Travel photographer Susan Portnoy shares some hardline advice for those wanting to explore the world as a profession.
Susan Portnoy is a New York-based, award-winning freelance photographer who specializes in travel, wildlife, portraits, and street photography. After a successful career in communications and public relations working for major firms like Condé Nast, Susan decided to follow her passion for travel, making the leap to become a professional photographer.
Since going full-time in 2018, her work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Today.com, US News & World Reports, Mashable, and One.org, among other outlets. She also created the blog The Insatiable Traveler.
“While it’s scary to begin a new life after forty, I’m much happier, and I’ve had some incredible experiences,” she says.
Here she shares advice for traveling the world as a professional photographer.
Establish a Sense of Place
Good travel photography offers its viewers a sense of place, so that they’re immediately drawn in and situated. “You don’t want to do a street photograph that could be New York, Chicago, or London,” Portnoy says. “You want to make sure that there is something to these images that speak to and define that country or that destination.”
For a series of photos, it’s important to get an establishing shot and a more close-up shot—a detail of something that is specific to the scene. For example, when photographing villagers in the mountains of Mongolia, Portnoy captured details like a handmade saddle and gear, and the path where they lead their horses.
Study the Wildlife
Getting a feel for wildlife takes time. On multiple trips to Africa, Portnoy focused on learning the behavior of various animals so she could come to anticipate their actions.
“When I first went, I would miss things, and I’d see another photographer got this amazing angle, or this amazing moment,” she says. The reason? “He knew they always do that when that happens.”
Get Ready to Work Hard
There’s a common misconception that travel photography consists of having lots of fun first, then doing the real work after the fact. But, that’s not the case.
Sometimes, she’ll pitch a story after the trip, as opposed to going in with an assignment, which means she has to shoot for the possibility of multiple ideas, unsure of which will stick.
She also edits as she goes, to be certain she’s got what she needs. “We do make mistakes,” she says. “Let’s say I misjudged my shutter speed for a boat ride, and it was a little too slow for that moment, and I couldn’t quite tell on the LCD. I can see it on a computer and correct my mistakes and make sure I’m on it going forward.”
Plan, Plan, Plan
There are a lot of logistics to consider when embarking on a trip as a photographer. For instance, packing requires planning ahead for special arrangements and extra fees.
“In many countries, to get where you’re going, you’re using small planes with very little cargo space and weight limits,” Portnoy says. “You have to be very conscious of it.” (In Kenya, Portnoy’s client will help pay for the weight of her camera gear, which is not insignificant.) “My wildlife lens that Canon is loaning me is eight pounds itself, and you can only bring about thirty pounds total.”
You’ll also need travel insurance that covers medical and evacuation costs. Becoming sick or injured in remote places requires major logistics to get you out. Plus, most companies that transport you to these destinations require such coverage. “The boat I was on in Antarctica wouldn’t let you onboard without evacuation insurance,” Portnoy says.
Consider Your Finances
Travel photography isn’t cheap. Sometimes everything is paid for—either by a publication or a destination that wants publicity. But, in many cases, Portnoy has to pay part or all of her own way. In those instances, Portnoy considers whether the excursion in question will be beneficial to her down the road. Will the trip earn her greater respect in the industry? Will she be getting access she might not otherwise get?
To mitigate costs, she tries to take both commercial and branded content, as well. Those higher-paid jobs help to fund other trips.
“I also recommend that you have savings that you can dip into,” she says. Her time in PR allowed her to build a nest egg to see her through slow times, like this pandemic year. “I have a cushion and that’s really important.”
Anticipate COVID-Related Setbacks
The global pandemic has greatly impacted the travel industry. “It hit me hard,” Portnoy says. “As soon as March 2020 hit, it was absurd to write about travel. It was inappropriate.” A trip commissioned by Newsweek just before the world shut down has yet to run. “It’s sort of dangling out there.” (Pre-COVID, Portnoy was traveling pretty much once every month.)
Things are now slowly starting back up. Portnoy has a forthcoming assignment in upstate New York, and she expects to go to Kenya in October. But, it’s still iffy for travel to far-flung locations.
“A lot of locations are not being marketed because they’re overrun—Hawaii is telling people to stay away—and tourist bureau budgets have been cut,” Portnoy says.
She was supposed to go to Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago, in August for a major publication, but has so far been unable to make it happen. “The gears are starting to work, but it needs a lot of oil before it’s going to go smoothly.”
Be Honest with Yourself
You need to have some good pictures under your belt, and you need to be honest with yourself about those images.
“Get someone’s thoughts on your images besides your parents or friends because, at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to represent you,” Portnoy says. “Make sure you are good, and not just ‘friends and family’ good.”
She also advises using Instagram because editors look at the platform. Post quality pictures, and think about the captions. “If you can write as well, hone your skills as a writer. That has benefited me in that I can provide a package,” she says.
“And finally—this is so cliché—persevere. Because it’s hard and you’re going to get a lot more noes than yeses.”
Photography is an exciting profession. Here are a few more exciting articles for you:
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- Voice of the Artist: How One Brazilian Photographer Approaches Inclusivity
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Cover image via Susan Portnoy.