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How to Become a Professional Travel Photographer – Two Paths

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Ethiopian Meskel festival - By oded wagenstein

Ethiopian Meskel festival – by Oded Wagenstein

Many people are mistaken in thinking that travel photography is just about traveling and making photos. While, although that sounds like a dream job, not many people will pay you to just travel and take nice looking photos. Like any job, travel photography is work –  and usually, it’s very demanding.

Yes, you get to go to amazing places, meet exciting people, and the world is your office. But, it also has many downsides: sleeping in flea-infested guesthouses, never-ending bus rides from hell, harassment from corrupted policemen, loneliness, and lack of job stability to name a few.

Are you still here? Good! Let’s talk about how to become a travel photographer. There are two ways to approach this: finding a client, or finding a job that allows you travel.

Georgia - by oded wagenstein

Aperture f/5.6, shutter speed 1/6000th, ISO 400. Exposure Compensation: -1.3
-Image by Oded Wagenstein-

First option – Find a client

As a travel photographer, you have many potential clients. Here I will discuss the most common: Governmental tourism organizations, NGOs, Commercial organizations and Media

Governmental tourism organizations

Many governments strive to promote tourism in their countries. To do so, they need photographs to show the things and activities tourists can see and do in their country. Budget-wise, they have usually deep pockets.

Pros: This is the most organized option, the client has a big-budget, and gives you access to places closed to the public.

Cons: It’s very hard to get your foot in the door. Usually these organizations prefer to work with big, well known magazines and newspapers that can promise not only good photographers, but wide exposure to their audience of readers.

hindukush - By oded wagenstein

hindukush – by Oded Wagenstein

Tip from a pro: Instead of trying to work with a large media organization like a magazine or newspaper, become a small media icon yourself. If you have a large and influential presence on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, you might be more appealing to these organizations than old school media. So, start a blog, gain followers, and who knows, you could be their next photographer.

Taking the first step: In most cases, working with governmental tourism organizations will never be your first career step. But starting a working relationship with a travel magazine or newspaper, or starting a blog and a Facebook page is a good idea. It’s best to specialize in a specific area of travel, such as adventure, food, etc.

Portrait from Cuba - By oded wagenstein

Aperture f/4, shutter speed 1\400th, ISO: 500, Exposure Compensation -0.3
-Image by Oded Wagenstein-

NGOs

Some large NGOs (non-governmental organizations) need visual material to help them support their cause and attract donations.

Pros: It depends on the organization, but the work usually deals with super interesting projects on subjects like: animal rights, public health, or any other hot topic that demands the world’s attention.

Cons: This is not the job where you will be asked to shoot lovely landscapes and flowers, as many NGOs need photography as visual proof of their cause. This means you might be asked to get photos of matters that the local government wants to hide from the public eye (animal abuse, theft of natural resources, child abuse, etc.)

Tip from a pro: You can start by volunteering with an NGO that supports a cause you believe in. Then, through your working relationships with people from the inside and demonstrated photography skills, you might get to become the official photographer of the organization.

Taking the first step: You don’t always have to start somewhere far away. If this is your first time doing volunteer work, it would be wise to start locally. A nursing home or an animal shelter are good examples. You will start establishing your portfolio, and work for a good cause at the same time.

japan - By oded wagenstein

Aperture f/4, shutter speed 1\1000th, ISO: 320, Exposure Compensation -1.7
-Image by Oded Wagenstein-

Commercial organizations

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.

Pros: The commercial brands who hire a travel photographer are usually worldwide, and that can mean traveling a lot.

Cons: As traveling for free and shooting tourist destinations is a dream job for almost anyone, the fees offered for the job can be quite low. It’s common the photographer only gets paid with benefits like free flights or accommodation.

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.

Taking the first step: 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.

Bakery in cuba - by oded wagenstein

Aperture f/4, shutter speed 1\320th, ISO: 1000, Exposure Compensation -0.7
-Image by Oded Wagenstein-

Media

Having your travel photography printed on a glossy page of a well-known magazine…if that’s not a childhood dream, then what is? I will divide “media” into three areas: magazines and newspapers, digital platforms, and stock photography agencies.

Magazines and newspapers: Although they tend to be seen as old fashioned and don’t pay as well as other industries mentioned here, working for a newspaper (if you are into photojournalism) or a travel magazine is sure to be an interesting and creative job.

Digital platforms: These days digital platforms and websites are the leading source of information for most people. Although most well-known websites prefer to work with stock agencies (explained below) rather than directly through freelance photographers, some do have their own regular contributors and might send you to cover a story.

Stock photography: Shooting for stock photography is a subject for a different article (or five of them) but you can see stock agencies as the middle man between provider (the photographer) and buyer (magazines and websites). In order for news agencies or image bank websites to send you on assignment, you’re required to be a contract photographer. Each organization has its own contract and demands.  But some photo agencies will be willing to pay for your independent travel images if they are sellable. Do not expect large amounts. But hey, it’s better than nothing.

Thailand - by oded wagenstein

Pros: Dealing with the most interesting stories and places around the globe.

Cons: Of all the other clients, this one will probably pay far less than the commercial world. But hey it’s not all about the money, right? The work is usually as a freelancer as well.

Tip from a Pro: In order for a magazine or news agency to pay for your trip and fee, they need to be positive that you can deliver the job. Establishing a strong portfolio is a must.

Taking the first step: Again, like in other cases, starting locally is best. Ask to contribute photos, or propose a travel story, to your local newspapers.

Trinidad, Cuba - by oded wagenstein

Aperture f/5, shutter speed 1\5000th, ISO: 100, Exposure Compensation -2.7
-Image by Oded Wagenstein-

Second option – Find a job that requires traveling or relocation

If the instability of the freelance photographer’s way of life isn’t for you, you can always find a day job that involves traveling. Then you can go to lots of places, be paid for it through your job, and do travel photography in your spare time. Jobs like flight attendant, global salesperson, English teacher (or a spy!) are just several of many professions that let you visit your dream locations, without being too risky on the financial side.

portrait of a dark boy - by oded wagenstein

Aperture f/3.5, shutter speed 1\1000th, ISO: 200, Exposure Compensation -1
-Image by Oded Wagenstein-

Conclusion

This all may sound hard or even impossible. But, like in most arts, you need to be really good at what you do in order to make a living from it. You need to devote at least 50% of your time to marketing your portfolio, and above all, love your craft with all your heart.

Uzbekistan - by oded wagenstein

Aperture f/4, shutter speed 1\640th, ISO 160, Exposure Compensation 0
-Image by Oded Wagenstein-

The author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his assistance in writing this article

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Oded Wagenstein is a Travel photographer and writer. He is a regular contributor to the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli Edition) and he is known for his intimate portraits from around the world. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss on travel and people photography and get more amazing tips! You can check out Oded's new eBOOK - SNAPN TRAVEL- A life time of travel memories in a snap. It is all about creating better travel photographs on your next journey.

  • I developed a passion for photography as a consequence of path number two, and not the other way around; since my work sent me traveling to very different and varied countries, photography came to me as a natural, fulfilling way of documenting my own experiences and also as a sort of diary to keep track of a somehow messy life. A blog was born out of this passion, and it has been growing ever since! An example in my last post, councidentally a trip back to my hometown after a long hiatus away:

  • ironkong

    i wpould love to do this. but i have trouble asking someone to take a picture..for a photo blog..

  • done67
  • I would prefer not asking them.If you ask them, you put boundaries for them on how they should pose and behave.I would rather shoot them/him or her while they are out doing their chores,talking,eating,smoking,playing,praying or when they are at rest.

  • Am a Mass communication student trying to get my hands is several bowls.I love photography and travelling is my hobby.I am working on my photojournalist skills.Hope i will be working for one of those organizations mentioned by Oded Wagenstein.

  • I love to travel and Photography also. Your article will help me to be a good travel photographer. Thanks for sharing.

  • Are you working for a certain organization as their travel photographer or travel at your own cost shooting life?

  • Dylan Haskin

    It would be nice to see the focal length in the shot settings…:)

  • Hi Dylan,
    How are you?

    Since I photograph exclusively with the Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II, the focal length is always between twenty-four to seventy mm.

    Oded

  • With joy.
    Oded

  • Hi Davie,
    How are you?
    The answer is YES and NO. I work regularly with various magazines but as a freelancer.

    Oded

  • Dylan Haskin

    Thanks ?

  • Hey there,
    You may want to read some of my others post here on the DPS

    oded

  • That nice,seems you are enjoying.Hope i will get into search a position for my intern

  • Joel

    Great article Oded ! And some terrific images. Can you explain the numbers to me just a little ? You seem to have real fast shutter speeds/low ISO/negative exposure compensation. It seems that the shots would be seriously underexposed by the numbers, but they look great.

  • jacques brierre

    What an interesting and humorous article while dead serious. Thanks. I learned a lot.

  • Hi Joel.

    Thank you. Yes, I can explain – There are two reasons for which I choose to use negative exposure compensation:

    1. Drama: I like having shadows on the face. It emphasizes the facial features

    2. Light Metering: Unless you changed this, the camera measures light with average metering mode. If you pay attention, the background of most of my characters is lighter than them. Meaining that most of the image, in terms of the way the camera see this, is bright. Therefore I need to make up for it.

    Oded

  • Thank you!
    Oded

  • Earn more income weekly… This is an awesome part time job for anybody… Best thing about it is that you can do this job from comfort of your house and make 100 to 2000 dollars each week … Start now and have your first check by the end of this week…>You can visit my disqus profile to find out more

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    I am somewhat of a travel photographer. I took a candid street shot of a big dude and he told me to get lost. And, I did.

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