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National Geographic Traveler Director of Photography Dan Westergren shooting with a Rolleiflex medium format twin lens reflex camera (Photograph by Mark Thiessen)

Travel Lens: Dan Westergren’s World

Dan Westergren is the director of photography for National Geographic Traveler. Though he had an early affinity for black and white photography, being responsible for a travel magazine’s photographic vision means Dan is, in his words, “surrounded by a rainbow riot of color digital images” on a daily basis.

Beyond his exceptional eye for editing, Dan is an accomplished photographer who has covered a variety of articles for Traveler. Despite a predilection for cold, high places, his assignment work has taken him all around the globe. “Over the years, I’ve shot some of the world’s most intriguing people, places and experiences,” he says.

Here’s a look at the world through Dan Westergren’s unique lens:

Leslie Trew Magraw: When–and how–did you become a part of the National Geographic family?

Dan Westergren: Upon finishing graduate school–I have a master’s degree in journalism–I got an internship with a magazine called National Geographic World (now National Geographic Kids). That internship lasted for a little more than two years. I went on to work as a newspaper photographer for a few years until someone called and asked if I would come back.

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Westegren has an affinity for cold, high places–such as the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

LTM: Where do you call home? Why, out of every place in the world, do you choose to make your home there?

DW: I live in Arlington, Virginia. I grew up in the American Midwest and am slightly horrified that I have raised a couple of what we used to call “East Coast Kids.” But for a photo editor and photographer, National Geographic is one of the best places I could work, so I’m stuck here near headquarters in the nation’s capital.

I don’t consider myself a city person, but D.C. is a pretty good one. I don’t have too go far to feel like I’m in the wilderness.

LTM: What made you want to become a photographer?

DW: Watching a black-and-white print develop under the safelight when I was in eighth grade.

Additionally, I’m not the most outgoing person in the world. In fact, wallflower is the best term to describe the way I feel around people. But with a camera in my hand, I become annoyingly outgoing. The need to create great photos is my excuse to talk to strangers.

LTM: Is there a photographer you particularly admire right now?

DW: I love the spare, lyrical black and white work of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti.

LTM: Is there a place in the world that draws you back again and again as a photographer? Why?

DW: I have a magnetic attraction to snow-covered peaks. Probably because there were no hills at all in Illinois, where I was raised. For me, there is nothing better than the feeling of standing on solid ground and looking down upon the tops of clouds.

LTM: Why is travel important? How has it changed you?

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Dan’s happy place: Norway. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

DW: Travel keeps me from feeling restless. Every time I go to the airport, even if it’s only for a two-day trip to somewhere not so interesting, I think, What would life be like without traveling? I can’t imagine it.

LTM: If you could recommend only one place in the whole world to visit, what would that be?

DW: My favorite place in the world is Norway. I’ve really only been there on a few short trips, but any country that let’s you check a fully assembled bicycle on a plane as regular luggage is the place I want to be.

LTM: What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten in the course of your travels, and where can we try it? 

DW: Sorry to keep talking about Norway, but every time I pass through I stock up on gummy candy. My favorite is the salty licorice (salmiak) that most people can’t stand. I even like the really strong stuff that has an ammonia smell!

LTM: What’s your “Achilles heel” when you travel? How do you cope?

DW: Having enough electrical outlets to plug in my computer and battery chargers. I have a fused outlet adapter that looks like a block of plastic that turns two outlets into six without any additional cords.

I also feel very healthy in foreign countries, but often get sick when I come home.

LTM: The best travel photography captures the true essence of a place. What do you do to connect with locals and seek out authentic experiences when you’re out in the field?

DW: I look for interesting people and strike up a conversation with them about what I’m doing. By that, I mean that I tell them exactly what I think I’ll find photographically and ask if they can help me achieve that goal. Usually they will tell me that my vision of a place is not quite right and will suggest a more truthful way to depict it.

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A photo Dan shot on assignment for Traveler magazine in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

When we’re through talking, I always ask them to point me toward my next helper. These people form a chain of locals that introduce me to their home.

LTM: As a traveling photographer, how do you find the balance between “being in the moment” and “getting the shot?”

DW: I hate this question. It always comes up as if to suppose that by photographing a place you are somehow not experiencing it fully.

This question could only come from a non-serious photographer because, when I’m traveling, the photography is hard-wired. It’s simply not possible for me to go somewhere and not take pictures.

Getting the shot is the reason I travel.

LTM: What are you shooting with these days and why?

DW: A Nikon D700 because it’s tough and I have a a lot of old Nikon lenses that I like. I’m also trying to assemble a complete set of Fuji X cameras and lenses because the image quality is incredible and the size of the lenses and cameras makes the traveling kit much easier to carry around.

Dan Westergren is director of photography at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Instagram @danwestergren and on Twitter @dwestergren.

Leslie Trew Magraw is editor/producer for the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Connect with her on Twitter @leslietrew and on Instagram @leslietrew.