Monday, September 7, 2009
How I got started in travel photography
Scott in Colombia (via Australia) posted a question on the Flickr group asking if I could do a post on how I got started doing this.
I'm going to preface this post by saying that this is how I stumbled into this profession. Will what I did help you if you do the same thing? I don't know. I kind of doubt it and at the end of the post I'll tell you why.
I sold my first ever photograph in 1998. But by that time I'd already been to about 45 different countries. So I guess my first piece of advice is if you want to be a travel photographer you have to be a traveller first. You have to love travel almost more than you love photography, but at least equally as much.
Anyway back to the beginning of the career. I was trekking in Nepal with my wife. We were coming to the end of a year traipsing around SE Asia, India and Nepal and were spending about a month or so trekking in the Himalayas. Needless to say I was carrying my camera gear and a lot of Velvia slide film.
On our second day we ran into a dutch couple - Toine and Elsa, and we spent the next month or so walking together. We had dinner together every night, hung out, walked, trekked. It was a good time. Coincidentally Toine was a journalist for Holland's largest newspaper, the deVolkskrant, and when he got back home he wrote an article on the damage tourism is doing to Nepal's environment. He wanted a photo to go with it and I got the sale!
But I don't count that as my entree into the world of professional travel photography. That was a lucky break from a good friend and you'd need a lot of those to build a career. Here in Australia to break into the world of travel photography you need to be a writer as well. I figured that out pretty quickly and set to the task of learning to write travel articles. I submitted an article idea - Trekking in Nepal - to the official magazine of the Youth Hostels Australia. Most of the books I had read suggested you send a one page query letter and wait till you get a yay or nay. I wrote the whole article and sent a sheet of duplicate slides.
A couple of months went by and I heard nothing and then one evening I got a phone call - right in the middle of a cyclone! (That's a hurricane for you folks in the northern hemisphere :) ) Outside there were trees flying through the air, the guttering on my carport was banging against the roof where it had come loose in the wind and the phone rings. It was the editor of the magazine. She loved the article and wanted to commission me to write a second piece for the same edition - this one on travel photography.
I didn't have the heart to tell her that there was a cyclone outside and could she possibly call back in a couple of days if the house hadn't blown away. (Did I ever tell you that Janet?) Anyway that began one of the most enjoyable working relationships and we still keep in contact regularly and I've been on many a great assignment with them.
Since that time I've written numerous articles for various magazines here and overseas. Sounds like a perfect way to make a living but here's the problem. It doesn't pay. Well not very well as many travel writers will tell you. The pay rates at most magazines have't gone up in the past 20 years - I kid you not! Publishing travel articles is a great way to break into things but you're not going to be able to pay the mortgage with it. That combined with the fact that some magazines are turning to cheaper stock photo options (iStock, Shutterstock etc) instead of sourcing their pictures from the writer, or getting their pictures for free from the tourism bureaus, means that this market is rapidly disappearing.
So you need something to supplement that income. Many travel photographers turn to stock photography - mainly representation through an agency. I am represented by Lonely Planet Images and also have images on Alamy. Again it's income that you need to think of as a bonus. It's not dependable because you have no control over how much or how little is sold. Because you don't deal directly with a client you have no idea whether any of your pictures are being considered for a project or how much they will be sold for. You just get your quarterly pay cheque and hope that it's not too bad.
But the problem with agencies is that more and more they take very little of what you submit. Some photographers report only having 10% of their submitted images accepted. So what do you do with the other 90%? More and more photographers are turning to companies such as Photoshelter to license their own work.
Personally I see this as the future of travel photography. I find that when I go somewhere for a short period of time and come back with say a few hundred nice images, then those will do well with a stock agency. But for the areas I specialise in, say my local area of far north Queensland or my wife's home stomping ground of Hokkaido, Japan, I actually do better marketing those images myself. And that's where I intend to head in the future.
And again to supplement that income you need to do things like teach photography courses, run weekend workshops and other stuff like that.
The travel photography marketplace is changing so rapidly it's really hard to know where it's headed or whether there will be a viable future for it in the future. We're being pressed on all sides. More and more print magazines are folding. Everything is headed online but nobody is prepared to pay. So yes you can probably get your pictures in an online magazine somewhere but a credit line isn't going to pay the mortgage.
As more and more aspiring professionals get duped into this dream that they can make money off of microstock the quality of images will go up and many markets for traditional travel photographers will dry up. I already see it on a daily basis as traditional clients of mine turn to microstock to save money. And why not? It's business after all. I don't blame the publishers. They'll save heaps of money, the microstock companies themselves will make lots of money and the poor ol' photographers will get their 20c share of the $1 downloads. It'll take a while to make your fortune doing that.
Here in Australia many, many magazines use a lot of free images from tourism boards. Again why not? Those that want to differentiate themselves in the marketplace will continue to use assignment photographers but for many publishers access to free pictures is too tempting. There is a push by the professional group of photographers ACMP to get the federal government to prevent these images being used for free by large corporations who could afford to pay for them, but where this will lead only time will tell.
So where is it all headed? I think for many people it will be best to keep it as a hobby. For those of you, like me, who have it in their blood and can't imagine doing anything else the trick will be to stay afloat and see where the market goes when things settle down. People will always want to travel, and they will always want to see great travel imagery. The question will be whether those images will come from professional photographers, amateurs hoping to make a few extra pennies to support their hobby or tourism boards. Those of you who do this for a living where do you see things going?