Creating Value in Travel Photography

Post + Photos by David Sanger He’s traveled to every corner of the globe – 100 countries and 40 years later, David Sanger will still spend days, driven by a passion to capture a fresh image of Pr...

Post + Photos by David Sanger

He’s traveled to every corner of the globe – 100 countries and 40 years later, David Sanger will still spend days, driven by a passion to capture a fresh image of Prague or the Parthenon. An avid travel and adventure photographer myself, I’m inspired by David’s well-acclaimed ability to discover new beauty in the places shot ad nauseum at every angle by anyone with a camera. In a recent guest post on this blog, esteemed rebel Zack Arias waxed lyrical about the common complaint about there being too many photographers today. David shares tips on how you can stand out from the crowd and create “uncommon value” in one of the most popular niches in our industry.

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business of photography, digital media, marketing, social media, stock photography, technique, travel photography


With an ever-increasing supply of travel images, declining prices and a fixed amount of attention in the consumer universe, what are the best options for a travel photographer to create uncommon value?

Photobuyers can readily get many excellent travel images from a few quick internet searches and downloads from stock distributors. The secret then is to provide something that they cannot easily get, or find, and that they also want.

First, travel photographers must seek to understand the market. Who is licensing/using images, who is looking at images, what do they need? What images can they already find in ready supply? Editors, advertisers and the readers still look for a special angle, something they have not seen before. Even so, the advertising market is currently in decline, there is tremendous competition from low-cost micro, and readers/consumers are often disinclined to pay for content. They want something more.

It helps, then, to understand that value comes from the whole package a photographer provides, your content plus the context.

Following are eight suggestions for enhanced travel photography services. Four are more traditional and relate to content (what you provide). Four are about context (how you provide it).

Uncommon Subjects, Access, and Timeliness

 business of photography, digital media, marketing, social media, stock photography, technique, travel photography

Point of view is a key element in an interesting travel image. If you have access to a location which is not open to everyday photographers, and if the subject matter is in demand, then you can produce an uncommon shot, a scarce resource.

This image, from the top of the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, was taken while working on a project for the National Parks Association. Not only did I need permission from the Golden Gate Bridge Authority, I needed $2 million in liability insurance (something working photographers should have anyway). Logistically, it took months to co-ordinate available staff plus a fog-free sunny afternoon, plus give the advance notice they needed. All this was before 9/11. Security is even tighter now. The result was worthwhile, however: an uncommon selection of images of the bridge. One even sold for a movie poster, coming as a result of a Google Search.

business of photography, digital media, marketing, social media, stock photography, technique, travel photographySometimes photographers can gain access to locations or events by working regularly with destination tourist boards, properties or cruise lines. Members of professional travel journalist associations like SATW or TJG are often shown ‘behind the scenes’ or ‘sneak previews’ which can on occasion give an unusual shot. Sometimes it is simply the ingenuity of the photographer that leads to a place no-one else has thought to shoot from.

Access to photograph noteworthy people can also be very valuable. Los Angeles shooter Manuello Paganelli was able to parlay portraits of golfer Gary Player shot for a travel magazine into lucrative stock sales of the same images for a corporate jet campaign.

Being somewhere at the right time can be as valuable as being in right place. Timely images, immediately available on-line, whether of a newly-opened destination, a special event, or a historical occasion, can command a premium in the same manner as news images. The image on the left, of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at the Western Wall of the Temple of Jerusalem, was taken during an ecumenical conference I covered in Jerusalem, and has been widely published since.

One point about newsworthy images is that they may have limited lifespan. Great shots of the Millenium New Year celebration from 2000 (or 2001) are no longer likely to sell.

Special Techniques

 business of photography, digital media, marketing, social media, stock photography, technique, travel photography Special abilities, techniques or expertise in photography can also distinguish your images and add extra value. Aerial images are a great example. Few people have the opportunity, or resources to hire a helicopter for aerial shots of a well-known destination. The above image was shot from a Coast Guard helicopter, again while working with the National Park Service.

Some photographers are well known for their technical specialties. The aerial imagery of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, geology and space images of Roger Ressmeyer and the wildlife photography of Frans Lanting will likely continue to maintain their value, because the techniques are uncommon and the photography expensive. But it isn’t only superstars who can benefit in this way. Any photographer who develops highly specialized technical expertise has a chance to produce unusual images which will stand out from the crowd.

Subject Matter Expertise + Customer Service

Photographers who specialize in a particular part of the world, or focus on a special social issue, or bring knowledge of subjects like wineecologyvolcanoes, or history to a project can offer more than just images to a photo buyer. There are times when only the photographer has the detailed background knowledge about how, where and when a photo was taken, which can help an editor in a story layout. Subject matter expertise can be invaluable in photo research, in knowing what to look for, in planning shoots, and in providing an attention to details.

Direct sales with quick turnaround, personal attention and having someone there to answer questions, all these help a photographer move beyond merely providing images to providing service to the end user.

Build Relationships

Dealing with a stock agency is an impersonal experience if online research, review and purchase is all mediated by a computer. On some sites even customer service is relegated to online chat. Being able to pick up the telephone and speak with the photographer can be very helpful for a photo buyer. Building relationships with photo editors, art directors, ad agencies and corporate clients can be an important part of a photographer’s business presence, again more with an eye to meeting customer needs than simply moving images.

With the expansion of social media building relationships with the end user is essential. Part of leveraging public interest in your work is to build a community of interest.

Custom Production

With the glut of stock imagery the economics of assignment work have become more appealing to photographers. Custom produced imagery can be far more focussed on the individual client’s needs. A travel photographer can offer an entire package: research, logistics, models, scouting, location permits, editing and post-processing. Not everyone (and certainly not microstock or pro-amateurs) can successfully organize a multiple-country international shoot in a foreign country. Co-ordinating it all is difficult and takes a particular skill set.


 business of photography, digital media, marketing, social media, stock photography, technique, travel photography

Travel photography has been particularly effected by oversupply. Everyone is keen to travel and take photographs and with crowdsourcing and microstock some of those images are finding their way into the marketplace. Another way to add value is to diversify and expand one’s offering beyond the travel genre.

On a recent trip to Buenos Aires I was able to work with an existing corporate client to photograph a factory just outside of town. Since I was already going to be in the area, there were no travel costs and this suddenly made the shoot affordable for the client. Piggybacking assignments in this way, means providing value outside one’s normal range of customers to other photo buyers who need images from a given location.

Shipping photography is another specialty where I have been able to combine corporate photography with travel photography. By shooting destination imagery on the off days while waiting for the arrival of a vessel, I am able to save the client money and also gather helpful stock images. Thinking outside the narrow box of travel industry clients can sometimes make the difference between profit and loss on an overseas shoot.

Develop Your own Voice

business of photography, digital media, marketing, social media, stock photography, technique, travel photography

Stock photography is providing individual images to an often unknown client for their own uses and needs. Editorial photography consists of working with an editor and art director to produce a visual story to match their brief. In both cases the photographer’s images are just a part of someone else’s project.

When a photographer develops his/her own voice and has something to say, then the message itself becomes the deliverable, rather than isolated, disembodied images. The story enhances the value and brings a more profound engagement.

My book on San Francisco Bay was such a project, conceived with an eye to engaging the readers to see clearly, perhaps for the first time, the natural wonder of the Bay which they so often might cross under, over or through without really seeing. From seeing comes caring, and from caring a willingness to act on behalf of the environment.

Photographers who move beyond single images to express their own perspective, such as Phil Borges advocating for TibetDavid DuChemin writing on photographic visionTrey Ratcliffe on HDR, or Eric Lafforgue on indigenous peoples, bring an additional dimension to their work. Any photographer, however, can begin in small ways to engage their own audience and speak more clearly through their work, either in blogs, online columns, magazine stories or sharing communities.

Taylor Davidson quipped “you can steal my photography but you can’t steal me”. When you develop your own voice, then it is you that become the “whole package”. Your point of view, perspective, insight and sensibility become a resource that cannot be duplicated, and so create uncommon value.

Ancillary Services

It is becoming an essential part of a photographer’s business plan to expand beyond the content itself and find additional opportunities for revenue and engagement. Ancillary services such as photo toursiphone apps, podcasts, calendarsfine art printsbookshow-to presentations, and public speaking can serve to educate, inspire and engage the end-user and draw him/her into a fuller experience. Online community sharing in particular provides the opportunity for many more to participate in the joy of travel, if only vicariously. The photographer then becomes a facilitator for people’s own dreams aspirations and creativity.

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