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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Commercial travel photography provides imagery for the $1 trillion global tourism industry. It might include photographing destination hotels and resorts, tourist attractions, scenery, outdoor adventures, local events, cultures, and customs. Images are used for advertising, merchandising, and print sales. With such a huge variety of subject matter, travel photographers employ skills across all photographic disciplines: portraiture, landscape, wildlife, architectural, reportage and event photography.
Always have your camera with you and always keep your eyes open. Serendipity plays an enormously important role in travel photography. You never know what you are going to run into, and you have to be ready. Many times you will see what could be a good photograph but decide that the light is not right, or there are no people around, or too many—something that means you will have to come back later. But sometimes you get lucky. You happen to stumble upon a scene at just the right moment. If you forgot your camera, are out of film, or your digital card is full, if you have to fumble around getting the right lens on, the moment may be gone before you can recover. This is true whether you are doing street photography or visiting a natural or man-made site. Mountains, trees, monuments, and other static subjects are, of course, not going to go anywhere, but the ray of sunshine, the soaring eagle, or the embracing couple that add the needed element to your photograph are unlikely to hang around. Think of it as hunting—whenever you leave the confines of your camp, you should be ready and able to capture whatever pops up.
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.
Unfortunately, due the language barriers I wasn't able to interview either of these two actors to gain an insight on their lives and background. They also seemed reluctant to allow me more than a few minutes to photograph them, either because they were waiting to perform (as in the top photograph) or just uncomfortable with the the attention of a stalking photographer (lower photograph).

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.
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.
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.
Some of these 'singalong' parlors still exist, faded and tired but otherwise unchanged, offering a taste of popular and cheap entertainment from a past era. How these survive in anyone's guess. The parlors usually have an organist (who can also play a guitar) and a handful of habitual customers who sing Cantonese songs...and occasionally Western oldies such as "Sealed With A Kiss" by the Canton Singing House organist.
You can offer photography services to any business in the travel/tourism industry at your destination of choice. Opportunities are plentiful, whether you're selling your services or offering a trade. Going skiing in Colorado? Get in touch with local lodges about trading photography for a free stay. Vacationing in Vienna? Talk to the local tourism board about shooting a few photos for a fee. I recently made a deal like this in Cape Town shooting a month-long campaign with their tourism board, which resulted in a promotional blog post and lead to even more work. Remember that a strong portfolio goes a long way, and as it grows, so will your opportunities.
In general, I abide by what I call “The Octopus” approach to income generation. After 2 years trying to make it in traditional journalism, I realized that as a freelancer you need to try to have your hands in as many different pots as possible to survive. Essentially, if I can have 8 different sources of income at $250 each a month, I’ll make my $2000. And, if I lose one source of income, it’s not the end of the world. These are the various sources my hands extend towards.
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.
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.
×