Writing came first, although it wasn’t long before photography took over. After I graduated I booked a one-way ticket to Kathmandu and traveled around Asia for a year. I started a blog to document my trip and the photos were initially just an accompaniment to the words. Quickly I realized how much I loved taking photos, and I got really positive feedback on them. I learned how to use my camera and started putting more effort into photography. During that year, I went from someone who had no idea how to use manual camera settings, to selling my first photos to brands such as Lonely Planet. It was a year of learning so much, and one which led me to the career I have today.
When my photography work took off, I left writing behind for a bit, but recently I’ve realized how one compliments the other, and how stories can be so powerful. I think my biggest passion is storytelling, and I feel the combination of words and photographs allows me to do that well.
Travel photography is an incredibly hard industry to break into today. There are so many photographers on Instagram and so many travel bloggers. I think writing has helped me stand out in many ways, and it has also made me more appealing to brands because I can use both skills, as well as social media, when working for them. It definitely helps to be a jack of all trades in this industry, and to diversify your income streams. Some months I may have no photography assignments, but I can sell articles to compensate.
I also think writing has helped me become a better photographer as it's allowed me to see photographs through a storytelling lens. When I visit a place now, I’m not looking for that one perfect image which might do really well on Instagram or sell as a great stock image; I’m looking for a collection of images which say something about a place or community. I’ve learned how to approach people and take portraits, how to capture landscapes, and how to communicate the chaos of a city – because often in order to tell the whole story of a place, you have to capture all of those things.
I think passion has to come first, and I can trace my travel photography career back to when I was posting photo stories on websites. I wasn’t getting paid for any of it, but I did it because I loved to tell stories.
I spent a year traveling around Asia and I was approached by Getty Images, who offered me a stock contract. Sales came in quickly and it was the first time I realized that I could travel and take photographs and perhaps making a living from it. I continued travelling as often as I could, and worked some pretty horrible jobs in between to make ends meet. Meanwhile, I was building a portfolio of images from around the world and promoting myself on the internet as much as I could. I’m not going to pretend it was a smooth ride, it’s a hard industry to break into, and you really need a lot of passion and determination to keep going.
Stock image sales allowed me to build up a list of companies and publications who had bought my photographs, and it meant I had been published numerous times before I got my first official assignment. When I got my first well-paid assignment, I quit my bar job and focused on photography full time. I spent the next few months sending what felt like thousands of emails to brands and magazines until the next assignment came, and then the next one. Then at some point, I realized, hey, I’m doing my dream job full time.
In the beginning, I did a lot of work for free while I was working in a bar. It wasn't ideal, but it helped me build up a portfolio. I know some photographers say not work for free, but unfortunately, in the current climate, I just don’t think that’s feasible. I think you have to make sure that the unpaid work is benefitting you in other ways, whether through the exposure of building your portfolio. It’s also important to be aware of when you should stop working for free, and when your work has more value to the company or publication than it does to you.
I think the best advice I can give for anyone wanting to get into travel photography is just to create photography work which is authentic to you and to keep ongoing. Hard work, determination and truly great work does pay off in this industry, and if you keep at it, you’ll eventually be noticed.
It’s hard to pick a particular quality, it can be a mixture of great light, interesting movement or a wonderful expression. But I think in the end it comes down to a feeling. The best images for me are the ones which make me feel something, whether that be a sense of a place or an emotion. I love images which take my breath away, and really that’s what I am looking for in this competition, a set of images which tell a strong story, stirs emotion in me, and which makes me feel like this photographer is doing something unique.
You need to be a great photographer as your work has to stand out. In the end, it always comes down to the images.
Secondly, you need to be business savvy. Being a full-time freelance photographer doesn’t only involve taking photos, it involves branding and promoting yourself. You have to be a social media whiz, a writer, a storyteller; you need to manage money well, and do all the boring stuff like invoices and sending emails trying to find work.
You also need to be a really good traveler – with the ability to be independent and navigate sometimes difficult situations while alone on the road. Lots of people look at my job as a travel photographer, and think it's easy. But there’s a lot more that goes into it – I probably spend more time sitting in front of my computer editing, emailing and writing than I do out in the field.
One of my favorite things about being a travel photographer is connecting with locals and learning about local culture when I travel. I’m naturally a very introverted person, and I often use my camera as a way to break down barriers between myself and local people. Asking to photograph a person has led me to some wonderful situations – being invited to Indian weddings, or back to villages where I have been cooked feasts on wooden fires as children circle and smile at me. It has also took me to places that a regular traveler might not think to go.
Instagram is a wonderful tool for photographers to gain exposure, but there are also many negatives that come with it. We are completely oversaturated with travel images from all around the world, and I see many brands reposting images from Instagram rather than paying for professional photographers. I’m very much a child of Instagram, and I’ve never known the travel photography industry before the app existed, but I imagine it was quite different.
Certain types of images do much better on Instagram than others, although I don’t necessarily think it’s the best images that get the most likes – often it’s just the images which follow a particular formula. This has meant that thousands of accounts post mostly the same type of photos. You see the same locations again and again, and the same type of image getting thousands of likes. Although there is nothing wrong with this type of image, I think it’s important to point out that getting thousands of likes doesn’t necessary mean it’s a great travel photograph or one that's going to get you work as a travel photographer.
I still think Instagram is a very important tool for travel photographers. For me, it’s been an amazing way to get my photography in front of a larger audience, and a way to get brands and publications to recognize my work. I’ve gotten jobs with brands who have found my work on Instagram, and I’ve also made lots of friends and contacts with other photographers on the app. If you are trying to make it as a travel photographer nowadays, it's essential to be using Instagram to its full potential, while also understanding that it’s not the only thing you should be doing. You should also have an updated online portfolio and have stories published online. Instagram should just be how you share your work, it shouldn’t be why you create work in the first place.
When I’m on the road it’s either for a specific assignment, where I’ll be working with a brand or shooting a story for a magazine or it’s a personal trip. In the first case, work takes over and I’ll often be shooting for 15 hours a day, then doing edits in the evening and sometimes posting on social media too, depending on the needs of the client. This kind of work can be exhausting but I enjoy every minute of it.
When it’s a personal trip, I’ll often split the time between shooting and relaxing – perhaps focusing on one story during a trip, and choosing another place to just relax and enjoy. I’ve never felt like the spark of travel has gone. Every time I go on assignment I still get excited about a new place, new people, and new photographs to capture. I think when your job is your passion, that spark never really goes out.
There are so many places around the world I’d love to go to, and so many cultures I’d love to document. But I always come back to South Asia, as it’s the culture I feel the most connected to. I’d love to spend more time in the Himalayas, capturing local culture for a long term personal project on the region.
In the future I’d also like to work with charities, as while I love working with travel companies, I’d also love to use my photography for some greater good in the world.
What makes a compelling pitch? What are editors looking for? Photographer Mark Edward Harris shares his advice to help get your work published.
Professional photographer and winner of our 2009 Travel Photography Scholarship to Antarctica, Anna Zhu shares advice from her career.