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.
When you are photographing buildings, statues, or other monuments, think about what they represent before you shoot. For example: There's a large statue of Vulcan outside Birmingham, Alabama. You could make a perfectly nice image of him standing on his hill on a sunny day, but such a picture would not say a lot about who Vulcan is. A photograph on a stormy evening, with perhaps lightning in the background, would. Cannons on a historic battlefield might look better in fog than in bright sunlight. Get the idea of the subject, then think of the weather, light, angle, etc. that best communicates it.
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.
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.
When I was just eight years old I would flip through the pages of National Geographic and imagine being a photographer in Africa. I was captivated by the faces and places that seemed worlds apart from my typical Middle American hometown. Fast forward years later, and I'm living the dream as a travel photographer working throughout Africa and Europe. If you've ever wanted to travel the world with your camera, here's my advice to help you get started and thrive in professional travel photography.
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.
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 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.
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.
Embarking on such photographic projects make me look for relevant snippets of history, social mores and art (for example, the occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese in the thirties, the Chinoiserie fad of the 18th century, fictional stories similar to that of Madam Butterfly et al). I also learned the aesthetic of the cheongsam (aka qi pao) in its various forms, and the beauty of Chinese calligraphy. I also scoured the internet for Chinese legends, poetry and songs/music that inspired the 2-3 minutes plots of my photo films; as I call these audio slideshows.
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.