TRAVEL

Making money as a travel photographer: how the pros do it

Three experienced photographers – Lucia Griggi, Matthew Vandeputte and Annapurna Mellor – talk about how to make money from the travel genre, including the importance of reliable kit and developing multiple income streams.
A person in long white and cream robes and sandals stands between two large curving walls, which reach high into the sky above.

An atmospheric scene shot by travel photographer Annapurna Mellor in Luxor, Egypt. "I would recommend budding photographers start on a Canon camera body that will give you the opportunity to learn and grow," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Annapurna Mellor

Travel is one of the most appealing genres of photography, but it's also one of the most difficult from which to make an income. With so much competition in the market, photographers need to build a strong portfolio, be prepared to diversify, and stand out on social media.

Many travel photographers explore lots of different income streams, ranging from creating video content to leading workshops. Here, we talk to three travel photographers to find out how they make a living. Matthew Vandeputte specialises in time-lapse photography, monetising his niche in a variety of different ways. Annapurna Mellor is a British travel photographer who has learned to be adaptable, especially while travel opportunities have stalled during the Covid-19 pandemic. And Canon Ambassador Lucia Griggi travels the world photographing wildlife and adventure, utilising other skills such as videography to boost her portfolio.

Here are their six tips for making a living from travel photography.

A man in bright waterproof clothing walks away from the camera along a wet, rocky beach, carrying a large round fishing net.

A fisherman carries his nets along the Beagle Channel in Patagonia, Argentina. "When I don't have the fortune of coming home in between trips, it can be really beneficial to have a studio manager or a producer to handle accounts and client management," says photographer Lucia Griggi. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/200 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Lucia Griggi

1. Pitch trips with a unique hook, to the right outlets

With travel photography, finding the right market is key. This means doing as much research as possible, not only to find the most likely outlet for your work, but also in order to pitch your trips in the most unique way.

As Lucia says: "Do your homework and approach with a different, strong angle."

The simplest and easiest way to do this is by spending a good amount of time looking into different travel publications and online resources. "You should be familiar with the different features the outlet publishes and the style of work they feature," says Annapurna. "If you have an idea to pitch, it can be helpful to look back and see if they have recently published something similar or from the same region."

Certain travel destinations will appeal to some editors more than others. "Places that are politically unstable or dangerous to visit wouldn't sell well to travel magazines, as they wouldn't be able to showcase the destination as a place readers might want to travel to," Annapurna continues. "However, magazines or newspapers that publish documentary photography might be interested."

She says you should also consider lead times when pitching editorial ideas. "Most publications work at least a few months in advance, so for example if your story is a European winter one, you'd need to pitch it around the end of summer to make sure it's considered for the winter issues."

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For commercial work, Matthew also advises simply asking brands what it is they need. "For example, if a brand is launching a new product and needs shots of that product in a lifestyle or travel setting, initiate a conversation where you would take a product with you on a trip, for a fee, in exchange for a certain amount of content," he suggests.

2. Develop a niche

Travel photography is already its own niche, but it's well worth exploring as many avenues as possible within the genre. Matthew has made good use of his skills creating time-lapse and hyper-lapse videos (see example above), and has worked for major international brands including Google and Ford.

"I always say that having a niche is important, and as a travel photographer there are hundreds of niches you could develop – it could be anything from solo travel to vegan and sustainable travel," he says. "There's a niche for everything – and every one of them has somebody at the top of it making content. If you're lucky, that could be you."

Lucia has also been internationally published by the likes of National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveller and the BBC and has commercial clients ranging from Jeep to Patagonia. She advises those wanting to make a living from travel photography to figure out which destinations are most in demand. "For me, it's the Arctic or Antarctica, as they are remote locations which are somewhat inaccessible to most," she says.

For Matthew, the best places are those which are as-yet untainted by the social media gaze. "I like any place that hasn't been 'Instagrammed' to death," he says. "With my focus often being the pure natural beauty of an environment or the sky, I don't have to worry too much about cliché or 'overdone' locations. Some of my favourite content comes from remote parts of the Vanuatu islands in the South Pacific Ocean."

A line of people in brightly coloured clothes, hair decorations and make-up, with two faces turned towards the camera, one in clear focus.

Tamil Nadu, India. "Having a strong portfolio which fits with the visuals of a brand, and being professional and adaptable with what I can offer helps a lot," says Annapurna. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens at 122mm, 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Annapurna Mellor

3. Be reactive and adaptable

As a travel photographer, you need to be adaptable while out in the field. There are lots of different sub-genres, ranging from landscape to wildlife to portraiture and everything in between. You also need to be adaptable when travel opportunities are limited or difficult to come by.

Annapurna is a travel and documentary photographer, who in the past has worked for publications such as National Geographic and commercial clients including Intrepid Travel. "It's a very difficult industry to break into, and with travel in turmoil for the past few years due to the pandemic, it's a particularly difficult time," she explains. "When the pandemic struck, I lost a lot of my international travel work. Now I work with a UK-based conservation charity, the National Trust, travelling around the UK instead."

Equally, it's important to be prepared to explore other genres when seeking commissions. "I would never suggest anyone only go after work within the travel industry," continues Annapurna. "Make sure your skills are transferable to other areas of photography and look for work there."

Seagulls wheel in the air above a colourful seaport skyline.

Annapurna's photography shows a less familiar viewpoint of the city of Istanbul, Turkey. She says a varied kitbag allows you to be flexible while on the move. "My favourite lens is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, but I will also often use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM and I also like a 50mm prime." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 63mm, 1/640 sec, f/8 and ISO500. © Annapurna Mellor

A bird glides through the air against a dark background.

Lucia frequently shoots wildlife images as part of her travel work. "The main asset for me with the Canon EOS R3 is the tracking system and the Eye Control AF – especially for wildlife and fast-moving subjects, it really does enable you to get the shot you're after," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM) at 1/2500 sec, f/3.2 and ISO800. © Lucia Griggi

4. Learn other skills and invest in your kit

Today's most successful travel photographers also incorporate video into their work. "Although there is still a place for photographers and photography," Lucia says, "in the digital era, when you're looking at something like content marketing or even online publications, there's going to be more scope for creatives who can evolve.

"A natural development from still photography is working with the moving image. That could be producing short-form content for clients, or even going into some kind of asset management. It's a quicker pace these days, so you have to be prepared to move with it."

Having the best kit for travel photography is also hugely important. It needs to be versatile, adaptable and reliable – something which is particularly important for travel photographers working in the field. It's why cameras such as the Canon EOS R3, EOS R5 and EOS R6 are so well-suited to the genre – they can shoot video and still images at high resolutions and perform well in low light, while being small and light enough to transport easily around the world.

"The Canon mirrorless range now is great and you'll be setting yourself up to have a lighter kit as your lens collection grows," adds Annapurna.

A woman standing in a covered marketplace laughs as she brushes down a surface.

Travel photographers need to be adept at a range of different genres, from landscape and portraits to street scenes such as this shot taken by Lucia in the Philippines. An understanding of social media and its revenue potential is also key. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 35mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2000. © Lucia Griggi

5. Build a social following

Today, many commissions and other work opportunities come about as a direct result of a strong social media following. "If I'm looking to put together a team on a more lucrative shoot, I'd look mainly at someone's Instagram channel to get an idea about their work before reaching out to them," says Lucia. "Social channels are extremely important." Which platforms are the best is constantly changing, so it makes sense to be as up-to-date as possible and be prepared to move with the times.

Matthew, who says "a fair chunk" of his income comes from social media, believes the level of engagement with your social media channels is the important thing. "I've always looked at myself as a bit of an underdog compared to my peers," he says. "I have friends who have millions of followers, whereas I only have around 92K on Instagram. However, I'd rather have a smaller account with dedicated followers than a bigger account where nobody cares about you, what you do or who you are."

He says photographers should be prepared to post as often as possible, but not everything has to be a finished and polished piece of work. "Make sure to get some behind-the-scenes content – people like seeing how stuff works," he advises. "You could also show a work in progress, or how you're packing for a particular trip. Camera gear is super-fascinating for a lot of people, so don't be afraid to show that either."

A large sail-powered ship passing through an archway in an iceberg on a rocky coastline.

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A close-up of two marine iguanas scuffling in the dirt.

Selling prints of your travel imagery is a great way of boosting income, with animal pictures particularly popular. In this striking photograph taken by Lucia in the wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands in December 2021, two marine iguanas scuffle in the dirt. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Lucia Griggi

6. Create other products to sell

As well as photography and video content, there are lots of other products – whether physical or digital – that travel photographers can sell to make money. They range from prints and other printed merchandise such as clothing, bookmarks and mugs, to digital products such as downloadable presets and online tuition.

Matthew has become such an expert in this field that he even sells ebooks telling other photographers how to build a passive income, as well as those which offer instructions for creating time-lapses. He also sells other products such as courses and presets which can be downloaded. He says, "What it boils down to is providing value to people in the form of knowledge."

Some simple research on what sells can start with a quick Google search. "I'll Google 'how to time-lapse with…' and then I'll let it autocomplete," explains Matthew. "One was 'how to time-lapse with the Canon EOS R5', and because it auto-completed I know that a lot of people were searching for it. If nobody's making that content, I can make it, or if they are, I can make it better."

Affiliate links are another way in which travel photographers can boost their income, and Matthew says it represents about 20% of his passive income. Mentioning a specific product on your social media feeds or website, and more importantly where you can buy it, is a great way to monetise your content. Most major online retailers offer an affiliate link program, you just need to search for them.

Whether you shoot travel for commercial or editorial clients, or find other ways to generate income, Matthew says there are always opportunities for work in that field. "Destinations, hotels and other travel-related brands are always looking for fresh content and new creators," he says. Lucia is also positive about making a living from travel. "About 80-90% of my work comes from travel photography," she says. "It's a big market - you just have to find that niche or that different angle in the way you tell the stories of different places."

Yazar Astrid Pitman

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