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.
The image of Sapphire Kiu; a Hong Kong-based model (above), was made in early December 2018 on the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Temple street, and will be part of a forthcoming audio slideshow (aka photo film) titled "The Songstress of Temple Street". It will tell the story of Qin Yi, a famous Shanghai singer in the 1930s, who "returns" to Hong Kong where she started her career. Some of the images were made in Temple's Street Canton Singing House and the Tin Hau Temple.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.
After spending the last 6 years fiddling and learning photography, my wife and I are about to move to Cambridge, UK from Melbourne. We are planning to post and write about our European trips in a capacity that is more than just telling our family what we are doing with the goal of allowing our work to eventually pay for our travel. Our first real post will be up soon, looking at our short weekend trip into the Wimmera/Mallee to visit the new Silo Art in the region. My Wife is a much better writer than I am and is currently editing!
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.
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.
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.
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.
As with all types of photography, smart business sense is key. There are many ways to make a living with travel photography, and much of it extends well beyond your photo gear into social media marketing, content development, negotiation and sales. But the first step is to get out into the world and shoot. Start with anyplace you've been dreaming of traveling, and go! Plan ahead, do some research, and don't shoot like a tourist. Can't afford to travel? Search for opportunities in your nearest city to begin building your portfolio.
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