Last updated on August 9th, 2018 at 02:57 pm
Two years ago I met Simon. He just terminated one of the few still existing travel photographer jobs abroad, he said, maybe without a great salary, but it did not really matter to him.
Wow, I thought, that’s super interesting. I started digging. Most definitely travel photography was part of his job, however, there was much more than that. Simon is my case study today. He had some pretty exciting years, that’s for sure.
Let me give you first the bare truth about travel photography and the typical money involved. Then, I can give you a practical strategy and a few tips.
The best part?
They are all actionable and at last, I tell you what Simon did.
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Yes, they do however it’s getting harder and harder (typical complain hey 🙂 )
Only a small number of magazines do employ nowadays photographers, let alone travel photographers. Some of these magazines like National Geographic or Travel + Leisure do have positions but only based on contract or most likely on projects.
The worst now comes, most of the time they do not advertise these contracts. They have a bunch of photographers they trust and they contact them based on a multitude of factors (availability, where they are located, funds etc)
In true honesty, you will be very unlikely to get one. At least based on pure statistical numbers. Networking may make miracles of course.
This does not mean you should give up and do another job.
It just means you need to be creative with what you do and not purely rely on making photos for magazines.
There are no open permanent jobs for travel photographers. In Australia or in India, in UK or in USA
And if there is an advertisement for one, be sure that there would be so many applications that you would not believe it.
But let me better introduce me.
I started working as cycling photographers for a few years. I think my best experience was following the Tour de France. I loved it although we had some crazy hours, waking up at 4-6am and finish to deliver the photos at 10pm-11pm. Every day for 3 weeks, sun or rain.
How did I get that job? For a few reasons, and mainly because my boss (back in Australia) knew he could trust me. I wouldn’t sleep at all if it was necessary.
And the worst, or the best, come now. The money was not that good compared to the hours I invested. I made so much more in my previous life as a Telecom Engineer.
But the passion for photography was just on another level.
If you do not have the passion I suggest straight away to leave travel photography. It’s not a job to make money. It’s a job where the motivation comes from the experiences you make.
Then things may happen and suddenly, through new connections, you may start a parallel business, grow your income, make a real living. But this should not be your motivation.
You could even sell your photo as Peter Lik did in late 2014 for 6.5 Million dollars. But that’s probably asking too much LOL
When I left cycling photography to concentrate more on travel photography I had already few magazines where I could sell stories from my cycling trips but I understood straight away that it was not enough to survive. I needed more. I needed to grow somewhere else and find my strengths.
Now, let me ask something that sounds crazy.
That would help.
How many times have you heard “everyone with a mobile is now a photographer?”. I did so many times.
The reality is that lots of people do take great shots however they lack consistency. In the professional world, you do need consistency and attention to the details.
I tell you, I had really bad days in my assignments, however, delivering is a must. If you don’t then you are burnt.
Moreover, let me say that I believe my photos are not that great. I am a good travel photographer I think but there are lots out there that are better than me.
So how is it that I make travel photography around the world and other better photographers find this very complicated?
I just give you three words:
I am a pretty shy person and it was never easy to get out there and start talking with people, make cold calls (I really hate them) and market my work.
Luckily nowadays there is an easier solution, engage in the social environments. Behind a keyboard, I do feel more confident. Although it’s not enough. I grew my Instagram and Twitter accounts and I created a few connections from there.
Which keeps me to the second point, the content. My blog helped me a ton to say the least. I would not have been able to self-sustain myself without it. It opened many doors, especially with gear manufacturers and tourism boards.
And then comes networking, probably the thing I struggle the most. It’s a long-term investment. Refresh the contacts, get out at the pub (very common here in Australia, and I can’t complain 🙂 ) and so much more.
The people I have seen succeeding in travel photography had one common thing: diversification of income. This is at least my experience
ANd I tell you, doesn’t matter which job, this is a great practical strategy.
Even if you will start working with National Geographic it will not be a 365 days a year job. You will have a few projects and with them only, you will struggle to make a good living.
And even working with magazines can be hard if you try to plan long term.
And let me say that diversification is a great thing (at least they told me that at university). If one stream is not great in one month hopefully the other sources will be and the salary becomes an average of all the incomes and projects
Here below I have listed my sources and a few that did not work with me. It may be absolutely different for you of course.
My suggestion here is to try all of them and see what it works for you
When I started my website a few years ago I organised it as a portfolio. I could send the link to people I was interested to work with and ….that was it.
I had a very small number of people each day coming to my website, and I would not know how did they actually arrive.
And in true honesty, it did not really matter because I could not monetize these visits anyway.
Then one day the impossible happened. One person somehow saw my photo of a place in Melbourne, through a Google search (image section). He contacted me and he bought it.
Now every time I upload a photo on my website I make sure to SEO it, which means I try to make easy to find it by Google.
To give you an example, search for “iconic photo Melbourne” and a bunch of my photos are on the first page. I think I sold 7 copies in the last 2 years of only the Vinegar lady below
I had months when I sold up to 10 photos, other months when I had no sales at all.
Not sure why, however, my income on this source is in decline.
I am sure you know what is stock photography. It did not work for me. I sold almost nothing. I gave up.
I think there are possibly 2 reasons:
The competition is stiff, to say the least. Websites like 500px have some formidable photos
I have worked with a few. Some of them pay quite well, others none at all but all of your expenses are paid for.
Obviously, I tend to favour the ones that have a budget.
Why do they work with me?
Because they like my photos (that’s important) but mostly because I have platforms where I can broadcast my photos.
My Instagram has over 120K followers, my twitter account has 2 Million views each month and the website is almost 100K page views per month.
Basically, they like me to influence other travellers to visit a country, a place. Photos work great for that (I really need to start working on my YouTube channel, videos are becoming so important)
But you do not need these numbers to start working with tourism boards. For example, I do not think that my Twitter account is really valued (this is more of a social platform for politics nowadays).
One of my first paid assignments was in Indonesia when I had 25k page views and 50K followers. I worked with the Ministry of Tourism there. We had such a great time. Still one of my best collaborations.
When you work with tourism boards, hotel chains, travel organizations just make sure to NOT include photos as a free give away. That is another part of the income if they like your work.
I have never followed this direction, however, influencers are nowadays famous to make a living, if they have a good follow up on their channel.
When I work with travel boards I obviously post my photos there, however, I have the freedom to post what I want about my travel.
Different is when someone gives you guidelines and tell you what they want.
I think there is here a thin line between travel photography and commercial photography. Add that the Instagrammers many time do not add any hashtag as #ad or #Advertisment. It’s a but unregulated.
I also got burned by Facebook and the new business model (pay to get views). Instagram is broadcasting my work nowadays to such a small number of followers, that eventually will shrink to zero and I have to pay like Facebook.
Do I want to play this game? I personally don’t (this does not mean you shouldn’t, it’s just a business decision)
My income on this stream has gone up more than I originally planned and it is unbalancing all the other sources. I am happy of course, however, I feel uncomfortable.
For mainly 2 reasons:
How can you make an income from a blog?
Well, there are a few ways (I am not an expert). My main two sources are advertisement and affiliation.
Nobody loves advertisement of course but, hey, we all need to pay the bills at the end of the month. I had to introduce it also on my website.
Affiliation comes from people buying gear or booking hotels through my website. The customer is not charged more for that. The commission is paid by the seller (Amazon or Booking.com to make two names)
For example, if you look for “best travel camera 2018” you will see most probably my post ranked in the first page by Google. With an average of 100 people reading it each day you have a good possibility that someone is going to buy a camera through my links.
This is the direct income from my blog. Then there is the fact that it opens the doors with other parties, like the travel boards I talked about, or with camera manufacturers (I usually receive gear to review).
For example, I run photo walks for Sony here in Melbourne. Which takes me to the other income stream
I already said I am not a great travel photographer, didn’t I? 🙂 Well now let me say that I am actually a very good teacher, so at least they told me LOL. I had always very happy customers and great reviews too.
How do I get customers?
Mainly in two ways.
I have an agency that provides the groups. This photography agency works in Sydney and I mainly do workshops for them in Melbourne, when I am back from my trips.
Alternatively, the inquiries come either through Instagram followers or Website visitors, again my two most important broadcast platforms.
This is happening mostly from my cycling trips as I do have a few connections with riding magazines (from my time in cycling photography).
I am phasing that out unfortunately as they do not pay any more money for it. They give cycling gear in exchange which I have to sell on Ebay. It’s all becoming too complicated.
I feel you need good networking for this, which I have only in the cycling industry. I should create more connections in travel shows. One of my goals for this year.
It has to be said that you do not sell just photos but the entire story, so you work as a travel writer and photographer.
Between brackets, I previously added the source of my income. Now you have an idea.
If you decide to move to low-cost places, like in most of Asia, then it works even better I must say. In my case, I would lose the local workshops though.
What are my goals for the coming 1-2 years?
Work more on photography workshops, possibly with an increased number of international photo trips.
As I said I like this side of travel photography. I enjoy being with other people and obviously help them.
I want to start attending travel shows on a regular basis. This is where lots of connections are created. Networking is a great part of the business. Work more with tourism boards.
I need also to outsource all the technical work on the website to a Virtual Assistant. Try to leave everything that takes me away from my photography. This is a great step for me as I am a bit of micromanager, I must say.
My biggest question mark is if I should build a product, like an online course. It’s a lot of work and there are so many courses already on the market. Still thinking about it.
I met Simon in a cafe, I left him talking for one hour. It was all so fascinating. He experienced so many amazing places around the world
Surely there is a lot of event photography involved once on the boat but it’s a great job to improve as a travel photographer. Not to mention that the gear is provided by the cruise company.
Simon spent approximately 8 years working for various cruise ship companies starting as a staff photographer and working his way up to photo manager.
I had a short interview with him.
How did you find the job?
How I became part of this industry was through friends I knew who had previously worked on board.
I was envious and at that time I had the opportunity to look for work. I started to apply for work in pro photo magazines/national papers and eventually applied with Princess Cruise from an ad in the British journal of photography.
There are other avenues to apply, through agencies and direct to the companies. My interview was in Southampton which was at the P&O UK head office.
How was the start?
I first began my journey in June 2001 as a level 1 “shagger” a term used by the experienced fotogs on the then Crown princess a mid-size ship holding around 1800 pax and with crew of 900. She was already then 10yrs old.
I joined the ship in Copenhagen from London so in contrast to flying around the world to join a ship it was a mere hop & a skip!
I arrived with eyes wide open not knowing what to expect other than having photography skills to back me up and retail skills to assist in the gallery. I thought this would set me up nicely! I check what to pack for a cruise and there was a new adventure
The ship seemed busy it was turnaround day where the passengers disembark and new passengers arrive … all in the same day & within a few hours of each other.
I can still remember the distinct aroma of fuel and grease in the air my senses were working overtime in my new environment. Everyone seemed friendly and happy and the ship seemed a good size as I was given a tour.
Down in the guts of the ship on either dk 3-4 [dependant on ship] is the M1 which is a long corridor that is used by the crew to get to their workplace/cabin and most importantly bar at night and staff canteen…although the food was a bit well not the same as passengers that’s just to clarify that! Being a staff member we had deck privileges where we could go and eat in pax areas when not busy. A lot of the crew do not get this privilege!
I shared a cabin with the assistant mgr who took me under his wing for the first cruise which was a 10 day Baltic cruise. From Copenhagen, we were going to visit Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg (including an overnight), Tallinn and Gdansk. That was a promising start!
I was blessed indeed because otherwise although from the UK I had no real desire to see this area but SO happy I did.
Although it was my first tour [contract] and homesickness, long hours, and different work ethics and staff treatment all played a big part I did enjoy the beauty and different lifestyles I saw in what I describe as a snapshot or perhaps like eating tapas a small sample of other lives and cultures.
I spent the first 3 months in the Baltic basically honing my skills as a shagger! Being a Level 1 fotog I realised quickly that everything in my past experience would be wiped out here on board.
Trust only comes with experience and you only gain this through hard work and consistent quality and this, in turn, keeps the manager off your back and the team in return trust and rely on you.
What did you do as a cruise photographer?
The 3 main jobs on board as a “shagger” would be
We shot on film of course in those days and sometimes processing the film would take until 4am!! And the next day it could be gangway!!
NOT a job for the faint-hearted and I have to admit the feeling of quitting did go through my head on lots of occasions. After a while, though the lifestyle on board and the colleagues you meet and of course the itinerary and the countries you visit, keep you going.
What happened next?
I was about 2 weeks from completing my full tour but I had a great time, overall & was itching to go back once fully recovered. I had caught the bug, the lifestyle and companionship of working at sea.
What I would change without a doubt is doing it earlier in life as I did it in my late 30’s.
This was not a barrier but my life or career at sea would have been financially better as in the 80’s and 90’s the money was much higher due to unregulated practices and richer cruise passengers!
My friends would leave a contract and put a huge deposit on a house…I put a deposit on a pallet of bricks??
Would you suggest a career in the cruise industry?
I have finished my days at sea but it’s an age thing!! I have passed my sell-by date. I would however strongly suggest doing this to any young fresh out of college/ Uni or budding photographer/travel bloggers.
It’s a great way of building up a travel portfolio of stock shoots and being paid for it! Also working in a busy environment as on cruise ships you will gain an enormous amount of experience.
The work is high pressure at times and the hours huge, but when you come off ships and look for work your CV will be at the top of the employment must hire candidates. Most of my colleges at sea are now successful business people, as this work instils great ethics and business sense.
How about the salary?
The money is not great for the amount of work/hours but you can see the world in a few contracts [if lucky] and get to see other peoples and cultures, which will open your eyes to the world as a whole, this can only be a good thing, especially in this day and age of multiculturalism.
I saw many countries and I sampled many cultures tasted the real food, saw great architecture’s, and witnessed different ways of life which I cannot replace by seeing on a big or small screen.
This to me is something the normal working person will never get to see in their lifetime
Yes, it is true that it’s almost impossible to work as a travel photographer.
It is however also true that if you love travel photography and you have the passion to explore the world then you add a bit of creativity and you will be able to start your own profession.
Maybe it’s true, it’s not a real Travel Photographer job, as we used to think about it, it’s a big mix of projects and money streams. But things have changed so much in the last 30 years. We just have to adapt
These are of course all my personal thoughts based on my experience. There is no magic formula as you can imagine.
But, again, there is something you really need to have, passion. It will help in the down days, and in my case, I had so many. It was and still is a big rollercoaster.
And, please, do remember to leave your comment or question below. I really would love to know what you think (I do answer to everyone 😉 )
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.