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.
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.
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.
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.
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.