When you arrive at your destination, be open and try to take note of the first impressions—write them down if you have to. (A notebook is an essential accessory for a travel photographer.) When you see a place for the first time from the plane window, or when you drive around a bend and there it is, or as the ship nears some distant island—how do you feel? Where do your eyes go first? What do you notice about the place right away? A smell? The heat or cold? Blistering sunlight? Mysterious fog? A particular building or vista? The way people move? Their dress? Whatever it is, remember it. First impressions are invaluable sparks to creative interpretation, and by definition are not repeatable. You've seen the place in pictures, you've read about it. Now you're there, and all your senses can partake.
For better or for worse, the wealthiest travel photographers in the world these days are not necessarily the best photographers, but the ones who are the best at marketing themselves. Brands, tourism boards, restaurants, and hotel chains are constantly vying for big-name photographers to use their gear, visit their destinations, eat their food, and stay at their hotels.
The winners of the competition get a photo commission to an exotic destination – great experience and priceless exposure, as the images are printed in Wanderlust. Many of the past winners of this competition have gone on to become professional or semi-professional photographers. "We are often been approached for the contact details of certain photographers," says Lyn. "Organisations, such as travel companies or tourist boards, sometimes want to buy an image for their own use, or to see what else the photographer has in a similar vein. It can be a fantastic showcase."
It was in 2006 when I traveled to the sacred city of Varanasi for the third or fourth time; this time in search of real sadhus rather than those I encountered on the ghats of the river Ganges. The more photogenically flamboyant of those would "earn" a few rupees from tourists and photographers who sought to augment their inventory of exotic portraits of these characters; perhaps paying them a tidy sum if they agreed to be photographed in a rowing boat or next to a temple.
Before I get into the “how”, let me tell you about the “how much”. In traveling the world, I spend an average of $2,000 a month. That includes accommodation, transportation, food, etc. I don’t have a home, so that $2,000 is in fact the entire extent of my expenses. Thus, to keep myself from non-under-bridge housing, I need to make that much each month… but preferably a bit more. And, before you ask: no, I don’t have savings, I don’t have a trust fund, and no I don’t have a sugar mama (although I want one).
The Lower Omo River in south west Ethiopia is home to eight different tribes whose population is about 200,000 and it is there that they've lived there for many centuries. The tribes such as the Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), and the Mursi live along the Omo river and depend on it for their livelihood. The annual flooding of the Omo River feeds the biodiversity of the region and guarantees the food security of the tribes especially as rainfall is low and erratic.
However, the most challenging of all the tasks involved in producing these photo films is to have the models literally become actors in the stories...not only because I want them to look the part of the betrayed lover, of the returning scorned avenger, of the famous singer haunting her past venues, but because I like them to narrate the story itself.
Like landscapes, each city and town has its own look and feel—a distinctive setting, architecture, or skyline; a famous local site; a particular kind of food or dress. There's always at least one thing that is unique. When covering a town or city, even a small village, you need to do three basic things at a minimum: capture a sense of place, which is usually a wide shot that shows the setting, skyline, or other view that gives a feeling for the whole; landmarks that the place is famous for; the life of its inhabitants. For the cityscapes and wide shots, as well as for the landmarks, it's a good idea to check out the postcard racks in your hotel lobby or at kiosks. They will quickly give you an idea of where the best views are and what is considered well-known enough to warrant a postcard.
Tip from a pro: Instead of trying to work with a large media organization like a magazine or newspaper, become a small media icon yourself. If you have a large and influential presence on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, you might be more appealing to these organizations than old school media. So, start a blog, gain followers, and who knows, you could be their next photographer.
Despite that previous statement, I do believe that the travel photography community is stronger than it has ever been. Yes, traditional forms of income-generation are dying, but the evolving world has opened up a thousand different doors for those willing to take the risks to make it in the industry. And, yes, there is a lot of competition out there in the travel photography world, but the community is strong and the amount of camaraderie rather than jealousy in the business absolutely floors me nearly every day.
The third image is of Jinru Lee; a student and part-time model in Georgetown (Penang Island, Malaysia). It was made in late August 2018 under the sweltering sun of Penang, and inside the Cheah Kongsi Clan House Temple on Lebuh Armenian. I was in Penang to photograph the various Hokkien operas during the Hungry Ghost festival, and took the opportunity to set a photo shoot in its streets for a forthcoming audio slideshow (aka photo film) titled "The Phantom of the Opera".
My work as a freelance travel writer has remained sort of a back-up source of income for me since moving into the photography world. I really only do it when I feel like money is tight — so, yeah, I basically do it every month. Most of the travel writing clients these days are online, and they don’t pay like they used to. Still, I make enough in writing to help pay some of the bills. I’ve averaged about $400 a month so far in 2015 through freelance writing.
As with all types of photography, smart business sense is key. There are many ways to make a living with travel photography, and much of it extends well beyond your photo gear into social media marketing, content development, negotiation and sales. But the first step is to get out into the world and shoot. Start with anyplace you've been dreaming of traveling, and go! Plan ahead, do some research, and don't shoot like a tourist. Can't afford to travel? Search for opportunities in your nearest city to begin building your portfolio.
The more willing you are to travel at a moment's notice, the more opportunities you can access. Day jobs will limit travel, so will mortgages and car payments. Photojournalist Lynsey Addario recently wrote about being 7 months pregnant while on assignment in Gaza. I deeply admire her bravery and commitment to her work, but I imagine many photographers aren't willing to make such compromises. Consider your lifestyle, and how much time you're willing to spend away from home. As for myself, I'm a long-term digital nomad traveling with a suitcase and a backpack and an open mind. Being available and flexible has made a monumental difference to my career.
That's a terrible route. You should be able to fly to Heathrow and then it's only 12 hours to Cape Town. We don't spend 36 hours in the air. Hawaii to Atlanta is 9 hours and then 18 hours on one flight to Joburg. The best time I've ever had is 34 hours door to door total travel time from Kona to Joburg but it's not fun. I've met people on the Atlanta flight that do it every month. They normally work for some charity or in Oil & Gas. With that many miles they get business or first so that makes it a lot easier but I'm sure it still takes its toll. I enjoyed looking at your work. I need to spend more time on the road.
Hi Jan, so happy to hear this article was useful. I’ll be sharing more on how I manage my photography business over the coming weeks in various articles…typically for Instagram I try to post once daily and for ImageBrief I simply respond to relevant briefs that suit images I already have on file. Keep an eye out for new posts weekly and hopefully I’ll cover something of interest to you 🙂
There's much more to becoming a travel photographer than exploring exotic destinations and clicking your shutter. Getting up at stupid-o-clock to catch the perfect sunrise, carrying a camera that’s heavier than four backpacks, skipping meals in the quest for perfect light, and missing out on the travel experience because you’re too busy taking photos, are just a few of the downsides.