video and took pictures, and that’s when I started discovering some photographic techniques—simple things, like that portraits worked better in soft light or shade rather than direct sun—and I just really enjoyed documenting our trip. This is where I discovered my love for travel, as well as for documenting and just telling stories with photography.”

A photograph from the Oregon coast.

Tom grew up in San Francisco (where he now lives, after a stint in Southern California), and he’s had an artistic bent since he was young—he describes himself as a shy but observant child who was always drawing and painting. “I’d draw movie characters, animated characters, and sports figures,” he remembers. “I was voted ‘most artistic’ in junior high—I shared the title with a girl in my class—and in high school, I took every art class they offered. We had an AP studio art class at our school, and I passed that with the highest grade possible, so I knew there was something there.”

He was certain he wanted to make a living as an artist, and after completing his studies at the University of California, Irvine, he began working in graphic design and web design.

MAKING A CAREER SHIFT

His fateful trip to South Africa was only Tom’s second international trip without his parents—and after that trip, he didn’t have many new travel opportunities right away. While working as a graphic designer in Los Angeles, he began cultivating his skills as a photographer, with some help from a colleague at his job.

Tom says, “I bought my first SLR about six years ago, and I began by just documenting my life. I brought my camera with me everywhere—and I documented the food I would eat, the friends I would hang out with, the places I would go…even just commuting in the horrible LA traffic, I would take pictures of cars.”

About a year and a half ago, Tom quit the job he had at the time and bought a one-way ticket to Peru. He spent four months in South America, backpacking through Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. “That trip was very meaningful for me, in terms of both life experience and photography,” he says. “It had been something I’d wanted to do for a while, because I’m such a huge believer in travel, especially solo travel. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone…. Nothing goes smoothly when you travel; that’s a given. So I think you learn how to problem-solve and how to figure things out. And the things that don’t go well add to the experience. That’s part of the journey of traveling.” (The central photo was taken in Bolivia; the other two were taken in Cusco, Peru.)

About two years after buying that first SLR, Tom discovered Instagram and mobile photography. For a little while, he primarily used his iPhone to take photos. “Instagram was more about mobile photography at the time, and the iPhone photo quality was pretty good, so I downloaded a couple of editing apps—and this is where I got more serious about photography and grew my passion even more. I was shooting solely on my iPhone for about two years and slowly gained a following.”

In turn, Tom says he was inspired by photographers that he discovered on Instagram, which he describes as a sort of birthplace for his photography career.

These days, Tom makes a living as a web designer, working on a contract basis, which allows him the flexibility he needs in order to pursue his travel photography passion—taking his Sony DSLR to the far corners of the globe.

For Tom, Instagram functions as his online portfolio. “I would say that most of my work has come because of Instagram and the pictures I post,” he says. “I would say that’s where 80 to 90 percent of my photography jobs originate.” (The central photo was taken in Nairobi, Kenya; the other two were taken in Tahiti.)

His fine-art background is clearly visible in the way he composes his photos. But Tom says that he doesn’t follow a determined process when he shoots; rather, he prefers to let things happen organically. He explains, “Obviously, I will go out at certain times or to certain places. For instance, if I notice a nice view, I will try to go there at sunrise or sunset when the light is best. But I love just wandering around and getting lost—you never know what to expect. I think going in with an open mind is the best way to approach it. I don’t have too many expectations, and usually I’ll see something interesting enough to take a picture of.”

Although Tom does crop and adjust colors (he says there are certain palettes he is more drawn to, especially with landscapes), he doesn’t do a lot of post-production work on his photos. The adjustments he does make, he usually makes in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC.

FOCUS ON THE FUTURE

Tom says that more and more doors are opening for him, and he’s trying to map out a path to becoming a photographer full-time. He’s building a portfolio and client experience, and he has recently begun selling his photos as an Adobe Stock premium contributor.

Tom recently went on a trip—organized by Adobe Stock and Tiny Atlas Quarterly—to Tahiti with a group of photographers, to capture images of French Polynesia for Adobe Stock’s Premium collection (read more about that trip). “It was amazing,” says Tom. “It was how I like to travel—we did home stays, as opposed to staying in a hotel. We met lots of local surfers, I went to a church service with a local family and shot some portraits of the kids there…this is how I want to experience places—I want to do it like the locals do, eat what they eat, and just get the most accurate vibe for that place. And that will hopefully come across in my work.”

“Obviously, I love to travel, and I feel like that’s where I produce the best work.” He says he’d love to work clients such as Airbnb, as well as other brands that share his passion for exploration.

His next big trip? He’s still working out the details, but he has his eye on a trip to Mongolia, India, or China—or a combination of two or more of these places—with a group of friends. They just need to get their schedules sorted out.

“I feel grateful,” he says. “This is an exciting career, and I love photography. I want to find ways to make photography a bigger part of my income, and I hope that Adobe Stock can help with that…. I also want to be figuring out what kind of photography I really want to be doing, what separates me from other people. I feel like that’s a good step toward taking it more seriously.”

See more of Dan Tom’s work on his Instagram page and on his Adobe Stock Premium contributor profile.  

A photograph from a trip to Utah.