During the past few years I’ve gotten more and more emails from travel-photography-wannabes all over the globe. The three most frequently asked questions seem to be one of the following, or a variation:
#1 Can you guide me on becoming a travel photographer and how I can make a living from it?
#2 Would you look at my photos and tell me what you think?
#3 Would you tell me how you got to where you are?
Believe me, I take it as a huge compliment that people would first think I’m someone that has “made” it and I appreciate their taking the time to write me. At the same time though, a lot of these emails get frustrating – very frustrating. And time? They take up a lot of time which I don’t have very much of, but I feel obligated in trying to answer – to help in any way I can.
I’ve also sent out emails to professional photographers whose work I’ve admired and respected. Maybe I wouldn’t even be where I am today if some of those folks hadn’t taken the time to answer MY emails. They almost all gave me great advice that helped move my career on down the road and improve as a shooter, so I guess I feel a little obligated to continue passing along what they did for me.
There’s a big difference though between the emails that I get and the ones that I used to send. The biggest difference is that my emails were specific. A lot of what I get is general, so “up-in-the-air” (i.e., the questions I mentioned earlier). To answer vague questions like these means that I have to come up with an essay in response to each one. Sorry, I’m not that great a writer to pump out essays on a consisten basis, so when someone asks me a vague or general question, I respond with a vague or general answer.
The majority of the photographers that email me are still in the infancy stages of their journey. If this is you, then before you ask ANY OTHER QUESTION, make sure that there is someone who actually wants to see or cares about your photographs.
How do you go about this? First create a body of work and start to show it to people who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings. This means not asking your mom, dad, sister, brother or best friend. This means asking photographers whose work you respect and another option is to post your photos in one of the many online “critique” websites to see what people really thing.
Let me define a body of work. I’m talking about having AT LEAST 50 images which are truly exceptional and worthwhile. This will probably take you a couple of years to gather. Don’t expect anyone to take your work seriously if all you have in your portfolio are snapshots from family holidays or “eye-popping” images from your first trip to India or wherever.
Another question I’m asked often is, “How do I earn a living as a travel photographer?”
Well, sorry, but there’s no simple answer to that. The entire industry is changing quickly. If you’re still in the process of accumulating that body of work I mentioned earlier, then chances are that by the time you finish even more changes will have taken place and then any advice I give you today will be useless.
I don’t have all the answers and I could just tell you that making money with travel photographry is difficult and yada-yada-yada, but you probably have already – or shout have – heard that. I can only share with you my observations from my journeys and here they are:
First, get yourself a website. Nothing screams AMATEUR and BEGINNER like showing your photos on Facebook or Flickr. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – I do it too. But if you don’t have a web presence then you are sabotaging yourself before you start. What prospective travel agent will give you that dream gig in Maui if you refer them to your Flickr account when they ask – which they will – to see samples of your work?
Second, getting published is great. It feels wonderful to see your work in print. Don’t expect too much from it though in the way of financial reward. Sure you could all it “making-a-living” but only in countries where you might be able to live on $20 a day.
Now, if you want, I’ll be glad to look at and critique your photos – with a caveat. Let me mention that if you send me photos via email I will be very pissed off. Much of the time when I travel I have a really lousy internet connection which isn’t much better than two tin cans and a piece of string. When I do get a good enough connection to check email, critiquing your photos is low on my list of priorities, no matter how great they are. The one exception is if you want to ask a really, Really, REALLY specific question about no more than two images, I’ll answer. Just make sure to compress them and keep them at around 150kb each.
Firstly, let me mention that if you send me photos via email, I will be very pissed off. A lot of the time when I travel (which is most of the time) I have a really crappy internet connection and I have other priorities as far as email goes, no matter how wonderful your photos are. The exception is, if you want to ask a really specific question about no more than a couple of images. Just make sure to compress them and keep them at no more than 150kb each.
Even when you send a link to your files, be specific. If you have hundreds of photos on your Flickr account I’m not going to take my time to sort through them all. Here’s a thought: create a small gallery of no more than ten of your VERY BEST images and send me a direct link. That will give me a good enough idea of where you’re at and enable me to give you some general thoughts about your work.
Keep in mind if you want me to be specific with my answers, then be specific with your questins. Be specific with what image on which you want feedback and no, I won’t have the time to tell you what I think about each and every one of them.
At the end of the day, don’t get angry or down on yourself if I don’t gush with enthusiasm over your work. That’s what your friends and family are supposed to do. My guess is that if you’re asking for a critique, then you want an honest answer. Unless your work is truly great and off the charts (which is very rare for those who are starting out and haven’t built a portfolio) I’ll give you some constructive advice.
But keep in mind, it’s only MY opinion. I might end up being a moron and you a genius who sells their work for millions of dollars one day. Also keep in mind that if you don’t really want a critique or my “ruthless” opinion, then don’t ask me to look at your work.
What’s my story?
Well, my story is still being written. But if you’re really interested, you can go to my website, JourneyAmerica.org and learn about where I’ve been and where I am. You won’t find out about where I’m going because that chapter hasn’t been written yet and I try to make a conscious effort to live life one day at a time.
OK, so all that about sums it up. Feel free to contact me with whatever SPECIFIC questions you might have. Here’s a freebie piece of advice though: If you plan to send ANY emails to magazine editors, you’d better make sure you follow the rule about being specific and to the point. Otherwise you won’t get a reply because it wasn’t read.
Oh yah, one more thing: When you get a response from me, it would be nice to acknowledge it. Like a “thank you I received your email” or something. I’m surprised how many people never do that, only to send me an email a month later, with another question. Not cool. If I’ve put in the effort to write something, it would be good to know if it’s at least been reached the person asking the question.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist. Recognized nationally in the United States, he currently is based in Buenos Aires. Contact him via his website to arrange a meeting to discuss your photographic needs.
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