Dec 19th

2008

Making Money As A Travel Photographer

quitoyellow

It’s not long before people with a passion for both photography and travel hit upon the idea that combining the skills is a cash-crop just waiting to be harvested. Then they email me. Or Matt Brandon. Or Gavin Gough. No doubt people like Rick Sammon or Bob Krist get flooded with the same emails asking the same question.

How do I make money as a travel photographer?

Ah, the age-old search for the hidden pot o’ gold! My friend Gavin recently answered this question on The Vision Collective and I think his reply was spot on – if you’re going to make a living from travel photography “you’re either going to have to work bloody hard or live very cheaply. Probably both.”

First, I think the matter of “travel photography” needs to be more clearly defined. It’s probably more helpful to see yourself as a photographer specializing in certain types of images for certain markets. How do I make a living? I clearly identify those images and then find the buyers that want them. That, in a nutshell is the answer to the question. The fact that I go places to do it, in an increasingly shrinking world, isn’t what sets me apart.

The more relevant question is how do I find buyers for my talent and my images? And that is a broad, broad answer. Marketing yourself as a “travel photographer” takes the same know-how as marketing yourself as a commercial photographer based in NYC.

Gavin’s reply is helpful because it immediately disabuses us of this “get on a plane, take some pictures, return home to sell them and live of the vast proceeds”  rubbish. It’s hard, hard work. You get exhausted. You get sick. You get mugged. And then you return home and flog your hard-earned wares to a marketplace saturated with images of the same places you were just shooting – many of them (dammit!) better than yours. So if you don’t do this first for the pure, unadulterated, love of it, and with the willingness to suffer typhoid and malaria as thanks for a job well-done, then, well, ahem – move along, citizen. There is nothing to see here.

If on the other hand, you’re still hanging on my every word, and still want to do this, well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news first – it’s hard, and there is no one answer to the question at hand. The good news, so long as you stay debt free and keep traveling, you’ll be doing what you love. Screw the riches and fame, who needs it when you can be eating lentil slop on rice and sipping chai by the Ganges?

Still with me? Still asking that nagging “how do I make a living at this” question? Here’s some thoughts, and none of them are a magic wand.

10 Thoughts on Making A Living As A “Travel Photographer”

1. Be really, really, good at what you do. Keep getting better at it and do it because you love it.

2. Be diverse in your offerings. The more sources of income you have the better.

3. Learn to write well. Travel photography and writing go hand in hand and the more value you give to prospective clients, like magazines, the more that work will go to you and not the other guy who, all other things being equal, can’t string a sentence together. You don’t have to be able to write, but if you can, it’ll help.

4. Research. So you want to leverage the 10,000 images you took while traveling last year? Stock might be the way to do it. You won’t likely make a living on stock alone, though some have, but if you’re looking to supplement your income, do your research. What is selling? Where are the holes in stock libraries? What do the stock libraries want? Stock is not the panacea that some people wish it were, so do your research, don’t bet the farm on it, and don’t for a minute think of it as a dumping ground for the b-roll stuff no one else will buy. It’s competitive out there.

5. Make a list of every client you think might want your images. In-flight magazines, resorts, tourism boards, book publishers, web publications – make a long, long list. Now create a marketing plan that gets you, your unique images and talent, in front of those people. Meet them. Stay in front of them. Hope to hell they call you.

6. Keep shooting even when they don’t.

7. Most of us can’t travel year-round. But think about this – European travel-photographers spend thousands of dollars to come to Vancouver and shoot. I live here – what market-needs could I be serving with images of Vancouver that cost me exponentially less to create? The CEO of a stock agency I work with just reminded me that every skyline in the world is constantly changing and with those changes comes a need for more images. Do you have an image bank of “travel photography” for your own city? Why not? I don’t, perhaps I’ll answer that one in another blog post. Probably a really defensive one. :-) Or I’ll just get off my ass…

8. Further to #7 – I still don’t believe the title “Travel Photographer” is helpful. If you’re shooting images in your home town then they aren’t really “travel photographs” – so what are they? Answer that and you’ll discover new places to sell your images. Do you love adventure travel stuff? Lifestyle? Editorial? Why don’t you have a portfolio you’re shopping to ad agencies in your town? And if you can shop that portfolio to ad agencies in your town, why not in places you want to travel to – Mumbai? Paris? Timbuktu? (OK, I’m going to guess Timbuktu has no ad agencies, I was just checking to see if you were still with me.)

Now it’s your turn.
I’ve saved #9 and #10 for you. Give me your best ideas in the comments section and before I head out on my next trip in two weeks (Havana – Cairo – Kathmandu – Bangkok – Hanoi – San Francisco) I’ll pick the best two, assign them to #9 and #10 and I’ll send you a signed copy of my new book Within The Frame when it comes out in May.

Comments (26)
  1. December 19, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Hi, David,

    I found your blog a few months ago when I was researching the Think Tank Skin System (I eventually got myself an Urban Disguise 30 and a Skin 50) and I have been following your posts ever since. Like yourself, I’m also a “travel” photographer, but I always use the term loosely when introducing myself to people. From that, let me give you my suggestion for #9:

    Never let the label “travel photographer” box you in and limit the photographs you make. “Murder Your Darlings” was one of my favorite rules as a writer. When I became a photographer, I carried it over and trained myself to be “continually dissatisfied” with my work. There’s just too much competition in travel photography to be content with being “good enough”. Take on the role of innovator and always redefine what you think a travel photograph should be. This will keep the new ideas coming and your perspective fresh.

    And a #10, if I may:

    Do whatever you can to stay in the game. Be ready to run a marathon, not a 100-meter dash. It may take years before you get noticed, even longer before you “hit it big”. The worst you could do is give up at the eleventh hour. You have to keep putting your work out there, no matter what. If your work is, as Chase Jarvis pointed out, undeniably good, you have nothing to worry about — it will get noticed. It will be like an idea whose time has finally come.

  2. December 19, 2008 at 6:34 am

    The intoxication of the exotic has urged me again and again to go overseas. I relish in all things foreign (such as how do you find a bathroom in Pakistan.) But sometimes, my comfortable existence at home becomes more appealing. I am tempted to find excuses not to go. Why bother any longer with malaria avoidance, shots, giardia (don’t ask if you don’t know), questionable food and water, thieves and downright discomfort?

    The one reason I can’t lay it down, the one reason the passion to get on a plane never dies…is people. Meeting new people, struggling to understand their culture, rejoicing when you can make yourself understood in a foreign language, heartfelt hugs at departure time, all tend to fan the flames.

    It is not seeing Victoria Falls. It is sitting crouched over an open fire in a mud hut sharing a meal with a family struggling to find enough food.

    Shooting the pyramids in Egypt is not near as fascinating and rewarding as following a doctor around in the teeming city as he helps thousands of Sudanese refugees trying to survive.

    Travel photography is about people, not places.

  3. December 19, 2008 at 7:11 am

    On my way out the door, so I may post another later, but here’s one to start with:

    Work on the skill of SEEING (uniquely).

    The reason we love “travel photography” is that when we travel, we see things we’ve never seen before. Everything around us is new and fresh to our eyes, and it’s exciting. It gives us opportunity to see a world we’ve never seen before.

    But simply recording a place to film (or memory card) without saying anything about it is really not the goal.

    The real job (and joy) of a photographer – any photographer-is to SEE. To see the world in our own unique way, and to show the world to people in a way they have never seen it before. If we can’t really SEE – and see in a unique way – the things that are familiar to us in our own city, then we probably won’t be able to see uniquely in a country on the other side of the world either.

  4. Jo

    December 19, 2008 at 7:29 am

    I would agree with Gary, it’s mainly about people.
    But if meeting all these people in the setting of their culture does not influence you, does not make you a better person, maybe you are just making nice pictures of places and people. So I would say that #9 is that you need to absorb these encounters with new people and new cultures to become a better person, and that will show in you work, and it will make sure you stand out. When you stop growing as such, it is over.

  5. December 19, 2008 at 7:40 am

    Plan an itinerary for the first half of your trip…and leave the second half open. This way, if something comes up while you are there (a festival ignored by travel guides, a family who opens up their door and lives for you, something unexpected catches your eye) you can freely choose to cover it without nixing some stuff you were hoping to photograph.

  6. December 19, 2008 at 9:19 am

    ‘True dat” about the people pictures. A friend had seen my recent photo’s of Thailand and she said that she really enjoyed the people pictures. She found them more interesting than the landscape or artifact images.

    Another tip: Learn the language. Though many people speak English as a second language, they really appreciate that you have taken the time to learn their native tongue. You need not be fluent but a “nit noy” (Thai: little bit) will go a long way. It creates more interaction and openness with locals.

  7. December 19, 2008 at 9:23 am

    #9. Make sure that every time you press the shutter, it’s for a reason. Understand and know what the resulting image will be because it resonates with your vision, ideas or intent of shooting in the first place. This will eventually contribute to what will become your style. And it will also save you a lot of money in data storage costs!

    #10. Be a farmer, not a gatherer. Look at what is selling in the image world by reading every magazine out there. Forget about the articles and focus on the ads, it’s surprising how many ads are illustrated with travel imagery or a loose variation called “lifestyle”. It’s about happy people enjoying good times in nice or exotic places. If you want to go to these places, great. But when you get there, set up, farm or develop the images that you know will sell (because you studied enough ads to know what is selling). Farmers plant crops that they know will sell, none of them plant crops that don’t.

    #11. Learn to light. You should be able to turn day into night and night into day artificially. You may not always use it but, it will help you make much more interesting travel images and will allow you to get more pictures out of a given scenario.

    #12. NEVER shoot on spec

    #13. NEVER give your image away for a photo credit. No matter what publication it’s for. The only people who read photo credits are other photographers.

  8. Mag

    December 19, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Your thoughts on Making A Living As A “Travel Photographer” are excellent.

    One thing I would add is your marriage and children. Becoming a travel photographer you have to be willing to be away from your family a lot of the time. There will be times when you will be away from home more times than not. Will your wife or husband support you and are you strong enough to leave your family behind while you travel? Not many people are strong enough to do that. You have to really understand that you will not be with your husband/wife/ and kids for weeks at a time, sometimes even longer.

    I learned that the hard way, which is why I never quit my day job to do what I really love and instead compromised by starting to shoot children in my neighborhood part time. I still hope that one day I will make that change. I don’t want to be sexist on this topic but I think it’s much harder for women to become travel photographers if they want to start a family.

    It’s much easier if you are single to follow your dreams and becoming a Travel Photographer.

  9. December 19, 2008 at 10:34 am

    I don’t think that there is any travel photographer that earns a living at travel photography. If you want to travel, make photos and earn a living, you will need to be a “travel Swiss army knife photographer”.

    You will need at least the following skills:
    – Marketing
    – Sales
    – Research
    – Writing
    – Editing
    – Web design
    – Great social/networking skills
    – Computer/Technical
    – Photo technician, Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop,…
    – Digital Asset Manager / Library Manager

    Oh By The Way, did I mention photography? To earn a living as a travel photographer, you will need all these skills plus smarts, wits, and “balls”. Many people will add to this list.

    Syv Ritch
    http://foto-biz.com

  10. Dan

    December 19, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Research before you go. Shoot the common things, but also shoot the less known things that the local area is pushing. This will offer uniqueness to your images that may make them stand out. For an example look at the “Other Orlando” ad campaign.

    Dan

  11. December 19, 2008 at 11:17 am

    Stop limiting yourself to the “known ” markets- Be creative! Research what businesses of your home town or country ( we are all GLOBAL CITIZENS now!) do business overseas, or where you are going to- could they benifit from the photographs you plan on taking? How about a colaboration before the trip than the hard sell after you return!?!
    Conde Naste not taking your calls? What about the local newspaper that runs a travel section and needs fresh content and new ideas; but nowadays a limited budget?
    What about the trade magazine for a local, yet national business player( have the acting photo editor information from the magazine contact page yet!?!) could they benifit from using someone of your vision and talent?
    Think globally and go in with the attitude that you want to help provide a solution instead of thinking what can you sell them later when you’re safe at home!
    ANother thought- most people get more creative if they have a project to focus on- no assignment from anyone publishing at the moment? what about creating your own- think about why you want to visit another region, is it the people, local itself? food? what is the place you’re visiting known for? How can you tell the story differently?- plan on telling a story with imagery from your trip that shows just how special it was ( and why someone else may want to go there as well as a result of your compelling photographs! Be a traveler- not a tourist!)

    Be creative with how you think as well as photograph- and you’re halfway there already!
    Cheers!

  12. December 19, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Another inspirational essay. Thanks David.
    I want to add to #7. I have been to a few places in the world. I enjoy going to new exotic places and seeing faces and photographing the experience. In a way it is easy pickings, everything looks new and fresh and exciting to photograph, but it has already been done a thousand times by photographers who are much more skilled than I am. I find that it a challenge to photograph my neighborhood. I don’t see it, I go from one point to another. Now I carry my camera more often and try to photograph my city, all the post card vistas, in a way that I haven’t seen before, that will make it mine, new, fresh, and as exciting as being a travel photographer. That won’t make a living, but it makes my life a lot more interesting.

  13. Ian

    December 19, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Quality & insight as always David and for my own helpful handy hints, I offer these thoughts

    Become a tourist. Too often we lose the human element in photography and I don’t just mean photographing people and their expressions. If you go to a place, think about why you went there, what attracted you to it, what set your little heart a-fluttering. Those are the things you should take photos of and if you can fit a few landmarks or something iconic into the background, all the better. You can go to Paris for example and take a picture of the eiffel tower, but everyone plus their entire extended family has done that, and they’ve also got the I <3 Paris t-shirt to go with it. Get the tower in the background, but get some life in the foreground, something of the thing that actually made you fall in love with the place, be that people in their daily life, a restaurant, a street artist, a 2cv or a DS10, whatever. Life defines a place as much as a landmark.

    #10 Believe in yourself …. 100% and without reservation or arrogance. When you’re doing things right and nobody else sees it, it’ll be the only thing that keeps you going. When you’re doing things wrong, it’ll be the only thing that lets you see it.

  14. Kati Debelic

    December 19, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    My comment would be to make contacts wherever you are going to take pictures, before you leave.. There are several websites that helps making contact with people overseas (for example, couchsurfing, or virtual tourist which make travelling not only much cheaper, but also gives you a hand with getting to know your surroundings, and getting a hand at finding areas of interest.

  15. December 19, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    9 – Value your work. Value your time. Value your vision.

    10 – Be respectful.

    well, i guess those go for things beyond travel photography, but they still count, right?

  16. December 19, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Well for me (a recently married man) have a lot to do with family. It’s not easy to convince wife and in-laws so you can go shoot in tempting places. So here is my #9 #10

    #9 – make sure your wife understand what you do and to have her trust you completely.

    #10 – make sure you understand your sacrifices and trust your wife completely.

    :-)

  17. December 20, 2008 at 12:18 am

    In the every growing information age, I would add:

    #9 Have an online portfolio. Not something with a 1000 shots or eight galleries with your family dog. Narrow it down. Let people see your best work. Keyword your images so you’re easier to find. In addition to easy, keep your web address simple.

    #10 Yes, it’s a competitive market… However, Network. Network. Network. Never burn a bridge with other photographers. This blog is proof of keeping respect and the benefit of doing so. (i.e. 5D Mark II)
    In networking with other photographers you gain experience and opportunities. When I traveled to Jerusalem, I met up with a fellow photographer I had met via a photography forum. That connection, friendship, saved me time and money.

    Tell me you’ve never benefited from another photographer in some way and you can take this off the list.

  18. December 20, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Thanks for your wonderful blog. Here is mine:

    9. While covering the whole world is fun and shows the potential client you can do “almost everything”, become a pro in a specific country/region of the world. Only people who fully understand local culture/language/customs can sometimes get that NG shot.

    10. If you feel you are not having fun traveling anymore – stop doing it. Life is too short.

  19. December 22, 2008 at 12:01 am

    […] Making Money As A Travel Photographer | PixelatedImage Blog David duChemin's thoughts on what makes an excellent travel photographer (tags: photography business travel) […]

  20. June 17, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Well thanks for the pointers! I’ll try that one of these days if it’ll work out! I’m a photography aficionado and at the same time i love to travel. So this one is worth trying. Thanks!

  21. September 5, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I don’t have a suggestion I have a question – How to reach potential customers? where there are list of photo buyers? photo editors? etc

  22. December 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    […] talks about how hard work and dedication can eventually pay off for budding travel photographers. Making Money As A Travel Photographer – An older article, but still very relevant information from David duChemin. Feeling Distant […]

  23. December 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    #7 – Great advice. Thanks.

    #9 – Be approachable and friendly. The locals love to share the best places. Ask to take their photo also, it adds to the story.

    #10 – Don’t be looking the other way when an opportunity presents itself. Be open to options and have fun.

  24. April 7, 2012 at 10:02 am

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  25. April 19, 2012 at 9:11 am

    […] talks about how hard work and dedication can eventually pay off for budding travel photographers. Making Money As A Travel Photographer – An older article, but still very relevant information from David duChemin. Feeling Distant […]