The Uncomfortable Truth About Travel Photography

The Uncomfortable Truth About Travel Photography

Travel photography is an alluring genre. The thought of getting paid to explore and discover the world is one that most photographers have entertained. In this article, I touch on an uncomfortable truth about travel photography and present seven tips based on this truth.

I’ve been a full-time travel photographer for over five years. My income is based on clients commissioning me to create compelling imagery of destinations around the world which my clients use to provide a better service to their customers. I do not make any money from social media following or from workshops and photo tours. I make this distinction because the theme of this article applies specifically to commercial travel photography.

It seems almost weekly that I meet a photographer whose work is phenomenal. I look at their portfolio and I want to hide mine. Their work is full of exotic places in perfect, atmospheric light. Yet in spite of this, the conversation involves myself giving them advice on how to make a career out of travel photography. They have the beautiful portfolio, yet I have the job.

Richmond Park

Exotic wilderness in atmospheric light? This is Richmond Park, a Royal Park within the boundry of London.

I was reminded of this phenomenon after recently discovering the Instagram account of Marc Adamus. It was Adamus' work that first gave me the drive to photograph landscapes almost 14 years ago. He would go off the grid for months at a time, exploring places no one had ever seen in photographs. His work was phenomenal and inspired a generation of landscape photographers. On discovering his Instagram account, I was happy to say nothing has changed. If anything, his work is even stronger. I found his bio statement particularly interesting: “My passion is getting people to the best photography locations that you’ve never seen.” Adamus makes a large portion of his income leading photography tours, and what incredible tours they seem to be. Planes, helicopters, expert mountain guides — it doesn't get any more adventurous than this!

Then I think of my body of work which is mostly urban centers and subjects you can drive to. A part of me wants to throw away the "travel photographer" tag that I go by. I have to remind myself that a travel photographer’s primary job is to create imagery that generates interest in a destination, not to explore unseen destinations.

Morden Hall Park

Morden Hall Park, a historic property 10 minutes walk from my house.

When I started traveling at every opportunity with my wife 10 years ago, we’d take turns choosing destinations. My list read Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. Hers read the French Riviera, Paris, and Tuscany. We would photograph our trips as if they were assignments and then would sell the images through Getty as stock. The images from my wife’s list outsold the images from my list at a ratio of 10:1. This in spite of the fact that the images from my list were less common and more difficult to create.

Since I started taking on commissioned shoots, only 1 in the last 5 years has been to a cold wilderness, and it was Iceland, a country that has experienced a continuous tourism boom for the past 10 years.

As a photographer, I’m personally interested in cold wilderness and Adamus' work compels me to visit those places, but my wife’s list is far more representative of where most people would like to visit. At those locations, there is a thriving travel industry; the industry that commissions travel photography. The uncomfortable truth about travel photography is that most work takes place in well-trodden locations that requires little to no exploration.

The London Eye

I've been commissioned to photograph the London Eye on 6 different occasions. It is one of London's most visited attractions which is why there is a steady demand for images of it.

This means that I can hop onto a train and photograph Big Ben 30 minutes later and there will be more of a demand of these photographs than photographs from someone who has hiked over snow covered mountain ranges for weeks to be in true wilderness.

What This Means for Aspiring Travel Photographers

Keeping this principle in mind, there are a few key lessons for aspiring travel photographers.

1. Think carefully about the work you show in your portfolio. If you want commercial photography jobs, you should show work that the travel industry could use to promote their business.

2. Photographers are drawn to places because they make for interesting photographs. That is not the primary driving force for most people who travel.

3. Aspiring travel photographers spend a lot of time, money, and effort to show something that hasn't been seen before. Commercial photography is more about presenting a familiar subject in a different way.

Neasden Temple

It surprises people to learn that the Neasden Temple is located in London. It is a different way of showing a very well known city.

4. Some photographers believe travel photography is one never ending vacation. While it is a fun and rewarding career, there is not a perfect overlap of what you’re commissioned to photograph versus what you want to photograph.

5. Empathy is one of the most valuable traits a travel photographer should develop. A young, single photographer needs to be able to look at an attraction and identify why it will appeal to a family.

6. A successful commercial photographer will develop a specialty that works within urban centers. For example, many travel photographers are also accomplished food photographers. Personally, I’m an architectural photographer and concentrating on design and architecture within urban environments is my specialty.

7. Use your passion for exploration and adventure to break from routine to keep your job interesting. For example, after three commercial shoots in urban centers, take a break by shooting somewhere remote in the mountains.

I remember a photo editor pointing me towards this lesson when I first started traveling. She said that people would be more interested in a story about quirky book stores in London than on breathtaking vistas in the Himalayas. On my travel photography website, I sell myself as someone who is endlessly curious. I still would love to disappear of the grid, exploring unseen wilderness, but for my work, I now use that curiosity to explore something unusual in the familiar.

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Tom Weis's picture

"I still would love to disappear of the grid..." --> *off* the grid. Nice article & thanks for sharing!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for pointing out the error and for the compliment.I read through this 6 times and still left a typo!

Howard Gotfryd's picture

So, FStoppers has you edit your own copy? This is my biggest gripe with what is published on most websites -- copy editors seem to be largely absent. There is an old saying in journalism that I learned from the late Archer Speers, WWII Navy Commander and crackerjack Newsweek copy editor: "He who reads his own copy has a fool for an editor." Writers really do need another eyeball on their copy to ensure grammatical precision (if anyone cares about that anymore). I, for one, do care. It's my profession and passion.

I enjoyed reading your article and you make some very relevant points, which I will take along on my travels, even though I am not a professional photographer. Thank you!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Fstoppers have phenomenal editors that have corrected or improved the writing of every article I’ve written up until now. With the variance in the English language across the world it’s an absolute necessity. As someone who enjoys grammitical precision, you’ll love Alex Cooke articles.

Howard Gotfryd's picture

Then they get a big thumbs-up from this stickler, Mr. Reid.

Jeff Walsh's picture

this was a great article. thank you

Chris Cameron's picture

Great article and lovely shots, Thanks for sharing it.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for reading it Chris!

Scott Ruffner's picture

Terrific article ! Thank you!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thank you for commenting!

Mr Blah's picture

More content like this.

Really! Smart, photography related, business oriented...

Loved it

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thank you. I try to write from my experiences. I’m happy that you found some value in this.

Alex Armitage's picture

I plan on writing my version of this soon which is from the other perspective. I don't make any money! lol

Jonathan Reid's picture

I think your article is needed to balance this one. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.

Cat Milton's picture

Adding my voice to the "excellent article" commentary. I truly didn't know elements that were presented here (and I love to learn!) Thank you!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks Cat. What has taken me a decade to learn is that what photographers consider to be a good and valuable image is not the same as what potential clients think.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Great article, Jonathan. You confirm what I have started to experience, which is why I don't spend a whole lot of time on the commercial side.

Jonathan Reid's picture

It’s a concept I wrestle with - needing to make a living whilst also desiring to go off the grid. On the plus side, getting paid to travel does take you a step closer to shooting what you really want to shoot.

Mr Blah's picture

Maybe you could lead trips in the back country after a commercial gig to pass off the flight in the commercial gig expenses? Makes for cheaper cost for starting your tours...

Jonathan Reid's picture

I don’t do the photo tours, but I do tag on extra days to do personal work. It helps keep me fresh and enthusiastic.

Iain Stanley's picture

I particularly like that you throw in the Queen’s “whilst” in the comments section :) Outstanding!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Haha, I’m a rebel without intending to be!

Douglas Turney's picture

Wait till Alex sees the comment!

Jonathan Brady's picture

It's a pretty simple concept... Want to make money? Then you need to have something worth selling... and, "pretty" ain't it. You HAVE to figure out what your customer wants and in this case, the customer wants to sell vacation packages. Every single one they have to offer. All of them. They want to sell so many that flights are full, trains are full, rental cars and hotels are at maximum capacity, restaurants have a 3 hour waiting list, etc. Sure, that would be miserable for a traveler but the agents would be THRILLED. Produce THOSE photographs for them and you'll be the most successful travel photographer ever.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Also considering that wealthy travelers are more attractive to the industry than back packer types.

Nick B's picture

Very true. I hang out on tripadvisor forums, mostly giving advice about travelling to France. And it's true that most people want to visit well known places. Most don't care about getting off the beaten path. I'd say only about 2 or 3 % do. Everybody else wants the "greatest" hits : Paris, Provence, Normandy, the Loire castles. Sometimes Alsace, Périgord, Lyon, the Alps (mostly for ski season). So it's only normal and understandable that the work of a travel photographer will involve shooting those places, that's how you can make a living. Of course once in a while comes the amazingly talented wilderness photographer, but I guess earning money from this is very difficult. It'd be a dream of mine to earn money shooting places I love like Tasmania, the Mallee country in outback Australia, the hidden valleys of the Alps no one goes to, or remote parts of North America but it's unrealistic. On the bright side, let's consider ourselves lucky that places like Iceland or Norway are trendy and that there is money to be had from photographing those.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Since doing work for tourism boards, I see them struggling with this issue too. They want to promote lesser known attractions in their area but most tourists are only interested in the well known spots.

Douglas Turney's picture

Same thing happens with our Italian travel business. People want to go to Lake Como, which is nice, but people don't want to go to Lake Garda that is very nice and not as crowded.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Italy amazes me with how much there still is to see and explore even though it is a prime tourist destination.

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