While not as glamorous as it once was, travel photography can yield great rewards — if you know how to market yourself.
Remember the days when huge Hawaiian families greeted friends arriving at Honolulu's airport from the mainland? Right out on the parking ramp next to the aircraft, they would sing and dance, often bestowing kisses and leis on all who stopped to enjoy the show. It was a fun and wonderful time for travel and photography.
Travel photographers kissed those days goodbye a long time ago.
Today we're greeted in airports by numerous security challenges and crowds of unhappy travelers who seem to be carrying all their worldly possessions with them.
Globetrotting isn't much fun for photographers with heavy bags of delicate equipment. We can't park close to the terminal, and when we finally get to a ticket counter, there are a thousand people ahead of us, waiting in line to check bags and get information. Thanks to the people who wish to hurt us, we must now check our primary shooting kits in unlocked metal cases, which we hope won't be stolen by those same minimum-wage security people who examine us before each flight.
If that isn't bad enough, never has it been so difficult to sell travel images at a profit. A few years ago, the mega-agencies began aggressively selling their shooting services and library photography at drastically low rates. Since then, many markets for travel photography have dried up – gone to the humongous royalty-free stock photo agencies; to photographers willing to work for free trips; to amateurs placing their photos on dollar-an-image web sites; or to commercial photographers who shoot images on vacation for their stock agencies.
Given this litany of woes, how we travel shooters manage to stay in business can seem like an impenetrable mystery. To those who specialize in other areas of photography, my chosen profession must look pretty bleak.
I've taken a close look at the business of travel photography today, though, and I don't agree with the doomsayers.
Prospects will always seem bleak for travel photographers who sit and wait for clients to come their way. The best and brightest travel shooters, however, are the ones who go out and find them.
Shooter, market thyself
Making creative travel pictures presents the same opportunities and challenges as ever: If you don't sell, you don't eat.
There may be a glut of cheap photography available, but a glance at the local magazine rack shows that there are thousands of clients who purchase and use travel photos on a regular basis. As always, these clients seek exclusivity, continuity and personal service in the photography they purchase. With the advent of digital imaging, they also want it right now.
The problem is, most travel photographers are driven to travel and make pictures, not stay at home and run picture-selling businesses. All too often, they rely on disinterested stock mega-agents, get by with underpaid office and sales staffs, and practice little or no self-promotion.
To escape from these doldrums, it's best to start where everyone else in the 21st century does – with a thorough Google search. Look for travel organizations on the web. Visit travel agencies and contact their corporate sales offices. Ask for the brochures and sales materials that are given to potential travel clients. Review these materials to find the users of images that are unique to each travel company.
Next, find out the names of these companies' photo buyers. Don't ask other photographers for client contact information; they've invested time and money to find it for themselves. Instead, try a simple e-mail or phone call to the corporate offices. You may be referred to an ad agency or a marketing firm, but the photo buyers' contact information may also be available on each company's web site.
Once you've identified the photo buyers, the selling begins. Send each one a few samples of your best work – images that relate to their current uses and needs. Quality postcards, created with a good computer and printer, are an easy way to show your stuff. After sending a different card each week for at least a month, send a personal note on your business letterhead, with yet another card enclosed. Ask if there might be an opportunity to create unique images for the company.
You may be rejected or completely ignored at first, but keep repeating the process until you get a dialogue started. Smart corporate people are always on the lookout for images and suppliers that will make them and their own sales efforts successful. They may not need your services today, but if you are persistent and offer unique images, they will probably remember you tomorrow.
Respect your own worthWhen you do get an opportunity to present images and ideas to potential clients, remember that you are a business, and to stay in business, you need to make a profit. Only you know what your time and images are worth. Don't accept $50 for an image that cost you several hundred dollars to produce – especially from an organization that is grossing $100 million each year. The more exclusive your images, the higher your prices should be. If you have an image available on a photo CD for use by many clients, don't expect to make thousands per sale.
When it comes to selling, keep in mind that you are selling yourself – the image creator – as well as your images. This personal touch isn't available at the big agencies. I've found that large, bureaucratic businesses like to work with exclusive, independent, small-business people, not fast-talking carpetbaggers. The bigger the stock agencies seem to grow and the lower their prices, the better my business seems to be. Your job is to meet and sell those bureaucratic businesses one bureaucrat at a time.
Unless you can negotiate a very nice all-expenses-paid vacation for your entire family for some time after the assignment is completed, don't trade travel for photography. If you do, the IRS will consider the value of what you get as if it were cash income – that is, you'll have to declare it on your tax return. Also, you can write off the actual expenses you incurred in making the images, but you can't deduct your time. Trust me, you are not smart enough to beat the IRS in hiding barters.
Also, don't offer to shoot a destination, or a specific type of product, unless you have experience photographing those subjects. Give yourself a few stock shooting assignments to get that experience. When you do create some great travel images, let those photos sell your services.
The most successful travel photographers tend to have the most diverse portfolios. They shoot assignments, build library files for themselves and agents, write articles, produce books, and specialize in certain cultures, countries and languages. And, of course, many still have "day jobs."
One of the most financially successful travel photographers I know is an international airline pilot. He plans flights to places he wants to photograph for sale by his agency. Maybe you can tie a love of travel and photography into a complementary career, such as teaching, the military, the Forest Service, truck driving or the like.
Know your audience
Making exceptional images is the goal of all travel photographers. But your photography doesn't have to be exceptional in order to be successful. It just needs to be photography that a specific client needs for a specific use.
My own system for finding salable images is straightforward. I look at a lot of the photography currently being used by the most desirable clients and compare it to the current work done by the best travel photographers in the world. After learning what sells well, I give myself stock assignments and attempt to shoot in a similar manner.
Let me be clear: I do not copy existing images or shooting styles, nor do I condone such activity. Instead, I look for ideas and ways to use light and composition that will help me create new and unusual images – in my own style. This can mean something as simple as hiring a couple to act as tourists in a local market, or adding some props – a tour guide, camera, shopping bag and so on. I shoot a little story that I think might be attractive to a travel publication or newspaper.
Taking these self-assignments to a higher level, I plan a production stock shoot around a destination. I hire professional models, research a series of shooting locations, select wardrobe and props, and plan the project details, such as transportation, hotels and rental cars. All of this is undertaken as if it were commissioned by a client, but I'm the one who pays for everything. During these self-assignments, I try some interesting ideas for lighting and composition that I've discovered in my research efforts. I also ask the models for their ideas. Once in a while, I invite a client to suggest a few ideas.
When I shoot these self-assignments, no matter how near or far afield, I am always able to create at least some salable images. Usually, I also learn more about shooting, create a new library of images for sale and make sales efforts. Best of all, because I'm in the business of selling images, I can deduct my expenses from my taxable income.
The futureWhat will the future bring for travel photography? Will there be so many shooters and images available that making any kind of a profit is impossible? Will the world become so crowded that no one can travel, much less make travel images? Will the electronic technology ruin photography?
Important questions, all – but before you answer, just think how many times these worries have been raised before. More than a century ago, the very first National Geographic photographers likely pondered the same issues. If they could see the world as it is today, they would probably consider it ruined for any quality travel, let alone photo-making. Yet we continue to make and sell interesting pictures of other cultures and places both near and far. The same will hold true for every coming generation.
Yes, the world will become much more populated in the future, especially if we, as a species, continue to breed with a lack of responsibility. It also will become less safe if we continue to turn our backs on the realities of crime and terrorism. This will make traveling more difficult, but it will also increase the number of armchair travelers, and thus the demand for images to fill books, television, DVDs and the Internet.
Through all of this constant change, travel photographers will have to become even more resourceful. The successful ones, of course, will manage to rise to that challenge no matter what the conditions. Instead of exotic beaches and sunsets, the bottoms of the oceans and the heights of space may become the next travel photography frontiers.
In the end, the secret to becoming successful in travel photography is not really a mystery at all. Sure, we must contend more than ever with skies grayed by industrial pollutants, and with formerly exotic cultures ravaged by Americanized globalization. But travel shooters have always had a tough task. We must make the beaches of Mexico, Miami and Waikiki look deserted, despite their popularity with sunbathers.
Fortunately, there are still a number of beautiful beaches near these places, and around the world, that really are deserted. (Just don't ask me where; I'm not telling.)