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Knowing how to use your camera is essential to success as a travel photographer because more often than not, it’s those spur of the moment shots that generate the goods. If you can quickly adapt to the surroundings and know what settings to change in a split-second in order to capture a moment, you’re in with a pretty good shot of becoming a professional photographer.
So, if travel photography as a traditional career is dying, than how are these people making their money? Well, I wish I could give you the answer to that question, but I can’t. These days, everyone has a different method of money-making. All I can do is tell you my story, and how I manage to keep from sleeping under a bridge every night — though barely.
These two portraits are of elderly actors; the type that the cinematic world calls' "character actors" (these are generally defined as supporting actors who play unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters). I found these actors to be much more visually interesting than the glamorous divas; not because of their rugged and wrinkled physiognomies but because they had presence...and must've been part of these troupes for as long as they could remember.
Mixing the Hanxiang Water Garden photo shoot and another in the water town of Xinchang, I produced "The Legend of Hua"; a complex photo film meshing the topic of ghosts, opium, Shanghai in its 1930's heyday, traditional Chinese cultural and supernatural elements; all revolving around a plot of betrayal. Its plot is influenced by a 1988 movie by Stanley Kwan (in turn based on a novel by Li Pi-Hua (also known as Lillian Lee), one of the most influential Chinese TV writers, film writers and reporters.

When you travel, saving money is often the exact same as earning. Quite often, exchanging a couple images with a hotel for a free room or a tour company for a free tour is totally worth it. In fact, when I was in Southern Africa, I did this a lot. Safaris are expensive, so I’d create a couple images for a company to use for their marketing purposes in exchange for a free safari. It really is win-win.
Stock photography: Shooting for stock photography is a subject for a different article (or five of them) but you can see stock agencies as the middle man between provider (the photographer) and buyer (magazines and websites). In order for news agencies or image bank websites to send you on assignment, you’re required to be a contract photographer. Each organization has its own contract and demands.  But some photo agencies will be willing to pay for your independent travel images if they are sellable. Do not expect large amounts. But hey, it’s better than nothing.
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.

To be honest, I do not think I will ever make it as a travel photographer. I love travelling and I love capturing my adventures in pictures. And I know that I have some decent ones, but selling them seems like a daunting task. I think I might be better off as a travel journalist, to be honest, if only because that’s an area where I am more confident (and in a way, this article applies to becoming a travel journalist as well). I have, however, tried selling pictures through microstock sites. Getty Images, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock are the ones I have uploaded the highest number of images to. From my experience, these websites require you to spend a long time creating hashtags and correctly labeling your photos for very little reward. It is great because once the work is done, you can earn money forever. But chances are high that you will only get a few cents, if any at all. I think if you are serious about being a photographer, this one is not an option to consider.
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.
This is my biggest source of income these days. I have one company that has me on retainer for $1,000 a month for a year. They get the pick of a couple images each month that they’ll use for social media and marketing purposes. They have a specific style of image that they want, so I spend a good part of my time trying to create those images for them.
The Yuen Po street Bird Garden in Hong Kong was built in the late 1990's after the former "Bird Street" at Hong Lok Street was demolished. It was built to preserve the spirit and popularity of the bird stalls that once were in Mongkok. The Chinese have traditionally liked to keep birds as pets, and this tradition is maintained in this small garden. Men (I've not seen a woman there except those selling birds, birdseed and live crickets) walk around; whistling at the caged birds, from delicate canaries to colorful parrots, admiring their plumage and a few walking their pets in cages.
Love your site! How do you go about not needing work visas to do photography for tourism boards, hotels etc? I see a lot of travel photography in foreign places, but in most countries its illegal to work there and next to impossible to get a work visa as a photographer. Any advice on reaching out to brands/hotels/tourism boards etc overseas without finding myself being deported for working in their country?

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.


Make time for photography. Like doing anything well, making good photographs requires a commitment of time and energy. One problem with much of modern travel is that the days are chockablock full of scheduled tours, events, and meals. Our trips are usually of limited time, and we naturally want to see as many sites as possible. The itineraries rarely leave room for serious photography. You have to make time. It may help to make photography a scheduled part of every day, so you know you have the time and won't be tempted to get lazy and say, "I'll do it tomorrow." It might rain tomorrow. Don't procrastinate.
Tip from a pro: To work with the big brands, you need to market yourself in a way that will appeal to these types of clients. The kind of architectural or food photography a hotel chain needs is very different from what a tour company that specializes in extreme travel. Don’t try to work in all genres and styles. That’s a good path to becoming an inadequate photographer. Focus only on the genre and style you love and put all of your heart and effort into it.
If you’re interested in creating a travel blog to showcase your travel photography The Blogger Course is the best thing you can invest in! It’s a 12 week course sharing all the secrets to making money and finding an audience created by Monica of The Travel Hack. I’ve also contributed a weeks lesson on Advanced Photography. Sign up and you’ll also get access to a secret Facebook Group that’s invaluable for sharing advice and getting feedback.
For example, a product review I did in December of 2014 led people to the product on Amazon via an affiliate link. That product sold extremely well, and people also bought other things well they were shopping. That affiliate link earned me a pretty penny. Of course, that’s not always sustainable. In January and February I earned $300 and $400 respectively from affiliate sales. In March, I only earned $50.

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.
Above all, work the situations over. Never be satisfied with your first view of a place or the first frame you snap. It's always possible—and usually likely—that you can come up with something better. Why else would painters make sketches? Get closer, then get closer still. Try different angles, different lenses. Wait for the light, wait for the crowd, wait for a bird to land on the tree branch. Never be in a hurry to get somewhere else. Tell yourself that nothing is more important than getting the best you can get out of the situation you are in. Once you've exhausted every possibility you can think of, you can start working on the next one.

Get lost. Wander down alleys. Sit in cafés and watch life pass by. Don't eat where the tourists do, but where you see locals. Just set off down a street and see where it leads. Look around the bends, over the rises. Get away from the crowd. I find that if I meander away from the tourists and tourist sites, away from what is too familiar and comfortable, it's much easier to adapt to the rhythm of a place, and to be more observant.
Mixing the Hanxiang Water Garden photo shoot and another in the water town of Xinchang, I produced "The Legend of Hua"; a complex photo film meshing the topic of ghosts, opium, Shanghai in its 1930's heyday, traditional Chinese cultural and supernatural elements; all revolving around a plot of betrayal. Its plot is influenced by a 1988 movie by Stanley Kwan (in turn based on a novel by Li Pi-Hua (also known as Lillian Lee), one of the most influential Chinese TV writers, film writers and reporters.
It's best to ask permission if you want to photograph someone, especially if you are working in close. Engage them before you pull out your camera. Learn at least how to say "hello" and "May I make a photograph" in the local language—just showing that you've made a little effort helps. Explain to them what you want to do and what it is about them that made you want to make a picture. If approached in an open and friendly manner, most people will be agreeable—many are flattered that someone has shown an interest in them and what they do. In places where there's a lot of tourism, you may run into people who are tired of being photographed—many tourists are not courteous enough to ask permission, and local people can come to feel abused and exploited. The only way to overcome this is to spend time with the people or to go to parts of the place less frequented by tourists.
Another place to capture expressions are the subways; either on the platforms or in the cars themselves. My favorite images are the one of a young woman avidly watching a movie on her smartphone, while wearing a single hair roller to tame her fringe....and of the young girl who appears to be viewing a smart phone screen on an ad on a subway platform while her mother is busy texting on her real phone.
Whether you're licensing photos through an agency or you're working with local businesses, destination photos sell. If you're just starting out, consider uploading your best work to sites like 500px, where you can offer your images for license quite easily. If you already have a strong portfolio of work, consider applying to Stocksy, the most reputable agency in the stock photo business. Interested in reportage? You can sign up for a Demotix account to get started in travel photojournalism.
In 2014, I worked with a major car brand, a rental car company, and a couple tourism boards. So far, in 2015, I haven’t worked with anyone, though it’s mostly because I’ve been off doing my own thing. There’s a balance here between going where you want and where the money is. Unfortunately for the weight of my wallet, I’ve always just gone where I want and only take on clients like this if it’s convenient.
Whatever kind of landscape you are shooting, think about what the essential qualities are—and not just the visual ones; think about how the place makes you feel, what kind of emotions it stirs in you. Then look for ways to get those qualities and feelings onto film. Is it a rocky, violently wave-washed coast or a bright and sandy one? If it's the former, you want to show waves crashing against the shore, probably in stormy weather. Blue sky and sunlight are more appropriate for the latter unless you want to show the desolation of a resort beach in winter. 

Photographers for National Geographic spend a lot of time doing research. This helps us figure out what's there—what the place is about and what subjects we need to cover. Read brochures and travel books. Go to libraries, bookstores, or onto the Web. Talk to friends who have been there. Pick up travel information at the country's embassy. Find whatever you can that is relevant, and devour it.
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.
It's best to ask permission if you want to photograph someone, especially if you are working in close. Engage them before you pull out your camera. Learn at least how to say "hello" and "May I make a photograph" in the local language—just showing that you've made a little effort helps. Explain to them what you want to do and what it is about them that made you want to make a picture. If approached in an open and friendly manner, most people will be agreeable—many are flattered that someone has shown an interest in them and what they do. In places where there's a lot of tourism, you may run into people who are tired of being photographed—many tourists are not courteous enough to ask permission, and local people can come to feel abused and exploited. The only way to overcome this is to spend time with the people or to go to parts of the place less frequented by tourists.
Tip from a pro: To work with the big brands, you need to market yourself in a way that will appeal to these types of clients. The kind of architectural or food photography a hotel chain needs is very different from what a tour company that specializes in extreme travel. Don’t try to work in all genres and styles. That’s a good path to becoming an inadequate photographer. Focus only on the genre and style you love and put all of your heart and effort into it.

The second image is of Feng "Lisa" Lee, a tea cultivator and business woman from Taipei. It's one of the images of Lisa that was shot in the confines of a photo studio owned by Timothy Huang in mid December 2018. A selection of these studio shots along with other exterior images at the beautiful Lin Ben Yuan Family Mansion (林本源園邸) in Taipei were woven into a photo film titled The Fairy & The Erhu. There is no narration in this audio slideshow....just the lovely sound of the erhu; the traditional Chinese two-stringed bowed musical instrument. 
As travel has become more accessible, more and more, the genre is opening up to amateurs and professionals alike. Amateur Travel photography is often shared through sites like Flickr, 500px and 1x. Travel photography, unlike other genres like fashion, product, or food photography, is still an underestimated and relatively less monetized genre, though the challenges faced by travel photographers are lot greater than some of the genres where the light and other shooting conditions may be controllable. Traditionally travel photographers earned money through Stock photography, magazine assignments and commercial projects. Nowadays, the stock photography market has collapsed and more and more photographers are using more innovative methods of earning a living such as through blogging, public speaking, commercial projects and teaching.
Get out there. The only way to discover the rhythm of life in a place, and so figure out what to shoot, is to experience it. Many places, particularly hot ones, are active very early in the morning and late in the afternoon but rather in a lull around midday. Get up early, stay out late. If you are on a tour that is scheduled to leave the hotel or ship at 9:00, get up well before dawn. Wander around before meeting up with your companions. If the tour goes back to the hotel or ship for lunch, don't go with them. Rather than take the bus back at the end of an afternoon tour, hang around until after sunset and then take a taxi. Use any spare time to get out and look for photographs. Besides availing yourself of more opportunities, time spent discovering the place will enrich your experience.
However I didn't realize that he had done lovely work documenting a rural Chinese opera troupe in Sichuan featured on the International Business Times..thus providing me with valuable inspiration for my own long term book project involving Chinese opera of the Diaspora. My primary focus in this project is on the "rural" or provincial troupes who perform their art during Chinese celebrations and religious observances.
I introduced myself, telling Chan I had read articles about him. He didn't seem surprised at all, and brought a photo book -carefully wrapped in plastic- to show me more photos and a write up about him, along with other craftsmen in Hong Kong. I had seen Sunset Survivors; a book that tells the stories of Hong Kong’s traditional tradesmen and women through imagery and interviews. It covers a number of curious professions that are quickly falling into obscurity, from fortune telling to face threading and letter writing to bird cage making in the streets of old Hong Kong.
We are unlikely to long remember the smell and buzz of a flower garden in spring, the awe of gazing for the first time at the mountain we intend to climb, the caress of a tropical breeze, the thrill of a huge roller coaster, the wonder of our first wild bear, or the adrenaline of rafting white water. Our photographs need to bring these and other sensations back, to trigger our memories, and to communicate how we felt to others. To do this, we need to think and feel as much as look when setting out to make photographs.
Chinese opera has a long, rich history that dates back to 200 A.D. Over the centuries, a handful of styles of opera emerged — each with its own distinct makeup, music, and acting traditions — reflecting the eras and tastes of the changing dynasties. Sichuan opera is the youngest style, emerging around 1700 in Chengdu, Sichuan province, where it is still performed today by a dwindling roster of troupes.

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.
In 2014, I worked with a major car brand, a rental car company, and a couple tourism boards. So far, in 2015, I haven’t worked with anyone, though it’s mostly because I’ve been off doing my own thing. There’s a balance here between going where you want and where the money is. Unfortunately for the weight of my wallet, I’ve always just gone where I want and only take on clients like this if it’s convenient.
Love your site! How do you go about not needing work visas to do photography for tourism boards, hotels etc? I see a lot of travel photography in foreign places, but in most countries its illegal to work there and next to impossible to get a work visa as a photographer. Any advice on reaching out to brands/hotels/tourism boards etc overseas without finding myself being deported for working in their country?
Finally I promised one little girl, who made a long journey to see me and prefer her request, -- and she is a "Dorothy," by the way -- that when a thousand little girls had written me a thousand little letters asking for the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman I would write the book, Either little Dorothy was a fairy in disguise, and waved her magic wand, or the success of the stage production of "The Wizard of OZ" made new friends for the story, For the thousand letters reached their destination long since -- and many more followed them.
Readers of The Travel Photographer blog know of my current long term involvement in documenting Chinese Opera of the diaspora; an involvement that will culminate into the production of a coffee-table book bearing the same title. It is for this reason that the blog has been recently populated with posts with excellent work of Chinese opera by travel and documentary photographers.
I left home in 2009 with $500 to my name, a point and shoot camera, and a desire to spend the rest of my life exploring the planet. Looking back, I was beyond naïve. However, without that naivety, I would have never made the first step towards chasing my dreams. Today, I struggle to get by. In a heart beat, my income streams could all dry up. But I don’t worry anymore, I just take pictures and love every minute of it.
I think that there are more people wanting to learn photography than there are people that want to buy images. And for that reason, teaching has become a major source of income for a large number of photographers. In fact, some of the world’s highest earning photographers aren’t always the most talented, but the ones who can teach effectively. Lots of photographers sell books, video tutorials, and host workshops to help supplement their income.
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