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

Friday, February 26, 2010

Moving on up in the travel photography world


I hope I'm not putting anybody off following their travel photography dreams here. I'm certainly not trying to do that - just give you the ammunition you'll need to figure out how much you need to make to live the dream. By knowing that you'll be able to figure out which jobs you can afford to do and which you can't.

Which brings me to the next stage of the travel photography career. It's here that we often split into a couple of camps depending on how you see yourself - as purely a photographer, or as a photographer and a writer. I've written on this topic in the past in a wide variety of posts on professional travel photography. Rather than re-hash what I've covered extensively there - including a series of posts covering an entire magazine assignment - I'll just gloss over the details here.

One of your biggest expenses is travel costs. Goes without saying. So to start moving forward financially it really helps to defray some of these costs. One way is to aim to work for markets (ie publications, companies) that will pay you to photograph on assignment for them. Seems like the perfect way to go. They pay you a nice day rate, cover all your expenses and once the images have been published you get to license them as stock.

Only that isn't the way the world works any more. For starters let's look at your day rate. In the last post we conservatively put our daily rate at $620. That doesn't refer to a day rate by the way, that's just the minimum amount of money you need to make to stay out of the unemployment line. Most of the major travel magazines pay in the region of $450 to $700 per day - obviously depending on what part of the world you live in and who the magazine is. You would be surprised at which magazines are paying that lower rate - some of the best known in the business.

If you take an assignment at the $450 rate you are losing nearly $200 per day! A week away on assignment and you're $1400 in the red. That's OK you say, I'll make up the loss in stock sales. Wrong. Many of the big magazines are now insisting on keeping all rights to the pictures you take while on assignment. Here in Australia there's a huge outcry about it. And even if they don't take all the rights, they often insist on taking the right to publish the pictures in any of their sister publications anywhere in the world as many times as they want, forever in any known (and unknown) universe. In other words you're not going to get an extra dime from the assignment if you're not careful.

Now of course if the magazine has paid your expenses then your annual overhead will go down. Yes it will, but will it go down enough to cover you for the lost income from all the rights you lost to license those pictures. That's a decision only you can make.

Working for the bigger magazines are very prestigious, a great boost to the ego and may do good things for your career. But is it financially viable? For me personally I have found that taking assignments from lesser-paying magazines that don't require me to give up my rights often seems the better option. I tend to make more licensing the stock afterwards ,than I do on the original assignment but the magazine has still paid my way.

The other path is that of the travel photographer/writer. I put photographer first because quite a few people in this field see themselves that way. They took up writing as a way of getting their photography work out there. Travel writers get things that travel photographers don't - access to tourism and PR people who will send writers to the far-flung regions of the globe to bring back a story.

This is it dear readers. The holy grail of travel photography. You get sent all over the world (for free no less!) and all you have to do is write a few stories. How hard could that be? Well, in short, bloody hard.

Once you have started getting published in a few magazines you will probably be in a position to approach (or even be approached by) tourism bodies and travel PR companies to get hosted on what's called famils. These are trips run for a small group of travel writers which take them around the main sites (the sites that a company wants to promote), in return for which you'll provide a series of articles published which will then give your sponsors wanted publicity.

Getting your travel paid for helps reduce your overhead to be sure. But don't forget that for every day you're away you still have to sell enough material afterwards to recoup your daily overhead costs. If you live in a big country with a lot of magazines you might be able to sell articles from the one trip multiple times in different regions. But if you live in a small country with not many publications that might be very difficult. In fact you'll also be in competition with all the other writers doing exactly the same things as you. So you need to be very sure that you're going to be able to make a profit from your time away or else it might not be a very long-lived travel writing career.

As the number of publications dwindles, and the ones that remain demand more and more rights for the same money, it is getting harder and harder to sell enough articles to make a trip pay for itself, even if it is partly or even fully sponsored.

So what's the answer? Diversification. You need to think beyond magazines. As I mentioned in the last post let the magazine work subsidise your other work. Start by looking for local stories to keep your costs down and work on getting those published. Get the images into online libraries such as Alamy or look at setting up your own portfolio on a site such as Photoshelter.  As you build up your credits you might wish to approach magazines that will cover your expenses (whilst retaining the rights to your work), or you might wish to approach tourism bodies and travel PR companies if you find you like the writing side.

And then you take those published magazine articles and you use them to lead into other better-paying work. The opportunities for travel photographers to make money outside the traditional print markets is how many of us manage to survive. Think photo courses, photo tours, talk to photography groups, commercial travel photography for travel companies and tourism bodies. Use your reputation for good work that you gain through publishing in magazines to work your way into other fields.

The business of travel photography is not as glamorous as you might think. It's hard work, can be very frustrating and you need to keep a sold head on your shoulders if you want to do anything more than make some occasional pocket money. But it's the most rewarding thing I could ever imagine myself doing. The opportunities I've had, the people I've met, the experiences I've had often leave me breathless. I love what I do. It's as important to me as breathing. But if I don't make a living I can't continue to do it. So I wish you all the best in your travel photography endeavours. Just remember that if you want to do this for the long run you need to keep an eye on where your money is going and coming from. Happy travels!

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