Being a travel photographer and content creator has to be one of the world’s most coveted jobs. But as with most creative and seemingly fun occupations, it takes a lot of hustle, determination, and patience. Additionally, many tend to neglect the social responsibilities that come with being a travel photographer. Erin Sullivan is the awe-inspiring travel photographer and writer behind Erin Outdoors and the Great Indoors series. She joins me on this episode of Her Life, By Design, to share what social responsibility looks like through the lens of a travel photographer.
What sets Erin apart from most content creators is her dedication to social responsibility. She focuses on sharing culture, wildlife, and the outdoors while encouraging her audiences to be mindful. Erin acknowledges her responsibilities as a travel photographer, and constantly reminds fellow creators to be respectful on the road. Not only is Erin a TED speaker, but her work includes collaborations with Adobe and Sony.
In this episode, Erin and I chat about how aspiring travel photographers can get their start. We also discuss growing an audience and negotiating brand deals, pricing your work, and what ethics in travel photography looks like.
Through the Lens of a Travel Photographer and Writer
Erin first fell in love with photography in high school. Her intro to photography class inspired her to explore this creative medium. So, she applied to college as a photography major only to switch to graphic design at the last minute. It was during college that Erin fell in love with the outdoors. She held many odd jobs from working at summer camps to eventually becoming an adventure trip leader.
Although it didn’t pay much, it was an incredible experience that allowed her to lead trips around the world. It was a job that would ultimately shape the way she viewed travel and how she creates content today. During her time working as a trip leader, she decided to start her blog, Erin Outdoors. With no intention of turning it into a full-time career, her blog simply portrays her passions. It is also a resource for people wanting to become adventure trip leaders themselves.
Growing an Audience from Scratch
Erin left her job as an adventure trip leader to settle down at a full-time job. 7-months later, she was fired. That was the turning point where she decided to pursue her blog and professional photography. She set a personal goal for herself during a week-long road trip. At the time, she had 300 Instagram followers. Her goal was to reach 1000 followers in 7 days. So she started engaging more within hashtags and different pages. Spending time researching to see how she could build her community on the platform.
Needless to say, she was successful! The experience made her realize that this could be something that matters to her life and her business. It was then that Erin started sharing more vulnerably about her experiences as a traveler on Instagram. “I was paying attention to what worked, doing more of that, staying clear on my ‘why’, and how I was being of service.”
Becoming a Full-Time Travel Photographer
Erin’s success as a full-time travel photographer and content creator did not happen overnight. Like many aspiring entrepreneurs, she did whatever she could to make ends meet — even if it meant picking up odd jobs. Some of the jobs include house-sitting and freelance social media management. But the connections she made through working in social medial helped her land opportunities collaborating with brands as a model.
One of her first collaborations took her on a trip to Mexico, where she modeled for a number of outdoor brands. After that, she began pitching brands for trade — where she received products in exchange for photography. Through this experience, she became familiar with the influencer marketing world.
Erin worked her butt off to get to the point of financial stability and success. “Anybody who wants to get into this for money… don’t!” She advises aspiring content creators to always remember and lead with your “why”. Your “why” is the force behind building a long-lasting community. “Having a public-facing brand is hard, so you need a really good reason for why you want to do it to be able to stay that course,” she adds.
Getting a Start in Travel Photography
One of the most common roadblocks aspiring content creators seem to face is the lack of professional equipment and gear. As for aspiring travel influencers, traveling internationally may not currently be an option. However, Erin reminds listeners that it isn’t about your camera gear or your ability to travel far. “It’s really important to start with what you have and where you are.”
She advises all aspiring travel photographers to start telling stories about your home town. “Clients are only going to hire you if they see that you can do the job.” Building your portfolio can start wherever you are, and with whatever equipment you have available to you. But most importantly, Erin suggests sharpening your storytelling skills. “Storytelling is a skill that you need to develop and hone no matter where you are, so start with your own.”
Erin’s biggest piece of advice for photographers is to learn by practicing and simply doing. To be fair, she didn’t take a single photography course beyond her high school intro to photography class. Most of what Erin knows and has accomplish today comes from a willingness to try, fail, and refine her work to where she wants it to be.
In this episode, Erin walks listeners through a few tips on how to improve your photography significantly.
A Guide to Pricing Your Work
There are ways in which content creators can work with brands that go beyond sponsored influencer posts. Creating content, licensing your images, and social media promotions are the most common categories that Erin works within. Each category comes with a set of considerations that you have to take into account before naming your rate.
If a brand asks for 10-15 images in deliverables, what media platform will these images be used for, and for how long? The way you price your deliverables will vary greatly if your images appear on billboards, digital media, print media, or social media. Similarly, your rates will either increase or decrease depending on your licensing term agreement, which tends to start at 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, or in perpetuity.
Ultimately, pricing yourself really boils down to what you’re most comfortable with. If you simply do not know where to start, it is standard practice to ask a brand what their allotted budget for the project is. Context and nuance also play a huge part in your rate scale. If you’re still working on building your portfolio, it’s absolutely normal to lower your rates to gain the experience. Erin advises listeners that whatever you choose to do, avoid doing anything that will make you feel resentful. You want to make sure that the value is equal on both ends of the deal.
Erin shares some great tips on setting your rates in this episode. She walks listeners through the many considerations to take into account before forming a package and naming your price.
What Having Ethics in Travel Photography Means
Something that sets Erin apart from the majority of travel content creators is her dedication to ethics within the travel photography space. Her experience as a guide has shaped her views, enlightening her with the responsibilities she has a traveler and photographer.
Erin advocates for responsible tourism and travel photography, which includes deeply researching the place you’re going to and experiencing it without a camera first. She reminds listeners that it’s important to seek to understand before being understood and to always think about the locals first. She encourages travelers to take the lead from locals, asking questions about their history and culture before sharing your own opinions and experiences on it.
And if you’re ready to pull out your camera and start shooting, always be sure to get permission for the shot. Whether you’re taking someone’s portrait or shooting their property, asking for permission is a must. As for photographing wildlife, it’s important to think about the impacts sharing that image will have. When it comes to photos of endangered species, poachers will be able to locate where the shot was taken through the image’s metadata.“Try your best to be intentional in all ways when you travel and use your camera for good, not for exploitation,” Erin encourages.
This episode with Erin is a breath of fresh air. She shares incredibly valuable advice for all aspiring content creators. We discuss finding ways to stay creative and finding a sense of adventure through the lockdown. Which for Erin, resulted in her popular viral series, the Great Indoors — featuring miniature figures in made up landscapes using every day household items.
We chat about social responsibility as public-facing figures and influencers. And we discuss the need to use our platforms and privilege to speak up about things that matter in this world.
Tune into this episode to hear Erin’s incredible journey, and learn how you can start taking steps towards creating a responsible and ethical career in travel photography.
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