Tips to budding photographers

- Becoming a photographer one day
- The travelling photographers’ school
- Photojournalism subjects
- In the field
- Women travelling photographers
- Making your trip worthwhile
- Back from your trip
- Making a living from your work
- Meeting the right people
- Entering photography contests
- Publishing a book
- Coping with failure, generating success
- In short


Olivier Föllmi’s extracts can be found in "Conseils d’un photographe voyageur" published by the Editions de la Martinière in France and in "Consigli di un fotografo viaggiatore" published by the Editions Contrasto in Italy.

Becoming a photographer one day

Travelling photographer is a fabulous job. But if you are seeking to make fame and fortune from this job, you may well find nothing but bitterness. No photographers get red carpet treatment straightaway. We all have to climb the ladder, one rung at a time, eating dust, sometimes for years. Being a travelling photographer means dreading the end of the month, scraping together just enough for your next trip… So, to begin with, aim for an accessible summit, take photos around you, climb your own hill. From there, aim for the next mountain along. Then, come up with a new dream and climb hard to reach it. From there, take it further, always a little further. All the beauty of this profession lies in gathering your dreams: do what you like and like what you do.

Don’t place limits along your horizon, take it one step at a time…

The travelling photographers’ school

The travelling photographers’ school is above all the school of life, even though it’s essential to follow courses to further your technical, artistic, relational and business knowledge as relevant.
The technical skills required to begin are minimal: you must master focus, shutter speed and aperture, which does not require a three-year university degree. Nonetheless, how to take beautiful photos is not something you learn with a camera; it comes as you develop your sensitivity.
When you are learning to be a travelling photographer, the most important lesson is learning to love people and setting out to meet them. This requires communication skills. Obviously, you have to speak English, but you also need a minimum amount of the language of the country you are in. This is the basis for your exchange. Being a travelling photographer also means being a travelling writer. Photography and writing go together: one shows what the other does not say. Don’t go believing that writing is difficult and only writers can do it. Take a notebook, a pencil and connect your hand with your heart: your pencil will take it from there. Forget about spelling and grammar mistakes. A perfectly written tale of monotonous treks will never be worth an exhilarating tale, full of bumps and holes, even if it is full of grammatical mistakes. In the same way, a perfect photograph with no meaning will never be likened to a blurry picture that conveys an inspirational message.

Photojournalism subjects

The beauty of photography is going out seeking pictures that do not yet exist and giving them meaning. To do this, your vision must be sure and your opinion defined. No-one will be falling over themselves for a report on a cycling trip around the world: it was certainly a rare topic thirty years ago, but has since been repeated many times. The world has been covered from every angle; there are hardly any new subjects, unknown tribes and scoops are few and far between. However, YOUR vision, YOUR scoop has never been seen before. So, be yourself in body and soul. Specialise in a theme without worrying about whether or not it will work.

In the field

Once in the field, never cease to be amazed, even without your camera. Soak up the light, note the time of sunrise and sunset, the date of the full moon. Don’t forget that without your own personal vision, which requires constant training, your equipment is worthless. In the field, the difficulty is to feel and express emotion while maintaining objectivity; being on the lookout for spontaneity while anticipating it; being in the very heart of life while seeming invisible. You must juggle constantly between giving in to emotion and keeping a cool head to be able to convey that emotion. A photograph contains none of the noise of the celebration, none of the smell of the incense, none of the euphoria of one drink too many… You therefore have to maintain a certain distance to know whether you would be better off forgetting about the photographs and enjoying the celebration (perhaps you can write it up afterwards) or getting less involved in the celebration to take better photographs.
In the field, vary your angles and subjects. Portraits, landscapes, everyday life, details; make lists and update them every evening. How many landscapes, how many portraits? After about two weeks, you will have a better idea of your repetition. Perhaps you have fallen in love with a little girl from the village and take countless photos of her? No-one will want four double pages of the same girl, however beautiful, in your final story… Take a step back from time to time to get some perspective. Do you have sufficient horizontals that are strong enough to make double pages? Be careful here that the main subject is not in the centre of the picture, or it will be lost in the fold! Do you have verticals that sum up your subject, with sky or a neutral background to take a title? If so, you have a better change of making the front page of a magazine! Take good notes of what you photograph: the names of the people, their age, background, places. Otherwise, when you get back, you may confuse them when writing your captions. Prepare your story while you are away rather than waiting to see your work on the light table to realise what it lacks. Make sketches, note down your ideas, use your long journeys to think. Work with a dictaphone and record your emotions on the spot so that they are still fresh when you come to write your text. Do not try to combine two worlds by communicating with friends and family on the web every night: concentrate on your world as a travelling artist and professional photographer.

Women travelling photographers

What advice can I, as a man, give to a woman who dreams of being a travelling photographer? Not to hesitate a moment! Women can set out and experience the world just like men can.

You become a photographer by rejoicing in life, travelling until you find a village or an adoptive family whose story you want to tell. Don’t restrain your commitment to others, connect with humanity; become a channel of communication and build bridges from one bank to the other. You don’t have to go any further. The beauty of a story is not related to the kilometres travelled to find it, but to the intensity of the exchange, the experience and way you tell it from deep within making your eyes sparkle with emotion. If you communicate with from the heart, you will touch the hearts of others. Lucky lady photographer, while you are travelling, you will be able to form closer links with women giving you more opportunities than men to experience intense encounters. Become a messenger of their lives, of your relationships and all that moves you. Live deeply until you are not only happy with your life, but enchanted with your own life story. All that remains is then to share it with the same enthusiasm to inspire others.

One day, you will reach a crossroads in your life. You will have to choose your way: travelling or family life. You may follow in the footsteps of Alexandra David-Néel, who lived much of her life alone, travelling. In this case, persevere, you will make it through. You may dream of having your own family. I am not sure that the profession of travelling photographer can be combined with motherhood. A man who seeks personal fulfilment through his personal ambition can have a family and continue his profession, while you, lady photographers, will find it more difficult. Once you have children, you are unlikely to want to leave them behind to return to the road and cultivate your first passion. You have to be fully committed to a job like this one to make it work, so, for several years, you will have to put this demanding profession on hold. Mother or father, does this mean you have to give up your work? No, just think about a new direction. You can reconcile family life, encounters and self-expression simply by remaining receptive to the humanity that surrounds you. You can still be a photographer, focussing more on portraits, artistic compositions, fashion… something that will enable you to reconcile your two main passions. Anything can be made exciting. Live your own life, the life that suits you and don’t be tricked by the clichés of success. Be yourself, deep down, and you will find happiness, which is, after all, the ultimate goal of any life. You will find satisfaction that none can take away from you. Your inner podium will be yours for life.

Making your trip worthwhile

Working while you travel is a great way of immersing yourself and lending a helping hand. A generous attitude will bring you friends very quickly and give more value to your trip, even developing stories to photograph. Local NGOs may need help with quite simple tasks. You can be of use if you commit for long enough. Helping for a week is no good, except in an emergency situation. Before offering your services, start by finding your place in the region. Then, go and see the headmaster of a school or the manager of a dispensary. There is no point in trying to contact these centres by email: those that are truly in need of help are not on-line. You will be of even greater assistance if you can speak a little of the local language. Be courteous with the people you work with: their concerns, the ways and means of resolving them are not necessarily the same as yours. You are there to help and open your heart: your trip will be an explosion of exchange and emotion. It may even result in a fantastic story.

Back from your trip

When you get back, you are actually only halfway through your trip. The second half is difficult because the world in which you have to operate now is, in many respects, much harder to live in. There are no torrid deserts, no torrential rain, no blocking snow falls, no dangerous animals… all the houses have running water, electricity is everywhere and hardly anyone is dying of hunger. All this luxury is reserved for a very tiny minority in this world, and we are part of that minority. Paradoxically, all this luxury leads to stress, often isolation and, for many, huge moral suffering. While I love coming back to this world, I also have to leave it again after a while to gain inspiration from other truths.

Making a living from your work

The second part of a travelling photographer’s trip and job is to sort, caption, write, build, sell and communicate. Constantly taking photos around the world is of no use if you do not use the same time and energy when you come back to make something of them. It is sometimes better to take two six-month trips and submit some of your work between them rather than spending a year away without coming back. This prevents you from going too far down a wrong track through ignorance or a lack of objectivity. Only the view of the professional to whom you submit your work can help you understand its weaknesses. When you get back, take your courage in both hands and go and see all the editorial offices. If you don’t, all your photographs, no matter how beautiful they are, will remain gathering dust in your cupboards. It is always difficult to sell your work because so much of your ego is involved. We are afraid of judgement, fear rejection and suffer from failure. Just remember, while you were away, whenever you knocked on a door or applied for a pass you also ran the risk of rejection. If the first door remained closed, you went to the next one, succeeding in the end through tact and perseverance. The next part of your trip, devoted to the sale of your photos, will be the same. Maintain your determination and self-confidence. Go towards others, always taking your passion with you.
Selling your photos is important as taking them: it takes as much energy and as much time. Selling your work is a way of continuing the exchange, sharing your passion, passing on the energy that you drew from your trip. Contact with a person comes before contact with a cheque and you should start with some humility. Arriving late at an appointment gives a poor impression. The people you will meet often have very tight schedules: give yourself every possible chance. There won’t be that many chances: there are plenty of good photographers… It is not easy to get an appointment with an editor-in-chief or a photography director of a magazine: they are busy, rarely available. However, if you meet them at a party, a festival, an award ceremony or an inauguration, they will be more inclined to listen to you and give you an appointment. The same reasoning applies here as when you were travelling: if you ask a villager for permission to take his picture while he is rushing around to gather his cattle, you have no chance whatsoever of taking his portrait, but if you go and see him once his herd is safely gathered into its enclosure, he will be ready to listen to you. Photography requires understanding of others when taking pictures, talking about them and selling them.
Improve your chances by coming up with a page format that corresponds to the magazine you are aiming for. Does it open a story with three double pages, one vertical page or an introductory text set into the sky of a photograph? Present photographs that fit this format. Organise around forty photographs in order, starting with an introduction, developing then concluding your theme, with another forty or so extra photos, in both vertical and horizontal formats. You will have to adapt your presentation to the style of each magazine. Do not pay a fortune for costly developments as work is often not judged on this basis. Instead, present your slides in transparent sheets or as a slideshow on your laptop. It is extremely difficult to be objective about your own work: we always tend to choose pictures that have some personal significance. It is best to have a selection of photos that would be second-choice for you but that might be the first choice of an art director. Your texts should enable presentation of a complete author’s piece. They will be reviewed if they are not entirely suitable or may be used as a base if the magazine prefers to have one of its own writers re-do the article.
Internet has altered the way in which editorial offices work, changing the way in which photographers must sell their work. Photographers from around the world can now propose photographic reports via internet to editorial offices on the other side of the globe. It has become difficult to sell a report about a region on the other side of the world. Having said that, you are still in with a good chance if you have developed your own vision, regardless of the country you have photographed, because there is only one of you with your vision in the whole world…
To start with, I would suggest taking photographs of your own region and proposing your work as a brief slideshow via the net to editorial offices elsewhere in the world. Your work at home will be better because you will have more opportunities for light conditions, events, and local understanding than a foreign photographer who comes to your region to take pictures. It is much easier to sell your own region abroad if you photograph it from the angle of a foreign magazine. Taking photographs of the Alps for a Japanese magazine is not the same as taking photographs of the Alps for an Argentinian magazine. The first will mainly be interested in the spectacular views that fascinate Japanese tourists; the other will prefer shots of the little villages where Argentinian immigrants have settled.

In terms of price, most magazines have a set rate per page according to their circulation and the size of the pictures published. They apply rate scales that can be consulted via photography or press association publications. Rates may be negotiated if the subject is exceptional, so you have to learn how to be objective about the value of your work. An article published in a good magazine often pays as well as all the royalties paid for a book. A book will be like a business card and represent your own satisfaction, but it won’t mean much to your bank manager. To make a living, you must look into every possibility: write articles, books, propose greetings cards, post cards, posters, accept photo exhibitions, give interviews all over the place to get your work seen. Get the best harvest you can from your orchard of pictures. 

Meeting the right people

How to meet the right people in your own country? Taking refuge behind the handy screens of email and telephone is certainly not the solution. To get an invitation to a village, you didn’t have a telephone; you went shaking hands, making contact. Do the same when you get home. Don’t wait to be ready to meet photography professionals or to have completed your press book. Meet them as soon as possible when you get back, while your eyes are still bright with your memories. Your charm and personality will begin the seduction process before you even show your photographs. It wasn’t your camera that got those village doors to open, it was you. Apply the same principles to your life at home and abroad. Your whole life is a journey, so stay loyal to your chosen path.
Photography and travel festivals are great places for meeting people. Go to the festivals where you would love have an exhibition and soak up the atmosphere; one day, you will exhibit there. Go to regional festivals too, where you have more chance of exhibiting if you are a novice. A festival is like a village: the more often you go back, the more comfortable you feel, the better you are known and the more you are liked! Opening days, exhibitions and conferences by other travelling photographers are also valuable opportunities for meeting others.

Entering photography contests

Winning an award, no matter which one, is obviously important when you start out. It gives you confidence, gets you noticed and raises your head above the water. When your work becomes famous you will have less need for these awards. You will pass the flame and become a member of the jury to give a new generation of novices their chance. In the meantime, enter local, regional, national and international competitions. Photography journals and the internet are excellent sources of information about these competitions. You can also apply for travel or photography grants offered by your region as well as certain clubs and organisations. There are a lot, often modest, but even if it is only a set of ten free films, it is a form of acknowledgement and a door that opens.
Don’t aim too high and most importantly, aim with precision. There is no point sending digitally retouched creative pictures to the World Press Photo Contest news category: this is clearly not the right address! Find out the criteria for each contest to see if your work is eligible. Unfortunately, competitions often have no precise criteria: categories are vague, there are no judgement charters for the jury and the prizes are awarded on the basis of personal appreciation. This is why it is essential to keep a sense of proportion about the importance of an award, whether you win it or not. It does not mean that your work is the best if you win and certainly doesn’t mean the opposite if you don’t. Prizes are awarded in a particular context by specific people; others may well have made a different choice.

Publishing a book

An excellent magazine subject will not necessarily make a good book and vice versa. However, once you have had a book published, it is easier to sell your work to a magazine. When you have a book project, target the publishers that correspond to your style and try to meet the publisher’s art director to present your work. If he is interested, he will present it to the publisher. If it proves difficult to arrange a meeting, send a dozen pictures with a summary either in print form by post or in digital form by email and ask for an appointment. The “Buchmesse” book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, every October attracts publishers from all over the world. Publishers come to the fair to buy and sell projects so this is a unique opportunity to meet them and present your work.
Do not wait to complete your work before showing it to a publisher. Once your project begins to take form, make contact: books are planned at least a year in advance. There is a large financial risk in publishing a book of photographs, so every publisher’s dream is to co-publish his book with other foreign publishers to get a better return on investment. This is why new publishing projects have to be ready to offer in October at the Frankfurt fair. Royalties are ridiculously low because the publisher’s profit margin is equally so. You cannot live off one or even five published books. The market for photography books rarely lasts longer than three months. After this period, the book will continue to sell slowly, gradually being replaced by new editions. Most publishers courageously hang on against the turmoil of this stormy market…
Your book is almost finished, but your part in it is far from over! Once the book reaches the shelves, you will have to nourish it, devoting time to its promotion. You and you alone will have to uphold your work. Your journey is endless… but what a journey!

Coping with failure, generating success

The destiny of a travelling photographer meets with failure often and success occasionally. A young professional photographer spends barely 20% of his time actually taking photographs. The rest of the time is spent meeting people to sell his pictures and trying to make ends meet… Many photographers become bitter because they suffer from rejection. We all need failure to grow: acceptance of rejection is important in making a go of this difficult profession. Only true passion enables obstacles to be overcome. Passion does not die out when you fail… and neither does it flare up when you succeed but it will always be the flame that illuminates your life.
If you make an almost-living from your work while you are working like mad at it, review your basics: ask yourself a few questions and concentrate on your relationships. Your photos are good, but perhaps you are not so good at talking about them, or perhaps you are working against market trends? Go on a communication or marketing course. If this fails to make a difference, look a little closer at your life: your gloom probably overlaps onto your immediate environment and daily life. Perhaps you need to look a little closer at yourself. Do not be afraid of this: we have all done it. Therapy and mediation are intended to help reconcile us with ourselves. Mediation soothes and helps us to face up to our own dark side, to recognise, accept, transport and assimilate it. It enables us to detach ourselves from our consciousness and move away from the foamy surface of man to draw on other, deeper, resources within. Mediation can take you on an exceptionally beautiful journey, but whether for mediation or therapy, this is not a journey that can be undertaken alone: find a guide. Therapy can teach you to let go, to love yourself, to give voice to the crying child within you. Once this child has expressed his suffering, he will become sunshine and help you make beautiful pictures. This child will be your best assistant. We all have a crying child within us. For many adults, he is still calling for help. Therapy can help straighten your shoulders, look with pride to the future. You should be proud of your therapy, proud of taking your life into your hands. If you feel concerned by this advice, seek therapy: it will restore your liberty. Your failures will cease. You deserve it. It will be the beginning of a fabulous inner voyage.

In short

Passion, an open mind, confidence, work and perseverance are the key words that will open up the door of your dreams. Life is an incredible and fabulous journey, and the world is your oyster. You are its heirs. Through your pictures you can change this world, and help it evolve to pass it on, enhanced, to your children, to the future seeds of Buddha. I wish you all from the bottom of my heart to give life to all your dreams whatever they are.

If you found these tips useful, we recommend "Conseils d’un photographe voyageur" published by Editions de la Martinière in France and "Consigli di un fotografo viaggiatore" published by Editions Contrasto in Italy.
For your own pleasure and as a gift!


© © Olivier Föllmi