The road more travelled – the evolution of travel photography
Once upon a time, travel photography was the domain of a small set of adventurers with abundant possibilities for work. Their images were used in a vast range of ways, from editorial and advertising to merchandising and print sales. Now, anyone can take travel photographs. All that is required is a passport and a phone. And billions of people have those. How hard is it to make a living from travel photography now? And how do you do it? Candide McDonald reports.
Legendary travel photographer, Jimmy Nelson is also a photojournalist who aims to create awareness about the world’s unimaginable diversity. He is doing that through his photographs, their stories, the books that contain both, his videos, and a campaign with advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, whose aim is to fight against the demise of indigenous culture. “I don’t know if there is a profession to be made any more in travel photography,” Nelson admits. “The whole world has become a photographer. Four and a half billion of us have a smartphone, taking pictures. Can one earn a living directly doing it? No, not really. Is that a problem? No.”
David Kirkland has been a travel and tourism photographer for nearly 20 years with a background in journalism and public relations. He has written and photographed 15 books, and he owns the largest online photo library dedicated specifically to travel and tourism in the Asia Pacific region. Kirkland is very aware of a significant shift in professional travel photography. “Demand for quality photography in tourism publications is slipping – budgets are tight, and editors are making do with what they can get, often sending their writers out with a camera and hoping for the best,” he notes. “At the same time, advertisers either don’t know the difference, or they can’t or aren’t prepared to pay for professional photographers. Sad really.”
“I think you need to park photography,” Nelson states. The new successful professionals, he believes, are the travellers, “the people who are passionate about the beauty of the world, have a curiosity for it, and want to share their feelings.” For these adept travellers and communicators, a new world opens up – a world of workshops, storytelling, and, in Nelson’s case, making a difference. Nelson has established the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, “a worldwide call to preserve global cultural heritage by portraying the world’s last indigenous cultures in all their glory”.
Everyone has a camera
“The most significant change for me is that photographs themselves have lost most of their commercial value,” states Ken Kaminesky, who’s based in Montreal and Los Angeles. Kaminesky has been a photographer for 25 years. He switched to travel photography 15 years ago, which he says made him fall in love with photography all over again. “With the proliferation of digital imagery that is available, there is a glut of low quality, decent quality, and even exceptional quality imagery that has never been seen before. Everyone has a camera.”
The standard, notes veteran travel photographer Richard I’Anson, is being undermined by the “amateur-professional” travel photographer – the photographer who does other work for a living, but fulfils his creative urges by taking photographs on his holidays. “For him, it’s about doing something different, it’s not do-or-die. These hobby photographers don’t need the money. They’re happy to get the ego boost and give away their images for free, or for very little. Now, with the ease of distribution, everyone can share their photos and everyone can access them.” Nelson adds that the majority of travel agencies, bureaus, and magazines he knows get free imagery from amateur photographers.
I’Anson has been a travel photographer for 35 years. He has published 13 books and runs an online course, Expand my World. I’Anson acknowledges, too, that the world of travel photography has transformed. “Once, I would encounter a small group of working photographers and enthusiasts in my travels. Now, everyone has a camera in their pocket and they seem to feel obliged to photograph everything. Even the locals, who used to be subjects and observers, are now frantically taking pictures.” Although many of these are not competition in the true sense of the word – their pictures will go no further than their own social circles – I’Anson says they make it physically harder for professionals like him to work. “Even just physically, I often have to move in front of rows of outstretched arms with phones at the end of them, especially at festivals and events.”
But I’Anson sees these changes as challenges, not threats. “There have always been challenges in every business,” he says. “The wedding photographer has the uncle shooting over his shoulder. I think it’s interesting to note the changes and work out what to do about them.”
80 million images per day
Professional photography now has Instagram to contend with, or use, but travel perhaps more so than any other genre. At just eight years of age, Instagram has 800 million users. More than 40 billion photos have been shared on the platform, and 80 million are added every day. While you can’t sell directly from Instagram, businesses like Twenty20 and Foap will do the selling for you. These stock image suppliers can turn anyone on Instagram into a professional photographer.
Kirkland took on Instagram as an opportunity six months ago. “I credit it with beginning what I call ‘The Renaissance Period’ in my photography. From running around the world largely focused on my own photography, I am now part of a growing network of photographers worldwide who continue to inspire me and enrich my photography with their work. Street photographers, food photographers, aerial photographers, fine art photographers, to name a few. Just outstanding work. And I’m enjoying the fraternity of the photographers and followers I’m connecting with.”
It has also created a range of new business opportunities, he notes. “Certainly, I see Instagram, at least, as a tremendous opportunity, one that I think will increase in value if I ever get to that 10,000-followers mark everyone keeps raving about.” Spanish-born, Australian-based travel photographer, Ignacio Palacios has used social media in the past to attract clients, but now relies on repeat clients. “These tours are now about word-of-mouth. No-one is going to sign on a tour that cost $10k+ unless it is a recommendation or a repeat,” he says. I’Anson also sees Instagram as an opportunity. “It’s clearly a fantastic way to share your pictures and get the news out there about what you’re doing, and why.”
“I think social media is fantastic,” Nelson states. “It’s an opportunity. You can share, you can communicate with the whole world instantaneously.” Social media has changed the requirements for renown, he notes. It’s less about the quality of the image, but more about the story. “In the past, photographers could get away with murder because they didn’t have to be communicators. They could hide behind the camera. Now they have to stand out in front of the camera. It’s about them. The image stands behind them. People are not interested just in pictures any more. It’s the story and the person that makes them influential.”
Instagram is just a tool, Kaminesky warns. “For some, it is an opportunity. For others, it is a waste of time. Sadly, for many, it is a vanity thing and they equate follows, likes, and other social media stats as measures of quality and talent. I assure you that it is not, in most cases”. But he has used challenges, like Instagram, to force himself to reinvent his career, and he co-founded a photo tour company. “Discovery Photo Tours has become the best thing I have ever done in my career, and I love getting the chance to travel with wonderful people who share a passion for photography, travel, culture, food, and all the other good things associated with the tours I develop,” he says.
Some traditions have to die
A world flooded with images of a lower standard has also made other traditional sources of income competitive. Blogs and how-to articles still make it sound as though stock photography is an easy path to success. Yes, it’s easy to get your work into a stock library, but getting your work purchased from a stock library is very much harder now. Kirkland used to contribute to stock libraries and, he admits, earned a reasonable passive income, but has found greater value, and control, in building his own commercial library. “If I could just find the time, or preferably someone else, to do the captions, I’d be a happy man,” he notes with a smile.
On the other hand, Kaminesky sees the evolution of stock libraries as a disaster. “I spent ten years of my life purely shooting stock and stopped in 2008. I’ve never looked back,” he admits.
The traditional sources of commissions and sales for travel photography include government tourist organisations, NGOs, major hotel chains, tour companies, airlines, and the media. They’re still commissioning, but introducing oneself to the local businesses around the place you intend to visit is often worthwhile. Social media has dramatically changed their modus operandi too. Larger businesses are likely to be more fruitful than smaller, but even trading photos for free board, free meals, and free land travel, can turn an expensive venture into a profitable one, and these don’t preclude you from selling your work in any other way.
Until space travel kicks in
Is there a future for travel photography? “When space travel is available, we will be able to go to the moon and Mars,” quips Ignacio Palacios. “Of course there is a future. There are always new places to explore.” Palacios has been documenting the world with his images since 1998. His work is fuelled partly by his curiosity and partly by his desire to raise awareness about the environment and human rights issues. Palacios gives a percentage of the sales he makes via his website to the Australian Himalayan Foundation or to the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
“Yes, professional travel photography has a future,” I’Anson agrees. “The demand for travel pictures is as great as ever, growing in fact, particularly in digital and social. There’s a ferocious appetite for new imagery all the time. What we professionals have to overcome is that people who use photography are also trying not to pay, so it’s a perfect storm. The standard of published pictures,” he repeats, “has dropped dramatically.”
“There are more people travelling and more people wanting to convince them why they should experience their destination or product over another,” Kirkland adds. “And, no matter what anyone says, the best way to do that – certainly for as far as I can see – will be to have an outstanding photograph,” he says.
Kirkland also knows that adapting to a new environment is key. The future of travel photography, he says, “is a vastly different beast to what it was twenty years ago when I started. As a base point, you need to be able to capture a reasonable travel photograph, but then you have to survive in business – which requires so much more. I’m often heard saying, to anyone interested, that the success I enjoy is not that I’m a great photographer, it’s because I’m a good businessman. I have a background in tourism marketing and I know my clients’ needs. To win business as a travel photographer today, you need a reputation for delivering value for money and high quality work consistently.”
Bend and stretch
You also need a flexible attitude to how you work. “In the past ten years, I’ve had to learn how to shoot underwater and capture photos from the sky, and now I’m tinkering with video, because that’s what the market is demanding,” Kirkland adds.
I’Anson has also diversified to conquer the challenges he has encountered, replacing his dependence on stock photography as a foundation for his income. “One advantage of getting older and accumulating experience is that I can generate income from different strands. Workshops, for example, are very important to my business now. They’re my guaranteed income. I still earn money from stock photography, but I have to license a lot more images for the same money now.”
Kirkland has always had several income streams at any one time. “As each of us is a finite resource and no one’s prepared to pay us squillions per image, we have to make a living by generating a passive income, so books, souvenir products, stock, art prints, your own online library, along with commissions and training workshops are important.” Palacios adds that “70% of my sales come from workshops now, but from the workshops I take pictures that I sell through prints, licences, and use to produce books.”
With so many images available to so many people, there is undoubtedly a challenge to get the rare and unique images that hallmark a great photographer. “I consider myself to be a tourism photographer,” Kirkland states, “so that amazing travel photograph, to me, is the one that makes you think, ‘I just want to go there’.” Capturing the photograph for which he has been commissioned is his real quest. For I’Anson, those special images come from working hard. There is an element of being in the right place at the right time, he admits, but good research is key. Most importantly, they’re “a combination of technical know-how and creativity, as well as being ready to compose and shoot very quickly,” he says. In other words, experience counts. “Get out there and shoot...a lot,” Kaminesky adds. “Take chances, do things others will not do or cannot do to get the shot (don’t risk your life!), go to undeveloped, and less-travelled-to places, and don’t worry about clichés. As much as there are a lot or repetitive images out there, as can be seen in social media posts, there are also more breathtaking, new and original travel and landscape type images being taken these days, and I love it.”
Nelson is known for his rare and unique images. Ask him his secret and he tells you this story. “I often use a 4x5 or 8x10 analogue camera on plate film. That’s very cumbersome, very tiring, very slow. A few weeks ago, I was at a school and I was confronted by a whole lot of teenagers who asked why I bother with so much complicated equipment. ‘Why don’t you just use your iPhone,’ they said. They liked the idea of getting a lot of images easily.” Nelson gave them two hypothetical situations. “Option one is that tomorrow morning, the girls can stand on one side of the school square and the boys on the other. You can all run into the square and kiss as many people as you want straightaway,” he told them. “Option two is that you stand on the school square for a week and at every break just watch. You’re only allowed to kiss one person for one second at the end of the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the week. Which would you choose?” The teenagers all went for option one. “I would choose option two,” Nelson revealed, “not because I’m slow and old [as the teens had suggested], but because I hope I’m getting wiser. It’s not about the kiss. It’s about the foreplay. And that’s about the time and the investment you make, and knowing that that kiss is ‘The One’. You feel fear. You face the threat of failing. Then it becomes special. And when you make that kiss, it’s absolutely extraordinary. It’s the climax of your life. That’s how you make a good travel picture.”
Of course, there are new challenges for travel photographers to conquer. When you think about it, every industry and every genre within every industry, has gone through a period of confronting challenges from time to time. Passion and determination are good standards for success, but adaptability is the key. And as for tips, these are often personal. These are Kirkland’s: “Well, beyond always carrying toilet paper, insect repellent, and extra disc space, and setting aside stepping out of air conditioning into a humid climate and wondering why your lenses have fogged up, my singular advice would be to shoot for the market, not for yourself (though, hopefully, there’s great satisfaction in doing both). Beyond that, I always get on the plane last and sit in the seat with three empty chairs next to it looking like I own it. It’s also served me well to under-promise and over-deliver, and I genuinely enjoy what I do, and I look to share it with others.”
Asked about his top tip, Kaminesky notes, “I could write a book... hmmm, maybe I should. My first piece of advice, and it covers just about everything in life, is...don’t be a jerk. Seriously, that will get you so much further in life than being a pretentious photographer with a bloated ego. You’re taking photos, not curing cancer, or saving the planet. Get over yourself and love what you do for the pure sake of creating beautiful things and inspiring other people in ways that you can’t imagine.”
Nelson’s top piece of advice: “First and foremost, a love of travel and a love of people. No matter how dangerous, how difficult, how costly, or how awful the situation, you keep smiling. Smiling allows you to communicate with everyone, everywhere. As long as you smile, as long as you flirt kindly, do a dance, look into people’s eyes, and tell them how amazing they are, it’s extraordinary how much you can get away with.”
Travel photography, it is clear, is not dying, it’s evolving. Kaminesky explains, “I’ll equate travel photography to life, and as Robert Frost said, ‘In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on’.”
Richard I’Anson richardianson.com
Ken Kaminesky www.kenkaminesky.com, www.discoveryphototours.com
David Kirkland www.kirklandphotos.com
Jimmy Nelson www.jimmynelson.com
Ignacio Palacios www.iptravelphotography.com.au
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