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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.
As a travel photographer, you have many potential clients. Here I will discuss the most common: Governmental tourism organizations, NGOs, Commercial organizations and Media
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his assistance in writing this article