About Me

My photo

I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Friday, March 27, 2009

What does it take to be a professional travel photographer?

I received an email the other day from a third year Photography student at James Cook University in Townsville. Courtney is putting together an assignment on what it takes to work in this business and had remembered a speech I'd given to her class the previous year. I've given a couple of talks to the JCU Photo Students over the last couple of years, once flying down to Townsville for the day and once via satellite hook-up.

I love to share with upcoming photographers and hopefully they get something out of it that will help them prepare for what is a challenging yet very rewarding career. Anyway I thought you might like to read my answer to her question about what I thought a person needed personality-wise if they were thinking of doing this for a living. Enjoy.

To tell you the truth the industry is changing so rapidly that even I'm not
so sure about what it takes to succeed in this business any more. Speaking
from my own experience up till now though I think that if you have any
chance of making it in the travel photography field you have to really love
travel, before photography even. You have to thrill at airports (even when
you have five hour delays), love rickety old buses laden with chickens and
accept that Delhi belly comes with the territory! You have to get to the
stage where if you had to choose between travel or photography you would
throw the cameras in the bin and keep on travelling. Passion really is that
important because it's what keeps you going through the hard times.

Once you've decided that you can't live without travel and photography you
then have to decide what area of travel you want to photograph. Whether you
want to write feature articles to go with your pictures (a great way to
break in but the competition is intense and the pay pretty lousy.) or
whether you want to work purely on assignment, or shoot stock. I mostly work
in a documentary, natural light style which suits an editorial market of a
certain flavour. I'm not really into the fashion style of photography that
you find in a lot of so-called upmarket travel mags - I prefer my images to
show an area in a way that the vision of the photographer doesn't detract
from the subject. So for that kind of work I need to look for clients who
use that kind of imagery.

You definitely have to be a people person. To enjoy meeting new people, even
when you don't speak their language, and to be able to break down barriers
quickly so you can cut through for intimate portraits and get introductions
to situations you wouldn't otherwise come across. You have to be curious
about the world around you and almost be a nosy bugger to find the inside
story.

Looking at what I've written so far I've noticed that I haven't said much
about photography! I guess that's because for me the photography is just a
natural extension of the travelling. A way of showing these amazing things I
see so that other people can fall in love with it as much as I do. So it
becomes less about photographic technique and more about the subject. So
there's not a lot of ego in travel photography because we're just the
messengers. The bit parts compared to the main actors - which are the places
we see and the people we meet.

Of course the other side of the equation is making a living and here's where
the reality diverges from the fantasy. In the last few years the world has
been overtaken by millions of travellers with digital cameras visiting every
nook and cranny on the planet. Many of them stick their pictures up on sites
like Flickr and would be thrilled to get their pictures published for free.
So that's one area of competition. The other is the government! Look at any
magazine or newspaper these days and you will most likely find all the
images are supplied, for free, by Tourism This or That.

So to compete against that you have to really think outside the box. To
specialise and become known for a certain style, or geographic area or
speciality. Something that sets you apart from the average dSLR toting
tourist. And to do that you really need a lot of knowledge about things not
just photography related. You need to know things like the fact that you can
differentiate different tribes in Nepal by the way they carry goods and
bizarre things like that. The background knowledge will help you capture
images that tell a story, that help magazine editors tell a story, and that
they can't get on Flickr

It really is a constantly evolving industry and the recent economic climate
has made it even more challenging. To tell you the truth I have no idea
where it's headed but I still believe that passion and knowledge of your
chosen area are the keys to a successful career in travel photography.

And that was my answer. Apparently she sat down with a coffee in hand to take it all in. I hadn't necessarily intended to write so much at the start but once I started I couldn't stop! I guess that's when you know you love what you do. When you start yabbering on and on about it and never seem to stop. If any of you are hoping to do something career-wise with photography I hope this has been a bit of help.

By the way the photo I was referencing was the one taken above, which is a Newari man carrying his load across his shoulders. In hindsight it probably wasn't the best example because I am by no means an expert in Nepal, even though I love the place and would fly back in a heartbeat. I guess I used it as an example because it's something small and insignificant but that could make a big difference to the captioning of the image.