Advice 10 January

How to become a travel photographer - and get paid to travel the world

Do you have what it takes to become a travel photographer? Our team of experts share their tips and advice...

"Every muppet with a camera and a plane ticket thinks that they can be a travel photographer”. Pro photographer Steve Davey, author and photographer of Unforgettable Places To See Before You Die, is discouraging, but he’s got a point. You might like the sound of swanning around the world, clicking the shutter now and then, but there’s more to being a travel photographer.

Getting up at stupid o’clock to catch the perfect sunrise, carrying a camera that’s heavier than four backpacks, skipping meals in the quest for perfect light, and missing out on the travel experience because you’re too busy taking photos, are just a few of the downsides.

Do you have what it takes?

Loving travel and having an eye for a great shot are not enough. You need patience, both in waiting for (or creating) that perfect shot, and in terms of your career: you’re unlikely to make it overnight.

You need stamina to cope with hectic schedules and long days; you need a business brain to market your work successfully; you need to be creative and come up with new angles to stand out from the crowd; and you need to have the right equipment.

What work is there?

The design and advertising industries pay the highest – you could earn thousands if your images are used in a high-profile campaign. However, this work is hard to come by and only available to those who’ve already proved themselves.

Books, magazines, newspapers, calendars, cards and websites all need travel images. Having an area of expertise will help you to sell shots.

The easiest route is to build up a portfolio of travel photography and approach an image library – an organisation that holds thousands of images by hundreds of photographers, which publications can search through.

Some libraries already have enough travel shots, but the big online stock libraries are always looking for fresh images, and want to offer as much as variety as possible. So, if you want to submit to a particular library, check you have a good range of high-quality images that are different from the library’s current selection (and as good as, or better!). Libraries will also take a cut of the money you make from selling your images, typically 50%.

"See BAPLA [The British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies] for relevant library requirements," says professional photographer Paul Harris. "And ensure you have used as many relevant keywords as possible to tag your photos."

Lyn Hughes, editor in chief of Wanderlust concurs: "Back when we started Wanderlust, we would invite photographers in with their portfolios. Nowadays, although we do commission some work, we increasingly use online stock libraries to find images for this website and for our magazines. On the one hand, they libraries have a wide range and make it very easy to search. On the other hand, we can find ourselves wading through pages of very average shots that don't offer anything different or fresh. And, so often we struggle to find what we need due to poor tagging by the photographers." 

Away from libraries, Paul Harris suggests thinking laterally about organisations to approach. "Travel companies use photographers for their websites and brochures. But they don't even have to be travel-related companies. NGOs like OXFAM often use photographers to document their work. Some pay basic expenses and/or day rates."

Another approach is to enter travel photography competitions. Wanderlust’s annual Travel Photo of the Year competition is the UK's largest travel photography competition, and has categories specifically for amateurs as well as one that is open to professionals.

The winners of the competition get a photo commission to an exotic destination – great experience and priceless exposure, as the images are printed in Wanderlust. Many of the past winners of this competition have gone on to become professional or semi-professional photographers. "We are often been approached for the contact details of certain photographers," says Lyn Hughes of Wanderlust. Organisations, such as travel companies or tourist boards, sometimes want to buy an image for their own use, or to see what else the photographer has in a similar vein.It can be a fantastic showcase."

Lyn's last tip is to have your own website. "Show off your work on Instagram and Facebook, but do ensure you have a good, easy to use website too. It should have some of your best work (with lots of keywords!), any specialities, and awards/competitions you have won, and your CONTACT DETAILS. It's too easy to get carried away, add thousands of images, and forget the basics. Keep it simple."

Photographing a koala (Dreamstime)

Photographing a koala (Dreamstime)

What makes good travel photography?

A pretty picture is not enough. It needs to be high quality and it needs to be original. For magazines, you need to consider issues such as leaving space on the image for word placement, positioning your subject off-centre so it doesn’t fall down the page join, and possibly placing the subject on the right-hand side of a landscape shot for maximum impact.

Pictures for editorial features are more than decoration – they need to help tell the story. An image can be stunning but if it has no relevance to the text it will be discarded. The image has to fit the brief. For example, the image on a Wanderlust cover must make the reader think: “I want to be there”.

How to get that job

Be committed. Like any job for which competition is tough, you have to stick at it.  “The only way to make a living from travel photography is if you make it a full-time job,” says Richard I’Anson, travel photographer and founder of Lonely Planet Images.

Don’t undersell yourself. You might be doing your dream job, but you can’t do it for love alone – that won’t pay the bills and it will undermine your status as a professional. If clients are buying your work they should pay the going rate. I’Anson advises: “Don’t give pictures away in return for an airfare or hotel accommodation. It’s much harder to charge once you’ve set a precedent like that.”

Be objective. Try to see your work through the eyes of potential clients. I’Anson says: “You have to separate the travel experience from the pictures. How you got the picture is not of any interest to photo editors or clients – they just want good pictures.”

Be original. There must be hundreds of near-perfect shots of the Taj Mahal – what will make yours stand out?

Find a speciality. Carving yourself a niche – as a bird expert or underwater specialist, for example –  might make it easier to make a name for yourself. Ideally find one that interests you.

Hone your skills. Get your photography to a high standard, both technically and creatively, before you head off on an expensive trip.

Get the gear. With camera equipment you get what you pay for – and it’s expensive. The minimum you’ll need is a digital SLR with a high-quality lens.

A word from a pro... Steve Benbow

Steve Benbow’s work has appeared in many newspapers, but how did he get it there?

“I left photographic college in 1989 – a good technical grounding is essential, be it on a photography course or as a photographic assistant. However, finding a travel photographer willing to take you under their wing is almost impossible. Most work alone and fast, with little time to explain things.

After college I got a job with Raleigh International as a full-time expedition photographer. This came about thanks to a retired colonel who liked my diverse portfolio – and because I had a lot of front. I was very lucky and have no front anymore…

My seven expeditions with Raleigh enabled me to produce an extensive range of travel images, some of which are still in my portfolio today.

I’ve since been involved in various ad campaigns, and I’ve had many photojournalism commissions – everything from work for World Vision in Uganda to a feature on naked rambling in Palm Springs.

Top tip: “The market is almost saturated so you need to provide something special. Look around for unusual angles or something quirky.”

Photographing along the coast (Dreamstime)

Photographing along the coast (Dreamstime)

Want more expert advice?

We've got lots of photography tips and industry insight – here's a handful of articles to get you started...

How to make your travel photos unique | Make your shots stand out

How to shoot great portraits
| Steve Davey reveals how to shoot an engaging portrait

How to take amazing wildlife photos | The secret of capturing an award-winning wildlife snap?

How to take great photos with your smart phone | An alternative photography guide

How to create an award-winning photo portfolio
| Can you compile an eye-catching photo portfolio?