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.