Is Traveling Mandatory To Be a Successful Photographer?
This has been discussed several times before and, by the way, spoiler alert: The answer is no. However, there are many of us in our field who eventually figure out that traveling (out of town, out of state, out of country, even) is often the key to their success. Or at the very least, more success.
Granted, it varies from specific genre to genre and your own personal goals, but let’s discuss some of the pros and cons.
Let’s qualify and quantify traveling first. For example, every successful wedding photographer has traveled at least fully across town for a job. However, by most people’s definition, that’s not traveling proper – it’s simply driving across town. So when does a photographer officially travel for a gig? That’s up to some debate, I would imagine, but for argument’s sake let’s define traveling to a job as driving or flying to another city for a job. Could be driving from Houston to Austin (about a 3 hour drive), or it could a basic flight from NYC to Miami or perhaps a Boeing 777 flight directly to Tokyo from Chicago over the course of 20 hours in the air.
Many wedding photographers travel to other cities on the regular, of course, including cities in other countries. That is not entirely uncommon.
But what many photographers eventually face is the question of whether or not to even try to find work in other cities. Further, some photographer’s specific interests or passions (landscapes, for one) flat out demand that they travel to some degree (regionally or across the globe) if they intend to expand their body of work substantially. Granted, you can shoot landscapes in and around Sante Fe, for example, as a hobby, for the next 50 years if you chose to. Heck, you could be damn good at it and even sell prints of your work regularly just driving around Santa Fe on the weekends.
What my point about traveling is, at what point do you know that regular touring will take your career to the next level? And is that a level, or a direction, that you even want to go? Let’s explore some of the positive sides of traveling first (and mind you, I’m coming from a fashion/glamour angle, so please Comment if you have additional thoughts from other genre shooters!)
First and foremost, and regardless of the work you do, traveling to new places makes you meet new people by default. And depending on where you go, and how often you trek out and about, you could very well meet a ton of new people. And in these chance meetings there is something you cannot get from social media networking: face time with other humans. Oftentimes, these other humans could be crucial networking hubs, if you will, and your personal experience with them will go 100 times further than an email or Facebook message ever could. A simple afternoon of shooting, mentoring or having coffee with an industry peer in another city could be the catalyst for a career explosion, let’s say, all because of a simple personal referral you would almost certainly not have gotten had you been home at your computer that day.
The Internet Shrunk The World
And there is no way around it. If you’re reading this article, it is 99.9% likely that you are connected on social media to people in other cities, states, provinces, countries or continents that you do not live in. This isn’t happening, this has happened. Years ago. The internet connected [most] of us in some form or another, be it quasi-directly via social media or indirectly such as following a photographer’s work via their website, since I dunno, 2006 let’s say.
So there is going to be a time when you will potentially see value in meeting a few of your online connections in person, again for networking or mentoring motivations, or you may simply be intrigued by an online associate’s market and want to see how you could fare over there for a day or a week or a year.
Furthermore, if you’re even a little bit social media savvy, you could easily receive requests from potential clients out of town, out of state, or across the planet. Almost all working photographers with a decent social media presence receive out of town requests with some regularity. When this happens to you for the first time, your instinct is usually to refer the job to someone you know (likely via social media) in whatever city the client request came from.
While this is a sound and professionally polite practice, there may come a time when something in your head clicks and you take pause, and wonder “Maybe I should take that gig.” Or worse yet, “Maybe I should take that gig and get more gigs while I am there.” And since it won’t be difficult to show your work to this remote client (because interwebs), you could easily land the job if simply willing to travel to it.
Once you take that first out of town gig, something odd happens in many of us. We realize we took the job on a risk, and yet succeeded, and it makes us realize we can potentially get gigs. Any. Freaking. Where. You’ve tasted blood, and now you want more.
This is a tempting proposition, and an addicting method of business. After all, if in a month’s time you have 7 regular sessions at home, 4 bigger ones in neighboring cities, and 1 major project out of state, what is keeping you from doing more and more? Travel gigs always have higher fees attached to them, of course, because of said travel. Those figures can be very appealing when compared to your session fee in town. Often, the same job you do in town at $500 could yield you $2,000 if it is out of state.
Perceived Value and Overvalue
On top of charging higher fees, you are also bestowed with a certain sense of ooh and ahh when you’re the out of town photographer that was flown in to shoot that wedding or session or campaign. Your client sees you as more valuable than anyone they found locally, obviously. But your client’s associates, friends and family? They often see you as the photographer that their friend “Flew in with no expense spared because they are so good.” That is the sort of marketing you cannot buy.
And if you’re focusing on fashion or glamour photography, you’re now waltzing into the local industry of a city that, like all cities, has a circle or network of talent who generally work with one another regularly. You showing up can cause a stir, mostly because of the novel fact that you’ve never been there before. Local modeling talent, who have almost certainly shot with local area photographers before, might see you as a way of expanding or diversifying their portfolio and thus hire you. Local businesses who use photographers regularly might see your work and realize they’ve been waiting for you all along, if you follow me, and book you immediately because they’ve tried everyone else.
And since you’re in town temporarily, there is a sense of urgency in clients to make a decision on whether to book you or not.
Make no mistake, you can drive into a city and not be the highest skilled photographer there, and still get tons of work. Simply because you are an alternative to the local industry.
Not All Roses
So how about the cons about traveling for photography work?
Right off the bat: Costs. Traveling to the next city, state or country can be expensive – often very expensive. And while you’re being compensated for it, there are often upfront, out of pocket costs that demand a reasonable level of cash flow running through your business. In other words, you can swoop into the next state, land 9 gigs and make, let’s say, $4-$10k in 72 hours, but you may need to pony up the potentially thousands up front to cover everything involved in planning such a trip. This is in sharp contrast to packing your cases and camera gear and driving 8 miles to a shoot in your town on any given afternoon.
Willing To Accept Big Losses
Make no mistake, you can and likely will travel to a city for a job or 6, and come back in the red at some point. Unforeseen complications that can only be resolved with money are usually the culprit, such as equipment breaking (including back up gear), or everything getting stolen or epic malfunctioning and you need to rent / buy on the fly because you’re 1,100 km from your home base. You can’t call a friend from a few miles away to borrow their gear because you likely don’t know anyone in this new city, and you can’t add to your client’s invoice because of faulty, broken or stolen gear. Insurance may save you later, but the trip is likely going to be a loss.
Air travel is a pain. It just is. Unless you fly first class everywhere (another cost), it’s generally fairly unpleasant to fly. I may be speaking from my own experiences (34 flights in 22 months, and counting) but as a rule, air travel is costly, unpredictable, uncomfortable, and can often damage your photo equipment. Investing in appropriate cases for said equipment is an upfront cost that is totally up to you, by the way, and not your client. Price accordingly and hope they bite.
Are you needing to get anywhere on your own when you arrive? Car rentals, taxis or Uber rides feel expensive as hell when you aren’t in spending mode on a vacation.
Traveling Is Tiring
In my world, any flight over 3-4 hours destroys me, and sucks my energy and, to be honest, my very soul. Forgive my drama, but when I stumble out of an airplane, regardless of time of day, I am useless for the remainder of that day. As a rule, I strongly recommend you never, ever book your arrival flight for the morning of your gig. Ever. Give yourself a day to arrive, setup and rest before attempting to work (if you can.)
Driving. I like to drive, actually. But here again: costs. And driving 325 km isn’t exactly cheap, much less driving 1,000 km. Wear and tear on your vehicle is another matter, and boils down to, once again, costs. What if your car breaks down on a major highway 300 km from your house and 300 km from your job? You’ll be late – very late – and likely lose the gig. Major loss there.
So, assuming you take your client’s deposit, then use it and your own cash to finance your trip up front, what happens if the job is a total catastrophe? Everything goes horribly wrong, and you fail, plain and simple. You’re not getting your final payment, you may even need to return the deposit, and you spent a shit ton more than $10 of gasoline to get downtown in your own city. Simply put, your risk is much higher when traveling for gigs.
With big risks come potentially big rewards, but also possible epic fails.
Be Careful What You Ask For – You Just Might Get It
Let’s say you manage to start traveling for gigs, and often. You’re succeeding, making money, and growing your brand exponentially. It may not take long before you are a traveling photographer more or less permanently, and the road life becomes your life. If that ends up the case, I certainly hope that was your goal and your motivation, because traveling a lot can be grueling after a while. To some, staying on the road non-stop is invigorating and exciting, and the only way to live. To others, an annual vacation suits them just fine, but staying in town is just dandy, for the most part. Make sure you know what you’re getting into, and don’t strictly chase the money. You might make a killing over a year or two, then decide to give it all up because you’re sick of living out of motels and airports.
Or inversely, you may fall in love with it all and seldom find yourself at home anymore. You should be mindful to not start something you’re not willing to see through to fruition. Being a traveling photographer is enthralling, romantic, and just plain fun. But for many, it can be just a bit too much for their lifestyle. So be careful what you ask for.
Do you travel for your photography? Often? Some? Not at all? If you don’t, do you want to? Just remember the challenges balance out the rewards.