German adventure photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Ulla Lohmann began her career in an extraordinary way. Aged 18, she won the German youth science competition Jugend forscht, beating more than 8,000 competitors with her reconstruction of a fossil. The prize money changed her life.
"I invested my €1,500 prize in a year-and-a-half trip around the world, which is when I started to take my first pictures," says Ulla. "It shaped my future, because I became a photographer and a storyteller."
Ulla now regularly works for magazines and broadcasters including GEO, the BBC and National Geographic. Here she shares the pivotal moments in her career and offers advice to aspiring adventure photographers keen to follow in her footsteps.
On that life-changing trip, Ulla travelled to the volcanic islands of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean to see an active volcano – fulfilling a childhood dream. "All I'd ever wanted was to see an active volcano," she says. "By coincidence, there was already a team from National Geographic there, so I convinced them I could cook, and they hired me. I was proud to be able to learn from the best – but it also made me realise how much more I needed to learn to get published."
Inspired by the team – many of whom were scientists – Ulla returned to study natural resource management and photojournalism. "With these degrees, I was much more prepared, but I needed a niche, so I specialised in indigenous cultures, particularly communities living around active volcanoes.
"It's a very narrow field but it was my breakthrough moment – a lot of magazines contacted me. I carved out this niche by proposing the right stories. You need to invest your time, money and energy into something you're passionate about. I just do what I love. My motto is: 'Don't dream it, do it'."
"My breakthrough story was about a tribe in Papua New Guinea who still practise mummification and had never been photographed," says Ulla. "Magazines are looking for photographs that have never been seen before – something visually interesting that tells a story. Become an expert in one area and use a unique style of photography to tell that story. Choose a topic with wide appeal that reveals new things."
"If you want to become an expedition photographer, make sure you know the ropes – learn adventure sports or expedition skills. Make sure you know about ice climbing, ski touring and wherever you can, go where other people cannot," she says. "You will have an advantage as a photographer and get hired because you have specific skills.
"I have to be a full team member: I have to carry the same amount, walk the same distances and do my job – it doesn't matter if I'm a man or a woman. I want to believe that gender does not play a role, but where are all the other female photographers? There are so many great women out there [taking photos] but not a lot of them are adventure photographers."
"I can trust my equipment; it's very reliable and I know I won't run into technical problems when I'm in remote locations," says Ulla. "I ask a lot of myself in situations but I also push my equipment."
Alongside a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and a Canon EOS 5DS R, Ulla uses the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R when scaling mountains and photographing volcanic eruptions. Its lightweight body and its touchscreen allow her to focus on capturing images in the heat of the moment – such as when she's "dangling from a cliff on a rope" and can't look through a viewfinder.
Canon RF lenses have also helped her to explore new possibilities. "On assignment for GEO France, shooting a volcano erupting in Indonesia, I took a Canon EOS R as a back-up camera, alongside a Canon RF 15-35MM F2.8L IS USM lens and a Canon RF 24-70MM F2.8L IS USM. I really fell in love with the RF lenses – they're incredibly sharp and fast. I found myself using the camera not as a back-up, but as my main body.
"A lot of the photographs selected [by the editors] were taken with the Canon EOS R. Much of that assignment was in low light, and I can shoot more handheld with the new lenses. The ISO was great, the stabilization was perfect and they were fast. The quality of the camera meets the quality needed for magazines."
"Photograph a story and approach magazines," says Ulla. "I like to meet editors at photo festivals such as Visa pour l'Image. It's always better to pitch in person because they will look at your photographs – just make sure you can explain your story in one sentence."
Emailing editors with just three select photos for review can also work, she says. "Send your three strongest images, then try to get an appointment or an answer. Editors don't have much time, but your pictures get seen and you get feedback. I make a portfolio of new stories every year, pitch it to editors and usually one in 10 works. That's just the nature of the game."
Captivating social media content is also essential, says Ulla. "It helps to have a good portfolio, but a lot of editors browse social media and websites for photographers, so make sure only your best shots are out there."