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

Monday, February 22, 2010

How to get started in travel photography

You know the old joke about how to make a million dollars in travel photography? Start off with two million. Funny but true. This isn't going to be an article about how to make it rich in travel photography - because like the joke says, unless you start off really rich you're not gonna get (less) rich.

This is a follow-on to my post last week about when you're good enough to get paid for your photography.

The world of professional travel photography has changed so much in the last few years that any book you buy on the subject is most likely going to be out of date by the time it hits the printers. The industry really is changing that quickly. What have always been bread-and-butter markets for travel photographers (print media magazines and newspapers as well as stock photography) are going through major changes which include staff cuts, budget cuts and even folding.

Yet I still believe that publication in magazines and newspapers is a great way to get your foot in the door to the travel photography industry. The double page spread above is the first travel article I ever had published. It's more than a decade ago now, but it was an entree into a world I had only dreamed about.

So how did it come about? I came up with an idea. The globe is awash with fantastic travel photographers. Unless you're doing something really unique in terms of style, or have access to things that nobody else does, chances are you're pretty indispensable. I mean, let's face it, how many people can shoot lovely pictures with available light at locations visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year? Not so hard to do. f8 and be there - the hard part being the be there. No matter how good you might think you are, you're just another travel photographer, easily replaced by somebody cheaper.

But if you can come up with an idea for an article that gives a unique slant on a location then you've narrowed the odds in your favour a little bit. The key to getting published in magazines is to have a unique story. Can't write you say? Then get off your arse and go and learn. Either that or find somebody who can and offer to team up with them. If you do decide to try your hand at writing forget about becoming the next Hemmingway and aim at producing interesting articles that you would want to read yourself. If it interests you chances are it might interest somebody else as well.

Take the article above. How many people visit Nepal ever year? I'm guessing it's a few hundred thousand? And how many have pictures just like mine? A fair few for sure. An article about Nepal with some pretty pictures isn't an idea. Nepal is a destination, not an article topic. You need to find something to say about Nepal. In my case I wrote an article about trekking solo in Nepal. I'm not a mountaineer so I couldn't write about climbing mountains. I didn't go on a package tour so I couldn't write about what kind of a tour operator to look for. But I had spent a month trekking in the Himalayas with my wife and could write about how we did it.

But just like travel photography is about the subject, so is travel writing. I wrote about the trip, not us doing the trip. I put lots of details in there about how to sterilise water, how far trekkers walk each day, where to stay, what you can expect to eat. You get the picture.

Now before you rush off to pen your masterpiece and send it off to National Geographic Traveler, take a breather and sit down. If you've never written an article in your life before, indeed if you haven't even read much travel literature, then it's just plain silly to aim for the top. Find local or regional magazines and see what kind of articles they run. Think of some ideas that you could write and photograph about for those smaller publications and then think about getting started.

But don't write to the magazines with a proposal and expect them to send you an advance on your expenses and agree to publish it. You're an unknown. You have nothing to show. Get out there and photograph your subject and write your article. Work on it until you think it's perfect. Review it again and again and again. Then send it off. And expect to get knocked back.

It's pretty rare to succeed right off the bat. You might need to get tens if not hundreds of rejections before you get an acceptance - and that's assuming your work is publishable. Make no mistake about it, any book or course that tells you they'll make you a published travel writer in 10 days is most likely pulling your leg. Kind of like the courses that tell you you can master digital photography in a week. :)

To think that you can suddenly become a world-travelling photographer without putting in a lot of hard work to be the best writer (and photographer) you can is kind of like thinking you can win a Pulitzer after buying a dSLR and a wide-angle lens. Ain't gonna happen. This is a business that requires you to be skilled at what you do, the amount of skill in direct proportion to the prestige of the publication.

And while we're cutting through the bullshit let's dispel another of those myths. You're probably not going to be able to make a living writing travel articles for magazines. It's a great way to break in at the lower levels (remember if you didn't read last week's post that you should always get paid) but in terms of making a living it's pretty much impossible.

Even the top magazines just don't pay enough, and even if they did you'd have to have lots of articles in every issue of quite a few magazines just to make a good living. Travel writers (and many of them photograph as well to submit complete packages like I've just written about) are doing it tough at the moment and many are scratching around looking for alternative markets and sources of income.

In short publication in magazines and newspapers is a great way to get experience and get your work out there. You need to make sure you get paid and be very careful about what rights you're giving away and keep your expectations low. This is not a way to get rich. It's probably not even a way to make a living unless you are at the very top of your game - and even then I doubt if it's possible any more. But it is a way of getting a foot in the door.

What door exactly is up to you. You may find it leads to writing gigs in other fields. You might find it leads to commercial travel photography work. Maybe work for local tourism bureaus. But as magazines continue to fold and go under, unless a major revolution comes through in the publishing industry you can probably be pretty sure it's not going to lead to lucrative magazine travel photography. Treat it as a stepping stone and a way to move into other (more lucrative) areas.

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