10 practical tips to help you succeed as a travel photographer
Masterclasses from National Geographic Traveler (UK) returned in October for another week of expertly led sessions discussing the craft of travel writing and travel photography.
The travel photographer sessions took place over three-hour-long webinars, with some of the industry’s most experienced photographers discussing their career journeys and sharing a range of tips with our audience of budding photographers.
Here are 10 tips to help you develop your travel photographer, from the importance of pre-trip research to techniques for building your portfolio.
1. Use personal tours to build your portfolio
For those at the start of their travel photographer journey, our panel suggested making the most of personal trips to help you build a strong portfolio. Travel and documentary photographer Annapurna Mellor advises, “When you’re doing personal trips, act like you’re on an assignment. Think about what you can add to your portfolio to show different clients what you can shoot.”
A personal trip can also offer you the creative freedom to put together a complete photo story that could help get you noticed. “There’s always a need for great storytelling,” said freelance photographer Yulia Denisyuk. “If you can bring great stories to editors, you’ll see results in this career.”
2. Build your online presence to stay connected
Whether you’re new to photography or an industry veteran, our experts all agreed that it’s important to build and maintain a strong online presence and stay in touch with past, current, and potential clients.
Lauryn Ishak, a lifestyle and travel photographer, offered tips on building connections to help secure new commissions. “I update my work on my website and Instagram and make sure I stay in touch with the editors I know,” she explained. “I also try to meet clients face-to-face where possible and always bring a ‘step-up’ for them – something to remember my work by.”
3. Create diverse work to tell a unique story
Panelists specialized in everything from commercial filming to documentary-style storytelling. Whatever style you choose, our experts explain why you’ll always need to create a diverse range of shots to best tell your story.
According to Francesco Lastrucci, a freelance photographer whose work focuses on editorial stories, you should try to “have variety and extra options. It is important to capture every aspect of the location. Think about different angles and different distances. Try to find new frames and new situations. Never think it safe – consider doing something you haven’t done before.”
4. Think about whether the story will work for the publication’s audience
Having a diverse portfolio of high-quality work is important, but it doesn’t guarantee success. Our photographers explained how important it is to understand whether a photo story will resonate with the publication’s readers when presented.
“Will the work be interesting to the publication’s audience? One of the best ways to find out is to read the publication,” suggested Yulia. “If you can tell why people should care, you know you have a story on your hands rather than just content. Editors are always looking for stories that will interest their audience.”
5. Consider using less equipment
Food and travel photographer Giulia Verdinelli describes how traveling with minimal gear can help improve your images. “[Traveling with light] makes me a better photographer because it brings creative challenges,” she said. “That limitation helps you think outside the box and can help you tell a better story.”
Improving your photography skills is a better investment than splashing out on a new kit, according to Giulia, who suggested that new photographers “focus on composition and learn to shoot with light. Study color theory and learn advanced rules of composition. All these skills have nothing to do with equipment.”
6. Adapt to your environment on the go
Traveling light means photographers can carry a discreet camera bag, which could be the key to blending in. “All my gear fits in one backpack,” said Los Angeles-based photographer Tanveer Badal. “It doesn’t look like a camera bag, which is the goal. Sometimes I’ll be in places like markets or public squares and I won’t want to look like a photographer.’
Commercial photographer Tom Parker has recommended a few tricks for when you need to take a lot of gear to the airport. “I usually try to get somewhere as early as possible – the check-in staff will be more relaxed,” he explained. “Try to pick a queue with the friendliest person – they might be more tolerant of your demands.”
7. Do your prep and research to line up the best shots
Our experts agreed that great travel photos usually require hours of research and preparation before the trip, whether you’re scouting the best spots or trying to secure an important interview.
“For magic to happen, we usually need to be in the right place at the right time with the right contact,” Yulia explained. “There’s a lot of research that goes into that, as well as logistical elements like preparing for interviews,” she said. “That’s where tourist boards can be very helpful because they’re the people who have the most knowledge about the area.”
8. Deliver a well-presented final product
For our panelists, much of the hard work comes at the end of the journey. From editing images to making sure you’ve met the client’s brief, it’s important to think about how you can create a final product that stands out.
“You want your final board [of images] to be very tight—think about what will catch your eye and stand out,” Francesco said. “[Aim for] 15 to 20 images, 30 max, and put them all together in one file – ideally a PDF. Make sure you start well and end well, with a dynamic presentation that will keep the editor interested.”
9. Stay humble and keep learning
A recurring theme in every photography lesson on the road was the need to constantly learn and develop your skills. “Be humble,” Lauryn advised. “There will always be someone doing a better job than you, and you should always be learning. The most important thing for me in the last decade is to keep learning on the job.”
Annapurna echoed Lauryn’s advice: “If you’re passionate about photography, you naturally look at a lot of other people’s work,” she said. “It’s nice to get ideas for different ways to use light and different ways to shoot stories.”
10. Be persistent and never give up
Finally, our experts emphasized that you need to be persistent and patient when building your travel photographer career.
“It can be a long game – you have to be patient,” Yulia said. “People often start presenting and stop when they don’t see immediate results. Those of us still in the industry are here because we haven’t stopped presenting our stories and sharing our images. If we can do it, so can you. If it’s your passion, you have to pursue it.”