Read as acclaimed writer and photographer Jerome Shaw talks about his career as a Travel Writer and Photographer. You can find him at the links here or on his Twitter feed in the sidebar.
What do you do for a living?
I am a travel writer and photographer. I also teach photography workshops in Colorado, Utah & New Mexico and develop & lead tours and workshops in Cuba, Fiji and Europe.
How would you describe what you do?
Travel Writer and Photographer: I develop story ideas about travel destinations and travel to the location to produce photography and gather information with which to create a travel article package for publication. Most of my writing and photography product is now consumed by online publications. Ten years ago it was predominately published in print magazines and newspapers.
Photography Teacher: I conceive, design, setup, market and conduct photography classes and workshops here in Denver, Colorado as well as in travel locations in the Western USA and internationally.
What does your work entail?
I am a one-man band. I do a bit of everything; from marketing and advertising to accounting and collections to website design and social media. And, now with digital photography I also perform many of the postproduction photography services on my computer that my photo lab used to do for me.
All the while doing what you’d expect from a writer – writing, and from a photographer – photographing. When you are self-employed you wear many hats during each day.
What’s a typical work week like?
There is no “typical workweek” for me. Every week is different. Some of things I do consistently are answer and send emails, administer my blog and website, post to social media accounts, make travel arrangements, keep up with developments in both the travel and photography industries, read press releases, attend PR functions, call on clients and prospective clients, and manage account receivable and accounts payable. Occasionally I travel.
When I am not traveling I do try my best to keep regular hours. Though, that can difficult when I encounter high work volume and short deadlines.
I am sure many people are surprised that I spend more than half my time not doing any travel writing or photography. I was certainly surprised when I first became a photographer just how little time I actually spent behind the camera. While the advent of digital photography has changes some things it has not increased the number or hours I spend actually working with cameras but it has increased greatly the number of hours I spend on the computer.
How did you get started?
I started as an amateur photographer at age 12 entering 4-H completions. In high school I worked on the school paper & yearbook, and did small local photography jobs. I attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I have Bachelors of Fine Art with an emphasis in still & motion picture photography and three-dimensional design with a minor in art history. I also accrued enough hours in business and law courses to have a minor in business but art majors are required to take their minor in art history. From there I expected to become a well-known fine art photographer in a few months after graduation and be represented by countless galleries and museums … but that is not how it worked then or now.
After graduation I moved to Aspen, Colorado for what was a to be a 6 month break between undergraduate studies and a graduate program at UCLA or USC in film. Fortunately or unfortunately I found work as a commercial photographer and as a sound engineer, still photographer and assistant cameraman for a film production company. Five years later I left Aspen without a graduate degree but with a lot of experience. I moved to Denver and continued to work as a commercial photographer in the ski and adventure sports industry.
I was fortunate to get several jobs that entailed travel: shooting swimsuits in Hawaii, airline brochures in Mexico and as part of 4 man crew working on a adventure travel television series entitled “Sir Edmund Hillary’s World of Adventure” that eventually was picked up by the Discovery Channel. The television series took me from New Zealand to Greece and from Alaska to Peru. The travel bug had bitten me hard. I was hooked.
During most of my early work for travel publications I was the photographer in the writer/photographer team. I enjoyed being able to concentrate on photography while the writer did the research and gather information and details. Soon though, I noticed that when only one person was invited on travel assignments it was NOT the photographer. I began watching how the writers I worked with gathered material. I often saw the first draft through the published article, which gave me great insight into the writing process. I began to teach myself how a travel article was created start to finish. I was also involved in the marketing of the article/photography packages and learned that side of the business too.
For the past 10+ years I have been both writer and photographer on 90% of my jobs. While I still do enjoy being able to concentrate on only the photography portion of the product, when the publication and budget allows, I have come to enjoy the writing as much as the photography.
What do you like about what you do?
I like the variety and the challenge of what I do. I also enjoy the creativity that is required in both writing and photography. And, of course I love the travel or more precisely I love being in new places, experiencing new people, food, and culture. I am not a big fan of commercial air travel though. I much prefer getting on a ship or a train or setting up housekeeping in Rio or Auckland for a month or more. I prefer long stay, hub spoke style travel to the slingshot tour approach or the vagabond, round the world “glamping” style of travel.
What do you dislike?
The inconsistency of the work volume, it seems I am either completely swamped or absolutely dead in the water. Over the last 15 years the income model of both photography and publishing have changed so drastically that it has been hard to keep up.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I make money n a variety of ways. I am often paid a on a word count basis for articles but I am also increasing paid via revenue stream that is predicated on hit counts and click-throughs on online articles. My blog generates advertising revenue. My photographs are also licensed as Stock Photography and are paid for using usage rate calculations that are based on the size and visibility of the image and the circulation or unique visitor count of the publication/website.
I am most usually compensated for teaching workshops and classes or leading tours on a per person or percentage of gross revenue of the class/workshop/tour.
How much money do you make as a Travel Writer/Photographer?
From my experience the amount that travel writer/photographers make varies widely. Some barely get by or do it only as a sideline or “hobby” for the travel perks and are lucky to make enough to cover their expenses. Others are super stars in the industry and get six figure book deals and get paid several thousand dollars per magazine article. Most travel writer/photographers make decent amount of money in the mid to upper five figure range depending upon their experience and talent. And it is not always their talent as a writer or photographer that determines their income level. Combining both photography and writing makes it possible to earn a six-figure income as you become established.
How much money do Travel Writer/Photographers make starting out?
It is a very competitive field no doubt, so manage your expectations. There are many publications that are looking for people just starting out but they generally pay very modestly. Many publications pay only $25-$35 for an article and some require you provide photos for that payment. When they do pay extra for photos they often pay $15 or $25 dollars per photo. So as you can see you have to put quite a few articles together at a very efficient pace to make that amount to more than fast food wages.
Up from those markets are publications that pay $100 to $400 dollars for a article. These markets often pay a via a word rate of from 10 cents to a 50 cents a word. Per photo rates for stock photography can range from $50 to $500 dollars depending upon how and where it is used. Top-flight publications pay from a dollar a word and up. High-end publications pay $1000 to $5000 for a photo spread or cover story. The payment rates vary wildly.
I’d estimate that the average starting salary for photographer or writer coming out of college to be $30,000. Freelancers often make a bit more than that but it often offset by the expenses for equipment and overhead resulting less take home income than salaried.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
A college degree in either journalism and/or photojournalism is certainly a plus. Though, I am sure an English major or (as in my case) an Art major can re-purpose their skill set to accommodate this profession. I have also seen many people that were not formally trained in one of the disciplines (either writing or photography) pickup the other discipline on the job.
What is most challenging about what you do?
The most challenging aspect of my job each day is staying focused and being disciplined with such a variety of tasks to perform in any given day. I have to make a list of what I expect to accomplish each day or I might wind up at the end of the day or week having done many, many tasks but having accomplished none of the things necessary to be successful and to earn a living. There are generally 3 things each day that will have an impact on your success and your income. The true skill in this job is identifying which are the three vital tasks among the dozens you have on your to do list each day.
What is most rewarding?
The sense of accomplishment at overcoming the myriad of challenges you is face each day is quite rewarding. I also find the development of the variety of skills required to be successful as a travel writer/photographer rewarding. The opportunity to travel is a great benefit. I have had the opportunity to take trips that people earning a quarter million dollars might not be able to afford themselves. But most of all I enjoy creating something from nothing.
What advice would you give someone considering becoming a travel writer and photographer?
Be patient but be persistent. Get as much and as good of an education as you can afford without incurring huge debt. It is the education that is supposed to last a lifetime not the debt. Get as much experience as you can on someone else’s dime, in other words,work for someone else when you are starting out. Retain a curiosity about life and the world that just can’t be quenched.
Being a travel writer/photographer is very rewarding in many ways that are not measured only in your annual income so you’ll have to learn to do with less in the beginning if you chose this field. But, if you have talent, ambition and absolutely cannot stand the thought of doing anything else you can succeed as a travel writer/photographer.
How much time off do you get/take?
Since I am self-employed I have great flexibility. The difficulty is that I do not get a vacation salary during the time I take off. Therefore, the amount of time I can take off is directly proportional to how good a year I am having. The succinct answer is I get as much time off as I can afford. I travel enough for work that not going anywhere often feels like a vacation. I take plenty of time off around the holidays to spend with family and friends. In most years I am able to have 4-5 weeks vacation.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
One of the largest misconceptions is that I travel 12 months a year. People often envision that I spend every day in exotic locations taking photos by the early morning’s light, sipping Caipirinha’s on the beach in the afternoon while I jot notes into my Moleskine journal, shooting a few more pictures at sunset and dancing the night away at a samba club. I only get to do this a couple of months every year.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To continue to be a working travel writer/photographer while being paid a reasonable amount for my talent and energy. I’d like to win an award here and there and expand my travel workshops to encompass locations in Tahiti, New Zealand, Greece, Russia and Brazil. And, at some point I’d like to publish a book about my travels.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
It is worth the sacrifice to do what you love.