Ah, if only I knew what I know today, 20 years ago.
I’m often asked by young photographers attracted by the apparent glamour of wandering the globe as a travel photographer, how they might arrive in the same position. The inquiry normally begins with how did I get the gig in the first place, through to how much do I charge (a privilege I tend to reserve for those who I think can foot the bill).
Some time ago, I was invited to stage a three-day photography workshop in Saudi Arabia, to provide guidance to aspiring travel photographers, and I wrote the following in anticipation of the most likely questions which I thought might be helpful to post:
Q: How did you become a travel photographer?
A: I was a travel writer who paid a photographer to come with me until I tried it myself and realized it wasn’t rocket science. Pressing a button was a lot easier (and more lucrative) than labouring over a travel story so I went to a couple of remote parts of the world (PNG and Sarawak), took some eye-catching photographs and began to build the library and reputation that – somewhat remarkably – sees me arriving today as one of the most widely published travel photographers in the world.
Q: What’s the best advice you could give to someone just starting out?
A: Differentiate yourself. Sure, show you can do what’s needed but, if your portfolio/web site is looking pretty much like everyone else’s, you’re always likely to be struggling. And be consistent. I have no doubt that many people can take a wonderful photograph but its a professional that takes them consistently and under just about any conditions – and that’s what a prospective client needs to see in your work.
Q: What gear do you use?
A: I generally carry two 35mm Nikons, A medium format Pentax 645D, a range of pro 2.8 lenses (mainly 17-35mm, 30-70mm, 50mm and 80-200mm), a manfrotto stands, a reflector, a flash and the Sony RX100 in an underwater housing. Nowadays I also carry around the Mavic Pro drone.
Q: How much time do you spend traveling?
A: I travel for up to eight months of the year (but I’m arriving at the point where I’m likely to become more selective and reduce it to six to spend a bit more time at home and channel my creativity elsewhere).
Q: How do you generate business?
A: Word of mouth is by far my best reference as I do everything I can to ensure my client’s expectations are exceeded. I have a motto: Always deliver what you promise – on time, within budget and to the highest professional standards. Beyond that, I keep my web site up to date and looking the part, I keep in touch with my clients by circulating previews of my assignments to every potential client I come in contact with, I’ve become active on Instagram, and I offer a special early booking package at the end of each year for the one ahead.
Q: What warning would you give to someone wanting to become a travel photographer?
A: Look carefully at the lifestyle of a travel photographer and – setting aside the “glamour of it all” – ask yourself what is the downside of the job and could you really handle it. For example, consider the impact so much traveling has on your relationships and your family or the uncertainty of income (its not as if clients are constantly pounding down the door or a cheque gets sent to your bank account every week). It may be some insight to know that while I could not be more grateful for the journey I’ve taken, I have not encouraged my 24 year old son, who is also creative and has an interest in travel, to follow in my footsteps.
Q: What do you think makes you a successful travel photographer?
A: I honestly don’t think I’m such a great photographer – but I do have a reasonable eye for composition and colour. And I believe the success I’ve enjoyed in this field is largely because I have a combination of other skills. I am a writer and a publisher, I have a strong background in tourism marketing and – probably most importantly – I am a businessman and an opportunist.
I recognize the value of the photographs I am able to deliver and I do a pretty good “song and dance” to make sure my clients do too.
……And, the gods have been generous to me 😉.
Q: What motivates you?
A: I am motivated by my passion, however, contrary to popular opinion, my passion is not photography; it is to travel and meet people – the further away and the more interesting, the better. While I have mastered both photography and writing to an acceptable commercial level, these two skills are merely the vehicles I have been gifted with to help me realize my passion. That said, with a camera in my hand, I am always motivated to capture better pictures and rise to the top of my game so I’m forever in search of that one, elusive image which will define me as a tourism photographer.
Q: How do you charge for your services?
A: I charge a flat rate for a minimum seven day assignment, plus associated expenses which includes airfares, food, accommodation and transport. I rarely discount my fee, believing if someone approaching me is even starting down that road, they are likely to undervalue my work and we’re unlikely to see eye-to-eye. That said, I will add time to the assignment and waive my fee to extend the assignment if I think it will improve the outcome or if I’m particularly excited by the project – provided, of course, I am able to juggle my other assignments around it.
Q: What’s the best part of the job?
A: If you are reading this, you probably already have a fair idea so I’ll be brief. I am paid generously to travel to places many people dream of going to for their holidays and I have the opportunity to experience the very best of some of the most beautiful and interesting places in the world.
Q: What is your goal?
A: Having largely realised the goal I set 10 years ago to earn a comfortable living travelling the world as a photographer, my goal now is to spend at least three months a year living in different parts of the world. Stopping long enough to gather more than a fleeting impression or a few promotional photos; taking time to meet people and better understand the place I’m visiting. As I’ve long believed the best way to travel is with purpose, I’m planning to publish a series of exceptional travel books of short stories and photographs that will give me, and my readership, a deeper, richer insight into the locations I’m visiting.
…And with this closing statement comes an example of probably the most important advice I can offer any aspiring photographer: If YOU don’t know where you want to be in 10 years time – and you don’t have a plan to get there – how can you possibly expect to arrive?
Every day – everything you do once you have set your sights on where you want to be – should be a step in that direction.
I wish you well.