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The Challenges And Benefits Of Being A Traveling Professional Photographer

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Recently, a young talented photographer that is on his way to a very promising career asked me about how I handled traveling so much. You see he was about to accept some projects that would take him away from home for an extended period of time and he was concerned about how he would take it. His question got me thinking… This way of life has become so familiar to me, that I forgot how my life has changed and developed because of it and thus, I’m inspired to create this post that lists the pros and cons of being a photographer that travels for work and how I’ve handled it.

You may recall my previous blog posts similar to this subject (example: My Personal Take On Life As A Workaholic Traveling Commercial Photographer). Well, it didn’t seem that long ago when folks were calling me young and talented haha, although I’ve been doing this over 10 years now and well into my adulthood now with many lessons from the road under my belt. It hasn’t always been easy, but I will say that overall it has been quite rewarding.

I never thought I would be traveling more than 100k miles a year on assignment. It’s crazy when I think about it. I actually started off as a traveling photographer early on in my career for a few reasons. I saw that there weren’t the type of big shoots I wanted in my home market of Washington DC at the time (I’m a New Yorker now). Also, to be perfectly honest, I came back home from RIT with my photography degree to look after a severely bi-polar father. I felt strongly compelled to be home to look out for him, but if you’ve ever lived with a bi-polar family member (especially ones that get viscous when they are in manic mode), you will look for any excuse to escape for a bit. As a shy and awkward kid, photography was my escape on many levels. It brought me out of my shell, it got me out of my comfort zone, and it got me away (even if for a few days) from a painful home life. Early on, being on the road taking photos was the only thing that made me feel truly alive.

Whatever reason you may have for taking your show on the road, so to speak, I hope these points below help you on your journey a bit (warning, I am very honest in this post):

  • If you do it right, the money is better on the road. If they are willing to fly you somewhere to shoot things, then they typically have bigger budgets (along with bigger expectations). Early on, I would take ANY excuse to do any shoot out of town, even if it meant sleeping in my car when I got there. I don’t necessarily recommend that, but you have to find your own way to prove to prospective clients that you are worth sending across the country / world. Keep your receipts (travel expenses for work can be tax deductible) and keep your expenses tight.
  • Have a specialty or stay at home. Be a specialist. Stand out for something. If you’re a photographer that tries to be good at shooting everything and aren’t known for one specific skill set or photoshoot type, chances are you won’t be hired to travel to someplace to shoot something. They can probably find some other be everything to everyone photographer in that local market. Ask yourself the question: If I were the client, would I want to hire me to fly to ____ to do this project? What makes me stand out?
  • You develop loads of frequent flier miles, hotel and rental car status, and thus loads of travel discounts. I travel so much, I’m Platinum status with several rental car companies and hotel chains. This allows me free upgrades, discounts, and better customer service even on my non work-related trips. Definitely sign up for frequent traveller programs and focus your efforts on 1 or two airlines so you can reach “status”. For example, gold status (you have to fly at least 50k a miles a year with them) on USAIR gets everyone on your reservation their first 3 bags free and complimentary first class upgrades when seats are available. This saves me many thousands of dollars when flying with my lighting cases.
  • Have a patient significant other or prepared to enjoy your own company. I’ll be honest, as a young man, I was one of those people that felt I had to have a girlfriend back home to make me feel I had roots. I was young and wasn’t comfortable with myself yet and when you’re still unsure of yourself and then never at home, you start to feel bummed out that you don’t have roots anywhere. This led me to hastily get into some relationship or another and trust me, not a good move because the average significant other gets pretty bored/frustrated/lonely if you are traveling all the time. I mean, who can blame them? It’s important for you to get cool with yourself and who you are before you try and subject a long term significant other to be patient with your career. It will allow you to find someone that may be better suited and understanding. I could go on and on about this subject. The core of it comes down to being confident in yourself. Accepting that you won’t always be home and to make the most of your adventures. It took me a LONG time to figure this out. The moment I finally felt comfortable with being on my own, I was able to really value the adventures that road brought me, and I was able to un-cloud my mind and meet some really quality people in my life. Sure, I have a lot to learn, but don’t we all. My point is, it may seem lonely at first, but the moment you embrace what life brings you and stop worrying about society’s life schedule and just accept things as they come for the most part, life gets a lot easier for you, road warrior.
  • Social media helps keep in touch with loved ones. Embrace Skype and Facebook. I can’t see my loved ones as much as I’d like. I’m not there for happy hour on tuesdays, but I do my best to reach out to everyone I care about on a regular basis. It was hard to do this when I started out because this technology wasn’t really around, but now I use all sorts of technology to connect with everyone from mom to my best friend. The road may take you away from those you care about, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a stranger.
  • The road is full of romance. Not exactly what you may think. Everything from cruising the windy roads listening to Tom Petty through Wyoming, to watching the sunset of New Mexico. I’ve seen some of this country’s (and other countries) most epic sights. I have countless mental postcards in my head. Oh and sure, as a single guy, I’ve met some pretty awesome/interesting women that I otherwise wouldn’t have because my camera has taken me out of my comfort zone. It gave me confidence to embrace the adventure I was being thrown into. I’ve also made some great friends all over. People I talk to on a regular basis, throw work to, get work from, and sometimes maybe even hit up for location scout and crew advice. The camera has truly made me feel like Walter Mitty at times… PS. If you’re a significant other to a traveling photographer. Do not fret. Chances are, we miss you to death and are glad you’re home to share our adventures and stories with.
  • Be smart. Be safe. Not too long ago, I read an article that listed some of the most dangerous cities in the US. Apparently, I have worked regularly and out in the open in most of them. It is a miracle I haven’t been mugged or shot at yet (knock on wood). I try and make it a habit of doing a little homework if I am doing some work in a new city. Where is the safe part of town to stay? Do I need a guide? Do I need extra security (No joke. I’ve hired armed off duty police/military)? Be safe. You’re carrying around loads of expensive gear. Don’t get yourself shot trying to protect your stuff. Know the dangerous parts of town. If you have to go somewhere unsafe, do your homework. Be aware.
  • GET INSURANCE. Are you crazy? You don’t have insurance yet? It’s not that expensive. You can get a great policy for $500 a year. You know you can’t rent gear from most places, get a location permit, or rent a decent studio space without it! What if the airline loses your lighting case? What if someone steals from your hotel room or rental car? Anything can happen. Cover yourself. Thank me later. Not sure where to start? Try: http://www.hillusher.com

Have questions? Have more suggestions for this list? Comment below! I will respond.

Thank you for reading.

3 thoughts on “The Challenges And Benefits Of Being A Traveling Professional Photographer”

  1. Wow! great read! I’m also really trying to be a traveling photographer like to travel and do what i love :). Thanks for the inspiration!! hope some day to meet you and maybe could give me some good tips for my photography!

  2. Great tips! I’m in the DC area and after traveling around doing crazy things like working on a dude ranch in Wyoming (Tom petty is the best!) I came home to take care of my mom who is ill. She’s amazing and I have no regrets, but I do miss traveling.

    I agree with the relationship advice. I always had sweethearts and they always cheated but I was never home! And I’d go weeks without cell service. I’m glad you put that in there. People should be aware of what this career can do to your lover. Takes special people to support this life! I really enjoy being single now. I feel like I know my needs better.

    Anyways, great info! :)

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