Interview with the Travel Photography Guru, Sir George Tapan

He is a frequent traveler and he roams the country and the world with his camera for work. What is more fun than getting paid to live your passions in life?

For Sir George Tapan, at the age of 64 and with silvery hair, photography and traveling are the things that define his life. For many years now it has been his bread and butter; the craft that lifted him to prominence.

George Tapan's "Into the Green Zone" photo that won the National Geographic Photo contest 2011.(c) George Tapan, National Geographic
But he seems too humble for the titles and the prestige that come with his name. He’s got two Pacific Asia Tourism Association (PATA) Gold awards and an ASEAN Tourism Association award to his name. Above it all he won the 2011 National Geographic Travel photography contest topping 20,000 other entries from 130 countries around the globe.

Clad in faded brown vest and old brown long-sleeves, the travel photographer guru walked humble and slightly slouched. The Nikon D800 hanging on his right shoulder made his movement heavier but he didn’t seem to care. Whenever he saw something worth a click he would stop, compose thru the eyepiece for a moment longer than I normally do and fire away.

He talks a lot. He talks in a humble tone but there’s this level of authority to his words. We first met in Koronadal City, my hometown, for a tourism familiarization tour in Allah Valley. When he talks about photography and traveling, he talks as if he is talking about himself. In his words you can sense the depth of his commitment to his two passions.

What makes a good photographer?
GT: The body of work should be the proof of the photographer. What you’ve done since you held a camera would speak of you. 

What makes a good travel photo?
A good travel photo has a soul. One photo should speak a lot of stories.

A night with the Tbolis of Lake Sebu (c) George Tapan

How do you take beautiful landscape photos?
In landscape photography you first have to study the place. What is the place’s elevation? How will it affect your photograph? What is the perfect time of the day for taking photos of the place?
Take Lake Sebu for example. What’s the magic hour to see the magic of the lake? Get the spirit of the landscape. What represents Lake Sebu? We have the Tboli people, the lake, and what make this lake unique are the lotus flowers. It’s how you tell the story of the place.  
At dapat may buhay. There has to be a presence of a person to scale the size or the mere presence of the landscape.
Lastly, give more time for your work. Wait for a bird to cross your frame if you need to. Create your pictures.  

Are photographers born or trained?
For me, I am a born photographer. My father is a photographer; we were raised with his photos. I am living as a photographer now. But, I cannot speak for other people.
Some photographers might be popular but that doesn’t make them born photographers.  Well, maybe they were. They worked hard for it. They can speak for themselves.

What is the place in Mindanao that you find most picturesque?
Bukidnon. It has great nightscape, festivals, mountains and culture that can be great subjects for photography.

Kaamulan Festival, Bukidnon (c) George Tapan
What about the whole Philippines?
Palawan. Palawan is truly the last frontier of the Philippines. It has everything.

How far should one go when post-processing?
I don’t normally post-process my photos. My National Geographic winning photo Into the Green Zone was pure and was submitted straight from my camera. 

But there are times when you need post processing. Some photos you took might be good but might need a little adjustment in exposure and brightness. Just stay true to the natural color. 

Manipulation of colors is not being realistic. When you apply too many technical changes you’re not being honest to your viewers.
Each camera has a distinct color. Make sure to calibrate it to the right color, especially its white, red and blue.

What can you say about photographers who are into heavy post-processing and editing?
They can do that. But they are more of graphic artists that way. The likes of M... (I named a famous photographer as an example) are not photographers but more of graphic artists. That is the trend now and photographers are unusually proud of it.

I shoot RAW. You can produce JPEG from RAW but not RAW from JPEG.

How many cameras must a photographer take with him?
You can take four or five cameras with you…if you are the assistant.
But you should always have a support camera. I take with me two Nikon bodies.  I use the main unit and the other one serves as a spare.  You can choose lenses too with wide and telephoto capabilities to minimize your pack.

You have published coffee table books and one is about Palawan. What was your motivation in producing that coffee table book?
I was challenged because I saw a coffee table book about Palawan and it was so ugly. Palawan is a paradise of more than 1000 islands with rich history, the underground river and all. That book did not represent the place. So I decided to produce my own.

What would you advise young photographers?
First, ask yourself where would you want to use your photos?
From there create your own style of taking photos. You have to have your own identity. Sometimes your photos are dictated by art directors or editors. Get away from that and have your own style.

Find a good camera; be it an SLR or point-and-shoot. But don’t rely on phone cameras.
Get inspirations. Read travel magazines, the likes of Nat Geo. Look at photos taken by international photographers or are published internationally. Learn how their photos were created. I even do that myself.

What would you advise aspiring travel photographers?
Your camera is just a tool. Execution using your tool is different.  It doesn’t matter what camera you use, basta rich yung photos (as long as photo is rich with stories).
Express your message through your photos.  It’s not about composition and the rules of photography. 

Break the rules if you must!  Batanes , for example,  is a place with outstanding landscape, but I wanted to capture it in a stormy weather. I did and I think it was a beauty representing the true description of the place. It’s on how you present what you want to take.

It’s challenging since you’re not in a studio where everything is provided and controlled. If you want to get good travel photos, capture it in a right time.

Your photos must be timeless. (He immediately opened his Facebook timeline in his tablet and showed photos of a young Tboli woman in a traditional dugout canoe in Lake Sebu surrounded by pink lotuses.  He said he took that photo 15 years ago.)

What would you advise travel bloggers?
What do you really want to be known for or be really good at: as a writer or as a photographer? You can only choose one.

Your story can support your photos or your photos can support your story. But if you can create stories just through your photos, choose to be better in photography.  

What would you advise in taking portraits of people?
First, know your subject. Be creative in doing that. You don’t have to spend a day to know the person. You don’t have to break into their privacy just to know their story. The personality of your subject is attached to her/his craft or what she/he is doing.

Like with Lang Dulay, how do you photograph her as a weaver and present her as a distinctive character?  Remember, there are many known weavers like her too all over the country.

Maria, a Tboli Woman. Photo was taken 15 years ago. Photo by George Tapan
What would you advise mountaineers in taking photos of the mountains?
What do you want to describe of the mountain? Give some time to take photos to present your mountain. Use a person to show scaling.  Take a different perspective.
Example, for Mt. Apo: shoot from an unusual vantage point, like, from Lake Venado or from the summit of neighboring mountains.

What was the tipping point for you as a photographer?
I have been in the mainstream even before the Nat Geo contest. I used to shoot for movies. I worked for previous presidents starting with then President Marcos. I was the official campaign photographer of former President Erap Estrada since he started as Mayor of San Juan. I also worked for President Cory Aquino.  

I was earning from photography since then. I remember one day, I recalled not having my own home lot yet. There was one photo I had of President Cory from a photo assignment. It was sold for P150,000 which I used to purchase a lot.

Then one day I thought I needed car. I had photos sold and I used the money to buy a Volkswagen Campervan which was a cool car that time.

I work for the Department of Tourism too. I used to be the director of Photography for the Philippine Airlines’ in-flight Mabuhay magazine.  
But after the Nat Geo contest, everything really changed. It’s a different thing to win international contests.

What made you win the National Geographic travel photo contest?
I was confident that I was going to win! There were 20, 000 photos submitted but I knew it was for me when I submitted my entries.

But when I first received an email informing me of winning the contest, I deleted it. I thought it was a joke or some kind of spam. They e-mailed me again asking me for the original copy. I sent the same copy since it was untouched, not even cropped. It was a decision.

What convinced you to join the contest?
I came to compete for my country. Really, it sounds showbiz but I’m serious.  That was the time when the country was so down because of corruption, poor economic performance, government scandals and more. I wanted to present to the world the beautiful side of the Philippines.

But my photo wasn’t originally intended for the contest. I was finishing the Palawan coffee table book and that photo was intended for the back page. The book was meant to show the world that Palawan is a green zone - it is not meant for exploitation.
But I decided it can compete for the international contest, so I submitted it.

What’s your secret in taking great photos?
I pray before I shoot. I did that with my entry in Nat Geo. Look at all the elements in the photo: the rain, the rainbow, the sea, the wind that blew the woman’s hair perfectly and the boatman behind her. That would not have happened without His intervention.  

What’s your ultimate goal as a photographer?
I believe I have a calling: I want photographers to be respected as artists too. I look at photographers and artists on the same level, but the society and the government don’t view it that way. We have national artists for painting, for weaving and literature. They create their art pieces and our photographs are art pieces we create too. Why don’t photographers get the same respect?
That’s my mission.

A Nomad's Perspectives author with the guru, George Tapan
Sir George has completed a 48 days solo sojourn to Southeast Asia and he was so excited in telling his stories. He told me more stories of his travels and travails in capturing the moments, people and places while fogs envelope the surroundings of Lake Sebu.  He barely sipped from his third glass of brandy when I was done with my interview.

I knew he had more stories to tell but nature is silently commanding us, humans, to hit the sack and escape from the chilly night.

"Sarap mag travel!” I can still vividly remember the excitement in his glowing smiles complementing his shiny silvery hair when he said that. At his age he is still winning prestigious contests. He is still thrilled, like a first-timer, to hop into his next travel destination…and take great photos. []

Sir George Tapan conducts photography workshops with this blogger and the Nomadik Adventours entitled Secrets of the Master in popular tourist spots in Mindanao area. For updates on schedules and to follow his Secrets workshop, visit the facebook page HERE.

Disclosure: The interview with Sir George Tapan was a product of chitchats we had while on  tour to Allah Valley -- South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat (#AllahValleyTour2013) with some Pinoy Travel Bloggers and members of national media. The tour was hosted by Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance (AVLDA) with Local Governance Support Program for Local Economic Development (LGSP-LED). 
Photos were used with permission.


  1. "Manipulation of colors is not being realistic. When you apply too many technical changes you’re not being honest to your viewers." - OMG, this is sooo true! It's also setting expectations. Kasi sometimes I end up disappointed seeing a certain attraction that's prettier in a photo than in real life.

    Ang humble sobra ni Sir George! So inspiring. Kakainlab. Hihi.

    1. i really can relate to that. May kakampi na tayong di magagaling sa photoshop. hehe.

      yeah. he's so humble like you can ask him out to eat balut sa kanto anytime and he'd go. :P

    2. relate ko rin not good din in photoshop

    3. good to know that, sir.
      thanks for dropping by. cheers!

  2. And to think that I was using the videoke all the time while you were doing the interview, hahaha! =)

    1. astig ka dude. pero di mo na overpower ang interview session. haha! rock and roll. see you around, alas!

  3. great helpful tips... the more natural, the better the photos.

    1. yeah! i learned a lot from him, really. for other photogs that would have cost me a lot. but he was too humble and generous to share what he knows for free.
      thanks, bro. cheers!

  4. I first heard of him during Kaamulan 2013 but we werent formally introduced. Hes humble and down to earth and thats what I like about him :)

    1. yeah, true dat. next time lapitan mo lang sya, shugah. mabait yun. :)

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I have a daughter here in South Africa who is now a budding photo journalist finishing her honours degree in journalism. I want her to read about our kababayan who's really a guru in photography. George hails also from my hometown. Thank you.

    1. Hi there! thanks too. Nice to know that. Who knows, maybe the next photography great will be your daughter? cheers!

  6. An interview of George Tapan that made me inspired to continue living my passion in Photography. As a travel blogger and photographer, his revelation below made me more inspired
    "What is the place in Mindanao that you find most picturesque?
    Bukidnon. It has great nightscape, festivals, mountains and culture that can be great subjects for photography."

    Thanks Louie for this.:-).

    1. Indeed, Bukidnon is da place. Been there several times but i feel like always bitin. makabalik nga to see more. :)
      His words are truly inspiring. Cheers, sir Bonzeti!

  7. Very colorful costumes and distinct culture, sana tatagal pa ang ganitong kultura sam kabila ng pag pason ng modernisasyon

  8. i love this article sir.Thanks for sharing sir idol!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...