Friday, May 14, 2010

The changing way professional travel photographers do business

There are lots of reasons why I do what I do. Travel is in my blood, an addiction. Like many of us, I would still travel and take photographs whether I was paid for it or not. But it's not a hobby for me. It's a vocation. And the money I receive lets me support these wonderful people here - my wife and kids. It also gives me the opportunity to broaden their horizons by showing them the pictures from my adventures and taking them along with me when I can.

I'm a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the way I photograph. I hardly ever crop, fiddle around in Photoshop or really do much at all after I've pressed the shutter. When I'm comfortable working a certain way I stick to it. I still use software that's probably considered out-of-date by many. My workflow is quite a few years old now and I upgrade my gear but only because my clients expect the better quality files that come out of the newer cameras. If my clients accepted the files they did years ago I'd probably still be shooting with my 8MP camera! (just joking - kind of)

But something I can't afford to keep the same as it was when I first started is the way I make my living. Back in 1998 I was in Bangkok, Thailand. I was half way through a year long trip just bumming around the world with my then girlfriend, now wife, and browsing through a book store. I came across a hard cover book by nature photographer John Shaw called 'The Business of Nature Photography". This heavy tome changed my life.

In it I pretty much found a road map for how to get started as a professional nature photographer - and many of the concepts translated well into the travel genre. Sure it mentioned working with DOS databases so some things were a bit outdated even then, but things have changed so much in those 12 years that many of the concepts written about, while still possible to do, won't let you earn a living.

Not long after that year finished I had my first stock photo sale, followed by my first two articles published in a national magazine. Because one of the main concepts mentioned in the book was that the easiest way to break into this field of photography is to write articles to accompany your pictures. So that was the path I trod.

In Australia it usually works in this way: the more travel articles you publish and the more of a name you get, the more you have various tourism bodies and PR companies approach you to go on famils. Famils are free trips designed to show you the best of a certain destination. So once you reach a certain level you get your travel paid for. You would write an article for a magazine or a newspaper and they would license one-time, non-exclusive rights. Meaning that you could then onsell that same article as many times as you liked to non-competing publications. And they would pay you for the words and the photos separately. By selling a single article multiple times you could cover your Cost of Doing Business (remember each day away on a famil is a day you have to make up for later) and make a reasonable living.

And then somebody changed the rules. Suddenly the big publishers wouldn't accept one-time, non-exclusive rights any more. They wanted all the rights in the known (and unknown) universe forever and a day - basically meaning that they could publish your work as many times as they like without paying you any extra. So there was no way you could sell that article again. And somebody then came up with the idea of not needing to pay for photos any more because you could get them for free from the tourism boards or for very cheap on Microstock.

And so in the space of a few very short years a lot of travel writers/photographers have found themselves in a very dire situation. Sure they may still get free travel but the money they make from selling their article packages isn't enough to support a single person let alone a family. Many are leaving the industry bemoaning the fact that the world has changed and they can't figure out why.

The thing is, there's not a damn thing we can do about it. And there's no point moaning and whinging (that's whining for you North American folks. :) ) because it won't do us any good whatsoever. There isn't a guidebook to how to make it as a travel photographer any more. We all have to figure out our own individual paths and how to sell our work without selling ourselves short. In other words it's time to be as creative and rely on our instincts in our business as much as we do with our photography.

And just because everybody else is doing something doesn't mean we all have to. The new catchcry is social media. But is anybody making any money on it? Maybe if you're selling workshops or tours then you can build a bigger client base. But if that's not your game is having a couple of thousand of followers on Twitter going to get you more paid work? I dunno. I hear stray stories now and again but they seem to be kind of like the stories you hear about one or two people making a fortune on Microstock. The exception to the rule.

Not that I'm saying that social media is a waste of time - just that you shouldn't do it just because everybody else is. This has never been a profession for lemmings. Try it, analyse the results and if it's not doing what you hoped move on. And by that I don't just mean getting you business, I mean if you're passionate about writing a blog then it shouldn't matter to much whether it's making you a fortune. Because you're helping feed your passion which is a good thing.

I'll be honest here. I don't make a red cent from my blog. I just do it because I love to write and seeing as the magazines aren't paying me anymore I might as well just write for me and if people find it interesting and rewarding then I'm happy to have them along for the ride. Every so often it leads to an email from somebody who may hire me for an assignment but for the most part I just do it for the love of waffling on.

So how do you make a living as a travel photographer nowadays? If anybody tells you they know the answer they're lying. None of us knows. We're all trying to fumble our way along in the dark hoping that somebody else comes up with the answer so we can all get back to working like we used to. Only I don't think we ever will again. Maybe the iPad will save the magazine industry - but they'll still have their same horrible contracts and the rates won't be any more than they were when I was in nappies. So it's up to all of us to look into our hearts and search our souls. To find not only what we're passionate about photographing, but to transfer that passion into our business. To think outside the box and come up with new ways to make a living at this crazy game. One things for sure, there won't be a book written about it soon and no two travel photographers will have the same career path.

Oh but if you do happen to find the golden path send me an email and let me know! :)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Focussing on the details

One of the things I tried to do more on this trip (well more than usual for me) is focus more on the details. The little things.

I find that one thing we tend to do as photographers is look for the spectacular, the out of this world, the wow factor. And in doing so we sometimes forget that it's the little things, the quiet moments, that can be much more special.

So on this trip I tried to keep my eyes open for little things that gave a little insight into how I felt about a place or an experience.

This picture is one of those moments. To get to Sapporo from Cairns you have to overnight in Narita. Usually we just stay one night and fly out first thing in the morning but this year we decided to spend a day in Narita. One so that we could take it easy after a long day flying, and two so we could take a look around the town my wife flies to every week with work.

We visited Narita-san, a giant pagoda temple with beautiful grounds filled with tranquil waterfalls and beautiful cherry blossom trees. I photographed those (and will post them in the coming days) but this little vignette caught my eye. In the eaves of an ancient temple I spotted some straw brooms, leaning casually up against the wall. To me, perhaps even more than the ancient buildings themselves, this use of traditional-style brooms (when obviously more modern examples can be bought easily) spoke to me about how a modern society can develop whilst still paying homage to the past.

This simple image told me more about the ways that the traditional ways of doing things are honoured in Japan than a hundred pictures of geisha talking on mobile phones. I found it really interesting to focus my attention more on the little details and the quiet but telling moments and I'll post a few examples over the coming weeks. No matter how long you've been doing this, or at what level, you can always find ways to stretch yourself and learn to see the world around you in new ways.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The joys of being able to photograph freely

Here in Australia we kind of take our freedom for granted. And yet those freedoms are gradually being taken away from us with the stroke of a pen. If you want to know about the hoops you have to jump through to photograph in National Parks in this country go and have a look at this fascinating article by Ross Barnett.

The situation has become so ridiculous that finally photographers are standing up and getting ready to fight. There is a big protest march organised in Sydney by Arts Freedom Australia on August 29th. You can find the Facebook page here. If you can I would urge you to come along to help show your support, or if you can't make it sign up on the Facebook page.

Which brings me to what a pleasure it is to take photographs in a country that actually respects photographers. It is such a joy to get out your camera in Japan. Maybe it's because it's a country of people who have taken photography to their hearts in such a huge way. The book stores are full of photography magazines and books on not only the technical side of things but also the spiritual side of our craft. You can find glossy photo books on every conceivable topic. Often when I'm out photographing everybody around me has gear that puts mine to shame.

When you ask somebody if you can take their photo you're not hit with the old twenty questions. Why do you want to photograph me? What are you going to do with the pictures? Where are you going to publish them? How much money are you going to make? Nope, after being shocked that somebody finds them interesting enough to photograph they're actually honoured. Respect for someone with a camera! Who would have thought it.

Where did we go wrong? Why has such a beautiful art form become symbolic of something suspicious and evil? Why are photographers with 'professional' cameras seen as such easy targets for having to have permits to go places 2 million people with a point and shoot can? Ever heard of a permit for writers? I guess I'm a bit confused as to why I'm seen as either a highly dodgy character or a ready source of income for government departments simply because I enjoy an art form that's been around for a couple of hundred years and is something that gives so much pleasure to so many people. Go figure.