The OXO Tower Bar and Brasserie seems like the ideal place to meet a woman who was born above a pub and spent the better part of her childhood around the hostelries and restaurants of Oxford.

Or maybe not. Charlie Dailey is pretty much the only person in her extended family not to be professionally involved in the restaurant business (It was The Harcourt Arms, since you ask.).

“From an early age I wanted to marry David Attenborough — and still do, actually! And then there was National Geographic. I wasn’t running around at eight with a camera, but I was painting, making images. Then, starting at about 11, I wanted to be a war photographer. I did a bit of work at The Sunday Times picture desk and met my hero, Don McCullin. And then I discovered it is a shocking life.”

Indeed. The alcoholism stats for the Bang Bang Club trump even those for publicans. Still, some aspects appealed. The day after finishing her A-levels, at St Edward’s. Dailey skipped town for Hong Kong, where she promptly caught a virulent strain of the travel bug. She worked in bars, taught English, and then travelled around Indonesia. “Instead of going to Africa, which was what I wanted to do. I kind of get lost around the world, really!”

And now she was taking pictures, “completely self-taught, with a bad camera”.

“I love the action, and I travel alone. It’s my favourite thing. Every trip I get wilder, further away from humans and cities.” (The strapline for her website is “an adventure in life”.) And the images are everywhere.

“They’re always there, really. Everyone with a camera always sees images: every photographer I know sees the world in [she screws up one eye] that format.”

Besides, it’s what she does for a living, working as a film cameraman.

At university she met a director of photography — “in a pub, funnily enough: it all comes back to pubs” — and wangled her way on to some film sets, working in a nightclub (and living above it) in order to subsidise the unpaid film work. (Her subject? “Can we not put that in? It was an absolute waste of time; you learn your craft on set.”) Since then she has worked on a raft of mainstream television productions, and a few films. She has just finished the third series of the award-winning comedy, Pulling, and is finalising contractual negotiations for the next project.

But still photography is her real passion, and “whenever I wasn’t filming I took myself out of the country”. To Namibia, the Channel Islands, South America, the Mediterranean, the Mekong Delta.

“A year ago,” she says, “I’d never shown anyone any photographs.” But then she returned from a trip to Argentina, sold a few, and thought, ‘I like my tango dancers, and I’ve got to move on from just being in the film industry’.”

She looked at various galleries, most of which charge astronomical fees. “Then I heard about the OXO Tower and thought ‘there’s no way, but I’ve got to start showing my work’.”

Dailey figured she could afford to blow up seven photos, brought the portfolio to the South Bank, and found herself on the gallery list. Not bad for her first exhibition.

This is something of a ‘best of’ collection — the fruit of several trips over the last few years. But the approach has enabled the photographer to showcase not just her obvious technical expertise but the clarity of vision that underlies it. That instinct, that eye, is what separates her from the rest of us: we look at a spectacular sunset, say “oooohh” and immediately reconcile ourselves to the fact that we’ll never take a picture that does it justice.

Dailey’s photos are full of activity — children leaping into water; horses being rounded up — and she has a magnificent ability to capture colour, too: the cyclist on the dusky jetty needs all those six different shades of blue. Some images have a colourful, Chatwin-esque simplicity (men tend to go for these, she says). And some are fuller, like those of the St Tropez super-yacht scene (“I crossed the Atlantic with them.”). At one point she even works in a cheeky self-portrait, her beachwear and camera reflected in the gleaming eyes of two Bornean kids.

“It’s not terribly intellectual. It’s bright, colourful images of people around the world. The tango images, for instance: they’re one of my most popular. These guys are buskers, dancing for practically nothing. The most beautiful couple I’ve ever seen — I slightly fell in love with both of them — in this square that looked like the set of West Side Story, with the washing line in the background and a warm, horizontal sun.”

Her enthusiasm for the work is beyond question. “I think it’s a calling. In photography, unless you’re in high fashion, you’re going to be vaguely poor. I’m slightly making it up as I go along. And filming’s still my day job. But increasingly the fine-art prints are selling, and I’m being asked to do commissions. We’ll see how this year goes.”

With a new London venue when the OXO show closes, and talk of an Oxford exhibition in the months ahead, I’d say the year’s going pretty well so far.

lCharlie Dailey's show is on at the OXO Tower until April 26