Photography Gigs That Pay You to Travel

Photography: Nic McPhee

In 2004, Steve Levine was about to show his photographs in public for the first time. Three New York galleries had invited him to exhibit his work in a series of back-to-back shows that would last a total of four weeks. As he prepared for the exhibitions, meeting the gallery owners and arranging the printing, he and his partner Iris consoled themselves with the thought that when the shows were over, they’d pack a truck and hit the road. They ended up spending sixteen months touring the United States, selling a few images along the way, paying for accommodation at small hotels with free commercial shoots, and pitching travel articles and images to magazines from the road. It wasn’t the most organized way of using photography to finance a trip, and there were times when the couple found themselves almost down to their last penny, but by the time they were back in New York, they’d amassed a collection of commercial images that allowed them to revamp their website and build a commercial photography business — and they’d built up a solid collection of memories too. Other photographers looking to use photography to finance their trips though might want to plan a little more carefully. It isn’t easy, but there are niches in which the plane tickets and hotel fares come included.

The most obvious place to look is the magazine industry, a field that always has a strong demand for pictures from far-off places. But it’s also likely to be the most unreliable. There are few publications around that treat photographers as well as National Geographic does, sending its freelancers off to interesting locations, giving them the time to research their stories and paying all the expenses. More usual is the approach taken by Travel+Leisure where editors like Whitney Lawson field pitches from photographers who have returned from a trip that they’ve already made on their own dime. When Whitney does look to commission photographers, she tends to search in the locations where the shoots will take place, an easy way to find a professional who knows the area and won’t need an expensive plane ticket.

For photographers then, travel magazines won’t usually be a way to land a free air fare, let alone a  per diem, but they might help to lay off the cost of a trip that’s already been completed. That will depend though on pitching images that tell a story rather than photographs that show the sites.

“I am not wowed by random images of exotic places so much as I am by a well-told story that has a strong sense of place,” Whitney said. “My job is to bring rich, beautiful, enticing photography to our readers and transport them to another place, to take them there.”

Shooting Buildings Can Put You on the Road

If the print industry looks like lean pickings for traveling photographers then, another option may be architectural photography. As always, clients will generally prefer to cut the costs by finding someone local but photographers with large reputations and small niches can win commissions, especially when the clients are big enough to foot a large bill. Barbara White, for example, specializes in interiors, shooting for designers, architects and developers. Most of her work takes place in California but one of her most memorable shoots took place at a casino in Las Vegas where she had to work from 12 pm to 6 am four nights in a row. Barbara built her architectural photography business through  a combination of cold calling and direct mail, with some online marketing thrown in too. These days, most of her work comes in through referrals, a benefit of being established.

Shoots like these aren’t something you can depend on but some photographers have been lucky enough to find themselves doing them with some regularity. Jeremy Mason McGraw has managed to specialize in shooting hotels, a job that’s sent him to Australia, Hawaii, Italy, Croatia and Malta among other exotic spots. It’s a career that started in 2002 when a friend, who would later become his business partner, helped him to win a contract to photograph the Kohala Coast Resort Association, a series of twelve luxury hotels in Hawaii. The contacts he made during that shoot — combined with other connections built during an earlier job with a production company on a cruise ship — have allowed him to continue shooting hotels around the world, and to stay in them too.

More Brides Are Choosing Destination Wedding Photography

It sounds like a dream job, and it does allow Jeremy the time to wander off and take his own travel images, but like any work, it has its downsides. Much of the photography includes producing virtual tours, 360 degree images of hotel rooms and reception areas that are more technical than creative.

“As a photographer, I dislike the format,” Jeremy said. “They require a lot of post work and because they  show you every view from a given location you are limited artistically on how you can present the space. You simply pick a place to stand.”

But architectural photography does allow the photographer to build even more contacts and to get used to the difficulties of traveling with professional equipment, obtaining insurance, working in high humidity, and dealing with the visas and paperwork necessary to work abroad. Heather Parker, a wedding photographer, started booking destination shoots shortly after taking architectural assignments in resort photography. She shoots 35 weddings a year and about a third are destination shoots in locations that range from Jamaica to Barcelona and Montreal. Clients cover the cost of the airfare, hotel, meals and other fees, in addition to the shooting cost, a significant addition to the price charged by a resort for their own photographer.

“The amount of images and time a destination wedding photographer can offer far exceeds what all-inclusive resort photographers do,” explains Heather. “The markup that a resort adds to their packaged photographer often goes directly to the hotel rather than paying for a high quality of photography so more brides than ever are choosing to hire a destination wedding photographer.”

Most of Heather’s work comes in through word of mouth and she has been shooting professionally since 1998. Getting paid to shoot and travel requires a bit of planning, a lot of patience and, of course, some great photography.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Matt Said:

    I have a close second, a job that allows lots of travel and chances for photography. I work for an airline as a dispatcher, and I have to do what is called a "route qualification" in August. Basically I need to fly to Asia for 5 days in August, my choice of cities, and have nothing to do once I get there. I only need to sit in the cockpit for the flights, that is what a route qual is. The only downside is no drinking within 12 hours of the flight.
    I want to cover this as a story and maybe pitch it to a magazine or website. I love to shoot travel pics, please see for more.
    Any ideas on pitching this experience as a story for publication?

  2. Jeff Colburn Said:

    Let me tell you how my photography instructor, Al Belson, used to travel to Europe for free.

    He would decide where he wanted to go, say Italy. He would then put together a portfolio of images he'd taken previously in Europe. He then took these images to Italian restaurants, banks, travel agencies, and any other business he could think of that wanted photos of Italy (He also took assignments for Italy and bordering countries). The clients would decide what size prints they wanted, and put 50% down. This paid for Al's trip, and when he got back he showed the clients the image he'd taken, they chose what they wanted, Al printed up the pictures and had them framed, and got the rest of his fees upon delivery. He usually did some upselling too.

    This is just one of the ingenious ways Al would market himself. You should hear how he got a discount on his custom European car, but that's another story.

    Have Fun,

  3. Harry Schlack Said:

    Interested in Travelling and sellimg my photo output.

    Need to know how to break into the field.

    How to send photos to agent, how to find an agent etc. Certainly would appreciate some info

    Harry Schlack

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