Long gone are the days in which being a travel photographer simply meant you shot photography for a certain travel magazine or newspaper. The world isn’t that simple anymore, and the level of competition in the photography world has never been higher. But still, I’m fairly sure there are more “travel photographers” on the planet now than there ever were — just check your Instagram feeds.
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.
Love your site! How do you go about not needing work visas to do photography for tourism boards, hotels etc? I see a lot of travel photography in foreign places, but in most countries its illegal to work there and next to impossible to get a work visa as a photographer. Any advice on reaching out to brands/hotels/tourism boards etc overseas without finding myself being deported for working in their country?
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.
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.
If you’re interested in creating a travel blog to showcase your travel photography The Blogger Course is the best thing you can invest in! It’s a 12 week course sharing all the secrets to making money and finding an audience created by Monica of The Travel Hack. I’ve also contributed a weeks lesson on Advanced Photography. Sign up and you’ll also get access to a secret Facebook Group that’s invaluable for sharing advice and getting feedback.
Honestly, I think this is the smallest source of income thus far in 2015. There just isn’t a lot of demand these days. Yes, I’ve had some works published in major media outlets. I had a two page spread from Iceland in The Guardian, for example. But the traditional journalism work isn’t something I chase anymore. It’s too much work. You spend 95% of your time pitching, and 5% of your time in the field. I really only do traditional journalism work these days if a newspaper or magazine approaches me. In 2015, I have made about $150 a month from traditional journalism.
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.
The patrician-looking (and rather taciturn) sadhu in the top photograph did tell me that he had a family, had held a managerial position in the Indian Railway from which he earned a pension (now paid to his wife), but had decided to detach himself from temporal life and was currently studying the Vedas. These are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. He was the embodiment of a real sadhu who had really espoused the Vairāgya, and was far different from the "sadhus" I encountered on the ghats of Varanasi (below) almost 8 years later.
My still-embryonic idea is to enlist the help of a local acquaintance who would wear a cheongsam (aka qi pao), and take the role of a sing-song girl. The photo shoot would take place in the streets of Yau Ma Tei, and in the parlor itself. Whether the parlor would allow it or not is an open question that will be answered when I'm there. The owners and clients seemed very laid back when I made these photographs.
Tip from a pro: To work with the big brands, you need to market yourself in a way that will appeal to these types of clients. The kind of architectural or food photography a hotel chain needs is very different from what a tour company that specializes in extreme travel. Don’t try to work in all genres and styles. That’s a good path to becoming an inadequate photographer. Focus only on the genre and style you love and put all of your heart and effort into it.
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.
All the photographs in this gallery were made using the Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fujinon 18mm 2.0 pancake lens. Since I keep camera dangling from my neck as I click the shutter, the lens aperture ring occasionally slips, so I have a small piece of gaffer tape keeping it at 2.8 or 4.0 at all times. I also keep the iso at 640 most of the time. The photographs were processed with Silver Efex; my favorite monochrome software.
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.
If you are a top notch, worldwide known photographer, it is very likely that customers from all over the world will want to use your services (for fashion, events, sports, architecture, products etc.). But as we are focusing on travel photography, commercial organizations that deal with traveling and tourism are more likely to hire you. Notable examples are hotels, tour companies, airlines and so on.
Get out there. The only way to discover the rhythm of life in a place, and so figure out what to shoot, is to experience it. Many places, particularly hot ones, are active very early in the morning and late in the afternoon but rather in a lull around midday. Get up early, stay out late. If you are on a tour that is scheduled to leave the hotel or ship at 9:00, get up well before dawn. Wander around before meeting up with your companions. If the tour goes back to the hotel or ship for lunch, don't go with them. Rather than take the bus back at the end of an afternoon tour, hang around until after sunset and then take a taxi. Use any spare time to get out and look for photographs. Besides availing yourself of more opportunities, time spent discovering the place will enrich your experience.
In 2014, I worked with a major car brand, a rental car company, and a couple tourism boards. So far, in 2015, I haven’t worked with anyone, though it’s mostly because I’ve been off doing my own thing. There’s a balance here between going where you want and where the money is. Unfortunately for the weight of my wallet, I’ve always just gone where I want and only take on clients like this if it’s convenient.