Meet the judges: Caroline Metcalfe

Caroline, former Director of Photography at Condé Nast Traveller UK, and a long-time TPOTY judge, gives her insights into how she selects photographers for commissions and eye-catching TPOTY entries.

Please can you tell us a little bit about your career to date.

After university I got a job as an editorial assistant with a magazine called Now! It was back in 1981 and it was a British version of Time/Newsweek owned by Sir Jimmy Goldsmith. I worked with the political team but occasionally, on a big story, I was asked to join the photo department. It was a brilliant introduction to storytelling through pictures, to photojournalism. I was hooked. I then went to work on The Observer magazine where I stayed for eight years. Following that I went to join the launch team of The Independent Saturday magazine and stayed there for nine years until, in 1997, I decided to accept the offer of a job for the launch of Condé Nast Traveller magazine’s UK edition. There was a USA ‘mothership’ that had been running for ten years before we launched in the UK. It was an amazing challenge, introducing me to the world of travel photography where I remained as the Director of Photography for fifteen years. In 2014, I set up my own photographic consultancy and now work for a range of editorial and commercial clients in the luxury sector of travel and lifestyle.

You were Director of Photography at Condé Nast Traveller. Can you tell us what that involved day-to-day and how you work with photographers? 

The magazine had a launch staff, none of whom had ever worked in travel journalism or travel photography. The editor’s vision was to make a features magazine about the world and we ran a broad spectrum of features illustrated with reportage, travel, lifestyle, portraiture, still life, food and drink photography as well as stand-alone photo stories running across ten or twelve pages with just a standfirst, introduction and captions. 

As time progressed we moved more towards lifestyle and less reportage photography.  We would have weekly features meetings, stories would get commissioned. Sometimes a photographer and writer went together but more often the copy would come in first, I’d discuss how we wanted the feature to look and feel with the commissioning editor and then commission the most appropriate photographer for the story. Often I would send the photographer, armed with copy and a shot list, asking them to shoot the essentials and then bring me back what their ‘eye’ had seen and interpreted. I was always happy to be surprised – in a good way – by what the photographers could produce. There was never a ‘kill’ budget – the facility to just drop a piece if the pictures didn’t work out – so there was always huge pressure to capture the essence of the story and what the writer was trying to portray, but I did always encourage the photographers to ‘do their thing’ once they felt they had the key images in the bag. 

More often than not I, and more importantly our editor, were thrilled with what came back.  Sometimes material was a tad disappointing for various reasons, like terrible weather, the writer’s ‘creative imagineering’ was not quite the situation on the ground etc., but our incredible art directors and team could make stunning layouts work. All of our photographers were freelance. Sometimes we would send them from the UK but increasingly, as budgets tightened, we would have to find and use photographers working in the location or region. Some photographers became ‘contributing’ photographers and their names appeared on the masthead at the front of the magazine; they were never paid anything extra to be contributors but they were the photographers I would go to first to commission, so they got the pick of the top assignments.  

When the images came in I would make a first edit, then show them to the art director and editor. A second edit would finesse the selection and the art team got to work. Layouts were then approved, or not, by the editor and commissioning editor, tweaks made and then they were printed out and put up onto a board so that we could see the issue building as each feature came in. Layouts were then subbed, I would add in captions and credit information and, once the final edited layouts were approved, pages went to press.

How does working in print compare to working in a more digital way?

Speed is the main thing. When I first started at Now! Magazine  there was a picture desk of ten people and I worked for the political team on world events. At the Observer I worked with Colin Jacobson ‘the Godfather’ of Documentary and Reportage photography and my most brilliant mentor.  We’d send a photographer off to South America or Afghanistan or anywhere with 60-odd rolls of  Tri X and or Kodachrome film. Three weeks later they came back, we edited the contact sheets and the story would be laid out to go into the magazine, which would be out a week or two later. We did have a ‘late pages’ facility for news events and those pages had a 3 or 4  day turnaround, but compared to how things are now, this was slow.

At the Observer it was all film editing, primarily black and white, and there’d be a vast number of contact sheets. I had to cut the film and mount it into little cardboard holders. To look through them you’d put them onto a carousel and go into a dark room to show the editor, commissioning editor and art director etc. We primarily sent people from London rather than hiring photographers in specific locations.

If you knew someone was in a location, e.g. Steve McCurry in Kabul, you might be able to get in touch and do it that way. There were few agents, production teams, shoot lists. If you were lucky there was copy or the photographers would meet the writer in the location. We worked on a weekly cycle, with occasional late pages so that when, for example, Mandela was released from prison on a Saturday we had scope to include it for the following weekend: the film came in and we edited on the Sunday so that it was ready to go to the magazine presses on Monday. During the LA Olympics in 1984, the film didn’t come into London, it had to go via Paris through one of the agencies, so I went to Paris and just sat at a table for 36 hours editing material and then carried it by hand back to London.

Condé Nast Traveller (CNT) was very different as it’s a glossy monthly magazine. It was brilliant because we were starting something new. There was already a US version but this was the first UK iteration. We all came from newspapers so we knew how to work fast. Digital was coming in then, very rudimentary, initially. All the other Condé Nast mags were fashion oriented so I had to get used to agents, art directors, producers etc. I went to New York with the Art Director to meet lots of photographers, art commerce people and the big agents. Of course when you’re as powerful as Condé Nast you can say what your rates are and people will work for that. And if it appears in the UK version it’s then often syndicated to all the other Travellers – Spain, Italy, China etc. – and the photographer gets  paid for each syndicated story.

There was a great desire for photographers to want to work for us because we were publishing 10–12 page photo stories. No one works in editorial solely for the money but you’re giving a great display for their work. 

We did get some fashion photographers to do travel stories and they loved it because they didn’t need to have an army of crew. In the early days they went on their own but gradually they were more frequently accompanied by assistants to help with driving as well as all the digital back up and metadata inputting.  On the editing side when people had 60 rolls of Kodachrome they were very sparing with what they shot. They knew they’d run out. With digital there is a temptation for some photographers just keep shooting and shooting and shooting because you can. A bit of the discipline of shooting on film was lost. Occasionally a photographer would give me their hard drive, so instead of editing rolls there were thousands of images. It’s fine because I like editing but the volume of what people were shooting had dramatically changed. At Condé Nast Traveller, because we never had a kill fee, the story/images had to work. I was sending people to places, sometimes in a very tight time frame, so I was very mindful of the fact that this person had to be able to  deliver.  I had to feel confident that my choice of photographer was solid but imaginative; that they could create the story using their own talents, skills, imagination and resourcefulness while aware that there was no plan B. If we paid to send them, we’d have to run it.

If there was a disaster (thankfully very, very few) we would have just run it as a two-pager. Commissioning was seasonal; in Europe for example we wanted people in t-shirts and shorts or floaty summer dresses. We didn’t want someone in an anorak or winter layers, hunched against the wind and rain, or with gloves and a scarf wandering around Positano. Generally for Europe we shot between mid-May and mid-September and not in the August school holidays when places were very busy and packed. So, really, there was a small window of opportunity to shoot.

There was a page at the back of the magazine called Room with a View. Once a photographer rang me from Portofino to ask how I wanted the pic. So it was shooting in real time which I know happens a lot more now. I could direct it from my desk in London and knew exactly what I was going to get.

Did budgets go down over time? Or did they go up?

(laughs) No they never went up. We had this ’truth in travel’ mantra whereby we didn’t take freebies – which isn’t always possible when you have a tiny budget. Sometimes the hotel would provide the rooms. On Indian Traveller they got local tourist boards to chip in to make the budget reasonable, but we didn’t do that in the UK.

The page rate fee was £100 per page + expenses. But maybe you’d get to go to Easter Island or somewhere else incredible for a week and it would run across 12 pages!  Far from a fortune, but going to wonderful places to shoot with an unusual degree of creative freedom was alluring for many photographers.

For the smaller or back-of-the-mag pieces I’d increasingly find people on the ground e.g. a long weekend in Madrid or Athens  for example. Increasingly it was easier just to find someone on the ground there and work on an all-in budget, rather than fee-per-page, plus expenses: “We’ve got £1k in the pot, can you do it?” That worked quite well for smaller things. The photographers liked the freedom of not having someone standing on their shoulder telling them what to do.

Can a photographer still survive as a travel specialist these days? Do they need other specialisms?

Depends on the magazine really. Condé Nast Traveller has a fashion element and a heavy ‘lifestyle’ side so there’d be lots of good looking people eating and drinking on a terrace. We would have portraits peppered throughout, kids playing football on a beach in Rio – those kinds of lifestyle travel shots. When we launched there wasn’t really a ‘lifestyle’ category or genre of photography as such.  As time went on and CNT established itself, we often heard people remark “it’s a Condé Nast Traveller kind of place” which gave us a sense that we were creating a look and feel, a mood and atmosphere that hadn’t really been evident in travel photography before.  Beautiful and important magazines like National Geographic were all about the location, location, location. CNT wasn’t trying to be that, it was on a different path. Many of the photographers commissioned in the early days were fashion photographers so shooting for CNT was a completely different headspace for them. It wasn’t like going on holiday, because it was still work, but with a totally different outlook to shooting a fashion story and without a team on the ground with them it was working at a different pace.

For any of the photographers commissioned it wasn’t a total free rein because, increasingly, there were shoot lists and the copy was in hand by the time the photographer went. After covering the essential things, I’d ask them to just “do your thing. Show it to me how you see it. That’s why I’ve chosen to send you. Bring me back your vision.” 

You must get sent a vast array of portfolios from photographers all over the world. How do you find time to look at all of them and what is the best way to receive them? And what kinds of things do you look for in a portfolio?

Yes, there are always a lot to look through and select from. In the past photographers themselves, or their agents, would make appointments and we would go through a physical portfolio of work. Recently, however, it has become a much more digital process of evaluating websites and online work, as well as looking at Instagram feeds and other social media. I look for a clarity of style and ‘eye’ in a photographer’s portfolio and work. I want to see what it is that makes them and their work stand apart from so many others. I want that individuality of seeing; I don’t want copies of things other photographers are doing or what the current fashion might be. When I commission the photographer to shoot the story I want to ensure that it’s a good combination and one that the particular photographer I have selected will be able to bring something fresh, exciting, dynamic and unusual back.

What advice can you share with photographers that will help them finesse their travel portfolios? 

Don’t try to include too much. Less is more in my opinion. Many photographers put way too much content on their websites. Photo editors’ attention spans are short and so I would advise making the folio or website dynamic enough to engage the viewer, and to leave them wanting more, rather than be overloaded with page after page of imagery. Make the site clear and easy to navigate and show moving images, too, if you do that as well. 

Also, while it’s good to see what photographers have shot for other clients, I find that less interesting. I’m only concerned with the project I am working on, so I don’t need to see layouts or campaigns for other clients. Sure you can list them to show that you have a broad range of experience and at a certain level, but that’s enough. If photographers have a lot of stock material that they syndicate via an agency or sell direct from the site then that can be really useful as a photo editor because, although you might be looking to commission a photographer for a particular project or story, you will also have in mind other features that require imagery. It can be really useful to hit the stock button to see what might be there and available. It’s also useful to know where the photographer is based, how to contact them or their agent for editorial or commercial or print sales.  I am in favour of supplying a phone number and email address. I find it irritating to have to fill out a form on a contact page.

What were the common mistakes people made in selecting images to show you? What advice would you give to help photographers select stronger portfolios? 

Besides having too much content, I find random juxtapositions of imagery don’t work so well for me. Think carefully about how the viewer will see your work and in what order.

How important is it that a photographer’s Instagram feed looks a certain way?

I’d say it’s crucial. In the last two or three years I’d say it has become vital. I spoke to a photographer who had spent a lot of money building his website and ALL his commissioned work came through people via Instagram – commercial clients contacted him that way. He said he may as well not have a website!

What are big turn-offs on an insta feed?

It has to be fully work. I don’t want to see children’s birthday parties, dog walks (unless it’s a particularly beautiful location) or what you’ve had for breakfast. It all needs to be on-brand, so to speak.  I would keep personal and professional Instagram feeds separate. With IGTV and Reels there’s so much you can find out about a photographer that is very useful. I have commissioned that way by the initial pique of my interest – the initial engagement has drawn me in and then I’ve got to know more of the work that way. It used to be portfolios coming in or an agent coming into the office. There was one photographer who for a month or so sent these enormous sheets in week after week. I wondered who IS this guy? It was really good. He thought of a different way of getting my attention. Once they stopped coming I missed them and got in touch. Capture someone’s initial attention is the difficult thing. Once you have, then you go from there. Given how much is on Instagram, it’s easy to stand out because there’s a lot. It’s a very useful tool in our industry.

When I need someone in, say, Cyprus, I’ll type that in and see if anyone is based there would be suitable, just as a preliminary search. Wonderful Machine is another source I sometimes use to find someone suitable in a location.

How long have you been judging photo competitions?

Probably about 10 years or more. IPA Lucies , Sony World photography, HIPA, TPOTY, AOP, John Kobal, London Olympics 2012 photography.

Marsel van Oosten’s winning image from Louisiana is a favourite of Caroline’s

What are the key things you look for in a single image competition entry?

Impact is always first for me, never the technical aspects of it. Does it move me, provoke me, make me think, is it beautiful, is it horrendous?  I want the image to have an emotional impact.

What do you look for in a portfolio entry?

Continuity and cohesion are the most important factors in a strong portfolio.  It’s often the case that in a six- or eight- image portfolio there is always one seemingly random image in the mix and which makes it a definite ‘no’ from me.

In your opinion what are the common mistakes photographers make when entering competitions?

On seeing some entries I wonder if the photographer perhaps hasn’t read the rules properly or thoroughly or understood the nuances of each particular category. Each entry should be particularly relevant to what the category is asking for.

If I could ask you about some stand-out photographers from TPOTY winners, who spring to mind?

Trevor Cole’s eye-catching portraits and Marsel van Oosten’s award-winning B&Ws (feature image) stick in Caroline’s memory

Trevor Cole’s portraits are just brilliant. There are a lot of people who shoot African faces but there’s something about his style that makes him stand out. I want to go and see more of that. Something very special that makes you stop and take a moment to see and look more at that person. His style is very distinctive.

Marsel van Oosten’s Louisianna swamps are just so evocative and cinematic. They’re black and white and so different to anything else I’d seen of that area. I felt like I were in the boat behind him, and could almost hear the cicadas in the trees.

It’s hard to say, really, what it is about them because it’s all so individual but that’s what’s so wonderful about judging because you get to the final round, when there’s eight or ten people all seeing the same thing, and you know there’s something special about that particular shot or portfolio.

On the whole it’s an emotional response you have to that place; something mesmerising that lets your eye linger longer on it. It’s an emotional engagement.

You can see and hear Caroline talking about her experiences of judging the TPOTY awards in this video.

What have you seen recently that has struck your eye and visual sensibilities?

There is Peter Turney. He shoots a lot of black and white and lives in Paris. In the early days of Covid he shot some stories in New York and then back in Paris. It’s just so good.  From all the material I was looking at last spring this was among the most memorable. Peter’s work is emotionally powerful. I think it goes back to my photojournalism roots. It’s era-defining work and Peter has made a  book, a ‘Visual Diary’ of  very personal portraits of people in all sorts of situations in a reportage style.

There is also the New York Times photographer, Philip Montgomery whose work makes you stop and look. In a world where we’re blitzed with imagery, his work has the ability to hold your attention and fosters the desire to delve deeper and find out more.

How has coming from a news background informed your approach to looking at travel imagery?

Initially it was really different, we did a lot of reportage at Condé Nast Traveller. The art director had always worked in fashion – German Vogue among others, so it was a good combination because he taught me a lot. He’d ask me to “find one of those photo stories you always know about”, “this issue really needs it”, he’d say. Once I found a set of photos by Mike Abrahms of the Semana Santa in Spain and he’d never seen anything like that before, so we ran that across eight pages.

Initially it was about features from  certain parts of the world – a different version of what might have been a traditional National Geographic feature – but it had to have that kind of Condé Nast element of style to it. Increasingly we developed our own shooting style and our features became more about lifestyle and aspirational travel. Not that National Geographic isn’t about aspiration to go and find out more about those places, but it was a different kind of lifestyle and a different kind of aspiration. Putting a bit of a gloss on a documentary topic. I remember we once chose a great vista of a city in North Africa, maybe somewhere in Morocco. It showed lots of satellite dishes in it. In another mag it might’ve gone in like that but we took some of those dishes out, retouched it and ‘painted’ a bit more of the wall. The dream rather than reality, little tweaks like that and only very occasionally.

Who are your photographic heroes or key sources of inspiration?

Salgado, Steve McCurry, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Bill Brandt, Robert Doisneau, Lartigue, Herb Ritts, Berenice Abbott, Joel Meyerowitz, Saul Leitner, among many others.

Tell me about a couple of those?

I met Steve McCurry at a photo competition and told him that I’d love to commission him. He agreed, so I asked if there’s anywhere he’s desperate to go to. He said he’d never managed to get into Iran. “Oh my God I would love that!” I said, difficult as it was going to be. I set about trying to get visas – this was around 2013/2014 when the Iran agreement was happening and things loosened up a bit. It took months. The editor said maybe we could just send him as a tourist. But I said no that’s definitely a bad idea for a country like Iran. For various reasons the visa never did happen and then I left Traveller. There’s such humanity in his work. He always takes you to that place. It’s a sort of almost voyeurism, but a respectful connection. You feel privileged to see through his eyes.

With Dorothea Langue again it’s the humanity of the pictures, the way you feel very respectfully engaged with them. It allows you to feel you’re getting to be part of something. You can look at a lot of pictures that do nothing for you but some just pique your interest in the story of the subject and you wonder “How did that situation arise, how did they feel?” Both Dorothea Lange and Steve McCurry do that for me.

Where do you look for new talent? Who have you discovered recently that we should keep and eye out for?

I met a young photographer called Facundo Bustamante at a photo awards ceremony a couple of years ago. I spoke with him and asked him to send me some examples of his work. I looked at it the following day and subsequently commissioned him to work for the launch of a new magazine I was working on. He is completely committed, brilliant, passionate, inventive and smart which is everything I look for in a photographer. Throughout my career I have tried to foster new and upcoming photographers along the way, it’s wonderful to encourage talent when you see it and over the years many of the people I have worked with have gone on to have very successful careers.  It’s one of the great pleasures of the job.

What is the one piece of advice you would give photographers to help them progress their photography?

Stay true to your own vision and way of seeing. Don’t copy or go along with perceived trends; you are your own best asset, so stay with that. Sure, take inspiration from any number of sources but use that inspiration to formulate and hone your own innate talent. I always tell photographers “I want it your way. I don’t want it copied from someone else or inspired from something else.” Of course we all get inspired by different things but it’s how you put all that into the pot and come up with your interpretation of it.  Personal vision is most important. Bring me back what you’re seeing, not what you think I want to see.

Caroline now runs her own agency and continues to be a TPOTY judge.


By Diana Jarvis

Diana is a writer at Eye for the Light. She has a BA in History of Art and an MSc in Environment and Sustainability and has worked in travel publishing for 20 years as a photographer, book designer and writer for a wide range of publications. She’s also the Sustainbility Lead at the British Guild of Travel Writers.