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Selfies with llamas? Leaning out of a helicopter? Travel photographer Gray Malin has done it all

By: Megan Mcdonough The Washington Post
December 3, 2017 Updated: December 3, 2017 at 4:15 am
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"St. Barths Red Surfboard," from the "A la Plage" series, is among the images in Gray Malin's recently released collection, "Escape." MUST CREDIT: Gray Malin.

Winter is coming, but you wouldn't know it by flipping through Gray Malin's new book.

"Escape," Malin's latest collection of travel photographs, can transport you from the sun-drenched beaches of St. Barts to the dusty plains of Namibia, no passport required.

The 31-year-old Los Angeles-based fine arts photographer, who got his start hawking travel prints at a West Hollywood flea market, now has more than 250,000 followers on Instagram, a devoted celebrity fan base (including Meghan Markle, Rihanna and Reese Witherspoon) and a New York Times best-seller, "Beaches."

Malin recently discussed his new book and favorite travel destinations.

Question: When did you realize you could turn your passion into a career?

Answer: I shot a series in West Texas, the Prada Marfa series, in my early 20s, and it did so well in the flea market that it gave me the courage to switch to online sales. It really helped put my career on the map and get me to where I am today.

Q: The book features photographs of more than 22 destinations in 11 countries. How did you narrow down what destinations and images to include?

A: My first book, "Beaches," was all about beaches, and while I love the beach, my work over the past five years has taken me all around the world. My team and I looked at the various projects I've done and divided them into six general categories: surf, snow, pools, sand, isles and parks.

Q: How much research goes into planning and visualizing a shoot?

A: Many people don't realize the lengths I go to to capture these images. We live in a Photoshop world, and people don't understand what's real and what's not. I've never used a drone, and they certainly weren't around when I started all of this. It takes months of preparation to storyboard and execute a shoot. I'll tell my team, "Guys, I have this amazing idea: llamas in balloons," and sometimes they look at me like I'm crazy. But then we'll start researching how we can pull it off, how we can recruit local help and transport props there. We also consider weather, lighting and timing.

Q: Aerial photography sounds a bit frightening; dangling out of a helicopter without doors can't be easy. Have you ever had a scare while shooting that way?

A: Surprisingly, I don't really get scared. When I'm up there, I get lost in my lens. Even though it's windy and incredibly dangerous at times, my camera is my shield and I lose myself in the art of it all.

Q: You often work with animals, including llamas, elephants and zebras. Can you tell us what it's like working with them?

A: The llamas are so interesting. When we draped the balloons over them, they suddenly became calm and held their positions for so long that I was even able to turn the camera around and take a selfie with them. They were really soaking up the moment. The sheep, on the other hand, were more skittish and just wanted to run off.

Q: What is one of the most incredible escapes you've ever experienced?

A: A great part about a book is exposing people to new places, like the "Snow Polo St. Moritz" series in Switzerland. It's a snow polo tournament played on a frozen lake in the Swiss Alps. I almost died when I saw the Matterhorn. I would tell anyone to put that on their bucket list. Namibia was also one of the most interesting escapes I've ever had because it was so quiet. There are no cellphones or internet. The sunsets there are so peaceful.

Q: What advice do you have for amateur photographers who want to capture memorable images?

A: I always tell people to think about lighting. I see people taking pictures all the time, and they are not aware of where the sun is. It's also fun to put your hand or some part of your body into a photo. It makes it feel a little more personal, and when somebody sees the image, they can relate to the image a tiny bit more. It adds a human aspect to it.

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