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.
Yes, I know that’s a fairly meager living. Especially when spending $2,000 of it a month. But, how many people can say that they get to travel every day of their lives? Sure, I’d love to be making more, but I have no complaints. On a daily basis, I get to see places and do things that people spend their lives saving to enjoy. I wouldn’t trade my career for anything at this point.
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.
Contacting editors via email can be the best way to have your work seen. Be sure to know the publication before you approach them, and then send through an email with a story/photo feature idea that you believe will fit their publication perfectly. Make sure your pitch is relevant, straight to the point and time sensitive; most print publications will have issues ready months in advance so it’s worth checking their advertising cut-off dates in order to work out what type of content they’ll be after at what time of year. Pitching a summer photo feature when they’re working on winter destinations won’t get you very far!
When you really love photographing a certain subject, it shows in your work. If you've built a cohesive collection of images around a particular people or place, consider hanging it in a gallery or selling prints or photo books online. Share your work with artist's galleries in and around relevant locales until you find someone who bites. Southwestern USA photographer Brett Edge took it a step further and opened his own gorgeous fine art gallery in Moab, Utah. Photographer Vivienne Gucwa published a coffee table book featuring her New York City photography. Just getting started? Share your work online for exposure, and upload it to print-on-demand websites for effortless print sales.
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.
Content development complements your photography and helps you grow and earn beyond your photos. If you're a gearhead like photographer Colby Brown, you could write in-depth gear reviews, or publish post-processing tutorials like Elia Locardi, or write a how-to book like Nicole S. Young. If you enjoy travel writing, you could build a popular blog like photographer Chris Stevens, who writes travel guides and reviews popular hostels and adventure tours, complete with photos.
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.
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.
Whether at home or abroad, when you know the ins and outs of a particular location, you can provide photography tours and location-specific workshops to serve both tourists and serious photographers. In Greece I found a professional photographer offering pricey photo tours in Santorini, a popular island with stunning viewpoints that are difficult to locate. Part of this photographer's service was to unveil these secret locations. Back in Holland, photographer Michiel Buijse offers nighttime photography workshops in Amsterdam, helping photographers shoot stunning long exposures along the historical canals. Consider what you can offer in a location you know well.
The other challenge is to scout for and find the locations for the photo shoots; locations that provide a "badge" of authenticity to the resulting photo films. In the the case of The Girl of Nanjing, it was the water town of Qi Bao near Shanghai....and in the case of The Legend of Hua, it was the water town of Xinchang' at some distance from Shanghai as well...while the backdrop to The Songstress of Temple Street was Hong Kong's famous Tin Hau Temple and the Canton Singing House.