How to Get Started with—Real—Travel Photography
Ah, travel photography—one description for many genres and styles of photography. Before you read any further I’ll tell you what travel photography is for me. When I was studying photography in college more than ten years ago, a travel photographer was an explorer. Photographers like Steve McCurry and David Alan Harvey traveling around the world and publishing their images in National Geographic. That—for me—is travel photography. So, how do you start with travel photography?
That kind of travel photography still exists but something’s changed. Instagram and social media have changed people’s perception of what a travel photographer is. Today, travel photography is associated with pastel landscapes with pink and purple skies. A travel photographer is not an explorer anymore but someone looking for likes and followers. As a result, travel photography has become a collection of generic looking photos that show what a country looks like in a dream or utopia. Most travel photographers don’t show the real world. Before you start with travel photography, you need to know what you want to do.
If that’s the kind of travel photographer you want to be, no problem! It’s possible but it’s going to be tough because there are thousands of people doing the same. I think it’s time to go back to the real travel photography, though. Exploring and experiencing a country. Photographing the butcher on the corner of the street instead of someone dressed in traditional clothes solely for the purpose of pleasing tourists. Looking for real people and daily life instead of famous landmarks. That’s what going to make your photography interesting and stand out from the crowds.
Are you a photographer?
OK, you’re still reading and want to start with travel photography. You’re serious about this, ey? So, do you know how to use a camera? Do you make photos? If you want to buy a camera because you’re thinking of becoming a travel photographer then stop right there. Buy that camera, but focus on learning photography first.
If you want to stand out and have a chance of being a travel photographer, you need to know your sh*t. Learn about composition, light and the basics of a camera. I’m not saying you need to know every button and setting of your camera—auto mode will do—but you need to know how to make a good photo. You can only learn how to do that by taking a lot of photos and looking at the work of other photographers, not by buying a ‘better’ camera.
How to start with travel photography
If you’re just starting out, it’s going to be tough. Are you a traveler—an explorer? Remember, I was talking about ‘real’ travel photography, not the Instagrammable kind. That means traveling in buses and trains. Walking under the scorching sun and exploring cities and villages with a camera over your shoulder—not taking a taxi from a five star hotel to the museum and back.
To become a travel photographer with an interesting portfolio, you need to love exploring and the traveling itself. The path from A to B. And are you OK with living out of a backpack for months? You must feel the need to travel and explore.
So, you love to explore and photograph? Then you might have a chance! Here’s how to get started with travel photography.
1. You need to travel
Obviously, but here’s the catch: Most of the times, no one is going to pay you for it. Especially when you’re starting out. You’ll have to finance your own trips. You won’t stand a chance starting by just waiting, even if you have a nice portfolio already. If you want to start with travel photography, you need to take action yourself.
Start traveling with the purpose of taking photos. Find subjects and locations that interest you and go there to find stories. You need to invest time and money to build up a presence and an even better portfolio. Don’t think about magazines or publications, travel and create photography for yourself first.
2. Develop a travel photography style
You also need to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. Travel photography is a combination of many genres but it’s always good to focus—without limiting yourself, of course. You need to develop a style of your own. Show your audience how you see the world and you need to do it right when you start with travel photography.
Personal projects, financed by yourself, are the best way to show clients what you’re all about. You have to freedom to do whatever you want and develop your own style. When I started to get serious about travel photography, I traveled to specific places solely for the purpose of creating a photo series. Behind The Redwood Curtain, for example. I wanted to create photography to find my style.
A lot of people start with travel photography by following trends on instagram. Please, don’t. Don't look for pretty colors, pink skies, or famous locations. Look for stories—find intriguing people and interesting locations. Go where the tourists don’t go and try to stand out by not wanting to.
3. Don't limit yourself to photography
Another thing you have to do when you start with travel photography is expanding your skill set. Don’t just limit yourself to travel photography. Start to learn how to write or how to shoot video. There are so many travel photographers these days that it’s difficult to stand out. If you know how to write or shoot video, you’re a step ahead of the competition.
Another good idea is to start a blog or website. People need to know you exist and the internet is where it all happens today. Build a nice website to attract potential clients and an audience. Show your photography and write what it’s about. Don’t just limit yourself with a dry portfolio website with phone number or e-mail address.
It’s also easier to get your work published if you can write a text to accompany the photogrpahs. Especially when your starting with travel photography, it’s something that makes you stand out. Just make sure that your writing is as good as your photographs.
4. Don't expect to make a lot of money
I’m still not making a lot of money. I’m also not expecting to make a lot of money. When you start with travel photography, keep your expectations low. Sure, set goals, but don’t expect a ton of money overnight.
Becoming a travel photographer is all about doing a job you love—not getting rich. If you’re getting started with travel photography, expect to spend and invest more money than you earn the first couple of years. It’s a lot of hard work to rise to the top of thousands of aspiring travel photographers. A bit of luck helps too, by the way!
5. Build up an online presence
Instagram, Facebook, and other social media all made it more difficult to become a travel photographer. They turned photography into a generic mass consumer product but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. They’re still useful to get some exposure and connect with an audience or potential clients.
There are so many photographers starting with travel photography these days that you have to use social media and the internet to your advantage. Be creative and work hard to build an online presence that attracts people who keep coming back. Spread the word and be confident about your work and photography.
Still want to start with travel photography?
If you’re still excited to start a career in travel photography, then you have a chance to make it. It will take a lot of hard work and long hours but as long as you love what you do, that’s all that matters.
When I started with travel photography, I worked very hard to get better at photography and to build a portfolio. Now, years later, I’m working even harder because I know it’s what I want to do and I just love doing it.
Everyone can start with travel photography but I think it’s the ones that don’t give that make it in the end…
By the way, if you want some personal advice or portfolio feedback, join my community on Patreon to get access to behind-the-scenes information and tips. Ask me anything about my work and get a chance to win some cool stuff.