Here’s What It Takes to Become a Professional Travel Photographer
When I was just eight years old I would flip through the pages of National Geographic and imagine being a photographer in Africa. I was captivated by the faces and places that seemed worlds apart from my typical Middle American hometown. Fast forward years later, and I’m living the dream as a travel photographer working throughout Africa and Europe. If you’ve ever wanted to travel the world with your camera, here’s my advice to help you get started and thrive in professional travel photography.
What is Travel Photography?
Commercial travel photography provides imagery for the $1 trillion global tourism industry. It might include photographing destination hotels and resorts, tourist attractions, scenery, outdoor adventures, local events, cultures, and customs. Images are used for advertising, merchandising, and print sales. With such a huge variety of subject matter, travel photographers employ skills across all photographic disciplines: portraiture, landscape, wildlife, architectural, reportage and event photography.
Can Travel Photography Pay The Bills?
Yes! Opportunities are abundant if you’re willing to work hard and diversify your skills. Careers in travel photography are as varied as the destinations they serve, and you have total freedom to design your own path.
As for me, I started shooting in my hometown years ago, gradually photographing throughout most of the US before moving to Europe in 2012 where I continued shooting and reaching out for opportunities.
This year and I signed a long-term travel photography contract with Cape Town Tourism, the official tourism board in my favorite city in Africa. Meanwhile, I’ve sold tens of thousands of image licenses through multiple agencies over the years, host local workshops and photowalks in the cities I visit, and I’m constantly working on partnership and sponsorship deals behind-the-scenes. Even my travel photography website works hard for me, as I often get offers and inquiries directly from visitors.
As with all types of photography, smart business sense is key. There are many ways to make a living with travel photography, and much of it extends well beyond your photo gear into social media marketing, content development, negotiation and sales. But the first step is to get out into the world and shoot. Start with anyplace you’ve been dreaming of traveling, and go! Plan ahead, do some research, and don’t shoot like a tourist. Can’t afford to travel? Search for opportunities in your nearest city to begin building your portfolio.
Here are some ideas for making a living with travel photography:
License Your Travel Photography
Whether you’re licensing photos through an agency or you’re working with local businesses, destination photos sell. If you’re just starting out, consider uploading your best work to sites like 500px, where you can offer your images for license quite easily. If you already have a strong portfolio of work, consider applying to Stocksy, the most reputable agency in the stock photo business. Interested in reportage? You can sign up for a Demotix account to get started in travel photojournalism.
Offer Your Services
You can offer photography services to any business in the travel/tourism industry at your destination of choice. Opportunities are plentiful, whether you’re selling your services or offering a trade. Going skiing in Colorado? Get in touch with local lodges about trading photography for a free stay. Vacationing in Vienna? Talk to the local tourism board about shooting a few photos for a fee. I recently made a deal like this in Cape Town shooting a month-long campaign with their tourism board, which resulted in a promotional blog post and lead to even more work. Remember that a strong portfolio goes a long way, and as it grows, so will your opportunities.
Sell Your Prints
When you really love photographing a certain subject, it shows in your work. If you’ve built a cohesive collection of images around a particular people or place, consider hanging it in a gallery or selling prints or photo books online. Share your work with artist’s galleries in and around relevant locales until you find someone who bites. Southwestern USA photographer Brett Edge took it a step further and opened his own gorgeous fine art gallery in Moab, Utah. Photographer Vivienne Gucwa published a coffee table book featuring her New York City photography. Just getting started? Share your work online for exposure, and upload it to print-on-demand websites for effortless print sales.
Provide Destination Photography Workshops and Tours
Whether at home or abroad, when you know the ins and outs of a particular location, you can provide photography tours and location-specific workshops to serve both tourists and serious photographers. In Greece I found a professional photographer offering pricey photo tours in Santorini, a popular island with stunning viewpoints that are difficult to locate. Part of this photographer’s service was to unveil these secret locations. Back in Holland, photographer Michiel Buijse offers nighttime photography workshops in Amsterdam, helping photographers shoot stunning long exposures along the historical canals. Consider what you can offer in a location you know well.
Produce Content in the Travel/Photography Industry
Content development complements your photography and helps you grow and earn beyond your photos. If you’re a gearhead like photographer Colby Brown, you could write in-depth gear reviews, or publish post-processing tutorials like Elia Locardi, or write a how-to book like Nicole S. Young. If you enjoy travel writing, you could build a popular blog like photographer Chris Stevens, who writes travel guides and reviews popular hostels and adventure tours, complete with photos.
Is Travel Photography Right For You?
Before you even think about boarding a flight to Iceland or Istanbul, consider if a career in travel photography is really a right fit for you. There are a few considerations that set it apart from a typical stationary photography career.
You Must Be Resilient
Photos from exotic airports and selfies snapped at epic locations might appear luxurious when viewed from a highly curated Instagram feed (my own Instagram is no exception), but the reality isn’t nearly as pretty.
Long-haul flights are brutal to your body, and jet-lag can cripple your productivity while you acclimate to your surroundings. I was practically giddy this week when I found a flight to South Africa a mere 36 hours long — 12 hours shorter than I had anticipated. After spending two or three days in transit, it typically takes me a day to feel functional again, and a week to feel normal.
Travel delays, traffic, crowds, and oversold flights are all stressful… and that’s just what it takes to get there. Factor in awkward language barriers, bedbugs that bite, grueling treks without running water, and foodborne illnesses, and you get an idea of what it’s really like to travel beyond the Western world.
You Must Be Tolerant
The deeper you travel into distant lands and cultures, the more varied the people you’ll encounter. It can be fun and intriguing to meet people of vastly different cultures. It can also be alienating and even dangerous. I’ve seen women treated poorly, child labourers hard at work, and helpless animals suffering in the streets. Tolerance for other cultures is necessary to access these places and document the realities within them. Our job as photographers is to observe, with the hope that our images may influence positive social change.
You Must Be Flexible
The more willing you are to travel at a moment’s notice, the more opportunities you can access. Day jobs will limit travel, so will mortgages and car payments. Photojournalist Lynsey Addario recently wrote about being 7 months pregnant while on assignment in Gaza. I deeply admire her bravery and commitment to her work, but I imagine many photographers aren’t willing to make such compromises. Consider your lifestyle, and how much time you’re willing to spend away from home. As for myself, I’m a long-term digital nomad traveling with a suitcase and a backpack and an open mind. Being available and flexible has made a monumental difference to my career.
Ready To Get Started?
If travel photography sounds like your dream career, join hundreds of travel photographers in the Fstoppers Travel Photography Group to discuss destinations, techniques, and stories from the field. We’re here to help!
Want to keep up-to-date with my own travel photography and see shots from behind the scenes?
If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the upcoming photography workshops in South Africa for great opportunities to hone your skills with like-minded photographers.