Becoming a freelance travel photographer is definitely the dream that all who travel with a camera secretly have in their drawer.
I do not know one traveler who does not have a passion for photography, and many of them are extremely talented indeed. But the path between having a passion and actually turning that into a profession and starting to work as a travel photographer is not an easy one. Especially today, when in order to “become” a photographer one just needs to click on Amazon and buy a reflex camera.
In this article I will share with you the tips and tricks I have used to successfully become a freelance travel photographer. You will find everything you need to know to try and turn your photography passion into a profession, or at the very least, a way to make an extra profit at the end of each month or travel for free.
But first things first…
What exactly is a freelance travel photographer?
A freelance travel photographer is a professional who is paid to take pictures and videos of travel-related topics. Freelance travel photographers can be hired by magazines or hotels, or travel and resell the photos they take on their own initiative.
Sounds like a dream, right? Being able to travel, explore incredible locations, take amazing pictures, and get paid for it. Yeah, it sure does. Sign me up, right?
The reality is that becoming a freelance travel photographer is not as simple as the internet makes it look. Turning a passion for photography into a profession and becoming a digital nomad is hard work. Freelance travel photographers must be self-motivated to travel and completely dedicated to their craft.
Currently, many successful freelance travel photographers are also influencers, such as Instagrammers or YouTubers. The influencer lifestyle appears glamorous from the outside, but the truth is that constantly creating and curating unique content takes energy, time, and a lot of effort.
On the other hand, independent freelance travel photographers sell their services to clients, and slowly build their resumes (and businesses) over time.
Before we start, don’t forget the most important, if not obvious thing: a travel photographer takes amazing pictures, so you have to be up for constantly improving your camera skills and artistic vision.
For the purpose of this article, I will assume that if you wish to turn your passion for photography into a job, you have already studied photography techniques and theory, and have familiarized yourself with a lot of the great work out there.
So, now that your photography is on point, how to proceed?
1. Upgrade your equipment
It’s true, a good camera doesn’t automatically make a good photographer, but once you have learned the basics with an entry-level you need to upgrade to keep up with the growth.
It’s important to note that upgrading your equipment doesn’t just mean your camera! Depending on the kind of travel photography you want to do, you will most likely need a tripod, flashes, gimbal, and so on. Maybe even a drone.
So, be prepared for some start-up and overhead costs. It may seem like a lot, but think of it as a necessary business expense that will pay off in the long run.
2. Create a website and/or social media profile
I would say do both, but maybe you can start with just one of the two and then evolve. Remember: you will these platforms to display your work and contact information for potential clients to find you!
While you’re at it, why not create a travel blog? If you’re already in the business of travel photography, you might as well become a freelance writer and really take your content to the next level!
3. Build an amazing portfolio
This is the most important piece of advice. You need to make a lot of projects and be full of creative ideas and realize them even if they don’t bring money in.
Every opportunity for exposure is a step up on the ladder to becoming a successful freelance travel photographer!
4. Choose a niche
You can’t be good at everything. The more you specialize, the better. Find something you are really good at and enjoy, and start doing as many projects as possible in that specific field.
5. Keep studying (and get qualifications)
Build your resume from the ground up and get qualifications. They may not be as useful as in other fields, but they sure prove you can shoot, and give you opportunities to network and participate in interesting projects.
6. Sort out the legal part
What kind of business should you start in order to make your freelance photography career sustainable? This varies greatly from different situations and countries. Do your research and establish a solid legal foundation for your business.
7. Optimize your work
You may need to take on more projects and clients than what feels manageable in the beginning. Learn how to use your time effectively and optimize your work through books and other tools!
8. Start earning money
This is the hardest part, right? It’s easy to find free projects to shoot, but getting paid for your photographs or getting paid to travel while you photograph is an entirely different story.
So, how exactly do you monetize your travel photography passion?
How does a travel photographer really earn?
Until about a decade ago, travel photographers were almost always professionals employed by magazines. These photographers were sent around the world to produce reportages on certain locations, and told incredible visual stories through their work.
We are now in the digital age, an era where magazines and companies no longer have the same goals or budget as they did in the past. While there are still travel photographers who work for magazines, it’s an extremely niche job that takes a lifetime of experience in the field.
When I began my photography career, I wrote and spoke with various magazines, and was even published in one of the largest Italian magazines dedicated to the world of photography. However, while many people were interested in publishing my photos, no one had the budget to actually pay me for the job. Everyone told us that they could give us visibility but no one was willing to pay… to anticipate travel expenses or the like.
Here’s the hard truth: most of the photos you see in big magazines have been published for free. Who would say no to the opportunity of putting in their portfolio that they had been published on National Geographic’s blog, for example? So many photographers are willing to get published for free, and as a result, are taken advantage of.
But then, the question remains: how exactly do you make money as a travel photographer?
Thanks to today’s digital world, freelance travel photographers have a variety of ways they can make money from their photographs.
The roads are varied, but mainly there are 4 direct ways of how to become a successful and paid freelance travel photographer.
Travel for free thanks to photography
Sell photos in stocking or private markets
Organize photo trips
Get paid by companies
How to become a freelance travel photographer
1. Travel for free thanks to photography
Traveling for free thanks to photography is certainly one of the easiest ways to enter the world of freelance photography, make the right contacts, take good pictures and above all… save a lot of money.
Let’s say you are at the beginning of your photography career and want to become a travel photographer with no previous experience.
You definitely need to travel and get yourself a photograph portfolio, but to do it you need money. That is, unless you use photography to travel for free!
Yes — there are associations, companies, organizations and various activities around the world that always need some nice photos to promote their business.
If you are a photographer who does not yet have a lot of experience, you can contact some different associations, hotels, and even hostels and ask if they’ll host you in exchange for your photographs! You’ll receive food and lodging, and they’ll receive digital content they can use for marketing purposes or other advertising and promotional needs.
Think about the winning strategy behind this mechanism — collaboration!
You get to make a trip and enjoy some interesting experiences for free, all while taking pictures that you can use in your portfolio, and thus promote your photography and find future jobs more easily. You really have nothing to lose!
Your host will also save a lot of money; hiring a professional photographer for several days can cost up to thousands of dollars, so really, it’s a win-win situation.
The best way to find these kinds of opportunities is through work-exchange websites like WorldPackers. With Worldpackers, you can even filter your host search to only show opportunities that require the specific skills you’re interested in providing!
2. Sell photos in stocking or private markets
Stocking sites are those platforms that sell photographs. For each sale made, a commission is given to the photographer. Whoever gets more photos sold earns more money; easy, right?
There are several sites that allow you to sell photographs and receive a nice little extra income at the end of the month. It goes without saying that it is not easy to earn a full salary this way, but still it’s not a bad means to start making some money thanks to travel photography.
Obviously, not all that glitters is gold. Many of these websites are highly competitive and the quality of their photos is top-notch. The commissions on photos sold may not be the best, but it is still a good way to earn something more. Photos of people traveling in famous locations are very popular on these sites.
Keep in mind that you have to sell a lot of photos in order to get a decent profit.
To give you an example, I took the cover photo of this article in Mongolia. I sold it 25 times, but my total revenue was only around $14 USD. If I sell 100 photos, I am able to make a solid amount, but with a few photos alone you can’t get a good economic result.
Here is an exhaustive list of the main stocking sites:
GL Stock Images
If you want to learn more, I recommend the book Microstock Photography: How to Make Money from Your Digital Images.
3. Organize photo trips
Becoming a photo-tour organizer is a totally different, unique, and fun way to be a freelance travel photographer!
Once you have built a bit of a name in the world of travel photography and you’ve created a portfolio, you can focus on organizing photography trips.
As a photo-tour organizer, your role is to bring other people on photographic holidays around the world, and take pictures! Depending on who the lead photographers are, these kind of trips can cost between three and six thousand euros each, so it is a good market.
The hard part of organizing photo tours is making it legally sustainable, especially since the requirements change from country to country, but it can be a great way to earn money with travel photography!
4. Get paid by companies
As we have seen before, being able to work for magazines that deal with travel is almost impossible, especially given that less and less magazines are actually willing to pay their own photojournalists.
But you can still try to be paid by companies! Be it a hotel, a tour operator, a travel agency, an AirBnb owner, or whatever, the world is full of small travel businesses that need a photographer.
If you want to try this route, it is essential to have a super portfolio, at least a few years of experience behind you, and some published work that shows what your photography is made of.
For example, my partner and I completed a trip to Everest Base Camp. After the trip, we secured a job working as photographers/reporters on a two-year project that included an expedition to Mont Blanc.
Without the photographs we took on our Everest Base Camp trip, we never would have gotten the job for the Mont Blanc expedition.
Turning your photography passion into a profession may be difficult, but with time and a good plan it is absolutely achievable.
The only thing you must never stop doing is traveling. Keep traveling and stay dedicated.