Travel Photographer Neill Drake Does More with Less
When we first checked in with Neill Drake, it was 2015 and he had recently embarked on an indefinite trip around the world. (Drake began his journey to counter the physical and emotional pain from injuries incurred in the Coast Guard.) Today, Drake is still on that grand adventure and continues to chronicle the natural world and its inhabitants in photos. Since our original article, however, Drake has gained a companion: his adorable dog, Hurley.
Drake used to travel with a lot of photography equipment: cameras for every occasion, multiple lenses, filters, tripods, tripod remotes, and so on. “I used to be the person who needed everything,” he says. Ultimately, he realized that the equipment was becoming a burden. Not only to carry, but it got in the way of enjoying his experiences. “You're worried about it being stolen, you're carrying around all this extra weight, things are getting lost and broken,” Drake explained. “Traveling with all that stuff is just not fun.”
Drake also realized that he was missing the moment by focusing on technicalities. “Do I go wide, or do I go in tight? Which lens is best? Do I use my Rx100IV or my a6000? Perhaps the GoPro? Am I going to print it? Is this just going on Facebook? Too many variables,” he remembers.
And so he jettisoned almost all of the gear. His sole camera is the Sony Cyber-shot RX1R II (a full-frame digital camera that fits in a pocket) and its fixed 35mm lens. Drake feels that getting rid of the equipment made him a better photographer. “I don't have to worry about which camera or lens will get the best shot. I have one camera and one focal length to work with. By restricting myself this way, I'm more aware of what the light is doing and what the mood is telling me.
“The first time I went to Antarctica on the Sea Spirit with Poseidon Expeditions, I brought three cameras, four lenses, twenty batteries, two tripods, and all the extras. The next time I went, I had just one camera with a fixed lens, and I can’t even begin to explain how much more I enjoyed Antarctica. It was a completely different experience.”
The software doesn’t merely compensate for the lens limitation. When Drake visited Antarctica, the extreme lighting contrasts made it difficult to expose images properly. Thanks to Lightroom’s Dehaze feature, he could easily bring out proper contrasts for all the little cracks, crevices, and beautiful imperfections in the ice formations. Without Dehaze, he explains, “You would have to spend an exorbitant amount of time messing with each slider individually to achieve the same effect, or you’d have to bracket every image, which requires carrying a tripod, and when you’re on an expedition in Antarctica, a tripod is a huge inconvenience.”
Drake tries to spend as little time as possible editing photos so he can instead explore his surroundings and create new content. He relies on custom Lightroom presets to streamline his workflow and minimize his computer time. He has developed presets for both editing and file management.
For high dynamic range photos, he’s moving away from Lightroom’s auto-HDR feature in favor of luminosity masks. While the masks are time consuming, Drake appreciates the customizable results: “You can add a lot more flavor to your photos.”
A fixed 35mm lens also suits Drake’s growing interest in street photography. One reason Drake has embraced street photography is the need to accommodate his chronic back pain. Instead of, for example, hiking up a volcano, he’ll stay in town and meet people. The 35mm lens requires a more intimate approach to photographing people, many of whom are complete strangers. “It takes courage,” he notes, “but the payoff is worth awkward encounters.”
With Hurley the dog by his side, local transportation and housing became more difficult, so he purchased a 1999 VW bus to solve both of those issues. The bus also gives Drake the opportunity to explore Latin America in a way most backpackers can’t. He spent almost seven months in Iguauzu Falls converting the bus (also known as a kombi) into an off-grid adventure mobile. With the help of some local friends, he was able to outfit the kombi with storage, a bed, cooking equipment, solar panels, power inverters, and a freezer. “The kombi is a constant work in progress,” says Drake. “The more I travel with it, the more I find ways to improve it. I focus a lot on keeping myself, Hurley, my passengers, and my possessions safe.” He’s working his way south through Patagonia on his way to Ushuaia, Argentina, where his journey from South America to Alaska will officially begin.
While Drake travels to continue his own healing process, he is even more concerned with raising awareness for other veterans. He hopes his travels will educate others living with physical and emotional suffering that there are alternatives to what he calls “fists full of pills.” “I don’t want my veteran status to be embellished, either,” he says. “I had a job and got hurt while doing that job for the military, but I never went to Iraq or Afghanistan. I don’t want people to confuse me with the men and woman who fought overseas. PTSD is claiming the lives of our veterans everyday; we need to do more to help them, and that begins with awareness.”