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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!

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.

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.