in-the-carriage

It may be borderline pretentious of me to be offering words to “aspiring” travel photographers, since until pretty recently I was only “aspiring” to do this thing myself. The reason for the post is a question, which I have received numerous times over the past couple of weeks, in various forms:

How does one become a travel photographer and go on to make enough money in this profession?

At first the question makes me laugh. Who the hell am I to be giving people advice on anything career-related? I’ve never had much of a plan and I always considered that a lot of my success was a result of pure luck. Regardless of whether I’ve changed from an “aspiring travel photographer” to whatever else, I have realized that I am now doing something that many dream of -  I travel, take photos and mange to “survive” off the income generated by these photos. On second look I think that there may be reason to my “madness” and perhaps my own story can be useful to other young people starting out. Here it goes. :)

To “become a travel photographer” I worked all sorts of shitty jobs, occasionally committed intellectual and creative suicide by shooting what I consider trash, I used every opportunity in sight to get on the road. There’s an interesting concept I heard somewhere on the net (probably Brooks Jensen’s podcast) – you need to dedicate 10,000 hours to something in order to become proficient at it. Sounds like a fair assumption. That’s basically what I did without realizing. I never quite thought of it as a 10,000 hour thing, but I did know that to be decent at shooting particular themes I needed to shoot them for an extended period of time and so I totally immersed myself in doing just that, while I went off on trips that ranged from six weeks to seven months.

After my third India/Nepal trip (the seven month one) I felt that I really had an idea of what I was doing and incidentally that’s when other things started to click. I began to get published in magazines, had an exhibition and made print sales (more though magazines then from the exhibition). As much as everyone today says that print media is on its last legs, I’ll say that it’s pretty important to get your work published. There’s just a certain type of validity that comes with having your work in print. It means that someone at least thought enough of it to spend their money on the required paper and ink.

With the publications, I saw that my work had some value and I asked myself this question: How can I generate a more regular income from my photos? I looked at image/stock agencies. Got a contract with Lonely Planet Images (on my second attempt), but terminated it before long – this isn’t the place to go into the details, Lonely Planet make great guidebooks… and let’s leave it at that. :)

I still wanted to have my photos represented by an agency, those who are seriously working with the big name agencies know how important they can be and so, I went on a search. A bit of luck, weeks of waiting, empty phone calls and emails, weeks more of being bounced around and I finally managed to get in with Getty Images – everyone’s “favorite” stock selling (not so gentle) giant. :)

This brings me to How do you make enough money? part of the question. Well, it all depends on what you want enough for. A comfy life in inner-city Sydney? There’s a very slim chance that your travel photography will generate enough income for that in the first years. But having your images make you enough to travel and live around the cheaper parts of the world? Very possible, that’s what I do. :)

After a couple of years of very intense photographing and relatively recent, almost equally intense attempts at finding ways to make money from it, I have to say that I’m still very very far from striking it rich. Every month Getty sells some of my work and probably makes me enough to get by in most of Asia. I am still submitting to magazines and looking for alternative incomes from my photos, I’m even still willing to sell my soul, to shoot what I don’t love every now and then. However, importantly I no longer have to do what I don’t like, my images are finally “working” for me. Even more importantly I don’t have to work in retail, restaurants or wherever else just to save enough for the next journey.

But still, in all honesty, the way that me and Tanya (my wife) live is not for everyone. Certain comforts must be forgotten, while you’re on the road with a limited income, you simply can’t afford them.

Of course much of the beautiful, amazing things associated with travel are completely free, but if you ever compare your experiences with those of a friend, who may have traveled the same route as you during his four-week annual holiday, you realize that the pleasure you get out of traveling is very different to his. Your pleasure has a perverted twist. While he enjoys sipping cocktails on a luxury boat-cruise, you jump on a ferry packed with goats, chickens, furniture and dry fish, with lovely fellow passengers who chain-smoke and continuously spit on the floor. The journey exhausts and frustrates,  and  by the end you reek of that damn dry fish and your own sweat. But you’ve made new friends, learned words in a foreign language and have one heck of a story to tell when you get home. The pleasure comes from the experience and from the fact that you survived it. Your friend didn’t “suffer” on the luxury boat, but nor did he experience the ‘realness’ of actually being in another country, among regular people from a different culture.

If your cup of tea is the ferry ride and you’re really into your photography, then perhaps things don’t need to be very complicated.

I’ll borrow words from Chase Jarvis. He’s not a travel photographer, but unlike me, he really knows what he’s talking about. :)

There are two things you need to succeed: to be undeniably awesome at what you do, and to persevere.

Applies to everything, even travel photography.

(The confused character with ski-goggles above is none other than me. :) I used to wear the ski-goggles when riding the motorcycle. In this image I’m riding in the back of a bullock cart during an early morning in Rajasthan’s, Bundi District. Didn’t get a good picture, but the ride was kinda interesting.

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27 thoughts on “Some words to aspiring travel photographers

  1. Lot of wisdom here! My wife and I will take the ride with the “real” people any day. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Good stuff. I think that more than a vocation that one can choose it’s a life that chooses you. I like the idea that to be a travel photographer you must willingly smell like dry fish!

  3. Great info. I’ve managed to do something similar – transition from doing whatever in Sydney to living full time in Asia, although I’m finding as I make a better living from photography I’m traveling less and in front of the computer more.

  4. Sabrina Henry

    Have to agree with Gary–great words of wisdom in your post today. What turns just “some words” into wisdom is that we can take them and apply them to other parts of our lives.

    As for seeing your work in print, I have to agree from a consumer point of view. I get a real high from seeing the work of others I admire in print. Yesterday I went looking for the latest copy of Digital SLR Photography Magzazine but it takes a while before it will show up on our book shelves….grrrr! Patience was never one of my strong suits :)

  5. Very nice post Mitchell. Making a living as a photographer is certainly not for everyone and I think you make it nicely clear that it takes sacrifices, work and efforts to get there. Love your work btw.

  6. Nice to see this resonates with you guys/gal :)

    Jeffrey: I like how you put that :)

    Sabrina: I didn’t know they sold DSLR photography in Canada, great!

  7. Good Stuff – enjoyed the post. It’s interesting to hear where you came from and see where you are now. I’m glad that your hard work is paying off. Thanks for sharing a part of your life with us.

    In response to the post, I think that whatever vocation you choose, if you want to be successful (especially in something like photography) you have to be willing to work hard, put in the time and always strive to be creative. I think that’s what I love about photography so much, that there is always room to grow and no one will ever exhaust the creativity in it. So I don’t mind putting in the multiple hours a week because I absolutely love it.

  8. Thanks for writing this post. Very inspirational!

  9. Roberto Gomez

    Very well put Mitch, as much as I’d like to be doing what your doing, I don’t think I could let go of some of my luxuries :)

  10. Thanks for your comments everyone.
    Tiziano: Nice to know the source of the 10,000 hour rule.
    Rob: Hah, you just can’t be away from your car for too long :)

  11. Interesting post Mitchell, thanks.

    I’m not really aspiring to be a travel photographer, but it’s an inspiring post nonetheless :)

  12. Forgot to ask (sorry, can’t edit comment); what is the ONE luxury you personally really need when abroad? :)

  13. Jeroen: Well, I’m not fussy and I don’t actually care much for luxuries as such, but when a toilet becomes a luxury (happens in places), I guess that would be the luxury I would really like to have.

    It’s not always horrible not having a toilet, as there is something “beautiful” in taking a dump and looking at the Himalayas, for instance. :)

    However, doing the same in a flat desert area with no place to “hide” and an abundance of scorpions – is far, far from my idea of a good time. :)

  14. Cat

    Great post – I love travelling, love photographing and spend inordinate amounts of time lurking around the websites of those who have managed to create a career out of a combination of the two.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  15. Michel Anderson

    Hi Mitchell,
    Great post. Thank you very much for the info. I’m happy I found this blog.
    I’m an aspiring travel photographer myself. I’m leaving for Viet Nam this October to live there, teach English, and start photographing like crazy. I’ve studied photography in school and am getting back into it after a 6 year hiatus into other artforms. I have one question for you that I’m trying to wrestle with in my head…Do you travel with a laptop or a netbook? I have a macbook though I’m not sure it can handle the rough roads I intend on traveling. I’m shooting with a Nikon D70 and a P5100. Would you recommend any type of lenses I don’t want to leave the states with? I’m living in New Mexico right now off-the-grid with some donkeys and goats deep in the desert, I have internet access when I come into town once a week or so. Best of luck to you. Thanks for the blog!
    Cheers,
    Michel

  16. Great post. Thanks a lot pal. If there is anyone I would like to trade my life for, it would be yours.. For the ability to travel so much, and for the ability to take such brilliant pictures…

  17. Thanks for the post Mitchell and thanks for the link to it over on DPS. Your work is fantastic and, as much as I’d love to see the Himalaya’s while using the *restroom*, I don’t think my wife and kids would like to do the same. Nonetheless, I feel as though I can at least take some of your pointers and apply them to my level of photography.

  18. Also just found your blog – some good reading here, and a lot that I can relate to!

    I think your Himalayan toilet experiences must however be slightly different to mine (which were in winter – yes cold air also rises).

  19. Shagufta Mehdi

    even though i’m not an aspiring travel photographer but being a painter, it has become essential for me to learn photography. reading through your blog and learning about your journeys really makes me want to head out and experience different cultures. you’re right sometimes letting go of these luxuries can make your trip very memorable. :)

  20. Thank you for the sharing.
    It’s surprising that it happened “randomly” to you as you look soooo professional.
    And I think about your precious ebooks… it would have been a pity if you hadn’t taken the chance.

  21. Jillian

    Thank you

  22. Stan HENRY

    Hi Mitch, your an inspiration. I want to do just that, take photographs for a living! :)

  23. chow

    Great insight. I like your style, straightforward without moaning.

    I will never be successful making money in photography, talent wise or effort or willingness to make sacrifice. I do not even bother thinking of making money from it. Its a hobby I love, and receiving genuine compliments of my photo will be a great achievement for me.

    With the kind of images you have, and yet not really striking it rich, how could any one else do it. Seems like a bloody competitive world out there.
    But I believe in luck, I think quite alot of lesser photographers out there make a good living.

    Mitchell, or to anyone else who is willing to answer, a quick curious question, for such a famous guy like Steve McCurry, do you think he makes a very good living out of photography?

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