“I take great pictures, how can I get my photos published?”
I picked up my first professional camera – the Nikon D90 – in November of 2008. The same month I packed my bags and went to Jamaica on sabbatical.
My first “major” publication came 8 months later, in the UK Guardian. And I wasn’t even pitching hard or living and breathing publication yet before that.
Three and a half years, lots of self- teaching and practice, one class and several publications and paid assignments later – I’ve learned a ton about this profession. And I still continue to learn.
For starters, let’s be clear – vacation photos are not the same as publication-worthy travel photographs. (I know. I had to say it.)
Seriously, if I had a penny for every person who thinks his or her photos are ready for publication I would be on a round-the-world trip right now. Nothing wrong with confidence but in this field, as in most, a blend of knowledge, hard work and realism will get you farther every time.
What was the one best thing I did from the start, besides learning and practice? I shared my work online. I had no strategy at first. I was just sharing my passion for travel, culture and music. I had always posted my vacation photos before, but when I went on sabbatical in 2008, it felt different. I was now documenting life in another country and traveling long-term, and I wanted others to learn and live through my photos. Your objective may be another, but in the end, it comes down to sharing your particular message.
Below are basic guidelines for those who have a growing passion in travel photography and want to take it to the next level.
Ten tips and steps to getting started with “exposing” your work. Because that’s what you have to do first, for it to lead to publication and opportunities. It’s what I did and it worked for me.
1. Master the nuts and bolts of photography
There are no corners to cut – you have to learn and understand the basics of photography first. And after you learn, keep mastering them. Shoot every day if you can.
Yes, it takes just a little time to understand shutter speed, aperture, ISO and other important aspects. Growing pains, people. You simply must have a good grasp on the technical side if you want to go places in the publication world. Learn why some shots attract the eye more than others, how to avoid blown out photos, how to capture action and movement, and low light. You can >> start with this post I wrote last year.
And by the way – you can learn with a point and shoot first, in fact you should. I did for several years before upgrading to a Nikon D90 (an excellent choice for SLR beginnings).
Should you take a photography course? That’s a personal decision. I’m self-taught – I did a lot of research and reading and asking before I purchased my first couple of lenses and camera body. And then I learned from reading, shooting, practicing over and over and by being thrown into situations. I only signed up for a course after 2 years of shooting, and the main two reasons were that I admired one of the instructors leading the class at MatadorU at the time and I wanted to learn more about the business of photography, blogging and getting more publications.
2. Shoot what makes your heart smile
This one is big, even if it seems obvious. With time you’ll notice what you like to photograph the most, what calls you to pick up that camera. It was instinctive for me to shoot what made me smile or feel – but it wasn’t until my mentor said it that it clicked and I started being conscious about it so I could maybe find a pattern down the line.
Passion transfers through photos. The more of it there is, the more authentic your image and the more your photos stand out from everyone else’s. I believe it’s what made my work stand out – from my vibrant island shots to my niche in concert (and low light) photography.
3. Put your work online and post regularly
In photography as in all things, networking and exposure are key. And how lucky we are to have so many tools available free and at our fingertips – on the Internet. Social media is the new “word of mouth”. Use it to your advantage.
There’s Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram, Pinterest. Did I forget one? It’s amazing. Of course there’s also creating your own website or photo blog with WordPress.
That being said, don’t get overwhelmed if you’re new at this. I recommend starting with a couple of sharing platforms: your own photo blog or site (use a free WordPress.org theme and have your own URL) and Flickr Pro.
Flick Pro is just $19.99 a year – you get unlimited storage but more importantly, it’s one of the most wonderful online sharing and networking tools for photographers. You get to add your images to certain “interest” groups if you like (say, concert photography) in addition to having your own photostream. Flickr allows you to view others’ work and expose yours to an audience you wouldn’t normally have access to. It’s also a good way to determine whether your photos are appreciated and which attract attention. Flickr tracks your “stats” and shows you your most viewed photos, most favorited and how many daily views you’re getting.
Consistently posting my images on Flickr from the start and tagging them appropriately – as well as of course, having an eye – is what got me noticed by fellow photographers and yes, even editors. Many photo editors scour the net for “Creative Commons” or free photos (unfortunately) but also for new talent. But when they stumble on someone whose work they want but is marked “All Rights Reserved”, they will reach out.
Who found me on Flickr? Lonely Planet Magazine. No kidding. The photo editor loved my Jamaica stream and I filled a niche for her. Of course the initial email was an opportunity, not a guarantee, but that’s all you need. One chance. Be ready!
From there I got two photos published, one in Lonely Planet Magazine and some time later, one in the Lonely Planet Mini Guide to Jamaica. The editor came back to me that second time because she remembered her Jamaica photo source and I had delivered what she wanted quickly and without fuss. I’m just bummed she’s no longer there.
It’s a lot of work, to post and share regularly but consistency and hard work are a big part of success in travel photography. As they say “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
4. Caveat: Be picky with what you share
When you’re posting your photos online, be very selective. Less is more. Please don’t post poorly composed, poorly exposed images. If you’re thinking twice about it before posting, that’s a sign you shouldn’t.
5. Enter photo contests. Again. And again.
The web is full of awesome photography contests. It’s a great way to expose your work as well as learn from editors’ selections. Notice what you’re feeling when you view the winning shots: what made them work? What made you feel? Use them for inspiration (not duplication).
Here’s one current photo contest and it’s free to boot. (Note: always read the terms and conditions before you enter any contest.)
National Geographic Traveler as well as other outlets such as Smithsonian Magazine offer free entry annual competitions, so there’s no excuse not to try. Google “travel photo contests” and you’ll see what I mean.
Earlier this year, the New York Times Magazine ran a special Readers’ Contest entitled “Cultural Pilgrimage”. I saw and I knew I had to try – culture is my thing. So I entered because I felt my image was a good fit and because I have confidence in my work. That’s the only time I will enter. I ended up being selected from among thousands of entries. If I hadn’t tried, I would have remained in the sea of unknowns.
It’s a personal choice to enter contests that charge a fee. Some are worth trying for if you’re in a particular travel niche, like ISLANDS Magazine’s annual contest.
6. Read travel magazines
Viewing what gets published in top publications or in your favorite ones, will give you some clues. Subscribe if you need, or head to your nearest bookstore to view some samples. Don’t forget about digital travel magazines as well. Once again, the web is your friend.
7. Create a gallery on the big sites
Did you know you can have your own travel photo gallery on National Geographic for free? There’s a section called “My Shot” where you can register and upload one photo a week. The editors will then select one image of the day as well as the week’s selections of the best “My Shot” entries. It’s a great way to get your work seen by the best in the business. And you never know when you’ll catch their eye. I haven’t submitted as often as I should have – but I’m back on it now.
8. Get a mentor (or two)
Wondering whether you have what it takes? That’s why the universe created mentors. Official or unofficial, this is someone with whom you’ve established a networking relationship, has experience and will give you honest feedback. Someone whose talent you admire.
Of course, you shouldn’t let anyone discourage you from pursuing what you love, but you should listen to a professional’s feedback on your work. Also, be respectful of their time when asking questions – be short and concise and save it for when you need it.
I had a great unofficial mentor in Lola Akinmade. She even quickly answered my frantic email from Grenada one morning when I needed input on negotiating licensing and payment terms with the Grenada Tourism Board.
9. Pitch and pitch: publications, tourism boards, hotels
This is for those who know their photography is past the beginning stage. If you’re not, wait it out a bit and get your skills together first.
If you’re ready, just like writers do, you can “pitch” publications to print your images (just as writers pitch articles). Make sure you research the magazine first and be honest with whether your work is a good match for the publication. Have a nice online portfolio you can email to the editor – there are plenty of tools, such as Smugmug, PhotoShelter or your own website or blog.
Reach out to tourism boards who might be interested in your images, or to keep you in mind for future needs. You never know when they will need new photos. It’s not always easy with them though, it really depends on what region and sometimes yes, it’s whom you know. But there are those who will trust you after they meet you or see your work.
I happened to be at the right place and at the right time in Grenada, but the fact that I followed up and gave a contact my business card got me a meeting with the Grenada Tourism Board. At the meeting, I pitched and showed my work. I was hired to shoot for the new website and produce a gallery of new images. In addition, I was told to always check in when I return to Grenada, so I can take more photos for them.
Pitching is time-consuming, but if you’ve come this far, you might as well go all the way.
10. Stay objective
Sometimes in life, passion just isn’t enough. If you love photography but your photos aren’t “working” and your eye is off (for lack of a better term), go back to the drawing board and learn why, for as long as it takes you to get it. If it doesn’t come naturally, save your efforts for another creative endeavor before making a substantial financial investment in equipment.
And if you hate the sound of that, well, you better get to it then. It’s one of the toughest jobs out there, but one of the most satisfying.
Of course, there’s more to travel photography – that’s the short of it for now, for those who are starting out, need direction and have a passion for this field. It’s a lot of hard work – but those who love it know it’s worth the journey.
Where are you on your path now, have you tried all these steps? Those who have been published before – have you used other methods that were successful? Feel free to share below.