When I was a child and I used to flip through the glossy pages of travel books and magazines like National Geographic in our school’s library, I used to dream about going to those places one day. At that same time, though, I never truly believed that it would happen. And even if I did manage to reach one of those exotic locations, I didn’t have a decent camera to capture the magical landscapes and captivating faces as a travel photographer.
Fast forward 30 years and I can say that I’ve been to quite a few of those faraway lands and I even brought along decent camera gear in hand. After publishing one book (and another on the way… think fire and ice), developing photo editing tutorials and providing personalized photo tours in Paris, I have, over the years, evolved into a travel photographer. 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.
Steve Davey, author and photographer of Unforgettable Places To See Before You Die wrote: “Every muppet with a camera and a plane ticket thinks that they can be a travel photographer”. There is so much more to travel photography than buying a plane ticket and carrying a camera with you.
It’s important to learn the business behind travel photography and mastering how to capture and share those stories – including blogging, vlogging and social media. It’s all about branding yourself as a travel photographer. The world is full of unique and beautiful places so why not get paid while filling up the pages of your passport.
What is Travel Photography?
Commercial travel photography provides imagery for the $1 trillion global tourism industry. Many people believe that travel photography is about living the good life – travelling and taking photos. Not true. Like any job, travel photography is work – and usually, it’s very demanding. If you don’t mind getting up at stupid o’clock to capture the perfect sunrise, carrying a heavy camera plus all the gear that complements it and sleeping in flea-infested guesthouses, then travel photography might be for you.
Are you still here? Good! Let’s talk about how to become a travel photographer. Basically, you need to find a client or find a job that allows you to travel.
Thankfully, we live in an age where camera gear is more affordable than ever, photo editing applications are widely accessible and social media platforms have connected each of us with people around the globe. Travel photographers, however, have to learn photography skills just as wedding and stock photographers do, but travel photographers also have an added layer of complication by needing to balance the cost of travel.
I think that travel photography needs to be redefined to reflect today’s reality. The market is saturated. Anyone who wants an image of the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal can simply go to Flickr or check their Instagram feed and find 100 photographers who’ve shot the same shot from the same angle on the same camera. And furthermore, they’ll strive to give the image away in hopes of getting a publishing credit.
To be successful in today’s highly competitive market, I think there are two options:
1. High Quality of Unique Images
So, while sites like Flickr, or a quick search on Google images, might result in an abundance of major landmarks and locations, a serious photographer will work tirelessly to find a unique angle on a familiar subject and in a new an captivating light. For me, the key has been staying true to myself and my own style. I try to bring a unique element into all of my photos and show my personality. Plan ahead, do some research, and don’t shoot like a tourist.
And speaking of light, I’ve spent several years photographing in an around Paris. Maybe I’m a slow learner but it took me three years to realize that my best photographs were those taken in the early morning, late evening, and in the middle of the night. Simply put, photography is all about the light (or absence of it!).
2. Photo Essays
There will always be a requirement that the travel photography market expects high quality images. However, I think that the modern definition of travel photography is more about the travel essay. Okay, so let’s explain the jargon. What I mean by travel essay is a themed collection of captivating images that tell a story. These consist of high quality photographs, not just your holiday snaps, that create a gallery that is capable of taking you on an epic ride and makes you forget about where you are.
Can Travel Photography Pay The Bills?
The simple answer is “Yes!” There is no shortage of opportunities out there if you’re willing to work hard, spend a lot of time alone (while you’re waiting for that perfect shot!), and if you’re willing to continually diversify your photography skills and build your brand. You have total freedom to design your own path.
I’ve worked extensively in France and I’m now leading customized photo tours in Paris. Meanwhile, I’ve sold image licenses through multiple agencies over the years, and I’m constantly working on partnership and sponsorship deals behind-the-scenes. My travel photography blog also works for me, as I often get offers and inquiries directly from visitors.
Do you have what it takes?
Here are some ideas for making a living with travel photography:
License Your Travel Photography
In my experience, I’ve noticed that destination photos tend to sell well. If you’re just starting out and want some exposure, consider uploading your best work to sites like 500px, where you can offer your images for license quite easily. For those of you who are more experienced and have a strong portfolio, you might want to apply to Stocksy, which is the most reputable agency in the stock photo business.
Offer Your Services While Travelling
Going skiing in the French Alps? Contact the local lodges about trading your photography for free accommodation. Visiting Venice? Get in touch with the local tourism board about shooting a few photos for a fee.
Sell Your Prints
When I browse photographers’ work, it’s easy to tell when someone is really passionate about a subject. If you have a passion project – perhaps the mountains of Nepal or the stormy skies over the plains of the Serengeti, why not consider showcasing your cohesive collection of images by hanging them in a gallery or selling prints or photo books online. I recently published a coffee table book – Paris: Photography by David Sornberger.
Provide Photo Tours
Consider offering a photo tour in a destination that you know well by combining your photographic skills with your skills as a local expert of the area. Just recently, I’ve started offering Photo Tours in Paris:
If this is an opportunity that you’re interested in, consider your audience: tourists and/or serious photographers? You might also want to think about how you can capture unique perspectives of popular landmarks so that your clients’ photos are unique to their specific travel experience.
Produce Travel Photography Content
If you enjoy travel writing, you could create a blog that features destinations, photography gear and guides. You might even want to produce your own podcast to complement your work as a photographer. A solid example of someone who is passionate about gear is photographer Colby Brown, who writes in-depth reviews. Trey Ratcliffe is someone else who I follow is specifically focussed on HDR photography. It’s important to find your niche and go deep.