I often get questions from people who want to be where I am at in my career in travel photography. How do you get started? How do you get paid to travel?
There’s a big part of me that thinks I am completely unqualified to dish out advice on this topic. The reason why I am taking it on is because it’s a question I get very often. I’m sure this is because social media makes it seem like I’ve arrived. I don’t feel that way. I am proud of where I am, but I hope that this is the beginning of a very long journey. This is just what I know so far.
I can admit that what I do as a photographer and writer/blogger is fun and interesting, but it isn’t easy or secure. People say they want my job, and my immediate reaction most of the time is, “are you sure?!”
This is a commitment to chaos. It’s a full-time, moving, shaking, uncertain, demanding, daunting, messy life. It’s one that I chose with my full heart, so I completely understand why others might want to choose it too… but that doesn’t mean it is simple.
Though I was always interested in adventure photography, doing it as a career felt very elusive to me, and now I see why. It’s because it is an adventure you build yourself, not a trail you follow. What I hear constantly and consistently from my friends and mentors in this industry, is that there isn’t really a right way to go about things. You just have to start where you are and jump in the deep end without floaties.
My start came when I got fired from my 9-5 abruptly after working in the adventure tourism industry throughout college and for a few years afterward. I decided to put my energy behind this blog, which was previously just a hobby. I posted consistently here and on social media, regardless of whether or not people were reading. For the first couple months, I cut my expenses and lived off savings. After that, I found projects I wanted to get behind and showed why I was qualified to help with them. I compiled my best work so I could be ready to show people if I ever had their attention long enough. I interned, I assisted people I admired (I still do this), I tried to make myself valuable while I was learning. And when necessary, which was often, I house-sat, dog-sat, baby-sat. I worked at a restaurant. I picked up odd-jobs along the way.
This career doesn’t happen overnight. Those success stories do exist, but they’re rare. It takes time, consistency and investment, and you will not see the reward right away. So first, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. If it’s for fame and recognition, it’s going to get old real fast. You’ll need a strong drive to get you through the moments of standing knee deep in frozen mud at 4am or when you’re sick in an airport far from home. The glamorous adventure of it all wears off eventually, so photography has to mean something more to you. If it does, keep reading.
YOU HAVE TO START
When you don’t know how to start, ask yourself what your best guess is, and do that. You always learn more doing something than you do sitting around waiting for the answer to appear. Most of the time, you have to invent the answer yourself. So if being a photographer is what you want, start taking photos with the tools you have.
Good news: it’s not really about the gear or whatever formal photography education you may or may not have. Don’t let the idea that you need a traditional background get in your way. Many photographers have never even taken a photography class. Will it help? Absolutely. Should you take a class if you can? Sure! But taking classes will not turn you into a great photographer overnight, and neither will the most expensive gear. Only practice and experience over time will do that.
Learn your camera. Use it in as many situations as possible. Use it on every mode. If and when you get stuck, YouTube is an amazing free resource that makes it incredibly easy to find the answers to many technical questions. Getting started can feel messy, but there will never be a perfect way to do it, so do your best with what you have
FIND YOUR UNIQUE VOICE
Figure out what makes you stand out. Do this by experimenting often. Try anything that seems mildly interesting.
Seek the places and people that inspire you, and ask yourself why that is. Tune in to your unique creative voice and follow it where it leads you. Whatever you experiment with doesn’t have to be your thing forever–– you can shoot portraits today and something else tomorrow. You can play with whatever editing techniques feel interesting. The point is to create and refine, eventually getting to a point where your work looks like yours. This is a long and frustrating process, so remember to let it be fun.
Own what you create. Your work doesn’t have to appeal to everyone, and if it does, chances are you are diluting some part of your creative voice. The point of art isn’t to be a crowd pleaser. Say no to the wrong things so you can operate at 100% for the right things.
Always run your own race, never anyone else’s. Even if my exact journey were completely replicable, I wouldn’t tell you to go do exactly what I did to get here, because it wouldn’t be the same. Find your lane and work within it.
MAKE YOURSELF KNOWN
Share your work wherever you can, online and off. Buy a domain and reserve the same name on all social media channels. If that isn’t available, figure out something else you like (I only started as @ErinOutdoors because there are thousands of other Erin Sullivan’s out there). Having a website or blog in addition to social media is always a good idea and separates you from just Instagram.
Social media is a big part of being a photographer today. Make a schedule for posting. Create and share consistently. Set short term and long term goals. Refine & move forward. Pay attention to what is working and do more of that thing.
Figure out how to self-promote. Be confident and know where and when to show/talk about your work. So much of this is about confidence. Notice what you say and how you sound. People don’t hire folks who are “trying to be a photographer.” They hire photographers.
UNDERSTAND THAT THIS IS A BUSINESS
Without business, creative ventures fall apart. Everyone wants to be a travel photographer, so this field is extremely competitive. Those who are successful not only take great photos, but they also have business smarts. They create multiple income streams. They understand what investments are necessary, and what the returns will be on each of them.
Set financial goals and break them down with where you would like that money to come from. Then get to work on each specific goal. Everybody’s breakdown is different. If I ever feel lost with regard to what to pursue next, I look at what people are already asking me for. It can be easier to fulfill a product or service when there is already demand for it.
If you want your photography business to be truly sustainable, consider thinking a few years down the road with what you’d like your ideal life to look like, realistically. Though full-time travel and moving from job to job might be super appealing right now, perhaps in ten years that’ll be really exhausting. It is also worth thinking about where you want your income to come from, and how you can maximize control over these streams.
I and many other freelancers have many clients to balance. Getting your foot in the door is a strategic thing sometimes. When I was starting out with brand photography, I worked with smaller brands and start-ups on a trade basis–– they didn’t have a budget and I was looking for experience, so this was mutually beneficial. I helped friends out with their small businesses to build my portfolio. Many folks in the industry are passionately against ever doing work for free. My personal opinion is that it can be a good way to learn and build your portfolio if you are transitioning from hobbyist to professional. Just be aware of how your work is evolving, and when is the right time to stop working in exchange for product so you aren’t taking away paid work from yourself or other photographers.
Do the work you want to get hired for. For me personally, I want a brand or publication to already know who I am when they hire me. I want my body of work to speak for itself. The brands and publications many of us want to shoot for aren’t looking for newbies, and that’s a good thing. People in the industry constantly have an eye out for talent. If they start seeing your name and work over and over again, they might reach out eventually. This isn’t something you should ever count on, but is always something to work toward. It is always OK to wait to reach out to a brand/company until you feel your work is good enough.
If you aren’t shooting directly for brands or publishers, other ways to make money include stock photography, portrait/wedding photography, selling prints, and hosting workshops. Take inventory of your skill set and go from there. Build out your deliverables in a way that provides value to the client, but also maximizes your ability to do the work well.
UNCERTAINTY IS INEVITABLE
You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. This isn’t a job for the faint of heart. It’s really easy to romanticize it when you’re not living it–– but it takes guts and resilience to do this.
If you ask different photographers and writers what their paths were like, I’m sure you will get a wide range of stories and answers, but there are consistent themes around uncertainty, creativity and perseverance. This lifestyle is ripe with unknowns, so if you don’t like those, this career might not be for you. I think that goes for any entrepreneurial venture, but especially this one given all of the dynamic aspects that come with frequent travel.
BE A GOOD PERSON
This is an industry that requires interacting with other people and working on a team. Things go wrong all the time, so you have to be flexible. Being a good person is something you should do for obvious reasons… but it also impacts your business. This industry is small, and people talk. If you are a royal pain in the ass, most of your peers will hear about it. If you gossip about someone in the industry, they will find out about it. Alternatively, if you are fun to be around, helpful, and genuinely interested and supportive of other people’s work, working in this industry is not only enjoyable but it becomes a team effort. This job is way more fun when you have friends that you truly love working alongside–– and when you can genuinely celebrate each other’s successes instead of being bitter or jealous of who got the job.
There are jobs I have gotten and bids I have won because I am extremely flexible and understanding with my clients. I have been assigned to trips because it’s known that I am well-experienced with travel and able to handle dynamic situations. If you are generally a positive person with a good outlook on life, any project will be much more enjoyable than if you are cynical or negative.
GO ON ADVENTURES
Perhaps this is obvious, but if you want to document travel, then you have to travel. If you want to shoot in the outdoors, you have to go outdoors.
There is nothing wrong with you if people aren’t throwing free luxury trips at you from day one. Maybe that is something you will work toward. For now, maybe it looks like planning weekend trips with friends, or getting up in the middle of the night to experiment with astrophotography or long exposures in your city.
There is no right or wrong way to do it, so find inspiration and go.
Remember that you are not a failure if it doesn’t work right away. I made plenty of mistakes and I am 100% sure I still will.
My personal journey started with working as a wilderness guide and adventure trip leader. I always used photography as a way to capture and share memories from my trips. It wasn’t until the last few years when I started pursuing it professionally–– and it has been full of trade-offs and sacrifices in the name of my craft. There is no way in hell that this is an easy path, and I doubt it ever will be. But I know I am here on this planet to compulsively tell stories. So I do.
Life is the biggest scavenger hunt you will ever go on. You will get clues and you will follow them. They’ll come in the form of teachers, opportunities, rejections, successes, failures, challenges, and anything else you decide to learn from. You will take what you can from each thing and add it to what you already know. You’ll re-work your knowledge, you’ll practice it and then you’ll change it again.
When answering the question of how to become an adventure photographer, I am reminded that I am still figuring out the answer to it myself. But this is what I choose. Actively. Every day.
And in fact, it is the choosing in itself that might be the most important thing we do.
Ending with some words from photographer and filmmaker Andy Best:
Grateful to be back in the Pacific Northwest and thankful my work allows me to travel the globe. Many ask, how? I try to answer as many as I can, I promise you that. Some assume that I must have an inheritance or that I have a golden key. See I feel that @Instagram over the years has created this illusion that one can become a filmmaker or photographer overnight without any effort. Or by following in the steps of others may unlock some sort of fortune or even fame. To those I say good luck, because behind the scenes of this craft is a very uncomfortable world of work, a serious grind, and a lifetime of dedication. And I do mean lifetime. Do not be fooled into thinking that the windows shared on this platform come easy. To that I also say, what do you desire personally on your journey? Are YOU satisfied? Can you rest well knowing the story you’re writing? If you really desire to replicate my journey, prepare yourself for failure, prepare yourself to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and prepare yourself to give up everything as nothing comes without very serious sacrifices. Only then will you find YOUR golden key. Meanwhile, I’m stoked to be headed home from many nights away from my little family. #wearestillwild #lovethegrind
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