Working as a photographer can seem easy from the outside. Doesn’t it seem like everyone is doing it? With so many images out there in the world, it seems like there must be endless work for travel photographers, who can jet all over the place taking shots for their clients. Once you get stuck in, however, you might find that it’s not as easy as you think – and there isn’t as much paid work out there as you would assume.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t work out there at all. Actually, it’s more than possible to make a good living as a freelance travel photographer, so long as you know where to find work. Here’s how to get started and get enough work to pay the bills.
Pitch to magazines and newspapers
This would have been the main source of income for travel photographers once upon a time. But sadly, times has changed. While there are a few full-time paid positions out there, and a few publications that pay well enough for a freelancer to support themselves full-time on commissions, there are far fewer spaces available than there are travel photographers in the world. This makes a lot of competition, and it also means you’re likely to be working for less pay than you might have done previously.
Pitching is not something that everyone finds worthwhile, but it’s definitely worth it for a photographer who is trying to get themselves established. Essentially, you get in contact with someone at the magazine or newspaper – a Picture Editor, for example – and pitch them your idea. Be sure to give as much idea as possible of what you will shoot, and why their readers will want to see it. Hopefully, this will open a dialogue where you can go back and forwards and work something out.
When it comes to this kind of freelance work, you might find that you spend 90% of your time in pitching, often emailing back and forth a good few ideas before you find one that sticks. That leaves only 10% – or less – of your time for actually doing the work. Crucially, what you have to remember is that you only get paid for the work, not for the pitching. Bear this in mind when agreeing rates and when weighing up whether this option is right for you.
Many photographers are probably thinking that it would be great for this to happen to them all the time, if they were only so lucky! Getting a commission sent to you means you don’t have to waste time in pitching, because the client has already decided on what they want and what the details are. It means that you can just get out there and shoot, and then hand in the work for your payment.
Well, great – but how do you get these commissions in the first place? The simple answer, unfortunately, is through hard work. Getting your name known by as many editors and potential clients as possible is the first big step. They also need to know that they can trust you to do great work, so you might need to work through a number of pitches with them before they start to bring commissions right to you.
The good news is that you can start making progress on this right now, even if you don’t have any contacts yet or anything to pitch. Start off by writing a formal but brief email introducing yourself as a freelance travel photographer available for work. You don’t need to add much detail: you can include a few of your previous clients if they are impressive, as well as any awards or accolades you may have. If you don’t have anything notable to add, then just keep it to the point and let them know you’re ready to work. Attach a link to your portfolio, and drop maybe one or two images embedded into the email underneath your signature.
This brief email isn’t so long that it will bore a potential contact, and it isn’t so demanding that they will think poorly of you. It’s a simple introduction, and they will appreciate that. They may reply, or they may not. What’s important is that you get these emails seen, so send out a few every week until you start to see more traction.
If you’re very lucky and your portfolio is very strong, you might end up with an offer of work directly as a result of these emails. If you don’t, that’s fine. When you’re ready to send in a pitch, you will have the advantage of an editor who already recognises your name – even if they can’t fully remember what for!
You can update your contacts with an email about your new portfolio additions perhaps once a year. Too often could be irritating, but you just want to put yourself into their minds again so that they remember you still exist – and you’re still open for work.
Particularly early on in your career, you might take a lot of shots that you have no real use for. These might be images that you take in order to build up your portfolio, to support a pitch that ended up falling through, or so on. What you end up with is a lot of images that you have no use for.
Since they’re just sitting around, why not put them to work? List them on a stock website and see what happens. You could go a number of directions for this. Larger sites like Shutterstock might give quite as good royalties as smaller sites like Picfair, but might sell a higher quantity of images. You could also even consider putting some of your images out there for free on sites like Unsplash and Pixabay. Users can pay you for the images if they wish to, so you might get a few tips – but perhaps more importantly, you will get some credits to your name, as your images are used in a large number of places.
Selling stock is something that can be a full-time business, so if you still want to work as a freelancer, you probably won’t have as much time to pour into your stock profile. For this reason it might not be a huge earner – but everything you can make will help.
If you can write as well as being a photographer, then you’re in a good spot. You can start off by writing a blog for practice, and graduate up to guest posts on other sites where you can share your knowledge in exchange for a link back to your portfolio website. Over time, you could end up writing travel guides and how-to guides for photographers as a freelance writer.
So, how does this help your freelance photography career? It’s simple – the site or publication will need images to showcase alongside your articles, so why not sell them a few? You could even pitch features which have a mixture of writing and photography charged under a single fee. Having an extra skill under your belt makes you more desirable to clients, as you can get everything done in one go – rather than them having to hire two people.
Work directly with clients
When you’re producing work for the advertising, editorial, or commercial fields, you might be able to work directly with clients who need photography. If you play your cards right, you could end up on a retainer to create images on an ongoing basis, which will really allow you to bring in some money.
Finding the clients is the more difficult thing. Pay attention to job sites, and set up alerts for listings that might fall within your remit – often a company that doesn’t know where to look for freelancers will opt for a job posting. Look at the main freelancer sites for photography, whether stock-based or otherwise. It can be tough to make money through these as the sites will often take a cut of your earnings, but if you can meet the clients in person and move them off that payment structure and onto private billing, you’ll be onto something good.
You can also gather these contacts by networking and talking to people you already know. Push for referrals, go to industry events, talk to local businesses, and so on. You might not realize that your potential best-paying client is on your doorstep until you talk to them!
Work with agencies
You can also make contacts with ad agencies, who will commission you to go out and take pictures based on the brief provided to them by their clients. This is a good way to work with a range of diverse clients without having to do much of the work yourself – as you only need to pitch the agent, not the clients.
On the flip side, you can also hire an agent to work for you. This agent will go out and find clients for you, giving you access to jobs that you might not otherwise have been able to find yourself. When you work with an agency, you’ll get the full fee they are offering; when you have an agent working for you, they will take some of your fee as payment for their work. Consider the best ways to set up this deal so that you get good earnings for your own work.
Collaborate with brands
Finally, you can leverage your images to set up collaborations with companies that will get you some great results. Whether you do it by writing a blog that gets lots of followers, growing your social media accounts to big numbers, or creating a YouTube channel that gets a lot of fans, you can make yourself into a platform that brands want to connect with.
Brand partnerships and collaborations could be as diverse as showing how to use new equipment provided by brands, travelling to a certain city with their tourism board, or just wearing new season clothing in one of your videos. You never know who might want to work with you if you have an audience – and all of that will make it even more possible for you to travel the world and take pictures.
There are, no doubt, many other ways to make money that freelance travel photographers can come up with. The answer is often not just one of these solutions, but many – creating various different income sources for yourself so that you can rely on many of them to bring in that monthly wage. If one of them fails, or has a quieter month, you can still have the others to get you by – which is key for making it as a freelancer in the long term.