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George ‘the Explorer’ Turner
Landscape, Wildlife & Adventure Photographer

With an award-winning background in advertising, George ‘The Explorer’ Turner is now making a name for his 360° approach to clients – not only supplying imagery but also full social-media content and strategy.

George Turner's route to professional photography has not been entirely orthodox. After completing a degree in English, he supplied social media content for the International Tennis Federation, which then led to an award-winning career in advertising. It was while working in New Zealand for Ogilvy & Mather that what started off as essentially a bet with a client led to a burgeoning Instagram following and the realisation that offering a total content strategy – encompassing images, words and social media – could provide a point of difference for his photography, which up until then had been a hobby.

Since he started shooting seriously and developing his brand 2½ years ago, George's images have been featured in publications worldwide, including The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Buzzfeed, BBC Britain, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and National Geographic Traveller Magazine, and he has been working with European tourism boards, travel brands, retailers and advertising/PR agencies. He's also just had four entries accepted into his first ever competition – Outdoor Photographer of the Year – and he only turned professional in January 2016…

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Tell us more about how you got into photography…

It started with tennis. I'm really into tennis, so after finishing my English degree I emailed the International Tennis Federation and basically said 'I'll do anything for you'. Rather than taking me on as an intern, they paid me to do social media content, which was just starting to kick off. From there it was a natural transition into advertising and then to photography – I'm lucky in that it's been quite seamless, and it's great to work in both worlds.

I've always dabbled with photography, but eight years ago my better half got a DSLR, and using it was enough to persuade me to buy my first Nikon, the D300, while I was working in New Zealand for the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather – the landscapes there just beg to be photographed. In advertising, imagery is the basis of everything we do, so I was always immersed in images at work, and I could spot a good composition. I started taking lots of pictures myself, and pretty soon I upgraded to a secondhand D700. But things really started to change when one of my New Zealand clients couldn't be persuaded of the power of Instagram. I said I'd prove it to them by opening an Instagram account of my own and posting travel images and content, to show how many followers I could get. I ended up with 2,000 in just two months, which got me thinking about how far I could take it.

I then came back to the UK and started freelancing in advertising from Dorset, where I'm from, but then I was asked to work in London full time and I really didn't want to. Instead I joined an ad agency nearer home, in Southampton, but it didn't work out. I remember one particular day so clearly; it was January 6, it was dark, and cold, and chucking it down with rain, and I thought, I can't do this anymore, I need more creative freedom.

Then one night I went to a talk held by a guy called Bertie Gregory, a National Geographic film-maker and photographer. He's a young guy – he's got a couple years on me – and that, coupled with what he was saying about his career, convinced me it was the 'now or never' point of my life. So I quit my job the next day and started as a full-time 'content creator' in January 2016. Everything since then has been a mixture of hard work and luck; luck in getting the proposals, and hard work in making them work.

Why have you focused on the content route, rather than ‘just’ photography?

Making money from being a 'pure' photographer is so hard. I wanted to be different: not following the traditional photography 'fine art' route or the Instagram route that doesn't diversify beyond sponsored travel. So, drawing on my background in advertising, I market myself as a 'content creator', carving my niche in the tourism sector. I concept and write strategies, travel and shoot the content, then assist in its actual distribution. Things really kicked off with a big campaign for Visit Norway in May and June, and off the back of that came jobs in Costa Rica, Sweden, France, Scotland and photographing brown bears in Finland. I'm continually trying to diversify what I do and who for. I want to work for brands and organisations that make a positive impact on people. I'm constantly re-evaluating my work ensuring that my passion and love for photography is never negatively impacted by doing the wrong type of projects.

How did you come up with your brand name, George the Explorer?

I grew up in a tiny village of 400 people in Dorset. Whilst I'm extremely thankful for my very rural upbringing, it certainly came with its constraints. It's the reason why I moved to Bristol, then London, then New Zealand; if I can take 'adventure', I'll snap it up. As a result my friends – somewhat mockingly at first (!) – dubbed me 'George the Explorer' and it just stuck. When I first started working for myself I considered changing it but actually it's a real ice-breaker when meeting potential clients for the first time: 'Hi, I'm George the Explorer!'

What’s currently in your kit bag?

I still use my secondhand D700. It's dented and scratched, and I've dropped it so many times, yet somehow, it keeps going. When I was in Costa Rica recently my camera bag split, the D700 fell out and I even heard (and saw!) it bounce on the concrete floor… like the trooper it is, it was fine. I've become quite attached to it! I do use loan cameras, too – I've used both the D810 and the D500. The D810 is quick, and the tracking on the autofocus is a big step up for me from the D700. The 10fps on the D500 is fantastic, especially for wildlife photography. It also copes well at high ISOs, so it's perfect for low light.

The 50mm f/1.8D is probably my favourite lens – I bought it for £80 new and in terms of value for money, it can't be beaten. It's pin-sharp, quick, and so tiny that it hides in the corner of my camera bag. I've started a mini project shooting just with the 50mm; it's been a ball so far. I'm also using the new 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR – it's a great lens – and I've also just been lent the 500mm f/4E FL ED VR which I'll be using next year in Africa. I'm using it at moment at the Arne Nature Reserve in Dorset to photograph hen harriers. I borrow lenses if I need something very specific – for Barbour, for example, I need to use a decent portrait lens, but it's not worth me buying one. My other main lens is the 17-35mm f/2.8 IF-ED; this tends to be my go-to landscape lens and, in extreme situations, wildlife! I actually used this 50% of the time when in Finland because the bears came so close.

What’s on your kit wish-list?

I'm going to get the D810 as a Christmas present to myself – the sensor is insane. That's the main reason I love it. Many of my clients need to be able to blow up the images to large sizes, e.g. for outdoor advertising, and the detail it holds is phenomenal. The ISO on the D810 is also ridiculously high, and noise is minimal, which gives you a bit more wiggle room with your images; it's nice to have that flexibility.

But at the moment my D700 is still my go-to camera. With cameras you begin to form an attachment to them because you've done so much with them. With my D700 I know exactly what I need to correct, and I know all my presets in Lightroom will work with it – with a different camera I have to redo all that. I'm a stickler for change!

Do you do much post-production?

With wildlife images I'll generally make changes to the white balance, tweak the contrast and sharpness to give more depth, especially if I'm shooting a little bit too late in the morning or too early in the evening. For landscapes I'll do a bit more but I never stray far from the 'truth' of what I saw.

Which do you prefer: landscape or wildlife work?

I started off with landscape because I found it a lot easier than wildlife but I've always cared for the latter more. While landscape is more commercial – I work with several stock libraries and the animal shots are secondary to landscapes for them – wildlife seems to be given more recognition by the wider public. For that reason, wildlife felt a bit intimidating at first, in that I'd need the very best lenses and gear to compete at the highest level, and it felt out of my reach. Instead I persevered with landscapes, then while I was taking a series of pictures in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall I discovered the otters on the River Stour and got a bit obsessed with photographing them. That eventually led to the bear project in Finland, then off the back of that came a job in Costa Rica. So it's all linked – my passion for wildlife, my love of landscape, and the impact the images can have. The Dorset otters raise so many stories, whereas with landscapes it's more 'Oh yeah, I used to go to Dorset on holiday'; on social, the biggest responses are always from the animal images.

What are your favourite locations and wildlife subjects?

For wildlife, it has to be the bears in Finland – it was like nothing I've ever experienced in my life. We were taken to the hide and told not to even think about taking pictures until we were inside it. So we came over this hill and there were the bears; so many of them, within metres of you. It's unbelievable. I spent two days in the hide, and they'd come right up to it – it was such an intimate experience. By the second day I was starting to know the bears better. One female had year-old cubs, so she was less protective and would sit back on her haunches watching them play, which enabled me to get my favourite shot. It was an unparalleled experience.

For landscapes, I'm split between New Zealand and Norway, particularly the Lofoten Islands, which are still quite quiet, raw and visceral as a destination, although they are on the cusp of becoming very popular. Lofoten feels like a different world. We were there in late spring and early summer, so we got golden light from 9am to 3pm, as well as the midnight sun.

Where do you want to explore next?

Namibia – it must be the only place in the world where you can see huge sand dunes falling into the ocean. The Namib desert looks like some post-apocalyptic landscape, it's so arid. They also have the Big 5 in Namibia but it's so much quieter than its neighbours… I also really want the classic 'oryx-against-the-dunes' shot!

How much time do you spend travelling?

This year it's probably averaged the equivalent of a week a month away and probably the same for next year. The big trips this year have been Norway and Iceland from April - June, then Finland in July, France in August, Norway again (!) in September, then Costa Rica most recently.

What have you got coming up for 2017?

I'm looking forward to going back to Norway to co-run a workshop with a Norwegian photographer friend around the Hjørundfjord. It used to be very popular in the Victorian era, as it was a favourite haunt of Norwegian and British royalty, but it's fairly quiet now which makes it great for photography, and the views are amazing – you almost don't know where to start.

But my biggest jobs next year so far are two that speak to what I enjoy the most, those that I dub 'me trips with a purpose'. So I'm off to the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, working with local conservation groups and charities. I'll be producing pictures interlaced with real stories.

Everyone cares about conservation once a year, when a big TV series like Planet Earth II is on, then as soon as the series finishes the interest wanes. I want to help try to keep up the momentum. For me, the most important thing is getting it to the populace, making it feel not so far away, trying to put it in people's faces so they understand it and feel empathy. It's all about education through inspiration – people won't read the educational pieces until they're brought in by being inspired, and that's easier to do through images than words.