Over the past two and a half decades, while roaming from one destination to another on assignment (or sometimes just for fun), there is one question I have heard over and over again. It is not about my photographic techniques, not about the best place I have ever dived, not about my greatest experience ever, nothing like that. It is just one simple question.
"How do I get your job?"
I understand. From the outside, travel photography seems like the very best gig in the world. In theory I simply go from place to place, enjoying the local culture and cuisine. I'm diving the best sites, trekking to the finest scenic overlooks, hanging with fascinating people and generally being treated to the best of the best. And then there I am, winging my way home (first class of course) to relax, relive the adventures, deliver my experience in images and words and then casually prepare for my next outing. Well, while there may be some small amount of truth in this, no - that is not the way it is.
Let me start at the beginning, how to enter this line of work. For me, it was relatively simple and I consider myself very fortunate. I made my first money in underwater photography in the early '80's photographing the damaged prop of a cruise ship I was working on, this courtesy of the benevolent captain who paid me out of his own pocket. My first assignments were done a few years later for Fisheye View Magazine, a local South Florida publication produced by Rob and Robin Burr, later purchased by Scuba Diving Magazine. These early assignments allowed me the opportunity to produce several images which stand out as my favorites to this very day, notably mating Spotted Dolphins on White Sand Ridge off the Little Bahamas Bank and Manta Rays in Tobago.
Within one year, with a recommendation to the editors and solid encouragement from the extraordinary marine photographer Doug Perrine, I had submitted a spec article to Skin Diver Magazine. This resulted in one article the first month, two the next, three the next and then it was off to the races. For the next ten years I did an average of four assignments per month, a truly grueling schedule. There was little time to do anything but travel, shoot, process film, repair gear, write articles and do it all over again.
The truth? Even with the sleepless nights, the panic attacks, the absurd travel schedules and the inherent difficulties of international travel, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I have never had a better time.
Since that jam-packed period of frenetic travel, I have been published by virtually every major dive magazine in the Americas, contributed to the ad campaigns of multiple tourism boards and corporations utilizing travel/tropical images and published many thousands of images in a variety of venues. But, even with all of this exposure, unless you have a solid business plan and a dependable support network, it is a nearly impossible and unsustainable lifestyle.
Early in the game Stephen Frink told me, in the midst of a conversation about pricing and protocol, "There is no money in the dive industry". I didn't want to believe him but it is true. There is an old saying, "If you want to make a small fortune in the dive industry, start with a large one". Truer words have never been spoken and they apply to all travel and wildlife photography.
For any travel and/or scuba photojournalist, the money is to be made in commercial and stock photography or in marketing your work as fine art pieces, not in publishing. That is just a means to an end. Each of these are separate businesses in their own right and all require a minimum ratio of 20 per cent field time and 80 per cent office and marketing time. Be aware, there is a living to be made, sometimes a very good living, but it is not an easy path.
Entering the field these days is neither more nor less difficult than it was 25 years ago. While the imaging market may be flooded with sub-standard digital images, there is some very stiff competition from highly accomplished photographers, both professional and amateur.
That aside, true success requires only a few essential qualities. These are passion & belief, the pure love of the work and technical excellence. Talent, vision and a means of expression – these elements, either purely visual or in conjunction with words, are the core. If you have a personal vision and can communicate that vision to others, you are well on your way.
And, above all, you must have perseverance. No matter what, never, ever give up. Put all this together and you will have a shot at making your dream come true.
What is the bottom line? With talent, a vision and a plan, you can do this! I wish you the very best of luck in following your own path while pursuing that elusive but achievable dream.