Answering The Unknowns of How to Break Into Travel Photography

Answering The Unknowns of How to Break Into Travel Photography

Like most photographic specialties, travel photography is littered with the unknown: Can I pitch the same story to multiple clients? How can I back a light travel bag that still has all the equipment I’ll need? Do I need a model or property release for everything I shoot? Can I even get paid for doing this?

Fortunately, travel photographer Andrew Rowat was ready and willing to answer all the above questions and more. The following video is a recording of a live webinar with Andrew and PhotoShelter Chairman Allen Murabayashi. Andrew, who vowed never to become a photographer when he was younger, has since become a go-to travel guy in Asia for publications like Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Vanity Fair, and more. He was named one of PDN’s rop 30 photographers to watch in 2006 and now splits his time between Shanghai and New York.

 

Andrew shared his experience on how to land your first client and negotiate contracts that initially try to take advantage of you, and also discussed the importance of personal projects.

We asked the audience to send in their questions, and boy, did you ask a lot! Below are Andrew’s answers to the first chunk – more to follow in our next blog post.

Is it okay to pitch the same idea to several editors at the same time and hope that one of them picks it up? Or is it better to approach them one at a time with your idea with a deadline – and then if they do not want it move onto the next name in your list?

One at a time – you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where more than one magazine says yes to something at a time. Keep in mind that your deadline (‘I need to hear from you in a week’) may not match their time schedule. Also keep in mind that a astonishingly small number of magazines actually take pitches from the photo side of things; it is almost 100% from the writer side of things depending on the magazine.

What’s in your camera bag and what equipment have you found is best for travel? Also, what’s the most efficient way to edit on the road? Ipad? Small laptop? 

It depends on the job. I have three bags that get modified as needed. If I am shooting digitally I have a Canon setup (Canon 1Ds MKIII and Canon 5D MKIII) with a lot of fast primes, all the tilt-shift lenses, and a 70-200 2.8. About 50% or more of the travel jobs I shoot are still with medium format film cameras. For those I use 2x Mamiya 7 and 2x Mamiya RZ67. My lenses range from 50mm to 350mm (Keep in mind that 90mm is a ‘normal’ lens for 6x7cm film, similar to what a normal 50mm lens would be on a 35mm camera). I also have a large format rig that I use for some travel jobs, or my own work, or architecture and design. It is a Linhof Technikardan 4×5” and it is absolutely wonderful to work with. I have lenses from 72mm to 450mm.

If I am shooting film absolutely no editing happens on the road – which can be a nice thing as you are normally pretty knackered at the end of the day anyways. If I am shooting digitally and there is a tight turnaround time, I do all of my editing in Microsoft Expression Media. This program used to be called iView, and was subsequently purchased by Microsoft, who in turn sold it on to Phase. So in its current incarnation it is called Media Pro. I don’t have experience with the latest incarnation so can’t comment on what it does/doesn’t do.

I try to adhere more or less to Peter Krogh’s editing/asset management principles that he lays out in the excellent book The Dam BookI do all of my editing on the road on a laptop – I am not familiar with what is available for things like an iPad, but I imagine I would quickly become frustrated if that is all I had. Good to show clients on location images, but probably not the most efficient way to email/ftp/edit images. For the record I normally use Lenovo laptops.

I think when you choose to upgrade you just want to get something that has a decent screen, a decent processor if you are doing any export on the road, and a minimum 8GB or RAM. Other than that it is a price point question.

Photo by Andrew Rowat

Can you please touch on language barriers and getting access to photographing things tourists can’t?

If I am in a place where there is a potential language barrier, I normally have a local fixer or assistant to help with that. That being said you would be amazed at what you can accomplish with wild gesticulations, smiling, and trying to write things down. If there is specific access required that is normally (though not always) arranged ahead of time – i.e. you find out who is in charge of that place (say a museum) and deal with the PR or Marketing people. Sometimes you just have to wing it and explain on the fly and then hope for the best.

As a photographer enthusiast, what would you recommend for someone who is interested in getting into travel photography? Should they take specific courses, attend specific events, etc.?

‘Travel’ photography isn’t really any different than other types of photography, other than that you are trying to transport someone from their cubicle, cage, or otherwise to a place they all of sudden now want to visit. I would say take as many photography courses as you can – because it is all transferable to travel. At the end of the day, a huge component of evocative travel photography is the light. There is a reason we grumble out of bed at 4am and stagger into the early morning light – it’s beautiful.

What makes “the image” – the one that shows up in a magazine? What specifically are photo editors looking for in the shots?

When a Photo Editor makes their edit (from the one you gave them) they are trying to balance a few different things. The images that you took need to mesh with the story that was written. So if there are specific places (hotels/restaurants/markets/people) that the writer mentions in the copy, then there is a good chance that some of those shots will make it into the piece. There is nothing more frustrating when reading a story than to have this incredible description of a place and then not have a picture to accompany it. So that is one component.

Another component is that the pictures need to work well together in the flow of the story, and this is also true when you put together a portfolio -there needs to be a narrative to how the images are strung together. And there needs to be layers in the images, and by layers I might literally mean foreground/background, but also that the you don’t have scenic scenic scenic scenic all stacked next to each other. A close-up. An interior. A portrait. A food dish. A vista. Your eye gets less tired and engages more on the images when they aren’t all the same. Keep an eye out for that the next time you are looking at a travel magazine. A good layout will mix-up the different types of photos that are facing each other or next to each other.

Photo by Andrew Rowat

What is the pay range and how is it figured – number of days, by the job, pictures used, etc.?

The pay scale is all over the map, but basically falls into two different categories: Day Rate + Expenses, or All-In Budgets. For the former, the Day Rates range from $350/day on the low end to about $600/day on the high end. Assistant rates fall in the $150/day to $250/day range (as dictated by the magazine). All of your expenses (flights, hotels, food, film, etc) are on top of this. Some magazines have budgets for equipment, and others don’t, but that can be a line item as well. For All-In Budgets, they are exactly how they sound – all of your expenses come out of one bucket – that is your creative fee (day rate), assistant, flights, hotel, etc.

How much prep time and are you expected to make travel arrangements or help determine story points or locations? Do you ever get or need an assistant? 

Prep time varies quite a bit – but normally you will have a heads-up of several weeks to a couple months. Sometimes the magazines handle the travel arrangements (flights/hotels) and sometimes I handle them myself. Especially when I was living in China the latter was the easier (and cheaper) option.

I certainly am able to bring an assistant with me on most jobs; though not all. Or sometimes you need to find someone locally to use

Please address the issues surrounding releases, i.e. if I am engaged in street photography, what uses are prohibited if I don’t get releases from people who appear in the images?

If you are in the US (and every country has their own privacy laws) and you photograph someone in the street, you can use that image in an editorial way – i.e. for a magazine. Or you can use it for your own personal art work. Basically the fine line is when you start to use that image in an advertising or promotional way, where you are trading their likeness for compensation. At that point you need a release. I should note that I have (knock on wood) never had any issues with releases for the travel work that I do and hardly ever carry them.

Photo by Andrew Rowat

What do you think is the average capital investment one should take into account? How long, in average, should one wait in order to start making some money out of this business?

That is going to depend on what you want to do exactly. I think it is something that you build up over time. When I first started working for magazines I had one Mamiya RB67 with a 50mm lens and a 90mm lens. I also had a Mamiya 7 with a 80mm and a 150mm lens. That was it. That whole kit you can probably get from keh.com for less than $2000 used right now. I now have much more gear than that now, but the point is that you start with what you can afford.

I don’t think that there is an ‘average’ amount of time. If you are wanting to do exclusively travel editorial it can be a pretty bruising experience. I think that PDN maintains a list of what different photographers make in different fields, but travel editorial is certainly not at the top of the list. Count on a few years in any case if it is your sole source of income.

What is the best thing we can actively be doing to promote and market ourselves to get in front of editors or other buyers?

Have an amazing website and internet presence where editors and prospective clients can see big beautiful images of yours immediately. That is a baseline. Then target who you want to see your work. I don’t think that ‘broad spectrum’ marketing works super well. Just find out who you want to work for and then try to send them emails/actual mail and then finally a phone call once the email/mail has gone through

What personal qualities or characteristics do you think one should have to be a successful travel photographer in the current market?

Your images have to be fantastic to begin with. That is the starting point. To crib from Chase Jarvis: “Your work needs to be undeniably good.” Beyond that, you need to deliver – every single time. An editor is entrusting you to shoot a story on their behalf. And they need to know that you are going to nail it every time you go out there.

On a personal level in the field I think it is super helpful to be adaptable because situations change a lot; but sometimes to be inflexible to really get the shot you need; and to be gregarious to a degree because you are interacting with people a huge amount of the time

Photo by Andrew Rowat

What are your most challenging/hardest days like?

The weather is terrible. The jetlag has you pinned under a ton of bricks. None of the places you were meant to shoot that day are available any more; and you are basically getting no good pictures. Those are grumpy days for sure.

Can you please talk a little about stock photography?

I generate about 30% of my revenue through what I will loosely describe as ‘stock’ sales. This falls into a few different categories:

  • An editor sending out an email to all the photographers in her rolodex saying “We are doing a story on Barcelona and wonder if you have photos of X, Y, and Z.” So I then zip a note off to that editor with an edit and if they like any of the images they license them. That is a stock sale.
  • The big players – like Getty and Corbis – who will market and license your images on your behalf and take a princely cut while they are at it. But this gives you access to markets that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. So in many ways that is found money.
  • Photoshelter also allows you to license your own images through its interface and that can be a real way to make additional income.
  • Lastly some of the big magazines (like any of the Conde Nast titles) are syndicated all over the world, so you can receive additional revenue if something that you shot for Conde Nast Traveler ends up running in Vogue Mexico or Glamour UK.

How big should your portfolio be? And what should it show?

The best advice that I ever had when putting together my portfolio was the following: put in your portfolio what you want to shoot. Otherwise why are you getting into the business?

I would say a print portfolio should be in the 40-60 range of images and tell a story. There should be flow and narrative to it. But keep in mind there are no hard and fast rules to the number of images you should have.

I have found that potential clients always prefer to fly in outsiders they may know rather than tapping the photographic talent which knows this region better. How do we solve this problem?

I have been on both sides of this equation when I lived in Shanghai. I would get a tremendous amount of jobs because I lived there; but editors would still often fly people in. I was also (and continue) to be flown to places where there are obviously terrific local photographers as well. So I wouldn’t characterize this as a problem – I can definitely see the benefit to both approaches from an editor’s perspective and think that they can both succeed (or fail).

Local knowledge is absolutely vital to the success of any shoot – and that is why if I am being flown in for a job I will normally have a local fixer or assistant, so that I can piggyback on their knowledge. One of the benefits of flying into a place for a specific job is that you are focused only on that one thing while you are there. You are pulling 12 or 14 hour days just in the pursuit of those images. Sometimes when you are based in a place there can be distractions (ie your life) that take away from the amount of time you are able to devote to something. And sometimes a fresh set of eyes can do wonders for a story. It is amazing how quickly we can become acclimatized to what is ‘normal’ in a place when in fact it is absolutely jaw-dropping. Sometimes it takes an outsider to capture that grandeur and excitement. That being said, being based in a place means you are less at the whim of weather and can reschedule if need be; and probably know a ton of places that the outside photographer doesn’t know. It is definitely a double-edge sword.

Photo by Andrew Rowat

For those who don’t make it in places like National Geographic & Lonely Planet, is there any scope of making a career as a travel photographer? If yes, what type of customers should a travel photographer target? 

Well ‘Travel Photography’ has a problem, and that problem is that there is huge supply (people who want to shoot travel photography) and limited demand (quality outlets for the work), which definitely results in a downward price pressure in terms of day rates/etc. You find this same equation with actors – which is why you have the old cliché of actors working as wait staff. It can be a tough road to choose.

Most photographers who I know that would identify themselves (myself included) as travel photographers also have income from stock and commercial work. I don’t think you can really put all your eggs in one basket and really need to make sure that you are diversified in terms of revenue and your client base. One of the good things about travel photography is that it also encompasses a lot of other niches – lifestyle, portraits, food, interiors and architecture, landscapes, and so on. This means that you are then able to work for a lot of magazines that fall into those categories as well.

Don’t see your question answered here? Stay tuned for our next blog post where Andrew answers the rest of the questions asked during the live event!

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There are 8 comments for this article
  1. Matt Gragg at 9:53 pm

    I feel another Photoshelter e-book “Guide to Travel Photography” coming on.
    Is there a way you could lay it out in a two-column format throughout?
    It makes it a lot easier to read on a mobile device like my iPhone.

  2. Pingback: Article: Answering The Unknowns of How to Break Into Travel Photography « I Am Locutus of Borg
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  5. Rob at 5:09 pm

    Great article that made so many points clear. Re: payment, is there anything on top of day rate for licensing?
    Also, I’d love to see an online portfolio review somehow for some lucky shooter or two, with an editor in the review so we could see the pictures and hear their response. Start to learn how an editor sees.
    Thanks for a very useful blog!

  6. droops at 5:54 pm

    This was a great interview, however I feel like it focussed more on the ins and outs of general editorial photography and how it works. Not so much, travel specific. The camera stuff is neat to know but almost irrelevant to breaking into travel photography. The best take away was a sad reality of if you live in a big city, its a saturated market. I think getting more specific about personal projects is what I was more interested in hearing, ideas for small projects for someone who doesnt have credentials. Very insightful regardless and beautiful work. Thank you.

  7. Hans at 3:41 pm

    Awesome article – As I’m a travel photographer myself it’s interesting to read what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Cheers from Munich!

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