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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James Northrup's picture

Words to live by or should I say words to get paid by? :-) Great article.

Mick Ryan's picture

Great article and photos.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

Steven Magner's picture

Great article, Jonathan! I will say that although your articles have been my favorite to read on this website (IE: "How Specializing Shows That Other Photographers' Critiques Can Be Wrong"), it would be nice to read about your approach to architectural work during your travels as well. Not to say I am tired of these works. On the contrary I find them very useful. But I find your architectural work to be very powerful and would love to learn more about it.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for that! I’ll get on it. Are you referring to the contemporary architecture that I get paid to photograph or the historic architecture that I include in travel shoots?

Steven Magner's picture

Absolutely!

Maybe both, and probably the major differences when you are photographing both. I shoot real estate but prefer to shoot architecture, yet when I was starting out differentiating between both, and convincing realtors of the difference wasn't the easiest task.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Got you. I'm formulating something in my mind right now.

I thought it was extremely obvious and well know that travel photography was all about photographing commonly visited travel destinations.

I think you may have created a straw man in your article, because practically nobody thinks that travel photography is about exploring wilderness. Nobody really ever thought that. Nobody.

When people hear "travel photography", the thoughts that come to their mind are thoughts of 4 star hotels, crowded plazas, busy eateries, festivals, etc.

You seem to have confused travel photography with landscape photography, which are two extremely different genres that have very little in common.

Steven Magner's picture

"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."

Actually, when someone states they are a travel photographer I assume they capture more than just landscapes, but also food and architecture. You know, things people want to see when they _travel_...

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’m the odd one out then. Before I started travel photography, I’d think National Geographic or CN Traveler or the photography in guidebooks like Lonely Planet when someone mentioned travel photography. Although hotels may commission travel photography, I’ve never been commissioned to photograph an actual hotel. Usually I photograph the reason for the hotel’s presence.

This is an excellent article, full of reality-based wisdom. Thanks SO much.

Good piece, thanks.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for reading.

Kevin Harding's picture

This article is so true it has me crying knowing I'm never going to be a travel tog even though I think my pics are great (IG : thedragonsfather if you want a peek) especially when you quote ... "people would be more interested in a story about quirky book stores in London than on breathtaking vistas in the Himalayas". Should I cancel my 4th trip to Nepal in April? Not on your life ! But you're right, I'm unlikely to sell much from the trip :((((

Jonathan Reid's picture

My intention was not to discourage. Maybe one of the points I left might prove useful in making sellable content in Nepal. Even if not, the rewards from such a trip are better than monetary rewards.

Kevin Harding's picture

It was meant tongue in cheek Jonathan ;) I'd never give up the experience of hiking in Nepal, and especially the mind blowing views, at my age (60) just to sell a few more shots. Perhaps only a few more years left in these legs ?
I understand of course that not everyone is in my position and that younger people have more commitments and responsibilities and so need to be able to put food on the table ! Still, the article hits a home run.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks Kevin. I understood your sentiment but in rereading my article, I realised it could seem a bit discouraging.

Thanks for this well condidered article. Excellent advice for more than just travel photography. Understanding who sponsors (insert subject here) and produce work they will find valuable. And, think from the point of view of their customers, not just yourself. Nice.

user-164303's picture

So pleased this was a written article not a video. Informative, balanced and interesting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Scott Mason's picture

This is extremely practical advice, Jonathan.

"Commercial photography is more about presenting a familiar subject in a different way." How true! It can get repetitive, which is why one needs to look for unique angles, approaches etc. to the same old scenes.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for the feedback Scott!

Jonathan, I really appreciate the raw honesty and concrete applications. I'm at a weird crossroads myself — 3 months into a year of landscape photography, trying to figure out how (and if) to pivot into teaching workshops. And while I still want to pursue it, it seems traveling / going off the grid isn't necessarily the way to get there.

"travel photography is one never ending vacation" hehe, something to that effect is frequently the first comment I get when I try to explain what I do. Irritating, but probably says more about me than it does them 😂

Jonathan Reid's picture

My default answer to people is now, “yes, it is incredible, it’s like being on a continuous paid vacation.” - it’s a good way to avoid a rant.

I think if you’re teaching workshops, going off the grid is what most photographers want.

Jim Radford's picture

Yep, it’s all about supply and demand. We are in the travel biz and undoubtedly I have left allot of biz on the table by NOT always following your advice. A symbiotic approach might be to also shoot up your home region that ya know well. Minnesotas love and buy more pix of Minnesota than Utah, although I’ve made plenty of images in national parks too, and spent more to get there for limited hours of good light. At home I can react quick to a good storm. I’d also make the point that ‘travel’ photography CAN be landscape photography, and often is. Semantics. As in “I do landscape photography while traveling, and document the whole experience.’

Scott Spellman's picture

The toughest truth about travel photography is that no lifestyle/commercial/travel photographer I know makes more than their travel expenses unless they are fully commissioned in advance. As you know, it is tough to wait and travel to only the places your Client pays for, but this is reality.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Good point. And when you’re commissioned to shoot, you’re on quite a tight leash.

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