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

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The financial logistics of travel photography

Let me preface this post by saying that if your main concern when you decide to hang your shingle out as a travel photographer is money than you'd be better to go into real estate! Becoming rich is most likely not going to happen. Having a very cool life that presents opportunities you would never get in a 9 to 5 office job is pretty much a guarantee. The trick is getting enough work to make as much money as you would at your 9 to 5 - including all the benefits that your job pays like superannuation, health care (in the US) and other perks.

I can't tell you how to get yourself in a position where you can do that. I can't even tell you what kind of clients you need to aim for. That kind of advice is totally personal and will vary greatly depending on where you live, what kind of car you want to drive, what kind of a salary you want to pay yourself. The answers are as numerous as there are photographers.

What I can tell you is the things you need to take into consideration to come up with the numbers you need and how to work them out. The logistics, both financial and physical, of travel photography differ from the wedding/portrait studio down the street, just as do the clients and subject matter.

The first point - which may seem obvious - is that you need to travel. Kind of seems like a silly statement I know but a lot of people not in the industry just assume that glossy magazines will pay you a day rate and cover luxurious expenses when they send you out on assignment for weeks at a time. Believe me, this is so far from the truth it's not funny.

Here in Australia, and I imagine North America,the UK and just about everywhere else as well, that only happens at the very top of the travel photography tree. We're talking major publications with huge budgets, and often matching huge rights grabs (more of that in a later post). To get to that stage, if that's your aim, you will have to work your way through local and regional magazines. Many of these barely have a budget to pay you for what you submit, let alone send you on assignment.

So you'd better get used to the fact that you're going to have to pay your own way and hope to cover expenses some point down the track. This should immediately tell you that you're going to have better luck covering costs if you start locally. Fly half way around the world to India and you've already shelled out 3 or more articles worth of airline ticket before you even leave your front door.

So in your yearly expenses that you need to recoup your first thing is travel - and that's a big one! I did a lot of travel before I even licensed my first picture. I worked in supermarkets, duty free stores and as a tour guide during my university days to save up enough money to feed the travel passion. Anything I could do to get me back on the road again - all the while building up a portfolio of images. It's a lot easier to do this before you quit your day job.

Many of the other expenses are the same as other photographers - rent, equipment, insurance (don't forget travel insurance doesn't usually cover camera gear used for work), telephone, website. Yada, yada, yada. You need to calculate all the costs associated with your business, including things like utilities etc. Doesn't matter if you work from home (I do) all those costs push up your cost of living. When you've added up all those costs you then need to tack on your salary. Your salary is a cost to your business - it doesn't come out of your profit.

If you add all those things up I guarantee you'll just about fall off your chair at the final tally. Looks pretty big doesn't it? Now just think that you have to make that money in roughly 100 days. What? Don't I get 365? No you don't.

All through the year you have to do things like: submit assignment proposals, do your books, your taxes, go to the store to buy new computer ink/CF cards/paper for your printer, reply to emails, write your blog, update your twitter, have portfolio showings, meet clients, prepare images for gallery shows/submission to stock agencies etc. There are lots of things you have to do when you run a travel photography business that have nothing at all to do with taking pictures. And, unlike other photography fields, you have to travel as well.

The ironic thing is that you don't get paid to travel. Sure you make money from the pictures you take while travelling, but nobody is paying you to travel. Time on the road is time away from the money-making side of things. Sure you need to be away to photograph but while you're away from home base you're not: contacting clients, licensing images, getting images on-line. In other words the pictures you take are worth nothing until you come back and put metadata in them and get them out where somebody can see them.

So for every day that you're doing something that isn't making you money (and that's most of them!) you have to make it up on the days you are. Which is why you have to figure out how much you need to make on each of those 100 days you're working.

So let's say that, for the sake of argument, you have overhead of a nice round figure of $20,000. Sounds like a lot of money? That's not many plane trips or new 1TB hard drives in there. Pretty easy to rack up this kind of expenditure without doing anything. And let's say you want to pay yourself a wage of $40,000. Again, not enough to feed a family but you might get by if you're single and living in a share house!

So your total yearly overhead is $60,000. There's no profit in there, that's just what you need to keep off the poverty line. On top of that you need to add a profit - the money you use to re-invest in your business to propel it forward. So let's stick on a $2,000 profit. Again not a lot of money but 10% of expenses sounds like a good place to start. So our grand total is $62,000 - and you need to make that in roughly 100 days. So let's say $620 a day.

Now, just to clarify here. I'm not talking about assignment travel - ie getting paid to go on assignment. I'm talking about the majority of travel photographers who pay their own way. For every day you're travelling, assuming that you're away for 100 days a year, you need to take $620 worth of photographs.

My last post talked about breaking into the industry via submitting work for magazines and newspapers. Here in Australia the pay rate for an article in this range is roughly $500 to $800 give or take a few pennies. So that means that if you go away for one week (7 days) you have to produce roughly nine articles to even have a chance of covering your expenses. Doesn't sound too easy does it? A good friend of mine who has been doing this for years remarked the other day that it is getting harder and harder to pay for the big trips.

And don't forget that many of those picture won't pay for themselves for months if not years down the track. Once you've submitted an idea to a magazine you can expect them to take a month or so to get back to you, then it might take you a couple of weeks to write the piece and submit it. Then they might not fit it into the publication (and thus pay you) for six or more months down the track. Remember that you don't get paid until you get published with many magazines.

Of course the higher the pay rate, the less articles you have to sell.

How about stock photography then? Well if you're selling your pictures using the Rights Managed scheme and hopefully getting $60 to $100 per license then you need to have at least 10 marketable pictures per day. If you're licensing using the Microstock system at pennies a pop...well you're going to have to take a LOT of marketable pictures every day you're away. And even then those pictures might not make you a red cent for a long time after you get them on-line. Who's paying the bills while you wait to get paid?

Granted this is a pretty rough overview but I wanted to show some things you need to take into consideration to keep your head above water in this game. In my next post I'll talk a little about what happens when you move up to markets that pay you to go on assignment, and different avenues of assistance you can reach out to to help subsidise your travel.

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