Imagine this… You walk into work and your boss tells you that next week you are going to climb a snow-capped peak, capture its magic, and THEN they pay you for it. Sound too good to be true? My friends: becoming a travel photographer is definitely possible (anything is!) if you set your mind to it
For some, being a travel photographer is a fantasy. For you, this could be a regular Tuesday.
That’s exactly why being a freelance photographer can be the greatest job on the planet.
Being paid to travel, see the world, and capture it one photo at a time is the dream.
Becoming a travel photographer doesn’t happen overnight though. It takes (a lot) of hard work, scraping by, and persistence with reaching out to potential clients. It can all be undone more easily than you thought and then that dream fades as quickly as you can open your eyes.
We at The Broke Backpacker want to help you in your quest, which is why we wrote this epic guide on how to be a travel photographer! With the help of this insider guide, you’ll know the behind the scenes tips for how to be a freelance photographer. Even with these tips though, you’ll need to put in the extra effort – there is no elixir that will give you everything you need.
If you’re still interested in learning how to become a travel photographer and are ready to put the work in then let’s get to it! Here’s how to start freelance photography and travel the world whilst you’re doing it!
Table of Contents
- What is Freelance Photography?
- What Does A Freelance Photographer Actually Do?
- Travel Photography Jobs
- How To Become A Freelance Photographer
- How To Find Paid Work As A Freelance Photographer
- 6 Reasons Why Being a Freelance Photographer is the Perfect Job for Nomads
- 4 Reasons Why Freelance Photography May Not Be The Job For You
- Useful Resources and Recommended Readings
- Start Freelance Photography Today
Freelance photography is like any other self-employed job i.e. copywriting, marketing, programming, etc out there – you work for yourself, seek out potential clients, and complete the projects that they set out for you. So when asking yourself “what is freelance photography” or “how do I become a freelance photographer,” know that it’s not an entirely unique job.
In essence, what a freelance photographer does is they work on multiple projects that they have found and been given by multiple companies. Pay is always negotiated beforehand and varies from project to project. Trust us when we say that a steady income is a relative luxury in the freelance photography world. Even if you’re able to support yourself as a freelance photojournalist, income fluctuates very often.
Freelance photographers are usually mobile to some sort of degree. Even if they have a home, a family and 2-car garage (I know several like this), they still need to move around a lot for work. Diversifying their portfolio and clientele usually means lots of travel. You may enjoy traveling as a freelance photographer though and this may even be the reason why you got into it!
What Does A Freelance Photographer Actually Do?
Simply put – a freelance photographer takes photographs. Sometimes employers will hire you before you’ve actually taken photos, sometimes you will take them by yourself and try to sell them. Either way, your goal is to take high-quality photos and sell them.
90% of the time, you’ll have to get the conversation started and reach out to potential clients first. Freelance photographer must be diligent and tenacious in contacting new leads; doing so is one of the great keys to success when it comes to being a freelance photographer. Very rarely do companies make the first move and if they do it’s usually reserved for more popular photographers with large social media presences.
Once a freelance photographer has a clientele base, it’s imperative that they maintain relations and keep tabs. You never know which of your employers will support and keep that fire lit.
Honestly, doing anything freelance related can feel more like a job in correspondence – you’ll be creative 25% of the time and networking the other 75%. So a freelance photographer is more than just a person taking pictures: they’re a social marketer (for themselves) as well.
It’s a challenging profession, and it can take a while to build into a career. But once you are an established freelance photographer, in some ways, it is the holy grail of nomadic professions.
Chances are you’ve already been snapping away while on the road right? So why not get paid for it? Seize your photographic skills and take the first step to monetizing your images!
There are three main types of travel photography jobs out there. They are 1) stock photo work 2) freelance work 3) full-time contract work. Refer to the following section for more information:
Stock photo work: Stock photo websites work by amassing huge libraries of photos from a huge pool of photographers and then putting their rights up for sale. If a potential buyer likes a photo, they will temporarily purchase the rights whereupon they can then use the photo. The original photographer gets a cut that they have dictated prior.
Because photographers can easily post their photos and then walk away, money can come in a steady and unobtrusive manner. Also, you have more freedom with what you want to shoot since you are the one choosing to do it in the first place. Some freelance photographers have really nailed down stock photo taking and are able to live off of it exclusively.
Freelance work: A type of travel photography job that involves seeking out potential clients and projects on your own time. Freelance work can be very demanding but equally rewarding as you’ll be your own boss and receive a greater amount of freedom.
This type of travel photography work requires a great deal of organization and proactivity though. Money comes sporadically, which may or not be your cup of tea. You’ll also be at the mercy of your employer, shooting what they want and how they want it as opposed to doing what you want.
Full-time contract work: This is the most desirable and lucrative sort of travel photography job. If you can land a full-time employment contract with a company, say like Nat Geo or Lonely Planet, and take photos exclusively for them, you’ll earn a paycheck and be in a great position financially. These types of travel photography jobs are pretty limited and hard to come by though.
How To Become A Freelance Photographer
Freelance Photography Jobs for Beginners
Let’s be honest: the beginner freelance photography jobs are probably going to pay little or nothing at all.
At least at first…
Most freelancers have at some point in their early careers worked pro-bono either because they still needed to network or to “expand their portfolio.” Doing this sort of freelance photography work is acceptable to a certain point and you must be the judge of when you’re ready and able to begin charging prospective clients.
Some examples of how you may initially start out with freelance photography include shooting for smaller websites/blogs and/or Instagram pages. You may also end working for more physical businesses like a lodge or hostel. Doing so will not garner you much money but you’ll gain experience and begin crucial networking. In some cases, you may get special deals and discounts even.
The important part to finding a beginner freelance photography job is the work itself. At this point, practice, exposure, and building habits are the important things to consider. Grind out now and bind your time (preferably with a second job) and wait for the opportune moment to take the next step into your freelance photography career.
Qualifications To Start Freelance Photography
Qualifications are helpful but not essential. What matters is the skills that you bring and the effort you are willing to put into your work.
Increasingly, it is the entrepreneurial skill of the photographer that counts more than the quality of the shot. With a steep rise in Travel Blogging (like this one!) people are looking for stories, backed up by great shots, rather than the other way round.
Experience To Start Freelance Photography
Any experience with social media, blogging and forging and maintaining professional connections will serve you very well, alongside a keen eye for a great shot.
A good trick I picked up from photographer buddies of mine is to keep in mind the audience you’re shooting for. This often affects the shot you’re about to take and makes the difference between a decent amateur and a professional photographer.
Know that often skill and artistry are not always synonymous with success. You could be an amazing photographer but, if you’re shit at networking or promoting yourself, no one will know it. At the end of the day, the hardest working photographers – not the most talented – usually get the best jobs.
There are several costs that you’ll have to manage when getting started and while you’re a practicing freelance photographer. Some expenses are obvious, others are subtle, most are unavoidable. Limiting as many costs as possible and being frugal will help you succeed.
The big cost from the get-go is a kit. The size and price of it can vary depending on what kind of market you are targeting, how experienced you are, and simply how much you are willing or able to spend.
Lots of freelance photojournalists out there stick to the big name brands that have a proven track record. Canon and Nikon are the most well-known photography companies while Sony is quickly making a name for itself thanks to its Alpha series. Investing in any of these brands comes with certain pluses and negatives but everyone is a good choice.
A good kit – one that is complete with an above average camera, a series of lenses, and various accessories – will probably set you back around $3000-$5000 dollars minimum.
I know this number may seem like a lot at first but, if you are serious about being a freelance photographer you have to look at it like a business – and a business requires investment.
Start building your kit ASAP – though it may take some time and money, it’ll become a worthy collection soon enough.
You will also have to consider the costs involved with running a business. Commuting, meetings, subscriptions, insurance (which should be absolutely mandatory) and other little expenses that you may not have considered will all add up in the end. Stay on top of your books and know how much you’re spending to keep the business going.
The Physical Tools You Need to be a Travel Photographer
There are two things that you will need to become a freelance photographer: a camera kit, which includes all the necessary accessories, and a good laptop. A sturdy bag will also serve you well but we’ll get more into that later.
Now, I will not say that a full frame camera or any particular company is best for freelance photography. Though certain systems like the Canon EOS 5D or the Sony A7RIII are proven, there are plenty of other choices out there.
I know plenty of photographers who use Micro Four Thirds cameras for their work and I personally swear by Fujifilm’s X-Series. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how expensive your camera is; it matters how well it works for your particular field.
Here is a list of essential equipment that you’ll need to have to be a freelance photographer. Each item is complete with a link to the best products of their kind and gives several examples for you. So will need:
- A great travel camera for freelance photography.
- The best travel lenses for your camera. We’ve included a list for Canon users here; stay tuned for more companies soon.
- A great travel tripod for mounting your camera.
- The appropriate camera accessories.
- The quality laptop for editing your photos and running your business
- A sturdy backpack or travel camera bag for your gear (I recommend the WANDRD PRVKE 31 – check out the full review)
To land your first real paid photography job as a beginner, you’ll need to have the proper habits. How to become a freelance photographer who earns really comes down to setting yourself up for success.
Below is a list of tips on how to become a travel photographer and to make money doing it; follow them and watch the cash begin to flow.
- Start a website and brand yourself: your website is your storefront; it’s the place where clients see your work and reach out to you. Swallow the monthly fees for services like WordPress or Squarespace and make it look good.
- Get a portfolio ready: potential clients need a place to see your work and a portfolio does a great job of this. Assemble your best work that demonstrates your skills and put it on your website. Don’t present too much though and don’t use subpar work.
- Have a business plan: knowing what you want to do and where you want to go with your career is crucial to succeeding. Draft a business plan (even a smallish one) to get an idea of what you need to do.
- Network, network, network: reach out to potential clients in any way possible. Talk to people, send emails, put your work out there on social media or contests, use friends and family for references, invest in marketing, any and everything. People need to know who you are before hiring you.
- Be organized: as a freelancer, you gotta do almost everything on your own so you’ll have to juggle a lot of things at once. Lose track of a few aspects of your business and the whole thing will go into a tailspin. Have a system in place to help you succeed, maximize workflow efficiency to cut down on time, have a schedule and stick to it; these are a few examples of being organized.
- Be punctual with work: reliability is one thing that employers look very fondly upon and so turning in your work when its due is pivotal. Start being late and your employer will be less inclined to keep you. Set reasonable expectations and your life will be much easier.
- Don’t be afraid: freelance photography jobs for beginners can be very intimidating – as the sole member of the company, you’ll be responsible for everything and this fact can cause a lot of anxiety. Don’t worry so much about failing though as it happens to everyone. Have confidence and a positive mindset and the works becomes more fruitful.
Practical Things You Need To Know And Have
If you’ve been into travel photography or any type of photography for that matter for a while, then you should have a portfolio built-up. This will help greatly as you can use it to demonstrate your skills/accolades and give clients an idea of what you can do and what they need.
If you don’t have a portfolio yet, GET ONE GOING RIGHT NOW.
For any freelancer, a good grasp on finances is key to succeeding. Since you won’t have an auxiliary department crunching numbers or doing taxes for you, you’ll have to do all money-related affairs on your own.
The difference between going over/under budget and staying ahead of the bills is knowing where your money is and how it’s being used. Keep records and be a savvy freelance photographer.
All freelancers need to stay on top of visa requirements; it can be easy to lose track when you’re jumping on tuk-tuks, trains, planes and hitting two countries a week.
Remember, you’ll lose more time stuck in customs without a visa than you will be conscientiously applying in advance. Check what is necessary for you for any country in the world right here.
How to Handle Money as a Freelance Photographer
Once you start making money, finances and negotiating rates can be some of the biggest hurdles for beginners in freelance photography. How much should you ask the client for? What is your work worth? These and many more questions can sometimes come to haunt travel and freelance photographers.
As a freelancer, you have to be good with your money. Doing so doesn’t require a ton of energy either.
To start with, have an idea of what your going rates are. Keep these in mind when negotiating fees with a potential client. Some clients may pay hourly but most end paying a flat rate upon the completion of an assignment.
Be sure to ask lots of questions when discussing the project with your potential employer as well. Know what they want and how reasonable it is; consider how much work it’s going to take and adjust your fees accordingly.
If you’re having trouble broaching the subject of pay – this part is admittedly a tedious process – just ask simply “what’s your budget?” Most clients will feel both empowered and open to this question and you’ll get a great idea of what you can ask for. Often times their number will be higher than your initial projections anyways.
Where To Find Work Online
The key to success as a freelance photographer is to establish multiple revenue streams!
Fewer photographers are working within traditional journalism nowadays, with the web offering limitless potential for budding shooters.
The world of stock photography is still the most well-known source of cash for photographers – and is often preferred for its passivity: the ability to generate income over time, without extra work being completed! Websites such as Shutterstock, iStock, and Dreamstime are great places to start.
The most profitable source of potential income is Client-Direct sales. This is where a photographer approaches or is approached by, a company in need of high-quality photos.
These assignments are the ‘upper-end’ of freelance photography and in my experience should be considered the ultimate aim. A little researching and networking comes into play here, as well as being in the right place at the right time.
The best advice is to contact magazines and companies you think may need photographs and try and establish a rapport. They’ll reject you more often than naught at first but it’s all a part of the process.
Aside from boosting your presence, you can make even more money from being savvy online and in social media. Using these platforms as a strict source of income requires either massive followings and/or real insight. Research how to make money on social media for more on this.
For those that can teach as well, there’s a lot of opportunity for marketing yourself. Uploading lessons online is a super-smart way to both boost your own online profile and establish a profitable YouTube channel.
Plus, if you’re good with words, there’s always the option to use your photographic talent and create a blog, which may also raise your profile and loop back to your business goals. Clients will see your work and get a feel for you as a prospective partner.
Where To Find Work Offline
While the world of online networking is vital for a traveling freelancer, don’t ignore the fact that the need for high-quality images exists. Talk to people! You’ll get a much better feel for the places you’re staying and you might even end up getting some lucrative jobs out of it.
Don’t forget about all the other tech-savvy nomads you’ll be encountering on your travels too. These folks need pictures too, ya dig?
Maybe you could offer to exchange goods and services. Found a writer with a gift for lingo? Get her to write a couple of articles while you transfer a few great snaps for her blog. Got a web designer with an eye for design? Trade assets and expand your own site.
It’s all too easy to remain in a bubble as a digital nomad, so get grounded and make connections with the humans around you. I promise you won’t regret it – and after all, what else is traveling for?
How To Become a Photographer from Home
Those who may not want to be on the road constantly shooting will be glad to hear that they can settle a little and still be freelance photographer. How to become a photographer from home involves much the same processes as being a regular freelance photographer – you will still have to network, still have to complete projects, and still have to be your own boss.
As a photographer from home, you will bound more to where you physically are. How much you rely upon online or in-person research will depend on your situation then. If you live in an area that has a high demand for photographers, then you could probably get away with person-to-person networking. If there’s less opportunities, you may need to reach out online more.
As a freelance photographer working from home, you’ll still have to commute to get shit done. Very few photographers can do studio work in their actual residence (studios cost a lot) and most clients will want you to come to them. You’ll be traveling maybe for the day but, ideally, you’ll end up back in your cozy home at the end of the night.
6 Reasons Why Being a Freelance Photographer is the Perfect Job for Nomads
- Mobility: With only a camera and a laptop you will be free to work anywhere, meaning no place is too remote (provided you are within a day’s range of decent WiFi!)
- Job Satisfaction: If seeing as much of the world as possible is your aim, then taking photographs for a living will allow you to get to beautiful, exciting places!
- Build Additional Skills: As a freelance photographer, you’ll be in charge of much more than just taking photos – you’ll need to manage finances, records, meetings, itineraries, and much more. As you progress in the field, you’ll find that you’re not only better equipped at shooting but managing life in general.
- Environmental variation: Not only will you be working with a wide range of people but you’ll be in an extensive range of locations. From urban giants to deep mysterious jungles, start freelance photography and the desk-bound, boss-ridden creature you maybe once were will be long gone!
- Rewarding: Photography is a vocation as well as a passion. If you truly love the process of taking great pictures, you’ll be living the dream here.
- Promotion: Once you start to build up a strong portfolio of striking images, it becomes a lot easier to branch out into blogging or social media and increase your profile to add revenue streams.
4 Reasons Why Freelance Photography May Not Be The Job For You
- Organisation: If keeping tabs on multiple leads at the same time stresses you out, you may be better trying something where you can form stronger relationships with a fewer number of clients.
- Proactive: To be a freelance photographer and successful at the same time, you’ll have to be constantly in motion. Finding new clients, getting shit done, keeping up with ongoing projects, managing your own books and portfolios; all of these must be done on your time and by yourself. Those who have trouble making the first move may struggle as a freelance photographer.
- Risk: To start freelance photography may mean working in some pretty remote places. If something breaks or the jobs simply don’t come in too, you need to have a Plan B in place.
- Unpredictable: As a freelance photographer you will be faced with a constant choice – do what you want or do what keeps the lights on. Sometimes there may not even any chances to make money at all. Keeping a balance can be tiring and the constant traveling into the unknown might be too intense for some.
Useful Resources and Recommended Readings
Wanderlust magazine has even more information on how to get paid to be a travel photographer and Brendan Van Son talks personally about how he makes money as a travel photographer. Canon has an awesome guide on travel photography to check out and Travellers Tales is an excellent platform and training site for budding travel photographers just like you!
Here are some books that are really going to help you! I recommend the following if you want to start freelance photography:
- Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography
- Travel Photography Masterclass
- Insight Guides: Travel Photography
Start Freelance Photography Today
Hopefully, this guide has helped to give a sense of the reality of freelance photography and you’re feeling suitably inspired to pursue this path! To make it simple, here is a quick action plan to turn you from desk-jockey to digital nomad in no time:
- Do your homework: swot up and develop an instinct as to what makes a saleable picture
- Buy the kit and practice: Get the gear and get comfortable with everything. The aim is to be able to set it up in the dark, in the rain, on the side of a mountain!
- Build a basic portfolio: Take some cracking shots of your nearest mountain/natural park/wildlife sanctuary and keep developing your editing ability
- Build a network of contacts: Make contact with agencies, magazines, bloggers – try and get your foot in the door before you leave the country!
- Take your first step: Ideally, you will leave on assignment, but if you have the money, by all means, go somewhere picturesque and really ramp up your portfolio
Make no mistake though: these actions take more effort than you think. It can be an incredibly rewarding career and it is possible to support yourself as a freelance travel photographer but you’ll have to work hard at it.
Hopefully, you should have contacts to send pictures to and a reasonable chance at scoring an assignment. If you can sell some of your shots to stock sites, then that’s fantastic. You might have to work doing something else for a while (see this link for more freelance ideas!) but with enough determination and a little persistence, you too can be making regular money doing what you love.
The most important thing is to always remember to have faith in yourself. You are about to embark on an epic journey, one that will require determination and inspiration. Should you succeed, you will have done what many could not and the prospect of doing so should fill you with excitement. Have courage and you’ll be able to become a member of the freelance photography community and travel the world all the while.
Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.
Need More Inspiration?
- How to Start (and Monetise!) a Travel Blog
- Become a Freelance Web Designer
- How to Be a Nomad and Travel the World Forever
- Sony Alpha a5100 Review • Best Travel Camera Under $500
- Best Camera Bags Roundup
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About the Authors: Dominic Clarke is a writer, filmmaker and co-owner of Cherokee Media, a production agency specialising in charity & corporate film. Lover of language, culture and bad sweaters, Dom’s aim is to use effective communication to help others unlock their own dreams and ambitions in life.
The Broke Backpacker’s own Ralph Cope later revised this article and added his own input. You can view his blog and portfolio over at his website, Roaming Ralph.