Steve Davey is the first to admit that his acclaimed career as a pro travel photographer and writer has been driven in no small part by a low boredom threshold. From his secondary school days, when he soon cottoned on that doing O level photography was a golden ticket for skipping dull lessons ("I'm just off to take some photos, Sir"), to his 30-odd years of travelling around the world on commissions, workshops and solo projects, he has turned his itchy feet into a highly successful and – more importantly – enjoyable way to live and work.

With four best-selling books under his camera belt, most notably Unforgettable Places To See Before You Die (translated into some 30 languages with nearly a million copies sold worldwide) and Footprint Travel Photography 2e, which is widely recognised as the leading book on the subject, he works for a range of publishers, photography titles and travel and lifestyle magazines, including a South Korean inflight mag for which he shoots both academies and fruit and veg around the world – he has just finished doing leeks in Wales. He also runs in-depth travel workshops in the UK and overseas, marketed through his Better Travel Photography website, which he set up to help people not only improve their travel shots but also their experience of taking them – something he is passionate about.

A Nikon user from his early photography-degree days, Steve has steadily worked his way through much of the range – famously causing more damage to a D3X than Nikon had ever seen, after falling on it while being attacked by a ferocious dog (he came out of it rather better than the camera). Currently his go-to cameras are two D810s, while his recent workshop in Myanmar provided a great opportunity to put the new D5 through its paces, including at an impromptu bow-and-arrow firing competition with the occupants of a remote village in the Chin Hills…

Roughly how many countries have you photographed so far?

It's around 89, but it isn't going up as fast as it used to as I keep going back to the same ones. Most of my 'bucket-list' places are ones I've already been to and would like to explore further, such as Ethiopia, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil, Mozambique and Madagascar – I'm actually finalising a tour there as it's currently unfinished business! I would also like to head to Papua New Guinea; that's been on the list for some time.

When I was doing my two BBC travel books – Unforgettable Places To See Before You Die and Unforgettable Islands To Escape To Before You Die – it was all very much lightning tours, with only a couple of days to shoot each place, so now I've started doing them properly. The other thing is, I've now got a young daughter and son, so I've drastically curtailed my time away from home. Pre-kids, I'd do a two-week workshop and stay another week or so afterwards, totally wearing out my welcome; now I don't. These days I do a lot of shorter but very targeted trips.

Were you surprised at the success of Unforgettable Places?

Yes, I was blown away; it really did do stupidly well. It was a combination of the right time, right place. Work had started languishing, so I added some money to the mortgage – bought a motorbike and also paid for an assistant to make all of those pitch calls that I had been putting off for ages. BBC Books came back to say they had a project that could be perfect for me, as it required someone who could write, photograph and had the travel industry links to get the job done... in just seven months! It came out just before the Christmas and became one of the most popular books on Amazon, and I've ended up with a whole pile of foreign-language editions lined up on a bookshelf at home, stretching over a metre!

We followed it with Unforgettable Islands, which is actually my favourite book of the two. All the more obvious places had been covered in the first book, so I had to go off piste and find new locations, which gave me a lot more freedom to include places like the Gangasagar festival on Sagar Island in the Ganges delta, Socotra Island in the Arabian sea off Yemen, and the parks in the middle of Tokyo which are a virtual 'Island of Serenity'.

How did you get into photography?

It started with my uncle. He was basically an inventor, and one of the things he built was an enlarger, which ended up being given to my father, so we had a darkroom in the attic when I was a kid. It was tremendously exciting to climb up there and play around with it.

I started doing photography O level at school and soon realised it was a good 'get out of jail free' card – we weren't allowed to leave school during the day, but if you had a camera in your hand you were excused because you were obviously off taking pictures… Wanting to have fun like this did lead to me mucking up my exams, and I had to retake my A levels. When doing this I taught myself photography A level, and I ended up doing a photography degree at the Central London Polytechnic [now the University of Westminster]. I was living in a squat in King's Cross, partly to save money as photography was so expensive in those days, what with film and developing, and partly because it was fun.

When did you get your first break?

I started freelancing while I was at college. I was doing a commission in Spain when I should have been putting together my end of year show, but my first real job came about in my final year as a result of going to Venice to shoot the carnival. When I got back I talked my way into the offices of Ritz Newspaper – a very trendy society, fashion and gossip magazine set up by David Bailey and David Litchfield – to show them my images. The then editor loved them, and asked me if I knew anyone who could write about them. And I thought, well, I can, and that's how I got started as a photographer and writer.

I'm probably not the best writer or the best photographer in the world, but I can do a damn good job of putting both skills together. I've worked hard to develop it into my niche: I can sell a package of writing and photography, and it's a good business. It's how I got the BBC books and, in 2013, the commission for my Around The World In 500 Festivals book. I did have a real job once: stocktaking in a warehouse. It lasted 3½ days – it was one of those things where you go to the pub on a Thursday afternoon for a drink and never go back!

Did the travel and photography always go hand in hand?

Yes. I've always loved travelling, and being a photographer has enabled me to visit so many incredible places and take part in so many incredible things, while meaning I can travel in a sustainable way.

Do you prefer photographing people or places?

People; partly because I'm terribly nosey and like talking to people, and partly because with over six billion people in the world you are more likely to get something original with them. It's like shooting at a festival – you're less dependent on light and weather than you would be with landscapes. I love people and what they do, and day or night, rain or shine, you can always get great people shots. What I've realised is that all around the world people are inquisitive, they want to be treated with respect, and most want to have a laugh. So you look someone in the eye, laugh with them, bond with them, and you'll get much better pictures.

What was your first Nikon camera?

My first camera at college was a Nikon F801, and I've been with Nikon ever since. One day I went to get my F4 serviced but discovered it was going to cost £300 to put right, so I let myself be persuaded to buy a secondhand F5 for £500 instead. I later bought another one, and I loved them. They were rock solid; they've never really dated.

I was able to get properly into digital after the Unforgettable Places book – I'd shot it on film and got all the pictures back after two years, with a decent royalty. However, the print company had damaged a lot of my transparencies and I ended up getting a big settlement, and the result of all that was that I was able to afford two new Nikon D2X bodies. For me, the D2X was the first camera that equalled the results from scanned-in transparencies. What Nikon did with their camera development has been clever. Other manufacturers were banging on about resolution and ISO being all that matters, but it's not – it's like putting a 6-litre engine in a car but not bothering that you've got dodgy brakes and bald tyres. You aren't going to do very well in the corners… In the meantime, Nikon were beavering away on flash, white balance, AF and lenses, and with the D3S and D3X they cracked high ISO and resolution too, giving them the better all-round system.

I got the D3X when it first came out, and I'd say it was on a level with the F5 in terms of my favourite cameras. I've officially caused more damage to the D3X than anyone else in the country – I was fighting off a ferocious dog in Laos, fell on the camera and ripped the front mount off while cracking two ribs and dislocating my knee.

What’s in your kitbag now?

I usually shoot with a couple of D810s, to which I've added MB-D12 battery packs as I've got big hands and I'm used to larger camera bodies, and they also have the advantage of 6fps and buttons designed for the vertical orientation. The D810's resolution and sharpness are just astonishing. I found myself making extra efforts to keep my elbows tucked right in so I'd look less like a photographer when I'm using it, because you can see me taking the picture in the reflection in the eyes of the person I'm photographing – the quality is that good. For such a high resolution camera, the ISO performance is excellent. I'm fairly noise-phobic, so I don't usually go past ISO 6400 on it for high quality magazine work, and at that level it is quite incredible. It's an amazingly robust camera, too.

I recently borrowed the new D5 to use on a job photographing for a speed-skating academy in Germany, followed by ice hockey in Slovenia, and I also took it to Myanmar on my last workshop. It's a brilliant camera. Having 12fps is amazing, as is its low-light performance; on the trip I got really used to having a good two to three stops more than I would with the D810, so I'd be comfortable using ISO 25,000 to 50,000 for a shot I'd be planning to blow up and use as a spread in a glossy magazine. What's also good is the D5's sharpness; the self-calibrating AF seems to have made a huge difference with the 80-400mm; and it can do this on the fly, fine-tuning automatically as you're shooting. I'd love to have one in my camera bag the whole time, but I'd probably only use it for 5% of my shots – the D810s are what I need for daily use. But I'm open to offers!

What I do find amazing is the changes that DSLRs have gone through in the 12 years since the D2X was released, from 12.4MP and a maximum ISO 800 to the 36MP of the D810 and native ISO of 102,400 on the D5. It certainly gives you more opportunities. In Myanmar last November, I was shooting the Taunggyi fire balloon festival with the D5, when a box of fireworks accidentally dropped from an ascending balloon caused a huge explosion. I caught the whole thing on the D5 and the shots got picked up by The Sun. So as well as being a travel photographer, I'm now a roving, slightly raving, news agency!

What about lenses and accessories?

I take quite a bit of kit around with me, because if something breaks or goes missing, I still need to be able to keep shooting. The widest lens is a 10.5mm DX Fisheye, which I will use very occasionally. I shoot a lot with the 14-24mm f/2.8, which is a beautiful lens, and have the 17-35mm f/2.8 to back it up – it has the advantage of taking a standard 77mm polarising filter, too. Then I've got the 24-70mm f/2.8, a little 50mm f/1.4, the 60mm f/2.8 Micro, 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII and a 1.4x converter, and the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR. At home I have the old 28-70mm f/2.8 and 80-200mm f/2.8 as back-up spares in case any of the other kit needs a repair when I get home.

I also have the SB-910 and SB-810 Speedlights. I'm actually really into the Creative Lighting System – this is the thing my non-Nikon-using friends are absolutely green about. When you're travelling and can't use a full lighting rig, a couple of Speedlights with a small softbox in your carry-on kit on the plane will give you the same results as a studio set-up, with the camera's pop-up flash as a built-in controller – it's fantastic. The whole system really works, and I think Nikon should definitely push it more. I've started using the Creative Lighting System quite a lot, especially for more commercial commissions, as it allows you so much better control over lighting.

What is your proudest achievement?

The second edition of my travel book, Footprint Travel Photography 2e. The first was good, but the second was the one I'd wanted to do in the first place, if only I'd had more time and a better budget. And I'm pretty proud of the tours I run, too. We get a lot of repeat business. I only do four or five a year, and some people have done seven or eight trips with me – they come back because they're having a good time.

For me it's about a bit more than teaching photography. My theory is that the way to get good pictures is engagement. For instance, last November in Myanmar we trekked up to a very remote village, where the inhabitants plied us with their local brew, then one produced a bow and arrow, and we ended up in a shooting competition with them, which was fantastic for photography, and then another one asked me if I wanted to fire their old muzzle-loading musket! I want to give my clients the ability to get in there and have fun, to the point that they're nabbing all the shots I want to get – but if someone wants to go hyperfocal distance on me I can hold my own with that, too!

Is there any one place in particular that has really stood out for you?

The Kumbha Mela festival in Allahabad. It's held every 12 years and it's the biggest festival on Earth. I went in 2001 for the biggest and most auspicious mela in 144 years. I spent two weeks there, covering it for Geographical Magazine from the angle of it being a town-planning story – basically the authorities build a temporary city on a dry river bed, with housing, hospitals, electrical points, cafés, everything you need, and millions of people come from all over India to take part. So in one glance I could see a kid running an internet café, with a man guarding a Nescafe machine and next to him a naked, ash-smeared sadhu meditating on a bed of nails over a fire. On the main bathing day, 35 million people turned up to bathe into the waters of the Ganges; it was chaos. It was also one of the largest cities in the world for a single day, which was one of the justifications for the story!

The festival ran for three weeks, and after the main bathing day, which fell half way through, I had to turn around 100 rolls of film, finish writing the story, and credit and caption a selection of pictures, and I still managed to get the piece into the magazine before the festival was finished. It was an incredible experience. I even interviewed a few of the sadhus, which was a touch intimidating as, at that time, sadhus weren't that media-friendly – although these days some even have their own websites. I had rather worse luck with another, who decided he didn't really like photographers. He was standing there butt-naked with dreadlocks, holding his trident to my throat. When I pointed out that I still had the lens cap on the camera and hadn't photographed him after all, he got all offended and demanded to know why not… That was a bit surreal.

Did you ever imagine you’d end up with a career like this?

I was brought up in a little village just outside Bristol and I found it quite claustrophobic, so as a kid I'd dream of escaping and travelling the world… but back in those days I wanted to be a BBC cameraman. Travel and photography were more of an unformed dream, but I seem to have achieved it. Although I'm not sure my dream ever included sitting up all night in Brixton drinking 49p energy drinks so I could finish my tax return!

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