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).
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.
"Back when we started Wanderlust, we would invite photographers in with their portfolios. Nowadays, although we do commission some work, we increasingly use online stock libraries to find images for this website and for our magazines. On the one hand, they libraries have a wide range and make it very easy to search. On the other hand, we can find ourselves wading through pages of very average shots that don't offer anything different or fresh. And, so often we struggle to find what we need due to poor tagging by the photographers."
On the two recent occasions I was in Shanghai, I was thrilled by the abundance of candid street photography opportunities that presented themselves in its old neighborhoods. The narrow lanes crisscrossing these neighborhoods are called lòngtáng (弄堂) or alternatively, lilong (里弄), where whole communities live and sometimes work. The Shanghai lòngtáng can either refer to the lanes that its houses face onto, or to a group of houses connected by them.
Besides the travel publications like National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, etc., the demand for this genre exists in industries like Travel, Photo Education, etc. Many travel photographers are today leading photo-tours through companies such as Intrepid Exposures, utilising their knowledge of unique travel locations, experience of working as professional photographers and using this to help travel enthusiasts take great travel images during their trips. Many others are doubling up as educators in the field of ambient light photography. Some of them are doing assignments which intrinsically use their strengths, e.g. shooting exteriors or interiors of buildings for architects and interior designers. Photographers like Steve McCurry are often commissioned to shoot commercial advertising work using their skills from travel and documentary photography to produce powerful advertising images.
Tewfic El-Sawy is a New York based freelance photographer specializing in documenting endangered cultures and traditional life ways of Asia, Latin America and Africa. His images, articles and photo features have been published in various international magazines, and his travel photographs are published in guidebooks and adventure travel catalogs. He also organized and led non-traditional photo expeditions and workshops. He is passionate about documentary-travel photography and produces multimedia stories, merging still photography and ambient sound. He enjoys mixing Asian fashion, culture and history into “photo films”. He recently increased his focus on South East Asia and China. He produced a well received photo book Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam; documenting an indigenous religion now recognized by the UNESCO, and is currently working on a voluminous monograph tentatively titled ‘Chinese Opera of The Diaspora’. He is a faculty teaching member at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, and a jury member at The Travel Photographer Society’s Photo contests.
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.
Aga Szydlik is a professional culture photographer and a doctoral candidate based in South Africa. She tells us that her journey with photography started with Muay Thai (the famous Thai fight style) which she documented extensively. Based in Thailand, she able to explore South East Asia, onwards to Indonesia and South Africa. She is enthusiastic about alternative processes, analogue photography, Lomography and salt/albumin prints as well as mixed media.
A pretty picture is not enough. It needs to be high quality and it needs to be original. For magazines, you need to consider issues such as leaving space on the image for word placement, positioning your subject off-centre so it doesn’t fall down the page join, and possibly placing the subject on the right-hand side of a landscape shot for maximum impact.
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.
You cannot always ask permission, of course. If you are shooting a street scene or a wide shot of a market, you can't run up to everyone and ask if it's OK. In general, people do not mind this sort of photography—it's only when they're singled out that they get uncomfortable. But not always. Be sensitive to the scene in your viewfinder. If people are getting nervous, ask permission or move on.
Pre-2014, blogging was my main source of income. I made money on my blog via advertising and leveraging my audience. However, in 2014 much of this stream of income crashed for me despite my traffic levels rising significantly. Still, while the blog doesn’t really make much money any more, the audience I get on my travel photography blog (which draws around 1,400 unique visitors each day) guides readers to other streams of income.
Thanks to our hugely supportive sponsors there are some fantastic prizes to be won, but TPOTY is also about more than prizes. This prestigious award offers massive exposure for your work through our media activities, books, photographer profiles and exhibitions. TPOTY-winning photographers have had their work showcased around the world: established photographic careers received a huge boost, new careers were kick-started, and people who never thought they’d see their photographs in print have had a happy surprise! In 2016 and 2017 our touring exhibitions were seen by 250,000 visitors. The 2018 exhibitions were visited by an estimated 1.8 million people!
The truth about travel photography in 2015 is that the quality of the images produced is often less important than the person that shot the images. You could say, and many people do say, that the travel photography world has been sold out to the highest bidder. Many of the world’s top travel photographers are no long exploring, no longer searching for new and exciting places to shoot, but going where the money is. As such, many “travel photographers” have now become “corporate/marketing photographers”.
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.
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.
Setting goals and thinking about the reason you want to be a travel photographer sounds like a pretty easy step to skip but believe me, you want those goals to look back at one day. When you’ve had a bad few months without work, when you’re knee deep in mud because you took the term ‘getting the shot’ a bit too far…you want to be reminded of why you’re doing it.