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Arguably the most glamorous branch of photography is travel photography. What could be better than getting paid to travel the world and take photos? But is it really what it’s said to be? Here are seven realities that only become evident once you become a professional travel photographer.
The first and most important factor is actually making money from travel photography. Before you quit your job and start a career in this industry you need to understand that you are entering an “over-saturated” market. Basically, there are more photos than there is demand.
If you look through most magazines and newspapers you’ll notice that there is usually a small line of type in the corner of the photo telling you where it’s come from. Usually, this is from stock agencies as they offer much more viable and cheaper alternatives for the buyer than actually commissioning a photographer.
But stock photography is also tough and it takes some time to crack into the market. You need a big collection of destinations and a wide variety of subjects. Most agencies will tell you that you should expect to have to wait around 18 months before seeing a regular income from your photos. So before you take the plunge make sure you are fully aware of the financial implications.
Most of the time when I tell people what I do, they have visions of me lying in a hammock on a beach taking the occasional photo at sunset. This could not be further from the truth.
One of the first realizations for me was how different going away on an assignment or a photography trip was to actually being on holiday and taking photos. When you are at a destination to photograph it for a feature or even for stock agencies, your time and effort are fully put into capturing the photos needed. There’s usually no time to spend hours sitting at a café watching the world go by as you usually have a shot list to go through.
Because of this, you will very quickly discover that traveling with companions or loved ones becomes very difficult. Who can blame them? Would you want to sit around waiting for an hour for the light to change? Would you want to go back again and again to the same location just so you can take the perfect shot? There is a reason that most travel photographers work alone.
Hours and hours of walking around, not enough sleep and not eating properly all contribute to making you feel tired – all the time. But there’s no time to sleep in or take a break as you are constantly battling against time to capture the shots you need. You’ll have to learn to recover quickly from one day to the next and catch up on rest and sleep when you can.
For example, if I’m photographing somewhere that means I will be getting up in the early hours of the morning to catch the sunrise or working late at night (or both). Then I try and catch up on sleep for a few hours at midday when the light is harshest. Or I check the weather forecast and plan my rest periods around the times when there’s going to be rain or overcast days. But there’s no getting around it, you will find yourself feeling tired, you just have to learn to live with it.
Any sort of outdoor photography relies a lot on the weather and more importantly the light. One of the most common bits of feedback that I give newbie photographers who ask me to review their images is that they have simply chosen the wrong time of the day or the wrong day to photograph that scene. A great photo requires various aspects such as light, composition, the subject, focus, etc., to all come together. If one of these fails the photo will usually fail too.
As a travel photographer you will find yourself constantly checking weather forecasts and looking up at the sky to determine the perfect time to take the photo. You’ll frequently be trying to predict if it’s worth waiting for the shot or cutting your losses and coming back another day.
Whilst you are always battling time to be able to cover off everything you need to, you also usually end up having to wait around a lot. It might be a few minutes waiting for the clouds to disperse or for someone to walk into your frame, or it might be hours while you wait for the right light. Either way, you need to always build enough time into your schedule to allow for waiting for things.
I was recently having a chat with a friend of mine who is also a professional travel photographer. The topic soon got to “sunrise shots” and actually if it’s worth getting up that early to take them? We were discussing how many of our photos taken at or around sunrise have actually gone onto to sell and the answer is very few. Certainly a lot less than the photos taken later in the morning or the day.
Now, you would be hard pressed to find a travel photographer who wouldn’t get up at sunrise to capture those early morning shots – myself included – but why? The only reasonable explanation is that it is out of passion. The reality is that you’ll probably sell more photos taken later in the day than at sunrise.
Being away is great and the anticipation of a new destination or adventure is what makes the job so exciting. But as a travel photographer, you’ll also begin to look forward to going home and getting back to normality. Things like going to sleep and waking up at “normal hours”, eating properly and seeing loved ones become things you look forward to. Not to mention giving your body a rest after all the walking and carrying of camera equipment.
While this list might look like it’s dissuading you from embarking on a career in travel photography, despite all of this it is still one of the best industries to be involved in. The satisfaction of seeing your work in guidebooks, magazines and even on the web makes all of the hard work, loneliness and effort worth it.
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