Shooting Personal Work While Traveling

Shooting Personal Work While Traveling

First things first, personal work is incredibly important. Client work often pays the bills but the most fundamental personal development you’re going to experience is when you take your vision and execute it. I would say that applies to just about anyone and certainly to photographers.

Why is personal work so important? Well for starters it helps you decide your direction, execute your vision as mentioned, figure out your style and make mistakes in a safe environment. Clients don’t want to wait for you to “figure things out” while you’re on the clock and their dollars are the fuel keeping the shoot going. When you’re on your own though? Experiment! Try and try again! Fail and then try some more until it feels right.

Clients are what we all crave and no photographer, especially one starting out, will complain at finding themselves on a client shoot with a budget behind it. Just because you’re being paid to execute the client's project scope doesn’t mean you’re being paid to contribute to the concept though. We can share our opinions and perspectives but it’s ultimately up to the client how far they want to push the creative envelope. Doesn’t sound fun for you? Well, tough luck! Become super famous and maybe you’ll get a little more sway on client shoots and with respect to the mood boards. Until then though, you guessed it: personal work! You are the client, you are the boss, you are the photographer… you do what you want and you can keep doing it until it feels right. There is no truer definition of the word freedom when it comes to having a creative license to explore. Besides, personal work lets you build a portfolio of your own vision, leading to jobs that you would actually like to shoot. Now isn’t being paid to shoot what you love the dream goal?

So what does this have to do with traveling? It’s not click-bait, I swear. I absolutely love traveling and as a creative, it opens my eyes to see more things which ends up inspiring my work. The different cultures, landscapes, and architecture have their own beauty that I don't see back here in my home country. Not that my home doesn’t have its unique elements to tap into, but new is always fun and new is always inspirational. I would imagine everyone can relate to that (unless you live in some gorgeous rolling scenic mountain area!)

This is why as a fashion photographer, I always try to plan my own shoots whenever I travel. Being able to do new work with a whole different pool of talents, with a different background to shoot in always adds something new and interesting to my portfolio. It can be intimidating for sure, and sometimes there are unforeseeable road bumps, but the results are always worth it. Learning how people work in different countries, how they approach their shoots and trying to take little lessons away that I can work into my own toolbox is always exciting.

Planning a shoot overseas is fairly similar to when you are first starting out. Contact the local modeling agencies to let them know that you are interested to test with their models. Find makeup artists and stylists to work with. You can either find them from creative agencies or just some straight up Googling. Sites like Model Mayhem or even avenues like Instagram are all viable options. You have to remember that these people are also interested in expanding their portfolio so you aren’t begging, you are collaborating. 

Equipment wise, bring what you can and rent the rest. It’ll be a good lesson on working with as little gear possible. Sometimes I've gone on a shoot with just my camera and reflector. Do your research on locations or contact locals for their opinions. They usually know the best secret spots that aren’t filled with tourists. Just because you are a tourist does not mean you can’t walk away with some really authentic images.

This was shot during my first trip to NYC. I had gotten a big job earlier in 2014 and used the money earned plus savings to fund a trip to NYC to push my portfolio further. In the span of a couple of weeks, I had done 6 shoots so it was a busy and productive trip to say the least. And I try to always shoot on location while traveling. For this shoot, I had emailed in to Grand Central Station to ask if I could use their venue for a shoot. To be completely honest, I did not expect a yes but yay me for asking anyway. Emailing is free after all. This image actually got me a Gold in the Graphis awards.

On the same trip, I had also contacted a really good hair stylist and we had a shoot planned. He then contacted me before our shoot to ask if I would like to shoot another model as he knows her and she was available. That gave me the opportunity to work with gorgeous albino model, Diandra Forrest. We also did that particular shoot on a yacht so that was quite the experience.

The family on my Dad's side is from Hong Kong so whenever I travel there, there's a place for me stay. I honestly should go there more often but anyway, on my last try there I contacted a local stylist to ask if she would be interested to work together. She agreed and with her contacts, got me the opportunity to shoot for Cosmopolitan Hong Kong. We shot at a wetland area that was pretty far out from the city on the recommendation of the stylist, a location I would not have otherwise known about.

Israel was another place that I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel to. At the beginning, I found it very difficult to plan a shoot as I did not speak Hebrew and my emails were not getting replied to. However, I finally found a stylist, contacted him through Facebook and he was able to get the whole team together for me along with suggestion the shoot location. It really went perfectly.

Now on my second trip to NYC, my then boyfriend, now husband came along. Obviously I put him to use and rented an astronaut outfit so he could be part of my shoot. 

Also, because I already had a contact from Cosmopolitan HK, I reached out to them again to see if they were interested in working with me while I was in NYC. Thankfully they were and having a magazine backing helped in getting a very high quality team. Everybody loves being published!

I was also very honored when Profoto gave me an opportunity to travel to Stockholm, Sweden for their newest product launch, the A1. Obviously I wanted to test it out more while I was there so I extended my trip and planned 3 photoshoots over my 5 day holiday. Profoto kindly loaned me some equipment and I did another shoot for Cosmopolitan HK and two for my lifestyle portfolio. What an absolutely stunning and photogenic city!

Stockholm had a magically gorgeous garden called the Djurgarden and I would shoot there everyday if I could. Served as a fantastic place for some lifestyle images.

All these images make a huge part of my portfolio and I hope you see the benefits of it and are inspired to do your own shoots when you travel too. I know that this article is a little more focused on fashion photography as that's my main genre but I believe in every genre you do such as portraits or architecture, you will benefit from shooting out of your home country.

Get great images, make new friends, further develop your skills and walk away with a deeper set of tools to work with. Its win-win all around!

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Alexander Petrenko's picture

How did you find models/stylists/HMUA? Google? Modelmayhem? Something else?

Shavonne Wong's picture

Google mostly.
Terms likes "Makeup Artist + (location)" or "Wardrobe Stylist + (location)"
Usually I search to see if there are agencies in the place I'm going, especially if it's a popular, big city. Other places that aren't big enough to have agencies, I sometimes use model mayhem.

As long as you find one person, they are likely to be able to lead you to others who can help be part of the team in their area.

Cory Eigenschenk's picture is a great network to find talent such as models, H&M, photographers, stylists etc for upcoming test shoots. Must better than just sitting on google looking at everyone’s websites, it organizes talent/artists portofilios to quickly view and add to your next project.

Shavonne Wong's picture

True! There's a pretty wide variation of sites like these so those help too. I mentioned Model Mayhem cause I think it's one of the more well-known ones (:

Mohammed Alamin's picture

You do have a very good eye for fashion photography,it just feels like i was looking at the pages of a magazine. In the Hong Kong shoot, did you use a strobe or was it a reflector?

Shavonne Wong's picture

Aw thank you! (: I used a strobe with a softbox!

ron fya's picture

Hey Shavonne,

Great pics for sure !

Still, I really wonder how you convince those people you don't know to organise shootings with you. I mean, if I was a stylist receiving such a request, I would wonder : who's this person, is he/she reliable and serious, is it worth the hassle to bring a bunch of clothes to the location, ... and above all is it worth the trouble to bother my contacts into shooting for this photographer? and how will I excuse to them if that photographer I don't know screws up ?

As the local stylist, I would probably pass if I don't get some assurance that I will get some value out of it.

Now, as the requesting photographer, I need to address those fears potential collaborators could have if I want my shoot to succeed. How do you usually do that ? I mean, not everybody has a contact at Cosmopolitan HK to back their shoot. :P



Alexander Petrenko's picture


Shavonne Wong's picture

Hey Ron!

There's always a risk when working with new people and Alexander is right. Having a good portfolio brings across the message that you know what you're doing and therefore hopefully more reliable. When they like your work, they also see the benefits of working with you as they might get new images to add to their own portfolios.

If you do not have a good portfolio, then you might need to part with some cash to work with a good team so as to make it worth their time and effort. My mentor told me, sometimes you have to spend money to earn money. Take it as an investment to improve your portfolio as strong teams can bring your work to another level.

Hope this helps! (:

ron fya's picture

In my experience, a good portfolio is not enough. When planning to work with somebody, it's fair to assume most people want that person to be reliable and not an hyper-ego-driven-asshole who will possibly not even finish the project after the shoot (yes, that happens).

Since I wouldn't risk gathering a team of volunteers around a person for his personal work not knowing if he's a good guy or a bad guy, I am assuming other people won't take that risk too.

And that is something you just cannot communicate across with a portfolio.

Shavonne Wong's picture

Hmm. Well I can only speak from my own personal experience!
Sure not everybody is willing to take risks, especially those with a well established portfolios, but that's why I usually do a huge mass emails. Not everybody replies but I don't need all of them to!

Usually when I travel, I send the emails weeks before my trip basically letting people know I'll be in that area during certain dates and would love to collaborate. Anybody who might be interested would reply back and from there we communicate a bunch before I even land in the country. And I guess being polite and clear in what I want helps?

So far this has worked for me. I mean, most creatives are usually looking to further push their portfolio and would be interested in testing if they see it benefits them too. I've gotten requests from travelling models/ makeup artists and planned shoots before meeting them.
This was from a shoot where the model contacted me on Instagram (:

ron fya's picture

You've convinced me to at least try such a collaboration. I guess I'll see what happens. Thank you for your insights Shavonne ! Keep on shooting, I can see you're doing well ;-) Cheers

Shavonne Wong's picture

Hehe I'm glad! Let me know how it goes (:

Kim Smith's picture

Shavonne, your work looks world-class to me. I really appreciate your down-to-earth nature in your writing and responses. You've shared great insight into how to make your concepts a reality - without breaking the bank. It could cost substantial dollars to produce the vision in your mind but your approach to talent - a collaboration and chance to portfolio build - is brilliant. I will be working on this. thanks so much!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Thank you so much! Appreciate your kind words (: