How to Break into Adventure Sports Photography
Jobs Can Be Found Abroad
Rafting, Abseiling, Ziplining, Kayaking….do you love engaging in adventure sports while in the most gorgeous of landscapes and climates? Though learning these disciplines often requires long hours of study, official certifications, and years of experience, there is a way to actually make a living in what is really an adrenalin travel scene more easily.With a little creativity, in most cases the cost of entrance into this world is only a digital camera, laptop, and a stack of blank CD-Roms.
In simple terms, the job consists of taking photographs of tourists as they jump down cliffs, paraglide across mountain ridges, or raft down rapids. Then, when the tourists return from their adrenalin rush, you offer—or hopefully sell—them your photographs.
How to Land Your First Gig
Unless you have a stellar resume demonstrating years of photography experience or previous contacts in the industry, you will actually have to be at the location where you wish to take your photos. It is rare to be hired from abroad, so keep in mind that in most cases you will need to save money not only for your initial flight tickets, but also to sustain you until you have stable work. The sum of money required will depend upon your destination and how quickly you find work. In most cases, long-term travelers do not go abroad specializing in photography, but instead are willing to take on a variety of jobs, from teaching English to bartending.
If you eventually do wish to specialize in photography, you may have to travel around for some time until you find opportunities and connections. When in-country, ask around what kind of adventure sports are offered. Ask whether they already offer photography services. In some cases, this will require you to try the adventure sports company out for yourself in the role of a tourist.
Once you have found a company that does not yet offer pictures, offer them your services. Point out that you have your own equipment. Have a sample of photographs with you. You can even take the photos when you have participated in the activity yourself.
Good pictures and an even better presentation will go a long way not only to get hired, but to make money. Ideally, you should show your clients a sample of the product they may purchase—or even come prepared with as broad a portfolio as possible of your finest shots. While a few photographers sell their CDs without clients ever seeing the content in advance, it is common sense that you will sell far more photographs if you are able to demonstrate your work beforehand. Unless you have an office, either as part of the adventure sports company or independently, this may mean coming to the clients` hotel after the adventure activity once you have completed the shooting and developing process.
The format to present your photos varies with each photographer. The following may sound obvious, but make absolutely sure that the pictures you sell are not some standard images that you offer every tourist. During my own travels, I have to honestly admit that I once bought pictures which were not of me, but of an entirely different group of people along with some standard landscape shots. You will certainly not make people happy with such a mistake, and will likely lose work after several complaints.
On the other hand, if you put together a great presentation, you will be able to charge more. That means going beyond the still image. The adventure sports company Argentina Rafting, for example, provides a spirited slide show with music, in addition to standard photographs of Mendoza’s landscape and information about all the guides. Your clients will be able to relive their personal adrenalin rush as they view the canopy photos with animated music.
What is the difference between freelance and more permanent employment?
While some adventure sports companies already have a photo service set up, others do not. In the former case, you would have to inquire whether they are currently looking for photographers to employ on a more permanent basis. Offering your English language skills to work in the office may go a long way towards getting a job.
Companies that do not have their own photographers are usually smaller in size. In this case, you may offer freelance work, meaning that you determine the price of your photos. The company may ask for a percentage of the earnings since you are photographing their activities. A friend of mine was offered such a gig in Pucón, Chile, whether she could determine the price of the CDs and only pay for gas. Whether or not she would sell the pictures was her responsibility. Finally, when working freelance or permanently, keep in mind the visa and work permit regulations of the country in which you are residing.
How much can I expect to earn?
Just as with freelance travel writing, freelance photography is not an easy income source these days unless you have the right contacts and a resume showing years of experience. Do not trust the glamorous ads that present travel photography as the way to make a fortune. The fact that National Geographic gigs are hard to get is an understatement. So if you are in it for the money, forget it. But if you can live on the basics—meaning housing shared with multiple people and pasta several days a week—the job might be for you. Realistically, your motivation should largely be related to your desire for new experiences abroad, the cultures you will get to know, and the local people you will meet.
Let me cite some examples. Rodrigo Matzenbacher, a photographer I met in Bariloche, Argentina, charged 40 pesos per CD of photos of a kayak excursion. When I met him, it was October, and he was shooting two half-day excursions a day. The high season (November-March) was still approaching and he would then be able to shoot three times a day. The number of participants in the low season ranged from one to four, while in the high season it would involved more. Choosing your sport and location while taking into account the high season is undoubtedly a must; during the winter, Matzenbacher shoots ski excursions, for example. The same holds true if you are seeking more permanent employment with a company that already has a photo service set up. Arriving just before the high season is the best approach, as you make sure that another photographer does not find the job before you.
Am I the right person for adventure sports photography?
In the digital age, taking pictures has become a free-for-all, but that does not mean the job is for everyone. In addition to taking good shots, be prepared to work in all kinds of weather and with all kinds of people. The tourism industry does not operate from 9-5 Monday-Friday. Tourists raft and paraglide every day and the hours can be long, especially in the high season. If you are employed full-time, this usually means you have one day off per week, while freelancers determine their own schedule.
Physical endurance is therefore essential, and in some instances may even require more specific sporting skills. While ziplining pictures could just mean walking from one station to the next, kayak excursions might necessitate advanced kayaking skills. Rodrigo Matzenbacher shoots kayak excursions in Bariloche, so he had to take a kayaking course to accompany tourists on the trips. Similarly, an abseiling stint offered by Argentina Rafting may only be reached as part of a half-day hike, so you must pack trekking boots. The physical skills required typically vary from location to location, but even if you are just walking along the rafting trail taking pictures, you may be able to score a free rafting trip with the company as time goes along. The idea is to get to know not only a bunch of tourists, but also the guides and the company. While the tourists come and go, the staff stays and will become among your closest friends abroad.
Moving beyond still images
In addition to photographs, you may wish look into recording videos as well. When my cousin went to study abroad in Australia he brought home a lively video of himself bungee jumping. We all relived his experience in the family living room.
Whether you are just starting out, and especially if you have more experience, think of setting up a website to showcase your work. This will be helpful not only to get hired initially, but also to keep jobs coming. For example, you could give the clients the option to order further prints online. The key is to be as professional as possible in every way, with business cards included. But if you do not have the technical skills or the extra capital, at least provide clients with your name and email. Who knows, perhaps you will be able to sell some shots to magazines or newspapers? After all, while you are out and about you will have the best opportunities to capture not only tourists but also rare animals and stunning landscapes.
For More Information
Season workers, Frontier Club, Looking For Adventure: These sites operate as databases for jobs and courses in the adventure sports industry. Though they don’t list photography gigs, they may be useful to determine where photographers could be needed.
Matador U offers a comprehensive online program for those who wish to break into travel photography.