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PHOTOGRAPHY TRAVEL

The Ethics of Travel Photography

When is it OK to take a photo? When is it not OK?

I ask myself these questions on every trip. More specific questions include:

Should you ask? Will asking someone permission ruin the candid nature of the photo? Is it OK to not ask? Is it OK to take photos of someone’s property? Of someone’s children? Is it OK to take pictures of poverty? When is it exploitative? Is it OK for me to be in the photo myself? If I got inspiration from a particular photo, is it OK for me to take a photo of the same spot? Is it OK for me to imitate a concept? Is it OK for me to take a photo of a remote, beautiful or environmentally fragile place and post it on my social media channels with a geotag?

I could keep going, but you get the point. There are endless questions you can ask yourself when it comes to the ethics of travel photography.

There are no hard and fast rules for ethics when it comes to taking pictures when you travel, but just because you bought a plane ticket doesn’t mean you bought the rights to photograph every person and thing you see on your trip. There is so much to consider when taking photos while traveling, no matter what your subject is.

CONTEXT

As a traveler, you need to consider the context of your presence. Many lives have been and will be disrupted by tourism. Wherever you are, do the people actually want you to be there? Are you a welcomed visitor? This question is applicable for any situation you find yourself in with a camera. Be aware of the climate you are walking into (literally and figuratively), and understand that you are in someone else’s space, and that it is not a space you are inherently entitled to be in. Do not make yourself an intruder by acting entitled to anything, photos included.

Showing respect comes in many forms. Learn some of the language. Learn what kind of behavior is accepted, and do some research on what is found to be disrespectful in each place. Tune in to your intuition when it comes to feeling out a place or situation. Smile. Be considerate and pay attention to your surroundings.

Be careful about your language, before, during and after you travel. Many adventure photographers might describe the places they travel to as “unexplored”, “uncharted territory”, or “undiscovered”–– but these words invalidate the experience and history of indigenous groups who may have been living in the place for a very long time. I have certainly been guilty of using these words, and I am sure I’ll be checking myself on stuff like this forever. We need to remember that we are just guests passing through someone else’s home, and that should be greatly respected.

Something I think about often is the phrase “take a photo.” In many places Westerners travel, white Europeans have a violent and brutal history of taking things already: land, resources, and people. Knowing that you will be taking something away from your travels in the form of your experiences and images, ask yourself what you plan to give back. I am not necessarily talking about money or physical gifts, nor am I referring to temporary help in the form of voluntourism. I’m talking about being a net positive during your travels if at all possible, by thoroughly considering the context of every place you travel to and acting from the foundation of that knowledge.

PERMISSION

Should you ask permission to take someone’s photo? My answer to this question is yes, in a perfect world, you should. But do I always follow that rule? No, honestly I don’t.

Here’s an example: If I am shooting on a telephoto lens at a market and see a lady selling fruit and want to document that scene, I’d argue it is the right thing to do for me to walk over to her, ask if I can take her photo, then go back to my spot and get the photo once I have her permission. However, this might change her pose, or she might get confused at why I am going so far away, or the right moment may have passed by the time I go ask her and get back to the spot. So in these scenarios, I usually take the photo and ask for forgiveness afterward. In full honesty, sometimes I don’t ask for forgiveness. If they don’t notice me at all, sometimes I leave it at that. Some photographers would never do this. Some do this all the time. There are no clear rules.

She never saw me. Is it wrong that I took this photo? Is it wrong that I am posting it here?

 

If you’re looking to photograph a candid moment, it’s not really possible to find out if someone is OK with it until after the fact. This is a decision and viewpoint every individual photographer has to develop for themselves. My personal opinion is that if I am generally welcome in the space (with my camera), not being obtrusive, and not exploiting someone or their property, I usually feel comfortable taking the photo.

If you do get someone’s attention, you can usually tell if they do or do not want their photo taken.

“It is always important to respect others boundaries. The other person always does something that tells me it is okay for me to take their photo. A smile goes a long way in street photography. If you show openness and just overall friendliness, it makes the other person somewhat comfortable if that makes sense. If they show any sign of aggression or “no photo!” I simply walk away respectfully.” –Travel & street photographer Paola Franqui, aka monaris

When I am interacting with someone, that interaction is more important to me than the photo I might get. Be more interested in the person than you are in the photo you might take of them. The photo is just a bonus.

I might say hello or sit down with someone if it doesn’t feel awkward. I might buy something from them if they are selling crafts. If they continue talking with me, I might point at my camera and ask if is is OK to take their photo. If they say yes, I will show them the photos after, and we might continue talking. I’ll stick around for a while if we are having a good time. And sometimes, the camera can be a conversation starter once you are acquainted–– sometimes people want to show their friends and have you take more photos of them. It all just depends on the situation.

My camera is in my bag. These kids were curious about me, so I went up to them taking cues from their moms to see if it was OK. The kids cautiously approached, and I got down on their level and showed my hands up to them, both to show that I intended no harm and to invent a game with them. My friend Corey took this photo, but not because I requested him to. I didn’t actually end up taking any photos of these kids or their moms, I just enjoyed the interaction and didn’t take my camera out.

 

People are not museum exhibits, so don’t treat them like they are. It’s so important to be open. Talk to people. Learn some of their language. Learn their name. Learn how to say it correctly. Sit with them if they welcome you to. Be willing to laugh at yourself. And consider doing all of this before reaching for your camera.

When it comes to photographing children, I personally very rarely will ever photograph a child without the explicit permission of their parent or guardian. Sometimes that permission is a nod or a smile. Consider what you’d do in your home country and go from there.

Sometimes when we travel, our excitement clouds our judgment and we do things we would never find appropriate at home. Take a moment and filter yourself. You want your photography to be an act of respect, not an act of exploitation. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you look at a photo you took and it makes you feel uncomfortable, well, it probably feels that way for a reason.

For me personally, taking photos of people on my travels felt awkward at first. I learned what is and is not OK because I learned to form a relationship with the people I am photographing. When you form a relationship with someone, even if it is a brief interaction, you learn a bit of their story and you can tell relatively quickly if it is appropriate or not for you to document it.

INTENT

Why are you taking the photo? What is the story you want to tell? It helps to get clear on this.

As you know, travel photography does not exist for the photographer to brag about all the cool places they have gone, so if your reason has something to do with showing off your travels, I urge you to re-consider your intention. Most locals don’t care about being a part of your “authentic” travel experience. 😉 So if you are photographing another human being, ask yourself why. What are you hoping to convey with the images you are taking?

The reason I bring up this subject is that images are powerful, and storytelling is a skill. My hope is that photography does not contribute to the exploitation of (often poor) people around the world, but the fact is, I would not be writing this saga of a post if it did not carry that possibility.

Speaking for myself personally, I hope to communicate the beauty of a person, but not oversimplify their situation. I hope to show the complexity of their culture, not exotify it. I hope to make my viewers think deeper, not gloss over images of the planet they live on. I hope to show what is real and true, and never sugarcoat things for my own benefit or the comfort of my audience. And I always hope to preserve dignity.

What you intend to communicate is up to you as the artist. Make it a deliberate choice, then do everything you can to bring that intention to life.

COMPENSATION

Should you pay someone to take their photo? When would this kind of thing be appropriate? This can be a complex issue, and may or may not be appropriate depending on context and where in the world you are.

If you took a photo of the guy selling onions at a market, then buy a couple onions. Yeah, I know you probably have no use for onions, but it’s the right thing to do, in my opinion. If you took a photo of a woman selling bracelets she made, buy something. It is a pretty simple thing and creates a relationship with them besides just you taking their photo and leaving like many other tourists might.

In some areas of the world, posing for photos can be a way for people to make money. Recently I spent some time on Inle Lake in Myanmar, where many fishermen do not actually fish–– instead they pose in traditional outfits for tourist boats. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On one hand, posing for tourists may be preferred work and/or easier physically, depending on the individual. On another hand, an income earned in this way is dependent on foreigners… often of the same race as the people who make decisions that harm the country/location in question. This is a rich and deep issue, and I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.

Another question: from a journalistic standpoint, if you pay someone to pose for you, is that photo really true and authentic? If it is set up, is it warping the fundamentals of photography? Is staging OK if done outside of the context of documentary-based work?

I hope that by asking yourself these questions, you can form your own opinion.

RESPECT

So far, a lot of what I talked about here has a lot to do with respecting people and culture, and I think that is obvious. But this can and should be stretched to more specific things–– as travelers, I believe we should be respecting rules, regulations, guidelines, laws, traditions, private property, privacy, and wildlife.

Just logistically speaking, not abiding by rules in certain countries could get you in trouble or even land you in jail. But in terms of basic empathic and considerate behavior, it’s important to think about whether or not it is appropriate to photograph certain things. Religious structures, sensitive ceremonies, and certain celebrations or traditions, for example. You are representing not only yourself, but foreigners as a whole, and your behavior (positive or negative) reflects on other visitors as well.

Within this topic is respecting Leave No Trace principles if you’re outside or camping, and abiding by regulations that prohibit drones in certain areas (US & Canadian National Parks, for example).

For wildlife photography, feeding animals is never OK in my opinion. I believe you should pay attention to an animal’s cues–– they will show you how they feel about your presence. If you are scaring or threatening them, their body language will tell you that.

I shot this photo on foot, following our experienced guide. We were tracking these rhino, and it was clear that mom was protective over her baby. She did not notice us in this moment. I’m sure that if she did, she and the calf would have run away quickly. If we were visibly bothering her, I would not have felt comfortable taking this photo.

 

Sometimes, the respectful thing to do is to put your camera away.

VISITING A TRIBE

Because we are talking about travel photography, I think it is worth talking about tribal visits. Visiting with a tribe is something travelers might seek out to learn about a culture different than theirs and expand their travel experience. If you are visiting with a tribe, make sure you are doing it in a way that the tribal members have approved, and that your visit actually benefits them (read: you are paying them directly). I have heard stories and can certainly imagine that it is easy for tribal members to get ripped off here, so do the necessary research that your money is actually getting to them, and that it is not being pocketed by your tour guide or driver.

Tribal visits are one way for tribes (common in Africa, but also Asia) to make money, especially as the lasting impact of colonialism and climate change has drastically changed their way of life. Some tribal visits can be booked through tour companies, or you might try to get a word-of-mouth recommendation for a guide once you’re on the ground. Unfortunately, not all visits are positive experiences for the tribe, or for the visitor.

Being respectful does not come easily for all travelers. I watched a carload of tourists unload in a Thai hill-tribe village, distribute candy and whistles to the village kids along with flags from their home country, take photos like they were at a zoo, and take off again loudly in their 4×4’s. I asked a local woman I was sitting with what she thought of this. She said, “not so good.” I can’t even imagine what an understatement that must have been for her, and how ironic it was that she was saying it to a western tourist (me).

Even looking at this photo still makes me feel gross. You can see the tourists surrounding the kids, all taking photos of them from above with their phones.

 

In another scenario, I watched tourists pull over at the entrance gate of a luxury resort where tribal members were selling jewelry. They got out of their vehicle, took photos of these people, and got right back in to check in to their chalet… a resort built on ancestral homeland, from which the indigenous group receives little to no money. Can you see why these behaviors are completely inappropriate?

I am willing to bet if you are reading this that you are not looking to treat people like this, but you should know that it happens, because you will see it happening all around you especially if you are aware of it. So please be intentional with your actions, and ask your fellow travelers thoughtful questions about their behavior when they take photos on their trip.

If you want to bring a gift to a tribe, make it something that the people actually want or need, not just candy or a noisemaking toy because that’s what you think they’d want. Do not go if you are sick. People living in remote areas often do not have access to the same healthcare that you do. Ask permission if you are not sure: permission to take photos, permission to pick up a toddler, permission to enter an area of the village. Don’t assume you are entitled to anything. The terms of your visit should be agreed upon, or you should not be there. If you are considerate and the group welcomes you, visiting with a tribe or local indigenous group can be a great experience, and one I would recommend.

Colby Brown bringing our payment into a Himba village we visited. We bought food for the village based on their requests.

SELFIES

It is no secret that social media puts the focus on the individual. People are now personal brands. I would also argue that it has become cool to show photos of yourself doing altruistic things. Did you really volunteer if there’s no picture of you surrounded by 5-10 smiling (non-white) children, who are just so “happy even though they have nothing”? I am not only referring to the do-good stuff, but also just fun and out-of-the-ordinary travel experiences. Did you really eat a fried bug if there isn’t a video of you to prove it? Did you really saunter through the market if your friends and family don’t have visual proof? I am not saying this type of imagery is inherently negative, but I want to encourage us to think more about it.

Be careful what you pose with, and how you pose with it. Be respectful of religious sites, family businesses, statues and the like. The same goes for people. If you want a photo of yourself with local kids, ask yourself why. What is the photo about? If you’re in it, then well, at least partly, the photo is about you. I know you probably don’t view other human beings as accessories, so make sure that isn’t what you are accidentally communicating photographically.

I don’t think there is a hard line that says all of this type of imagery is problematic, I just think it is important to consider it. Having a photo of yourself in a place can be a wonderful reminder of your time there. I have lots of photos like this of myself. But I know looking back which ones were in good integrity, and which ones I took so I could later post them on Facebook. At the time, I might have told myself I was taking those photos with clean and clear intentions, but when I reflect back, I know it was just because I wanted to look cool and worldly. The only person who will really be able to tell is you, and you will know in your gut what feels right and what feels icky.

Vintage Erin. Here’s me and a couple of friends in Myanmar in 2014. We were hiking in the hills with a guide from a family business in Kalaw. These girls asked to do our makeup with thanaka (common for women to wear on their faces in Myanmar), and I didn’t feel weird about this photo being taken afterward. They were giggling and smiling, even though the girl on the left looks rather serious in this photo.

POST-PROCESSING

With powerful editing tools, we are able to easily change many things about a photo, from the color of the sky, to the scale of just about anything. A photographer’s editing decisions can transform an image to something much more impressive than it was as a RAW file. However, extreme editing of images can be misleading in certain scenarios. It is up to the photographer to decide what is acceptable.

When it comes to respectfully displaying culture through your photography, the amount of editing you do matters. Whereas I might get super creative with colors and lights/darks in my landscape images, I would never make any huge changes in a photo of a person where it mattered to their story. I don’t want to tell a story that was not true to how I saw it. Alternatively, I might edit an image heavily if the edit lends itself to the way I felt when I took the image.

One recent example of a choice I personally made in post-processing is in my images from visiting a Himba village in Namibia. I didn’t want to evoke a possible feeling of pity from the viewer, so I chose to Photoshop out a couple of flies and some stray stuff from my subject’s face and hair. Was it the right choice to make these edits? I’m not sure there is one. Here’s the before and after:

 

In another case, I changed the colors in the sky drastically. I liked this change stylistically, and I felt that the edit was consistent with how the scene felt in the moment. I posted this image on social media, and it’s likely that my audience assumed that these were the natural colors of the sunset that night. They weren’t.

 

Editing is a stylistic choice. Personally, I usually do not like to stretch my images too far from the reality of how it felt being there, but “too far” is completely relative. Some photographers are digital artists too, and create mind-blowing fantastical composites of their images. I think these are completely valid (and beautiful) too. What are the limits of photo manipulation? Should an image only be allowed to portray 100% reality?

You may completely disagree with my post-processing choices here, and that’s OK. These decisions are up to the individual to make.

POSTING & PUBLISHING

Most of us want to share our work, but with the ease of sharing online, you don’t always know where your photo will end up, or what the ramifications of that might be. Here’s an example: the featured photo of this article. I had this woman’s permission to take her photo, but did she know it would be used in a blog post and that thousands of people would see it? I can’t be sure. And yet, I am making a conscious decision to use her photo because her pose and expression communicates discernment, something I want to convey in this blog post. Some people might not agree with my choice to use this picture of her here, and I would understand that.

In the outdoor community, it is common for people to get upset, and rightfully so, if someone posts a photo of a tent at the edge of a pristine alpine lake, or a photo of a hammock set up across fragile trees. Not only might these activities be harmful to the environment and prohibited, but the act of posting images like this on social media could mean that more people go to these areas and engage in these activities, which then creates a domino effect. Monkey see, monkey do.

I should be aware that if I post something on Instagram, someone else might emulate my behavior.

 

Once you post a photo, it departs the confines of your camera, computer and imagination and gets given to the viewer… and to the internet. You don’t have control over an image anymore after posting it on social media. Ask yourself what that photo will mean when it stands alone, without your words or experience or defense.

Think twice before posting a photo that oversimplifies a complicated issue or displays something out of context. I’m not saying it’s always wrong–– I am just saying it is worthy of your consideration.

If you have taken photos of an endangered species, especially one that faces a poaching threat, be sure to wipe your metadata. Poachers have been known to take advantage of the ignorance of tourists by using their geotags and metadata from their images to locate individual animals. Here is an excellent resource on removing metadata, compiled by photographer Olwen Evans and shared with me by Rob Moffett from Ongava Game Reserve.

It’s entirely possible that someone could unknowingly publish a photo that could identify someone breaking the law or doing something that could be seen as such by their government. Sometimes as the photographer, we get swept up in the moment and in our own excitement of documenting and creating, but something that seems arbitrary to us could heavily impact someone else.

INSPIRATION VS. COPYING

There are so many photographers that inspire me, and I follow most of them on social media. As with any art form, as artists, we’ll always be inspiring each other and drawing our inspiration from the community at least some of the time. Everyone does it, and it’s not like there are that many truly original thoughts, concepts or ideas in the world.

When is it OK to get inspired by someone, and when does that turn into straight up copying them? Where is the line? I think it is usually clear to see when an image is an exact copy, versus cases where someone may have been inspired by another photographer and shot the same location, or a different scene in a similar style.

I am all for inspiration, but much like plagiarism in writing, exact copying is never OK.

Personally speaking, there have been cases where I have noticed people taking my writing word-for-word, or certain phrases that I always use, and putting them in their Instagram bios or on their blogs. Usually these are folks who are aspiring bloggers or photographers themselves… and I do notice. If you copy another photographer, especially one you look up to, it does not reflect well on you.

Getting inspiration from someone else is fine… we all do it! And it is totally expected that we experiment with different styles, especially when starting out. But there is a line between inspiration and stealing.

SELLING & LICENSING

If you end up with the opportunity to sell your images, either as prints or by licensing the rights, congrats! It is exciting that people want to purchase your work.

If the photo in question is a portrait, and you do not have a signed model release, you will have to ask yourself if it’s in your integrity to license or sell a print of that photo, knowing the person in the photo will never see any of the money you made. They might never know you did it, but that doesn’t make it right.

On the other hand, selling a print of a portrait might mean your work is displayed in someone’s home or office. Maybe it’s a conversation starter. Maybe it touches someone and encourages them to see the world or research conservation issues. Maybe this is a stretch… but maybe it’s not.

If you plan to sell your photos from the beginning, I recommend making sure you can legally (and ethically) shoot at your proposed location, and that your models, if applicable, are fully informed and have signed something confirming their understanding.


There are photographers I greatly respect with a wide range of opinions on everything I have discussed above. My opinions are not unique, but there are plenty of folks who oppose them, too. These can be incredibly controversial issues and are questions every individual photographer should ask themselves.

Any photographer can tell you that they have taken photos they should not have taken. Our stances on issues change over time. I am sure I have invaded privacy, and even exploited people for the sake of a photo, and that is both selfish and self-involved. If this happens to you and you feel as though you have overstepped a boundary, learn from it and apply that moving forward.

Photography is powerful. I have always believed that. As the photographer, you have moral and ethical responsibilities. By taking a photo, and by sharing it, you have the responsibility to preserve and communicate your subject’s dignity. Do not take this responsibility lightly. Like so much else in photography, travel photography requires being in tune with your intuition–– paying attention to what feels right and wrong, and using your intellect on top of that to question the implications of the photograph you are taking.

There is a lot to think about here, but it is all in the interest of being the best and most responsible photographers we can be. Hopefully by thinking through these topics, we can create impactful images that catalyze and promote positive change in the world.


This is a hefty topic, and I’m sure I left some things out that should be discussed. Let me know in the comments.

Feature photo of a Himba woman in Namibia in her village outside of Opuwo, taken with permission.

MENTORSHIP PHOTOGRAPHY TRAVEL

How to Become an Adventure Photographer

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.

Editing in a budget hotel room at 1am. Not uncommon.

Editing in a budget hotel room at 1am, charging every item possible. Not uncommon.

 

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. If you’re ready to invest some money into your knowledge base, CreativeLive is an incredible resource.

CreativeLive is an online education platform offering tons of classes–– everything from photo editing to confidence to technical aspects of business. I put together a list of my recommendations here.

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.

GETTING CLIENTS

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.

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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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Feature photo by Renee Hahnel. Third photo by Colby Brown.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Getting Started with Photography

First, I want to tell you about how I got into this whole thing.

In high school, I was a creative kid. I borrowed my dad’s old film camera to take an intro photography class and I was hooked. I loved the feel of the camera in my hands, I loved being able to capture moments the way I saw them, I loved developing the film, I loved the darkroom. I loved the process. I loved that there wasn’t a right or wrong answer.

I got in to a university art & design program with my photography portfolio, but within my first semester at college, I changed my major to something else. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I wouldn’t be able to make a career out of it, that it wasn’t a “real job.” I let doubt get in the way, and as a result, I didn’t end up taking a single photography class in college. Do I wish I did? Um, yeah. Was it necessary for me to take specific photography classes in order to become a photographer? Well… you tell me.

The first thing to know about diving into this industry is that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. There isn’t a gear checklist or a step-by-step guide (though there are definitely some things I wish I knew). I’m willing to bet that getting into photography is one of the biggest questions I receive because it seems like a mysterious process. But those who have done it know it’s much simpler than it seems. You just have to pick up a camera and start.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE CAMERA… BUT GET A CAMERA.

If you want to get into photography, you need a camera. Duh. It doesn’t have to be fancy. My first camera was my dad’s Nikon F1. After that, I had a Canon Rebel XTI. Then came a series of Canon PowerShot and Lumix Active Lifestyle point-and-shoots. I didn’t own a smartphone of any kind until 2014, shortly after buying a GoPro Hero4 Silver. Then came an iPhone and finally my first Sony camera, a Sony a5100, which I used exclusively until earlier this year when I bought my Sony A7Rii, the best camera I’ve ever used.

I have only been getting paid for my photography since the Spring of 2016. It hasn’t been that long. Pretty incredible when you think about how short that timeline is, and that in the past year I’ve completed many gigs with just my a5100.

A good camera for starting out is whatever camera you have available to you. Find something in your budget, read reviews before you buy anything, and borrow someone else’s or rent first if you can. Use what you can within your resources. I don’t recommend splurging on a super expensive camera you don’t know how to use yet. One example is the new Sony A9– this is a fantastic camera, and lots of people asked if I was going to get one when it came out. My answer is no. The A9 has some awesome features, but it’s overkill for me unless I start shooting lots of action or wildlife (its main feature is high frames-per-second). I just don’t need to spend all that money for a feature I will rarely use.

In my opinion it is better to outgrow something and then upgrade when you know exactly what you want (and why). When I went to buy my first camera, I was tempted to go straight for the big guns I had heard about, but I am so glad I went with something less expensive because it allowed me to actually learn my preferences. Spending time practicing on my first camera helped me make my decision when it was time to throw down bigger bucks.

I get asked all the time what a good first camera would be. If you’re looking to get into a mirrorless system, I recommend the Sony a6000 with the kit lens (the lens it comes with). This camera is an excellent introduction to the Sony system and the small size is great for travel.

GO SHOOT (AND THEN SHOOT SOME MORE)

Go out with your camera and practice. If you are wanting to get paid to take photos eventually, your photos need to be good, and that comes from lots of practice! Not only does your work need to be good, you need to know how to operate your gear comfortably. You need to know how you change your settings quickly. You need to know how light works and how to position your models/clients/subject. You need to get comfortable interacting with your subject.

Develop your style. The way to do this is through a lot of trial and error. A lot of creating photos you don’t like. A lot of frustrating nights editing an impossible image and wanting to throw your computer against the wall.

If you want to do outdoor photography, get outdoors. Portraits? Take ’em of your pals. Weddings? Practice at the next one you go to. The only way you get better at this craft is through experience. So work hard, keep going, and practice your craft.

LEARN WHAT THE NUMBERS MEAN

The technical stuff is not the most important thing, but it is important. I am not above Googling super basic stuff. I didn’t even know what dynamic range was until a few months ago. There’s a lot of technical verbiage in the photography world and it’s actually not all that complicated once you understand the main principles. I and everyone else in the industry figured it out as we went, so please go do the same, and never be afraid to ask questions even if you think they’re stupid. Everyone has been there at some point.

A very brief crash course on numbers:

  • ISO: Basically, this is the level of sensitivity of your camera to light. Lower ISO = least sensitive to light = sharpest image. Higher ISO = more sensitive to light = more grain/noise. Typically you want to shoot at a lower ISO because it produces the sharpest image.
  • Aperture: A hole in your lens that light travels through (like the pupil in an eye). The larger the aperture, the more light can get in. Aperture is expressed in f-numbers, and a larger f-number means a smaller aperture. Confusing, but this is where practice matters. A larger aperture (smaller f-number) will give you more depth of field (i.e. the blurry background with the subject in focus), whereas a smaller aperture (larger f-number) will bring more things into focus. This is all about depth.
  • Shutter Speed: A measurement of time a camera’s shutter is open to allow light in (and therefore capture your image). A shorter shutter speed lets less light in, a longer one lets more light (and motion) in.

I guarantee you can find the answers to almost any photography question you have online. YouTube is one of my favorite resources for pretty much anything–– whatever your question is, someone, somewhere has probably explained it in video format. Bless you, Internet.

If you’re ready to invest some money into your knowledge base, CreativeLive is an incredible resource.

CreativeLive is an online education platform offering tons of classes–– everything from photo editing to confidence to technical aspects of business. I put together a list of my recommendations here.

LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES EVERYWHERE


Say yes to the work that comes your way–– even if you’re doing it for the exposure and practice while you are getting things up and running. If you’re serious about this, you will eventually get to a point where you can’t work in exchange for exposure, but you’re not necessarily there yet, so step away from the high horse. There are mixed opinions about working for free, but if you are looking for experience and if it gets your work out there, I think it’s worth considering.

How do you start getting paid? Eventually, you start charging money for your services. You can start charging money today if you want to–– this is up to you. However, obviously there has to be demand. And how do you create demand? You get the word out. You put your work into the world. You do good work and people talk about it to their friends and family. You let absolutely everyone know that you are available for hire. You won’t know what to charge at first, and that’s OK. Try to find out what the going rates are. Ask around. Google it. And when all else fails, you can ask what their budget is before you even throw out a number and take it from there.

Know that when I say opportunity, I don’t just mean job opportunity. I also mean relationships, mentorships, and building your skill set. Identify people you look up to and watch what they do that makes them successful. Identify the people you hope to be surrounded by, and try to get yourself (and your best work) in the same room with them.

…AND PLEASE *TRY* NOT TO OVERTHINK IT

I know you will overthink things at some point, but please try not to think too hard about this. Spend your energy doing things instead of micro-managing yourself and getting stuck in loops of worry and doubt.

It will feel frustrating, and that’s a promise. It will feel like it’s taking forever. You will wonder if you are doing it right. WELCOME… This is the process. It’s not all glam. Photographers can make their lives seem really adventurous and easy on social media, and there is so much more to the story. You stay up late, you wake up early, you take more risks in your career than you ever thought you would. If you’re in it for the right reasons, it’s worth it.

A lot of my advice isn’t photography-specific–– it’s applicable to a lot of different professions, and to life in general. Work hard, consistently, for a long time, and if you don’t have a good Why behind it, find something else to do with your time that really fires you up.

Quality, consistency and passion will take you a long way. Welcome to the journey.


More specific photography questions? Let me know in the comments so I can write more blog posts like this.