How To Make It As A Travel Photographer
The road less-travelled
By Luke Kelly
The life of a travel photographer is one that seems like a dream for a lot of people. Travelling the world, taking great photos and being paid for it seems like the perfect career, right? I spoke to professional travel photographer Conor MacNeill about what it takes to make it as a full-time travel photographer. MacNeill’s work has been featured in The Guardian and National Geographic, he received two honourable mentions in the 2016 iPhone Photography Awards and has been named by multiple publications as one of the top travel photographers on Instagram.
Although travel photography seems like a great career, it’s difficult to imagine that you can consistently earn an income through it, and this is the first thing I ask him. “You can make money from it?” he laughs.
MacNeill explains that he began his photography career by selling his images on stock photography sites while working a completely separate day job. The quality of his stock photos eventually earned him a reputation as a photographer to watch.
“After gaining more followers on social media, I started to get job offers,” MacNeill recalls, “This was more to do with my marketing potential than my actual photography, but I wasn’t one to complain about it!”
He continued to experiment with different photography techniques and hone his craft for around five years. With increasing frequency, others soon began to ask if he ran photography classes, as they were keen to learn from him. At that point, he started planning a potential transition from his job as a web developer to pursue photography full-time, not realising that the decision would soon be made for him.
“After nine years with the same company, I was suddenly jobless. That pretty much forced me to immediately become a professional photographer.”
“I had registered my company, set up a business bank account and was working on a timeline for the change. I figured I had maybe a year to build up a client base and get my name out there. Then one day, I (alongside a number of other people) was made redundant. After nine years with the same company, I was suddenly jobless. That pretty much forced me to immediately become a professional photographer.”
Now without an income, MacNeill’s focus switched from tinkering and experimenting with his technique to generating revenue from his craft.
His first paid gig came from an Instagram follower, who asked if he’d be interested in helping with some product photography. “It was actually a fashion shoot instead of my usual travel and landscape stuff, but I thought what the hell, I’ll give this a go,” he explains. The shoot was a success, and from there, MacNeill began to be referred to other clients.
Establishing a strong online presence is key to generating an audience as any photographer living in 2016, including MacNeill, will attest. “Having a decent social media following can really help being a travel photographer these days,” he says, pointing out that social media platforms are particularly lucrative for photographers producing shareable images. Many of his clients to date have discovered him through Facebook or Instagram.
The flipside to this is the struggle of getting paid in an age where so many people believe that because photography is so ubiquitous across social media, it therefore isn’t worth anything. “I’d advise against working for free,” MacNeill warns. “People (both clients and would-be photographers) think that because you are shooting in a foreign country and staying in a hotel that this is reward enough. It doesn’t matter where you’re working, you’re still working and deserve to get paid for your effort and talents.”
Getting paid to shoot in holiday destinations that many people can only dream about still sounds much better than any office job, although as MacNeill points out, it isn’t as glamorous as many people would believe. “Firstly, travel photography isn’t one of the best paid branches of photography,” he points out. “Like a number of freelance jobs, the work can be quite sporadic; feast or famine as they say. When you have nothing booked for the rest of the year, it can be quite daunting.”
Other misconceptions about travel photographers jetsetting off to a new glamorous country every week and editing shots in sun-baked cafes are equally misguided. “Sadly, it’s not quite like that at all!” exclaims MacNeill “The travelling can get very tiring and disorienting — I’ll often wake up not knowing where I am. You also have to get endless vaccinations and I’ve now become best friends with my sports massage guy after all my hiking on trips.”
Being a travel photographer is a constant learning process, and he’s still figuring things out — both from a business and creative perspective. “I wouldn’t say that I have an established business model, but I’m getting better at it. My aims for the future are to develop more of a passive income, as I know I can’t travel and hike forever. I’d also like to start doing more photography workshops in my favourite locations and work alongside some of my favourite people.”
MacNeill is quick to remind me that his journey was a long one, and is still ongoing. For aspiring travel photographers, he would advise them to remain diligent. “It’s hard work, so don’t get too discouraged! It’s not often that everything falls into place right away, so put in the work and hopefully the rewards will follow.”