Ok, I know this above title sounds a bit clickbaity – and to be honest, it is – proclaiming anything to “be dead” always sounds alarmist. But really, I don’t see a bright future for the medium I love.
Travel photography is either already dead, or is turning into something so far removed from the spirit of travel that it needs a new name entirely.
So what has triggered my latest bout of existentialism? Well, last week I was asked what could young travel photographers do today to build a career, to get noticed. Several answers sprung to mind, but none of these answers were positive. I realised then that I hold a pretty low opinion of the current state of the travel photography scene.
Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time researching articles and generally assessing examples of travel photography available in the media – and to be frank, my once high opinion of travel photography has since crumbled.
Why Do I Care?
Being a travel photographer and an educator by profession, I felt duty-bound to find out more about what could be done today in the field of travel photography. I see a lot of young, enthusiastic (and talented) photographers getting down by the lack of opportunities they face as the industry they wish to join continues its race to be the cheapest.
Now, I should say that I’m not the first to predict the death of travel photography. Far from it. As you will see in this article, it’s been a decade or more since travel photography was read its last rites. And yet it’s still clinging to life, just about – although it’s in very bad shape.
First of all, I’ll address the problems that I believe travel photography has been facing for a decade, and why they could spell disaster. And secondly, I’ll offer some steps that young, would-be travel photographers might follow to build a more sustainable career.
The State of Travel Photography… Yesterday
Nowadays, everyone has a camera in their pocket. Of course, this isn’t a new thing!
With the rise of smartphones came a rise in would-be photographers – as almost anyone could take a pretty decent picture. On top of that, people could all of a sudden get in touch with anyone else on the other side of the planet. Travelling to far-flung places became cheaper and more accessible. The result? Travel photography was available to the masses.
(Psst… Don’t worry, I’m not about to bemoan the fact there are too many photographers in the world nowadays, or that it was better “before”.)
In any case, such was the climate back in 2007, when my friend Tewfic El Sawy eloquently discussed the state of travel photography on his blog:
“The confluence of many factors contributed to the evolution of “travel” photography. The relatively cheap travel, the accessibility of the ‘off-the-beaten-path’ places, computers, digital photography and all its hardware and software accoutrements, the Internet, mini-stock agencies and free photo hosting websites, to name but a few, are all factors that changed traditional ‘travel’ photography industry.”
What all this has meant is that the job of a “professional travel photographer” – flying around the world to exotic locations and being paid for it – no longer exists. Except, that is, for a very small number of top-tier names who are still used. More often than not, it’s for the prestige of having their name attached to a photo than for the quality or originality of their compositions.
Instead, there are more and more people travelling who take really good pictures, who do so for free and who are happy to share them.
Andrea Pistolesi talked about this in 2010:
“[…] the Travel Publications are gone, with a few exceptions. The big international magazines are still there, but with a badly reduced number of pages, of readers, of stories. And, what’s worst, with confused identities and scopes. Even generic magazines have renounced their travel section after they had produced, or just worsened the specialized one’s crisis.”
Technically, things have also evolved between then and now. Many photographers are surfing the popularity of the drone thing. Many others now shoot on smaller, mirrorless cameras. And there is also the lens sphere…
But this article isn’t about the technical changes that photography itself has experienced. (That’s surely a part of it, but not my focus this time.) I think jumping on new technologies is part of what travel photography is becoming, but at the end of the day, these technologies are still only tools. Photography is still photography.
The State of Travel Photography… Today
I know quite a few travel photographers. I’ve met many on my travels and many others have passed through Vietnam on their tours of Asia. From what I have seen, fewer and fewer of these photographers manage to make a proper living from it.
The days of making money from selling stock travel images is over. Today, a lot of those who once made money this way have switched to stock video, allowing them to create more specialized work, which appeals to niche markets and is destined to a specific client or type of publication.
Rohn Engh describes this very well: “[Stock photographers] have narrowed their personal expertise down to a point where they are no longer available to produce just about any kind of photo. They have planted their flag as a specialist, much like the segmentation in other professions – medicine, education, law.”
But because everyone takes photos today, the value of general still images is close to nothing.
And let’s be honest: it is extremely difficult today to make a living by selling prints. Some big names are doing this successfully but it requires a certain level of popularity and reputation.
For years, most publications (if not all) have been cutting the budgets available for photographers. Sending a photographer to the other side of the world for a few images, when talented photographers are available locally, must be viewed as a form of madness to any in-house accountant. And if some of the big publications do still operate this way, then they are simply too few and far between to offer the requisite opportunities to young emerging photographers.
Now, you could always run photography tours and workshops – but once again, this requires a certain reputation, and experience, as well as years of good reviews. Something that is not easy for a blossoming photographer to obtain. It’s much easier to sell photography tours if you can call yourself a “Nat Geo Photographer”.
Note: I recently Googled “how to make money as a travel photographer?” and I found an interesting article on Joris Hermans’ website. Joris recommends the following: teach photography, write and blog about photography, sell photos online, sell affiliate products, and run workshops as well as using platforms like Patreon.
And I must agree with Joris on the fact that today, photographers can’t rely on one source of income – unless they are doing extremely well within a specific niche. Even at that, it’s very risky putting all your eggs in the same basket. What if a huge and unforeseen disruption appears on the horizon? Like, oh, I don’t know, a global pandemic, for example?! Exactly.
What Travel Photography Represents Now
Unfortunately, travel photography has become the opposite of what travel is all about! Travelling is about exploring new horizons, experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. It is about stepping outside your bubble and having your preconceptions upended. It’s about the world around you. It’s not about you, the photographer. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be only about you.
Yet this is what the new trends in travel photography look like: the “take my hand” thing or “look at my tight shorts” thing. It’s all “look at me”, “look I’m travelling”, “look how cool I am”. But let’s not focus on the “weird people around us”…
I’m of the belief that, over the past few years (and probably more), travel photography has morphed into an uncreative digital soup of self-glorification.
After quickly Googling “travel photography trends”, I found this article, which informed me the most popular travel photos are…
• “Making a heart shape with your fingers” – seemingly in front of any background, no matter how boring.
• “Holding the sun in your hand” – a variation of that classic people used to do with the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
• “Leading by the hand”, very popular on beaches, or tops of skyscrapers.
• “Hot dog legs” – who would have thought this would’ve caught one, but I suppose you don’t even have to get out of your sun lounger to get the “likes” for this one.
• “The bikini bridge” – I have no words for this one.
Got your bags packed? Ready for an exciting year filled with heart-shaped hands and bikini bridges? I hate to say it but in a way, it’s probably a good thing the pandemic has grounded all flights – at least, if this is all that travel has become.
By the way, the title of that article explains it very well: “Travel photography trends in the age of Instagram, Facebook & Co”.
This is at the heart of what’s changed. We still largely take photos the same way (with a few technological updates). But what has changed is where we display our images, and the motivation we have for displaying these images. And for this, I blame the new “norm” of human behaviour, created by social media and photography competitions.
The Problem With Social Media
Call me “old school” if you want (cos I am), but being a “successful” travel photographer now is more about amassing followers on social media than actually knowing how to take good photos. It is all about showing the world that you’re “famous” by faking the game as much as you can.
There’s no need to discuss the fact that social media today is mostly about showing a facade of yourself. It’s the “me, me, me” way of thinking. And it has greatly influenced travel photography today.
The Huffpost wrote about it in 2015: “More followers, be it friends or strangers, mean more likes and a higher status; those followers become the building blocks of social media success, and chiefly a source of self-esteem. In the exact same way narcissists crave a lot of impressive acquaintances, social media users desire tons of followers to inflate their online personas.”
“Look at me, I’m standing on a big rock. Yeah, I know, it looks dangerous…but hey, I’m a badass risk-taker!”
“Look at my girlfriend’s ass, isn’t she hot? And look – she’s also standing on a big rock. Yeah, cos she’s a badass world explorer just like me!”
If I didn’t know much about photography, but I saw a cool photo on Instagram with thousands of “likes” taken by a user with half a million followers, I would probably think they must be a big shot. That they must be famous, critically acclaimed and most of all, an amazing photographer. That’s why all those people chose to follow them, right?
Errr, not quite. It’s probably not the case. The thing is, quality and quantity hardly ever go hand in hand – just look at how many people go to watch truly terrible films! Social media is all about building an audience…and then leveraging that audience by convincing others they should be part of it, too. It’s the snowball effect.
And how do you build an audience? Well, you could give the platforms themselves all your money, in which case they’ll display your images to a lot of people, hence you’ll gain a lot of followers.
Or you could spend your days glued to your phone, frantically liking, commenting, following (unfollowing later as it’s uncool to be following too many people), liking again. And adding all those horrible freaking emojis at the end of your sentences that make no sense.
And if you’re spending all your time, effort and money building a following, guess what you’re not doing? You’re not creating. You’re not perfecting your craft. Well, you are perfecting a different craft – as a social media expert – but you certainly aren’t as a photographer!
Even if you’re not spending hours on your phone yourself, you’ve likely outsourced the work by subscribing to services that again, in exchange for money, will guarantee as many followers as you can afford. They might do this with bots that with help boost your faux-lowing. (Sorry, but I am proud of that one!) Or, if you pay more, they’ll do all the mindless following, liking and commenting on your behalf.
Whichever means you choose, the result of all this fakery is kinda the same – it’s a facade. You’re pretending you’re someone you are not. No matter what you may say in your bio, you are not a travel photographer – because you’re too busy engineering a community to love you that you forgot to learn how to take interesting images.
The result of all this fakery? The genre of travel photography starts to stagnate and die.
As photographers, we sometimes do Instagram “takeovers”. And it is suspiciously weird, when posting on an Instagram account with hundreds of thousands of followers, you get one solitary new follower in return. I mean, maybe my images are just plain bad, but statistically, even if some had pushed the “follow” button by accident, I should be getting more!
What this tells me is that most of that account’s following is fake – compiled by either bots or people without a genuine interest in travel photography, maybe people who were tricked into following that account because that account previously followed their own amazing “cooking adventures”.
As Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky says on one of his lectures: “we don’t classify the quality of a painter by checking how many colours they are using”. The same way, we shouldn’t classify a photographer as being great by the number of cameras they own, or by the number of followers they have.
On top of that (and I am really gonna sound like an angry old man now), most casual viewers on social media are going to be pleased by a very simple photographic recipe. The ingredients of which are strong colours, a nice filter and the pretence that the account holder is an adventurer. But these images are, in the end, all the same. Constantly posting “epic” images has made epic images the norm, and thus, boring.
Insta-worthy has replaced worthy
Nowadays, photographs have to be “insta-worthy”. They don’t have to be creative, original, or even remotely interesting. All they have to do is feed the masses.
I see photographers on Instagram with huge followings reposting the same images (sometimes with a minor variation) every couple of months. They have 40 “wow” images, and they keep feeding them to people over and over again. And as people have already been hammered with so many travel photos it seems they don’t even remember these images, the ones they’ve seen before. But they still hit that “like” button, because come on: “Wow! It’s so easy to digest!”
And often – because what matters is that all your followers perceive you as someone special – you forget your ethics and find yourself pretending that you took your photo while heroically exploring a remote region, one untouched by tourism…when in reality, you joined a morning photography tour with a group where this fantastic photo opportunity was served up on a plate.
You know who you are. There are so many of you out there doing morally dubious things just like I’ve described. And getting away with it.
Also, if you haven’t already, you might want to wise up to what’s going on with the platforms you love so dearly. Because I’ve seen how the social media monster has evolved.
Oh sure, everything was free and friendly at first – but now that you’re hooked, you’re a vassal of its influence. Even your followers, the ones you’ve spent years gathering, don’t see what you post unless you pay Facebook Inc to display it to them. The game is lost, my friends – but the good news is, there’s no need to keep going this way! Fewer and fewer people will be reached by your images (unless you’re also the one with the deepest pockets). So maybe it’s time to practise a little creativity again, of genuine passion for the art of photography. Just a thought.
Of course, this is nothing new…
I reached out to photographer Bob Krist, who was already talking about the death of travel photography 10 years ago. What Bob mentioned back then is that all the beautiful, clichéd postcard images had been taken already. So what else could photographers do? He concluded that they could tell stories. They could find a nice magazine or publication that would be interested in real and unique stories, and not just the single Taj Mahal postcard shot. He even compared this style of travel photography to the burgeoning (at the time) slow food movement. Something to be savoured rather than rushed.
So recently I asked Bob if, ten years after he wrote that article, his opinion had changed. As you can see, it hasn’t.
“I believe that “travel” photography will have a life still, but hopefully not the “trophy-hunting” life it has on Instagram. Thanks to Instagram, we all herd around like cattle to the same views, with the same sexy girlfriends, and shoot them with their arms reaching to the sky (keep the skirt nice and short though, please, sweetie, cuz you know that’s what draws views).
We do “travel videos” on YouTube that don’t feature one interaction with the local population but feature lots of “hero” shots of our video’s creator, looking epic as the drone sweeps around him and just makes him look so….cool, dude. It’s an orgy of narcissism.”
An “orgy of narcissism”. Thank you, Bob, for finding the perfect phrase.
So, let’s say you don’t want to play the social media game, or you don’t have the time or finances to compete. Well, fortunately, there is another way. There are throngs of photography competitions out there waiting to spot your talent and proclaim you the next best travel photographer. Or are there?
The Problem With Travel Photography Competitions
If you’ve visited this site before you will know I’m not the biggest fan of travel photography competitions. It’s something I have discussed at length before. So I’ll just touch on it briefly here.
Today, the number of photography competitions out there is head-spinning. And it’s easy to understand why. It’s a simple money-making formula. Build a website, find free judges in the form of young emerging photographers and promise them a ton of exposure. Get hopeful photographers to enter their photos for a tidy fee, make a pile of cash and then repeat. Easy cash.
So you could enter some of these competitions, and hope to win and get noticed. But the problem with these competitions is that they cost money to enter. Let’s say, $25 a competition. So photographers with more money can enter more competitions and increase their odds of winning.
Once again, those with the deepest pockets are the ones most likely to succeed.
On top of that, most travel photo competitions today are judged by unqualified people and who will award (seemingly identical) Insta-worthy images because this is what they think works. It’s no longer about talent, originality or creativity, it is no longer about art. It’s about who can take the “wowest” photo using the tried and tested recipe for success.
If you want to see just how ridiculous it has become, just look at what happened last month with the Moscow International Foto competition. Or what happened in 2017 with hipa competition.
Remember that image? I already talked about it when listing all the “fake” travel images coming out of Asia. Well, apparently it did win another International photo competition… again! Thank you for proving my point, every year.
Oh, and by the way, to any young and emerging photographers who may be reading this: Exposure doesn’t pay the bills or put food on your table. Remember that. Winning – or even judging – a photo competition and having your name mentioned on an obscure website that no one has ever heard of will likely NOT bring you any further “success”.
I know a lot of people who have been featured in Nat Geo and have had no benefit from it. So if appearing on one of the world’s most famous sites has no impact, appearing on the website of an obscure new photo competition probably won’t either.
And while we are talking about the illustrious and hallowed pages of National Geographic (read my slightly sarcastic tone)…
…The Problem With Travel Photography Magazines
Wow. I mean. Wow! In the world of travel photography is there any title that holds more gravitas than National Geographic? This is the magazine that brought us Steve McCurry and many more. That amazing yellow rectangle! It’s the reason many of us got into travel photography in the first place. Inspiring us, telling us to explore the future, to push boundaries.
But it also tells us, in the form of extensive terms and conditions, that Nat Geo (plus their partners) can publish our images, use them however they want, sell them, make coffee mugs with them…and not even inform us that they’re doing it. This is my favourite sentence:
“National Geographic Partners’ use of such User Content shall not require any further notice or attribution to you and such use shall be without the requirement of any permission from or any payment to you or any other person or entity.”
Yes, National Geographic: promoting photographers around the world. Or rather: using them as much as they want for free to fill the beautiful pages of their magazine. There used to be a sharing spirit in the early days of photo sharing (call it Flickr or even 500px) that has since been corrupted. Some publications have abused the system to a point that they can now create entire sections of their magazines without having to spend a single dime on images.
Obviously they do pay photographers (about $500 a day from my research) when they send them on assignments. But for any other photographers willing to be featured on their website or social media, there is no money available.
Or when they pay you, for using your image as a magazine cover, it may take 6 years, after a lot of messaging and complaining, as photographer Mustafa Turgut experienced.
You can enter their online photo competition for a chance to be featured. You can fill their beautiful pages for free. But in the end, you will get nothing in return. Exposure simply does not pay for your rent. And, to be honest, being “published in Nat Geo magazine” means nothing anymore. I meet such photographers almost every week. And it’s been a long time since I was impressed.
In fact, it’s become something of a joke – as a common email I now receive contains a variation of the line, “I have been published in Nat Geo Your Shot website please give me a discount on your photo workshop”. True story.
Like I said, I know many people who’ve had photos published in Nat Geo magazine. I’m even talking about a double-page spread in the hard copy version of the magazine. When I’ve asked them whether it’s helped their careers, they’ve told me that nothing has changed.
On the other hand, I know other publications that will nicely ask you for your image for their next edition – and they’ll pay you some money for it. Because, you know, you worked for the image. You put time and effort into it creating it and they respect that. You can actually find lists here and here of publications that pay photographers.
Of course, it’s not just Nat Geo – most publications and even social media now work this way (the first way). But it is Nat Geo that is the most disappointing. They have always been the pinnacle and now they seem to be racing to the bottom with the rest: “Oh, but the other magazines are doing it so we can do it too.”
If National Geographic pretends to be a great supporter for photographers and videographers today, it should at least pay them for their work.
The Problem of Getting Noticed Today
The biggest change in the last ten years is that the “prestigious magazines”, who used to be the ones showing us what a great travel photo is, have lost their ability to do so.
Bob Krist has rightly called these magazines the gatekeepers of travel photography:
“One of the great things that happened with the rise of the internet and the demise of magazines is that the “gatekeepers”, the photo editors, were gone and anyone could publish. But the collateral damage of losing those arbiters of taste is that we have been reduced to the lowest common denominator, and that seems to be a narcissistic approach to travel photography that says, “Look at me, aren’t’ I cool, and isn’t my girlfriend hot?” instead of actually interacting with locals and giving us a view of the local culture.
So, hopefully, because we have to stick closer to home by and large, we’ll look deeper. We’ll remember that travel is about meeting other people, not about filming ourselves, and we’ll begin to use it again as a tool to explore, rather than a vehicle to promote.”
And it isn’t just travel magazines, there used to be art museum owners, gallery curators, book publishers, etc… that would all lead the way in promoting innovative work. (These things rarely happen anymore, because everyone is glued to their phones and does not spend the time needed to explore new forms of art.)
But all of this is over. Everywhere has been travelled. Photo books no longer sell. Most competitions don’t have skilled judges to determine what is talent or innovation. Galleries don’t display travel photographs anymore. Why would they, everyone went on holiday there last year!
In the past, it was left to someone knowledgeable with years of experience to examine photos and announce: “this is the best new photographer”. Today, travel photographers don’t need approval from their peers, they don’t need to be evaluated by anyone who knows anything about photography, they can just announce their brilliance to the world themselves and use their knowledge of the system to “buy” a million followers.
And many do. And I don’t blame them. They know how the system works and they exploit it well.
But wait, are we still talking about travel photography?
You may have noticed that since beginning this quite long rant/article, I haven’t even mentioned the art of photography itself. The composition, the locations, the ability to capture moments, etc… Because it simply isn’t relevant in today’s age of social media.
Nowadays, the form is the most important factor: the way the images are presented, not the images themselves. But the message behind these images is as flat as the Mekong Delta (which, if you haven’t been, is really very flat indeed).
It’s no longer about photography; it is about marketing.
Instant gratification is the greatest creativity killer
Both social media and photography competitions have created this situation. (Along with our cherished capitalist leaders, who make us believe that we can be happy right now if we consume all we can.) Take a photo yesterday, become famous today. It’s about instant gratification, which, I believe is the most counterproductive thing that has ever happened to creativity and art in the history of humanity.
But what’s this I hear?
“Alright, alright, Etienne, settle down. Lots of criticism here. Obviously, you’re an angry man who hates social media, photo competitions and photographers who think that being famous means being talented. But please, please, for the love of all things holy, tell me what can I do to become a travel photographer?!”
Ok, then. But only since you asked so nicely.
Question: What can would-be travel photographers do to build a career?
As I’ve said at length, the problem I have with travel photography is that most people end up taking the same photos. Either to get likes on social media or to win photography competitions – either way, it destroys creativity within the field of travel photography. Everything is the same bland purée of over-chewed pretty photos, which make you feel jealous about a life you’ll never have.
Since travel photography has never received the attention and the boundaries that documentary photography has, I think people don’t really care about it, which is why no one ever talks about the ethics in travel photography. It is seen as a hobby more than a serious discipline. Which is why the answers to all the questions I pose about it can’t be found online.
The way I see it, it’s quite simple: all the things we talked about previously – social media, magazines and photo competitions – are only tools to help you get some exposure. But they are NOT what you should be giving priority to.
The priority should go to the photography part, to the creativity and the practice of the craft.
The secret is in creativity. You can do all the social media, vlogging, reviews, etc… (And you should be doing it, because everyone else is, and this is where people go to have a look at travel photos.) But the marketing side shouldn’t be the focus of your time, care and attention.
Note: In a very interesting article about capitalism and social media, Carolina Cambre describes this issue very well:
“We must join the [social media] party to some extent or be on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
You don’t have to give up on these tools – of course, you need people to be able to see you, to find you, but do not make these things the primary focus of your photography. They are not photography! They are only tools that come and go.
Social media today is only a vehicle that helps to spread your images, but the species is evolving rather quickly: with new algorithms, new social media popping up here and there, and algorithm changes that can quickly destroy empires you have spent years building (thanks, Facebook). Not to mention the fact that the law is evolving quickly and sometimes with dramatic turnbacks.
Your long-term success will not come from being a good Facebooker. Because someone, somewhere is a better Facebookerer than you are. Your success will come from coming up with creative images, by inspiring yourself from the different styles of photography available (documentary, street, etc…) and by refining your craft. Not the bullshit craft, the photography craft. Shooting a lot. Practise, practise, practise.
1- Understand that there are no shortcuts
Last week I met up with my friend Hai Thanh in Hoi An. Hai Thanh is a very well -respected photographer here in Vietnam, and I knew he would have some great insights to give for this article.
When I asked Hai Thanh about what he’d recommend to young emerging travel photographers, the answer he gave related to his own story.
“I think photographers should first try to receive recognition from the photography community. By working on your craft, being patient and submitting images on forums or discussion groups, you may slowly be able to acquire your style, and the community will recognize this. Obviously, these groups are managed by people who know about photography and have acquired a certain experience in the field. Then, people will start getting in touch with you, asking you information about how you take your images, etc… And then potential clients can find your work and get in touch”
If the goal you have set yourself is to be a famous photographer in 6 months then Hai Thanh’s plan is not for you. If you want 500k followers on Instagram, Hai Thanh’s plan is also probably not for you. But if you want to genuinely develop your craft and get paid work doing something that interests you creatively, well then, maybe it is.
Be warned, however, it will take hard work, patience and there are no shortcuts.
2- Never stop experimenting
If, like many Insta-famous photographers today, your success relies on a certain type of image or style, you may be walking yourself towards the cliff. Some photographers amass a huge following because their images have certain colour tones, or are all shot from a drone, or are all close-up portraits of wrinkly old people with sad life stories, etc. It can be a good way to build a following but it could be a risky strategy for your long-term success.
First, people will start copying your images. But also, if they are a good marketer, they will start taking your followers, too. You might have done it first – and arguably better – but if you are a one-trick pony, you will always just end up being classed just one of those photographers who “do that one thing”
Your photography has to evolve. Creativity doesn’t stand still. If your success is based on one recipe, one template, you just won’t be able to survive in the long term. Trends change and people will get quickly bored of your same shit.
3- Understand that the final image isn’t the final product of your craft
Many “travel” photographers now will only travel to a location because they know it is guaranteed to give them the images that match their Insta-style. Some will even only travel to places if they can arrange their whole itinerary in advance, safe in the knowledge they can tick off certain “wow” pictures from a checklist in the most efficient time possible.
But how do they know in advance where the “wow” pictures are? Well, it is because someone has already been there, taken photos, shared them and bagged a ton of likes.
In addition to visiting the same location, what happens if you also know in advance exactly how you are going to take the photo to generate most likes and please your followers? This is a very planned and Cartesian way of doing things, but it leaves absolutely zero room for creativity.
Travelling in such a prescribed manner leaves no space for the unexpected, for getting lost, for meeting incredible people, seeing incredible things, telling beautiful and real stories and capturing something that maybe no one has captured before. It’s empty.
The process of travelling and taking photos, getting lost, learning how to deal with different light situations, and handling the unexpected, is the true final product of your travels. It is this that will allow you to hone your craft, it is this that will enable you to survive in your business in the long term. Because in the end, it is this that will make you a good photographer.
4- Don’t listen to the voices
Using myself as an example, I understand that this is the most difficult path. By forcing myself to not keep shooting what I normally shoot (and what my followers like), I have evolved in style over the years. But I have also lost many followers, the ones who loved what I used to shoot. They often tell me they miss my “wow” photos.
It is easy to listen to the voices and think that you have to keep pleasing your people. And if you are looking for a quick buck, maybe you should please your people and sell them some prints. But what happens once you’ve done this?
Let’s do a little test, do you remember a couple of photographers that you were seeing online every week? The new best photographers, featured on every photography website? And suddenly, when you think about those people, they’ve disappeared, and you don’t even remember their names completely?
I am sure, if you wrack your brain, you can find a few faded examples – but this happens constantly. A photographer surfs to prominence on a cool concept. And because it worked, they cling on to it. They didn’t evolve. People got bored. And they vanish again without a trace.
Not to mention how fast technologies change and how quickly your cool concept could become dated. Say you’re in your mid 20s and you want to be a full-time travel photographer. Think about how difficult it will be to catch up with the constant technological evolutions when you are 60. So what will you be doing then? This is no long-term solution.
5- Explore different fields and keep connected
Like any photographer in any type of photography, I believe it is a great exercise to explore as many fields as possible. I am mainly a travel photographer – but I also shoot weddings, commercial photos and videos. And I love street photography. Acquiring all these skills can only be a positive practice – it’ll give you the tools you need to come up with a more unique style. So you can take the best of it and apply it to your vision, your interests.
This will also allow you to detect new trends, developments in social media and different ways of thinking about photography today.
I would personally recommend that you try and tell better stories in your images, connecting with people to share an important message. Not just showing off with another epic sunrise.
You could also start to specialize in very specific niches. (The same way some commercial photographers do.) If you manage to find a great client who needs a very specific type of image, that could be the breakthrough you’re looking for. Just be careful not to put all your eggs in the same basket!
Of course, when I say: “travel photography is dead”, I should be more precise and say: “travel photography is changing”. And it always does, it evolves. But the direction in which it is evolving, into an “orgy of narcissism” as Bob Krist so gloriously described it, is, in my opinion, destroying what makes photography interesting in the first place. Namely, creativity.
Photographers are not the only ones to blame here: the general public, by constantly consuming these Insta-worthy images is also responsible for pushing photographers to produce more. But even so, as a photographer, you should be looking up – studying the work and opinions of the great photographers. Not looking down, at the people who don’t know about photography and asking them for their opinion.
After all, asking people for their opinions brought us great “successes” like Brexit. Let’s not do that again!
Cover picture by Quinn Ryan Mattingly.
Great article. Thank you for that. I’m 58 and started 6 years ago with photography. At the moment I call me a professional photographer with two jobs. I have two jobs because I love them both. It’s a passion. That choice helped me through the Covid period. Not only financial, but also mentally. And there was time to think about the future and time for making new plans. I started with one to one workshops and that was and is a hit. I’m also making plans for photo trips abroad. Somewhere I have the belief that there is a change going on that can be positive. I notice that there is a large group of people who long for less speed in their lives. People who prefer quality and sustainability. People also want real contact again. I get people in my workshops who actually only come for a conversation. So i think there is a future for us. I follow your work now for a long time and I am a big fan and learn a lot. Why don’t you educated me more on you Youtube channel for example. You came alive for me on that channel. I notice in my country that I am the brand Jaap Kroon Photography. Not my logo or my business. They even call me Jaapie instead of Jaap. It started because of my photos and they still like my photos, but they also wanna shake hands with me and talk with me. I deliver that without serious compromises. In my surrounding I notice people wanna slow down. I think we have to focus on people.I think we should focus on people who go for sustainability, quality and who also want to take the time. People continue to travel. They don’t go more often because it gets more expensive, but when they go they stay longer and want to get the most out of it. That is where our future lies. Best regards Jaap
Thanks, Jaapie for your comment! Teaching photography is indeed a very different thing than being a photographer (which is why it’s always so exciting even after over 10 years). Every student is different, and it always brings me great learning opportunities. Thanks for mentioning the youtube channel, I’d like to create more videos but these things take time. I shall try more 😉
I read your above reflexions with interest. I am not totally a stranger to some aspects you mention but I have certainly no ambition to become a professionnal photographer.
My interest in photography started when I was around 16 with a small Alpha camera. Then I went to University, got married, had children. I have been a traveller who took picturs during his vacations (not bikini bridges nor hearts with fingers,…) for souvenirs. I am now an old man aged 70 and photography has become a hobby. I want to take better and better pictures. When I travel I begin to be more interested in people than in landscapes (although landscapes can be great). So may be I am of an other era? Travelling to take pictures is a way to come out of my comfort zone to be confronted with the unexpected and try to increase my capacity to fix it in an image.