Travel photography is dear to me, as I have been photographing people, places, and cultures since 2001.
My books “Men Around the World” (global), “Rio” (Brazil), “Banaras” (India), “Antwerp” (Belgium), and the up-coming “Zanzibar” (Tanzania) are all examples of having lived that life.
So, when I set out to help beginner photographers reach their goals, I had to figure out where to start.
So, here I am.
I’m going to give you the “low down” on travel photography.
Table of Contents
Travel photography combines two things: travel and photography.
Since this is not about travel, we are going to focus on travel photography as a unit, with a heavy focus on the photography side.
As you will see, travel is definitely in the mix!
First, let’s start with the broader field.
Photography is probably something that makes more impact on the world than anything else.
You see it all around you.
It is in films and on television screens, on the internet, in newspapers, in magazines, and even on billboards.
American photographer Berenice Abbott once said that “photography helps people to see.”
She was so right.
When all else fails, it is always photography that comes to the rescue.
Think about the images of war that move societies to do better.
One of my favorite images of all time is the one by Vietnamese-born photographer Nick Ut.
In that photo, you see a young girl running naked in a moment of terror. South Vietnam had just set her village on fire from the air.
It is appropriately titled “The Terror of War” and is from 1972 before I was even born.
So, the photographer can have incredible impacts on our lives—even if it is from before our own time.
Photography can also drastically change one’s life.
Think of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the young girl from that iconic photo from Vietnam. She grew up to become a voice for victims of war, garnering global recognition for her work with the United Nations and her own many foundations.
Photography is just part of life.
If you’re new to the field, this article will break down the very definition of what photography is, its history, the equipment, the different branches, the artistic side, and the future of it all.
It all goes back to a Muslim physicist in the 11th Century.
Ibn al-Haytham, known to people in the West as Alhazen or Alhacen, was a Muslim scientist who was born in Iraq and lived in Egypt until his death in 1040. In his seven-volume kitab al-manzir or Book of Optics, Al-Haytham described everything he knew about the optics.
For example, he used what he called “Albeit Almuzlim,” later translated into Latin as “Camera Obscura,” or a dark chamber. He wanted to illustrate to his contemporaries that light is the real reason we see things.
As a physicist, although he was also many other things, al-Haytham understood something. He knew that we could manipulate light through reflection, projection, and refraction.
His observations, which he described in detail in various essays, turned out to be hugely influential.
Throughout the world, al-Haytham’s work was either translated or spread through discourses. In Europe, where his work was translated into Latin, various types of camera obscura were made, including portable ones.
Imagine going around with a tent. Yet, that is precisely what many people did.
To make a long story short, camera obscura led to the invention of the camera in the 18th Century.
German scientist Johann Heinrich Schulze designed the first camera. However, it wasn’t until the 19th Century we were able to actually take a photo.
It was French photographer Louis Daguerre that took the first photo.
Now that we got the history of the camera out of the way, it is time to look into this great tool and other equipment used by modern photographers.
These days, the camera has come a long way. Back in the 18th Century, the camera was huge. Now it can fit in a small part of your cellular phone.
Cameras also come in all types today.
Very few photographers use analog or non-digital cameras these days. Why bother when a digital camera is way better?
I mean, it’s faster to develop your images. You can decide if the photo was right or not on the spot. More importantly, you can change the speed between photos!
I had this conversation with a fellow photographer while we were in India. Delhi, where we were, was highly polluted at the time.
My friend was having a hard time with his film camera.
I encouraged him to switch to digital because even if it was so polluted, I could still take photos and judge immediately.
“But a film camera is way better,” my friend said. “Sure, it is heavier and takes more time to work with your photos, but, man, you get great images!”
“I can get the same or even better with digital,” I replied.
Needless to say, there are film camera aficionados.
For the new travel photographer, I would definitely suggest digital cameras. They’re way cheaper in every way.
Lenses are probably the first things to follow a camera. After all, what is the point of a camera without some cool lenses, right?
Like cameras, some photographers like prime lenses and others like zoom ones.
I prefer prime, as the fixed focal length gives me a relationship with the camera. My main thing is that prime lenses force you to move around at a location.
“I would never have discovered that beautiful angle if I just used zoom lenses,” I told a friend over the phone, as I returned from a shoot at the Sydney Opera House.
On the other hand, I have some photographer friends that swear by zoom lenses.
For some, it is just practicality. For example, I have a friend who does sports photography. Zoom lenses really come in handy in a situation where subjects are moving around a lot.
For a new travel photographer, probably zoom lenses are a better choice.
First of all, they are a lot cheaper than prime lenses. Prime lenses can cost as much as ten times more than zoom lenses.
Second, you can experiment with different focal points in the same camera. A Canon 75-300 will give you a lot of room to roam.
As you can imagine, a photographer needs more than just a camera and a few cool lenses.
Outside of the camera and lenses, the most critical aspect is lighting. You literally cannot have an image without light.
It is just not possible.
Personally, I’m a natural photographer. It means I’m interested in shooting my subjects in nature. As such, I use natural light most of the time.
Nevertheless, sometimes the natural light is not going to cut it.
As such, I usually carry a reflector.
Other types of photographers, especially those who shoot inside studios, need more controlled light than nature, could ever allow.
Therefore, lighting is a big industry in the photography field.
As to make it simpler, let’s say lighting is divided into the kind you attach to the camera and those that you plant externally.
A sports photographer might be running around in an arena, shooting with the attached flash.
On the other hand, a fashion photographer might be shooting his model in a room full of planted light fixtures.
Needless to say, lighting is particular to the photographer’s needs and specific situation.
For the new photographer, I would recommend something simple. Start with a three-light kit that will allow you to shoot portraits quickly.
What else does a photographer need?
What about a tripod!
Personally, I usually don’t use one. I had ditched my tripod by the time I traveled to the tenth country. It was simply way too much to carry, and it was not necessary for my work.
Again, it is one of those things that depend on the photographer and his or her situation.
For the travel new photographer, I would recommend a cheap one.
Other equipment a photographer needs include cleaning materials for the camera and lenses, filters, batteries, carrying bags, and even special clothing.
“Special clothing?” you might say.
Well, if you’re a wildlife photographer and it is winter, you will probably want to get some sort of heavy-duty stuff for your shoots.
Unless, of course, you want to die from frostbite.
These days, there are also many other types of equipment for some photographers. For example, I once met a photographer who had four phones.
I couldn’t believe it.
“I do 3-D like stuff for some of my clients,” he said.
He had clients who run e-commerce websites, selling small products. He was photographing them from all angles at once.
“But I didn’t want to buy expensive cameras,” he laughed.
I shook my head, but I did understand it was part of his equipment.
That is, equipment is everything you need to run your photography smoothly.
Types of Photography
As any other field out there, there are many branches of photography.
Back in the day, when I was just interested in photography as a teenager, I was asked a question that baffled me.
“What type of photographer do you want to be?” asked a teacher.
Well, needless to say, I learned that there are many types of photographers.
Needless to say, you can be a travel photographer and be able to do any of these.
For example, I do portraits, landscapes, food, sport, etc.
However, some travel photographers are specific.
The following types are not all of the varieties out there. For example, I did not include subtypes such as Astrophotography, Still Life Photography, Food Photography, Wedding Photography, Sports Photography, Aerial Photography, Architectural Photography, Underwater Photography, or many of the other types I didn’t bother to include.
These are just some of the “main” ones, as I have experienced them.
So, here we go.
Portrait photography focuses on people.
These photographers can photograph an individual for work. Headshots, as they are called, are photographs used by anyone to promote their products or services.
For example, an actor will have a headshot for an acting resume.
However, portrait photography is more than that. You can photograph an individual or group.
What different types of portrait photography have in common is that personality is highlighted.
One of my favorite travel photographers and who does incredible portraits is Sebastião Salgado.
Although this Brazilian photographer is known for his documentary photography, it is his portraits that keep me in my tracks.
There are travel photographers who are in fashion.
A travel photographer can work with magazines around the world, shooting fashion.
For example, in 2018, while in India, I saw a clearly global photo on the cover of a fashion magazine.
It turned out, it was by a Greek photographer named Errikos Andreou.
So, if you love fashion and photography, remember you can combine them.
This field is essential to me, even though I’m not a fashion photographer. When I was a teenager, I saw photos of supermodel Iman and her husband David Bowie.
The photos were taken by Bruce Weber for Vogue in South Africa.
They’re probably the reason why I became a photographer.
When people think of a travel photographer, they usually think of landscape photography.
Sure, this is a big field.
We have a vast planet!
But it is not the only thing a travel photographer can do.
Of course, I love landscapes.
I tell people all the time that I photograph land, people, and culture.
As such, it occupies about 30% of my work.
Nevertheless, I don’t consider myself a landscape photographer. My favorite in the field is Takeshi Mizukoshi.
This Japanese photographer’s work is so amazing.
This is a fun field!
If you love animals, then wildlife photography is for you.
Many travel photographers fall in love with National Geographic photos. That is usually how they end up getting into this field.
However, it is such a passion-driven field!
I have photographed animals, but usually because they live with humans. I don’t really seek out animals.
One of my favorites in this field is Rathika Ramasamy.
Although this Indian photographer focuses on all types of wildlife, I think her work with the birds is just so captivating!
Street photography seeks to capture the street scene with photography.
You have seen them everywhere, from magazines to blogs, from paparazzi to Insta models.
Street photography is an eye-catching field.
There are so many to choose from, but I would say one of my favorites in this field is Scott Schuman.
This American street photographer is famous for his fashion blog, The Sartorialist, but it is only because his street choices are awesome.
This is a series field.
Of course, it is travel photography because generally, you tend to travel.
Photojournalists are journalists who use images to tell the story.
If you visit my main Instagram account, you might mistake me for one.
But, really, I’m not.
I tell stories, using photos and words, but I don’t consider myself a photojournalist.
My favorite in the field is Nick Ut, the Vietnamese-born photographer I mentioned at the beginning. He works with the Associated Press, and he always makes me stop.
Fine Art Photography
Fine art photography, often styled as fine-art photography, is a type of photography where the purpose is art.
That is, the photographer is the artist using photography as a medium.
If you think fine art photography is not worth it, think of Peter Lik’s “Phantom.”
That photo sold for $6.5 million in 2014, becoming the most expensive photograph ever sold.
It is a clear example of what I’m talking about. Travel photography is not “a subtype,” as some people think.
Phanton is travel photography (the photographer shot it in a location other than his own), landscape (by sub-type), and fine art (as a sub-type of the sub-type).
That means, any photographer can create fine art photography, even if the type is something else.
Of course, Peter Lik is my favorite for this field.
Why wouldn’t he be?
He showed the world what is possible!
Travel Photography Is Unique
Travel photography is like any other type of travel; it forces you to learn new things outside of your comfort zone.
Once, a long time ago, I left my comfortable life in the United States and went to a small town in India to photograph a culture that was new to me.
The electricity would come and go. The water would come and go.
But I was so happy!
I was happy because I was experiencing new things.
Then, one day, while I was running between shoots in Manhattan, I ran into a photographer from Mexico.
She said she was living in a town, about 100 miles outside of Puerto Vallarta.
“I have never been in a city this big,” she said.
She had a sister in New York City and was visiting.
But, as a photographer, she ventured into the big city to photograph.
Travel photography gives you a chance to see things from a different perspective.
Travel Photography Is Not Cheap
Travel, in general, is expensive. However, being a photographer makes it even more costly.
A flight from Bali to Sydney only cost me about $100.
But, a flight from New York City to Sydney?
Well, that would have cost me over $1,000!
This is why I spent more time with those sub-niches of photography. I wanted you to see that you could make a career as a photographer and get to travel.
So, don’t focus on “travel photography.” Instead, focus on “photography.”
So, how do you afford to travel?
There are a few ways.
Travel Photography Jobs
There are many jobs in the field!
Maybe you could be a fashion photographer, like that Greek photographer I mentioned.
In that case, you could get a photographer agent in the country of your choice and let them find you some work.
Or perhaps, you could become a great wildlife photographer, hired by the big magazines.
More often than not, though, you will end up getting jobs as you go.
For example, I know portrait photographers who charge locally.
They go to a country and start setting up shop digitally. They get clients through social media and shoot them for a lot more expensive because they are international photographers.
Travel Photography Salary
Well, now you’re being cute.
There is no such thing as a travel photography salary.
Instead, some salaries are attached to specific jobs.
For example, I know an American photographer in Brazil who has a studio and shoots people. He charges about 2.5 times more than the local scale.
“I make about $5,000 per month,” he told me. “That is after taxes.”
It is more than enough money to live in Brazil.
On the other hand, I know an Australian photographer in Indonesia who makes about $1,500 per month doing a similar job.
It is also more than enough money to live in Indonesia.
Then, of course, I met a British photographer in Tanzania who makes around $1,000 per month doing a similar gig.
As you guessed it, that is also more than enough in Tanzania.
So, there is no particular salary. Your salary will depend on where you are.
Travel photography is not about money, it is really about the experience.
Future of Travel Photography
Travel photography is evolving, as we grow in general.
Some people will tell you that photography is dead because everyone has access to a camera in their phone.
However, I’m sure you realized by now that this is not true.
After all, what kinds of iPhone photographers are doing war photos?
At the same time, technology is changing things.
As you saw here, travel photography is a very big field and can be a bit complicated.
For instance, you learned that travel photography can cross genres. In other words, a travel photographer can also be a fashion photographer, as is in the case of the Greek photographer who worked in India.
On the other hand, the field is not straight-cut issue, as the jobs are diverse.
Likewise, the salaries are complicated and have to do with you rather than the “job.”
So, now that you know all of that, if you’re still interested in travel photography, then go for it!
AJ Paris is a travel photographer based in New York. He is the editor of Caravanzers.