Interested In Traveling The World, Taking Photographs, And Being Paid Handsomely For It? Several Pros Share What It Takes To Become A Travel Photographer
An Introduction to the World of Travel Photography
(Not) All About The Gear
Deciding On A Direction
First Path: Client Work
Second Path: Photo-preneur
The Long Haul
Travel photography, particularly the commercial kind, provides imagery and multimedia for the massive trillion dollar global tourism industry.
Travel photographers capture just about every kind of subject matter – from specific locations, attractions, hotels, resorts, and scenery – to events, customs, cultures, and people. Because of the huge variety of subject matter, travel photographers need to know and employ skills from multiple disciplines in their photography (such as landscape photography and portraiture techniques).
You probably know travel photography is about more than just taking photos, but what does it truly take to become successful in the business? We scoured the world of professionals to find their time-tested tips and wisdom behind what it takes to succeed and rise above the competition.
Make no mistake, travel photography demands the photographer to put their heart and soul (and sweat) into their work. The days of being paid just to take and photograph glamorous vacations are gone (or never truly existed). Travel photography is incredibly time-consuming, demanding, and worth every second and penny spent if you truly love it.
Travel photographers love and appreciate the fact that they get to travel to amazing places, meet incredible people, and create meaningful work. Those that manage to carve out a living from this practice are very passionate about what they do and driven to better themselves and their work.
Rather than placing themselves in a traditional career path (like finding a secure job with a particular company like National Geographic), most travel photographers these days are expert freelancers and marketers. They have made a name for themselves in an entrepreneurial sense. Whether by attracting well-paying clients around the globe, selling their own products, or partnering with others in their community, to succeed as a travel photographer is to be infinitely adaptable to change. The road to financial success can be long and difficult, but the rewards are incredibly satisfying.
If all this doesn’t scare you away – good! You may just have what it takes to become a successful travel photographer.
The first step to becoming a successful travel photographer? Go out into the world and shoot.
In an article for PetaPixel, Brendan van Son, a professional travel photographer and digital nomad, gives his advice to those looking to follow a similar path:
“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.”
Brendan, originally from a small town in Canada, started by taking photos to complement his work as a travel writer. He soon discovered he loved photography far more than writing and started going in this new direction by finding local photography opportunities and inspiration while honing his craft.
Now, with over 80 countries and 6 different continents under his travel belt, he’s found a way to live his dream and photographing around the world.
(Not) All About The Gear
“Back when I started, I was using a Canon T2i along with a kit 18-55mm lens. These days, I use a Canon 6D, 16-35mm f/4, 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, 50mm f/1.4, and a variety of other gear pieces such as Cactus flashes, a 3 Legged Thing tripod, and a GoPro 3+.” – Brendan van Son
James Wright, a 22-year-old travel and wildlife photographer from England, writes:
“I shoot with Nikon equipment, I have three bodies D3s, D800 and D700, slew of lenses from 12-24mm f/2.8 upto the mammoth 600mm f/4!
My editing process is really quick, I don’t like over editing images and it literally will be a tweak on the blacks, maybe a crop and a slight sharpen.
Depends, I went to Finland in April and I took 8,000 because the light was poor and I was trying different techniques, I went for the same length of time in May to photograph the bears and only took 2,000 so it really depends on what I’m doing and why I’m out there.”
Deciding on a Direction
Broaden Your Skills With The Goal of Specializing
Since we mentioned that travel photographers have a grasp of many different photography disciplines, does that mean you should master them all? Certainly not.
While it’s important to be able to work in varying conditions, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t specialize. Great photographers know that being great at one or two things is far more valuable than being good at many different kinds of photography. The world is full of generalists that blend together – and this is where the specialist stands out as the best choice in the minds of potential clients.
In the beginning, casting a wider net as a generalist will help you experience many different kinds of photography and may help you decide what you like most (which will later inform what your specialty should be).
But as you develop as a photographer, choosing a specialty will give you the freedom and focus to attract the work you want most – while making you more attractive to clients already looking for specialists in that field (such as architecture, food, hotel, adventure, or aerial photography).
In summary, it’s best to hone a broad range of skills in the very beginning and discover what you truly like and want to excel at. Take any opportunities that come your way, and use them to build a portfolio. Later on, when it’s more appropriate, you can start to dive headlong into a specialty and approach opportunities that involve being paid handsomely for it.
Now, we’ll explore that of all the directions you could go in travel photography, there are two main paths you’ll find yourself most likely to consider.
First Path: Client Work
The first option: Find and keep clients.
There are so many different potential clients out there that may want to hire you to create work for them.
The most common organizations that pay well for this type of work are:
- Governmental organizations
- Commercial organizations
Client-direct sales account for the biggest portion of travel photographer Brendan van Son’s income:
“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.”
Now that you have an idea of the opportunities out there, let’s go over each of the four main kinds of clients and how they are different:
Around the world, countries and their governments are striving to promote and support tourism in the native land. This means that around the world, captivating photographs that show the allure of visiting an area or region are needed and paid for by these organizations, and they have deep pockets.
This step will most likely not be your first as you pursue travel photography. A great way to make yourself more appealing to these organizations is to build your own online presence first. Or, by approaching travel magazines or newspapers, you can begin to build your credibility and make it more attractive for larger organizations to hire you based on the quality work you’ve already done.
It may be very difficult to “get your foot in the door” here, but doing so can give you access to big-budget clients and spectacular places often closed to the public.
All NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) need visual material that shows what they do and why they do it. This helps them get people to support their cause and attract donations. If you’re at all inclined to work in a very rewarding field and make the world a better place with your work, then NGOs are a great option.
The work usually varies quite a bit depending on the organization, but you could be photographing anything from public health projects, to endangered animals or remote villages. Most likely, this isn’t the job for you if you’d rather shoot beautiful resorts and landscapes, as the photography will serve a very specific purpose to further an NGOs cause.
You may indeed be shooting in some very unpleasant conditions with unpleasant weather. You might also be helping to shed light on issues the local government may be trying to hide, such as extreme poverty, animal abuse, child soldiers, habitat destruction, and the like.
A great way to start getting involved with an NGO you’re interested in is to volunteer for them. By developing working relationships with people in the organization, and doing great work, you can later on present yourself to them as a valuable photographer that understands their needs and their organization.
You don’t even have to travel far, you can start by getting involved with a local cause you care about, such as an animal shelter, and use the opportunity to build your portfolio while doing something you care about.
Andrew Evans has the job most travel photographers would kill for – he’s a working travel photographer for National Geographic. Andrew, however, is humble about it and generous with advice for novices working to break into the media field:
“Because National Geographic is such a popular place, there is pretty steep competition to get in the door. Just so you know, I was rejected for many, many office jobs before creating my current position, so always be patient. Also, think about what it is you actually want to do. Check the online listings at NationalGeographic.com and do your research before applying. For me, working for National Geographic was not something that happened overnight. It happened very slowly and gradually.” – Andrew Evans
For the sake of simplicity, the media can be divided into three main groups: digital/online platforms, print organizations, and stock photo agencies. All three have their pros and cons, and offer a travel photographer a way to make money from their craft.
The biggest group of the three is, of course, digital platforms. Most people interact with these on a daily basis either through social media or directly, and are their leading source of information. Most of these companies use stock photography as their main source of images, but some do regularly have contributors and send photographers to cover stories, much like print newspapers.
Magazines and newspapers tend to be seen as old fashioned in today’s world, but they are still very much in the business of paying for high-quality photos. It’s more difficult to find steady work in these areas and jobs are very competitive to get, but the work, especially for publications like travel magazines, can be very exciting.
Stock photography platforms act as a middleman between media companies who want imagery for their articles, and photographers offering quality images for just about every subject imaginable. Some photo agencies contract with photographers to send them on specific travel assignments, but don’t expect to make a fortune from this route.
While stock photography may not pay as well as other industries, it’s worth a shot to hone your skills and get your feet wet with taking publication-ready images. Again, if you’re interested in going this route, you can more easily start locally and hone your skills.
The last major group of clients for travel photographers offer some of the most exciting travel opportunities. Commercial organizations include any for-profit company or business that wants to work with a photographer to create the images they want for a project.
While these businesses can be from all kinds of industries, those that deal with travel and tourism are what you’ll likely focus on. As you build a reputation and brand, these organizations will more likely come to you looking for your expertise.
Projects can involve traveling around the world, often paid for completely by the organization you’re working with. But it’s good to be aware that the actual fees and payment for the work can be low because of the all-inclusive nature of the compensation.
The first step to getting paid work with brands you love? Specialize in an area of photography you love that you can market to big brands. For instance, hotels might love expert food photography, but an adventure travel company wants great action shots. If you can narrow down and get REALLY good at a particular style of photography, brands that align with your work are more likely to jump at the chance to work with you.
A great tip to getting started in the commercial industry comes from Oded Wagenstein, a photojournalist, and contributor to Digital Photography School:
“Approach the client with already made photos. Visited a nice hotel during your last vacation? The hotel’s management will probably be very happy to publish your images if they are good. Most likely they won’t pay you as they did not order the images from you, but they will give you a credit under the photo. But this would be a good start as you’re now published and have a working relationship with a known brand for your CV.”
Second Path: Photo-preneur
“[…] I think the best thing I learnt was to be hyper critical of your own & others work. It pushes your standard up because you are always striving to get the best.
Find a photographer who’s style you like and approach them, the worst they’ll do is ignore you. Work out why you like their photographs and try and replicate it.” – James Wright
The second path a potential travel photographer can take looks a lot like the first path, but isn’t necessarily client-based. This path involves just as much, if not more, effort than the last, but the potential upsides involve more financial freedom in the long run (but hey, we know this isn’t something you choose for the money).
One of the most straightforward ways to start earning income from you work is to publish images on stock photography websites. If you’re starting out, this is an easy way to start a small stream of passive income as you continue to take photos and get better.
Stock photography websites won’t pay huge dividends, but this is a good option if you need to start somewhere. There are many different companies to choose from, with some offering better commissions than others (big stock vs micro-stock).
“For micro-stock, I have portfolios on a dozen different sites. However, I really only publish images on a regular basis to ShutterStock and iStock. Between my micro-stock sales, I have averaged about $250 a month on average. The best part of micro-stock for me is that it’s fairly residual and passive. I spend very little time on it, and it keeps coming month after month even if I stop working at it.” – Brendan van Son
Social Media is King
Some of the highest paid travel photographers in the world aren’t necessarily the best photographers, but they are certainly the best at marketing themselves and their work. Hotels, resorts, restaurants, and tourism companies are always vying to work with these people because of their large fanbase and ability to captivate audiences with their work.
Many travel photographers started out slowly by cultivating their online presence. But this takes a lot of time and dedication, especially if you want to be paid to leverage your online following.
A good-sized following varies depending on the industry, but for travel photographers who want to work with brands on a platform such as Instagram, 20,000 followers is a good starting point.
Getting above 50,000 followers opens up more opportunities and higher rates, and above 100,000 followers can potentially give you the ability to make this your main source of income. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of how to do this, Neil Patel has a great guide here. The same principles generally apply to other platforms such as Facebook or YouTube.
It’s cliche, but true. Every photographer needs a website. It requires some work up-front in the beginning, but it can eventually do a some of the marketing for you and help you find clients and opportunities by always being out there, available for others to look at. Even if you don’t plan to blog about your travels, a website is essential to directing potential clients to contact you for projects.
There are so many different ways in which you can monetize your website, some involving a lot more work than others. To give you an idea here’s a list of a few of them:
- Affiliate marketing (links that give you a percentage of the sale if someone clicks and buys)
- PPC (pay per click) Advertising (showing photography gear ads on your website for example)
- Selling Products, physical or digital (for example, selling your own Preset pack)
- Donations (a simple donation button can bring in some extra income)
- Sell your services (at the very least have a contact page so clients can get in touch)
Selling Your Services
Timothy Allen describes himself as “a photographer who travels for a living,” and with clients like the BBC, he’s done quite well for himself while exploring the world for his career. He gives very sound advice when asked about finding opportunities and people to work with:
“You have to take your work to people, don’t wait for them to come to you. Cold-call people you want to work for and keep at it until you get a meeting. There’s more than enough work going around IME provided you accept that in the beginning you aren’t necessarily going to get the job you dream of. Working with the right people might lead to that though.” – Timothy Allen
Selling your services is a no-brainer for most photographers, but you can get as creative with this as you can imagine. For example, if you’re already traveling to a particular place, offer your photography services in exchange for a free stay. You’d be surprised how often this works for photographers. Of course, a strong portfolio goes a long way, and you should be able to offer just as much value as you get.
No, this doesn’t mean you have to go and get a job at a school. But teaching others about photography is arguably the option with the greatest potential.
Millions of new photographers are getting access to better technology that they want to use to create amazing photographs and videos with. Most of them want to learn the skills needed to do so and some of them are willing to pay top dollar for a professional to teach them.
Travel photography, in particular, will continue to grow and remains one of the most popular areas of photography that people want to learn. Once you’re good enough to do this, hosting photography workshops is a great way to share your knowledge with a passionate community while funding your own adventures and photography work.
Many photographers earn income from hosting workshops or selling books and tutorials to help beginners master their craft. If you have an audience and enjoy teaching the trade, this is a great option for you.
This option is closely related to a few of the others we’ve previously discussed. Licensing your work involves letting an agency or a business use your work in exchange for a fee. If you’re still new to the space, using a website like 500px allows you to offer your images up to license quite easily. Other reputable websites such as Stocksy are also worth a try if you already have a solid portfolio of work.
If you’re passionate about photography, chances are you have photos that others would also love. If you’ve narrowed down a specialty or created a cohesive portfolio of related work, you may want to consider offering prints for sale of your work. Fine Art America is a great place to do this if you want to take creating the prints yourself and shipping them out of the equation. Websites like Society6 and Etsy also offer communities where you can sell prints for profit.
The Long Haul
“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.” – Brendan van Son
Travel photographers, like any photographer or artist trying to carve out a living doing what they love, must work hard and be persistent to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
The trend on social media and other places online has been to portray travel photography as a glamorous lifestyle full of exotic destinations, resort hotels, and fantastic experiences. The reality that isn’t carefully curated online isn’t so pretty, according to many travel photographers themselves.
Long-distance flights and the jet lag that accompanies them can put a strain on your body. Traveling to countries that lack the infrastructure we take for granted in the developed world can be stressful and downright dangerous. Travel delays and cancellations are bound to happen at some point, and that’s only covering what it takes to arrive at your destination.
Once you get there, your time may be spent entirely by searching for the perfect shot, often in difficult situations – not exactly everyone’s dream vacation. Add in potential foodborne illnesses, bedbugs, no running water, and language barriers, and you get a sense of the grueling behind-the-scenes that most professional travel photographers are accustomed to.
You’ll also encounter people from all walks of life and a variety of different cultures. Oftentimes, this can be wonderful, but sometimes this can be an alienating and dangerous experience. Witnessing suffering or abuse in other cultures can be a disheartening experience, but many photographers are driven to make the world a better place through capturing these experiences.
Being flexible is probably the most valuable trait a travel photographer can have. The more accepting you are of change, the more opportunities will come your way. Whether this is traveling at a moment’s notice, dealing with weather conditions, navigating foreign cultures, or putting your ego aside to capture what your client truly wants, being flexible will most always help you succeed in this field.
But despite the challenges, the travel photography community is full of wonderful people, and is stronger than it’s ever been. While traditional forms of generating income are changing or dying out, there remains a world of opportunity for those who dare to look,
For the right people, this can be the job that becomes the adventure of a lifetime.