What I Learned When I Accidentally Became An Instagram Travel Influencer

by Rachel Sawden

Instagram started as a creative outlet for me when I was in dire need of hobbies. I’ve always loved composing images and my island home of Bermuda made it easy to create the tropical images I’ve always loved to see. Being an “influencer” was not a goal of mine, and I never cared about growing a following until I realized the value it could have (by the way I hate the word “influencer” also). At a crossroad in my life, friends were quitting their jobs to travel and as a freelancer, I had the flexibility to go with them. So with a one-way plane ticket to Asia booked, I issued myself a challenge – If I could gain 10,000 followers on Instagram I would self-publish the novel I’d been trying to traditionally publish for years. My novel was, after all, about a Millenial traveling the world chasing her dream of becoming a travel photographer. So off I went to grow my author platform on Instagram, and here is what I learned…

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The Vast Majority of Instagrammers/Content Creators are Self-Funded

Let’s get this one out the way – how do people fund this? We are not trust-fund babies (well, some are). Most do it the simple way – by saving for a long time and traveling on a shoestring budget.

Some people do seasonal work, so they work part of the year, and then go travel for another part, gathering as much content as they can to spread it out over the year. Some people work in weeks-on, weeks-off shifts and travel in their weeks off. Some are digital nomads who work remotely and make money on the go through avenues like graphic design and website building. I met someone who funded their travel through trading stocks and people who Airbnb’ed their apartments back home.

This Lifestyle Isn't for Everyone

It may look glamorous from the outside, but to travel for an extended time takes budgeting skills. For my 6 months in Asia, I aimed to live on $30USD per day – accommodation, food, local transportation. Accommodation meant either a hostel bed or a very basic private room. My bar was set pretty low – somewhere with minimal insects where I won’t get robbed and murdered in the night!

Eating vegetarian and especially eating local can take your meal price down to less than $3USD.

Learning to ride a scooter (and being comfortable with it) will slash your taxi costs and give you the freedom to go where you want when you want. (Scooters can be very dangerous so please be careful out there! No drinking and always wear a helmet).

Travel Isn't Just a Holiday, It's Work

Our days are spent on “content missions” (going out and taking photographs), then taking the time to organize and edit photos, post and engage on Instagram. Our content missions can take hours of travel (hiking, scooter, car, plane rides) and can be so exhausting as each and every detail has to be perfect (angle, hair, wardrobe, light, etc.).

At hotels and restaurants, we stage flat-lays and photographs to promote the business so it can take hours before being able to rest. If you’re sponsored there is added pressure to incorporate sponsored brands and products into the content mission. There is a lot of thought behind each image, and for each image you see, there were tens, sometimes hundreds of failed images.

I made a promise to myself before I left home that I would post daily, and so I needed to gather as much content as I could to honor that promise to myself.

Getting Freebies are Perks, Getting Sponsored is the Dream

If you have a certain number of followers, it’s possible to get hotel stays, free tours, entry to parties and meals at restaurants to help soften the financial blow. (Between these collabs, we stay in super cheap hostels and guesthouses.) To get these, however, you must offer value to the establishment in return. It is called “Influencer Work” for a reason, and you are there to provide content (e.g. stock images) for them and/or promote their business.

Once you prove your value, you can start getting paid for your work in addition to receiving freebies. The amount you can charge depends on your numbers of followers, however, you can start making money at around 10K followers.

Finding "Photographers" Can be Tricky

I was blessed with a very patient travel companion who supported what I was doing with my Instagram, however, everyone’s patience has its limits. I asked helpful strangers (some even turned out to be actual professional photographers!), new friends, old friends, and when my travel companion had to go home, leaving me to travel solo, I bought a tripod and used my phone as a remote to my camera.

There is a Community of Us, and We Love to Meet and Work Together

Photographers are looking for models, and models are looking for photographers and content creators are looking for other content creators to collaborate with. Everyone in this space loves to learn from each other – what new cameras there are, learning new editing techniques etc. We get together, and go explore a beautiful place and take photos with and of each other. I’ve made friends for life along my travels and had unforgettable adventures with them because of our shared passion for creating content.

People who are not into Instagram tend not to understand it – why we do it, how it works, so it can be difficult to find people to talk about this part of our life with.

Oh, and if you want to find them – Bali is the Mecca for content creators!

We See Amazing Places With Otherwise Wouldn't

Creating content while traveling forces you (in a good way!) to spare the effort and expense to venture to places you otherwise wouldn’t have bothered. It took me a day to get to this cenote from Tulum in Mexico (with other stops along the way), so I could get a shot in this beautiful cavern. Had I not been creating content, I may have been content with seeing photos of it and missed out on experiencing it in real life.

We Chase Instafamous Places

They’re Instafamous for a reason – they’re spectacular places! We as humans want to see them, and of course, we’re going to get a shot while we’re there!

And yes, we are inspired by the big names in the game. If they got a shot somewhere amazing, we want it too!

We Also Seek Out New Places

I love exploring and getting into the nooks and crannies of these beautiful destinations. It’s quite the dream to discover a place that isn’t plastered on everyone’s feed.

Some Look Very Different and Can Be Disappointing in Real Life

I’ve seen pictures of spectacular places on Instagram, only to get to them and think, “this is it?” You’d be surprised how many of those images out there are totally photoshopped (Pura Lempuyan, I’m looking at you!), and what a little cropping can do!

Also, some places have become so popular that they don’t even allow you to take pictures anymore! I found this out at the Ho’oomalahiu Botanical Gardens in Oahu, and many places in Tulum!

Growing a Following Takes Work and Dedication

I post at around noon Eastern Standard Time, and in Asia, the time difference was nearly 12 hours, so I had to post each night around midnight. I’d prepare multiple posts during the day, and at night oftentimes have to steal away from parties to the bathroom to post and do my engagement. IG likes that you’re engaging with other users’ content in the first 20 minutes of posting.

When in El Nido in the Philippines I ended up incredibly ill and could barely leave bed for three days. However, I had to stick to the promise I made to post daily. In the Philippines cell service is very spotty, and the nearest place to get a reliable signal was a ten-minute walk away, under a particular palm tree on a beach. So, each night I dragged myself out of bed and down to that palm tree just so I didn’t break my posting schedule and risk affecting my growth.

Getting the Perfect Shot Takes Patience and Photoshop Skills

I had to go back to this location twice to get this shot which is always teeming with swimmers in bright yellow life vests. My very patient friend managed to get about three pictures where I could photoshop out only one or two people to make it look as if I have it to myself.

We Go To Great Lengths For a Single Shot

Oh, just sitting on the edge of an active volcano crater in a dress. Casual day, right? What people didn’t see (unless they watched my stories), is that we woke up at 2:00am, drove an hour, then hiked up the volcano in the freezing pitch-black with gas masks on to catch the sunrise from inside the volcano engulfed in sulfur smoke. Once the sun had risen, we hiked to the top of the crater and waited for hours in the hopes that the clouds blanketing the crater would pass. Luckily they did (we had not been so lucky at the other volcano and the waterfall we had visited the days before). Once they did, we changed into cute outfits, posed, and got our shots in the limited time we had with our guide. Then we changed back into hiking gear and hiked back down the volcano. But all you see is this one moment in time.

It's a Great Way To Meet Locals

This beautiful little river in Siargao Island has recently become a new must-shoot spot. It’s in the middle of a little village and the local village boys were all too happy to help us use the canoe, show us how to climb the tree, and show off their jumping skills for us. Connecting with locals is one of my favourite parts of travelling and makes these images and moments that much more special for us.

We are No Less “Present” or “In The Moment"

I’ve always been an explorer and I’ve always loved taking photos. I cannot lie idly on a beach and be happy, I need to be exploring that beach, camera in hand, looking for angles, appreciating the lines, textures and colours. I notice details that someone who is just lying on the beach will miss (but that is what they enjoy and I don’t judge). “Being present” and “enjoying a place” is achieved differently by different people.

It Can Lead to Other Opportunities

Sponsored brand promotion is only one way of making money through Instagram. Being able to understand social media and having the ability to create quality content – whether it be photography or writing (or both!), holds great value in this day and age. My Instagram following has led me to paid and steady freelance writing, modeling, content creation, and photography gigs.

Social Media is a niche where many companies are lost and seeking people knowledgeable of the platforms to help them grow and engage with customers. Those who have built followings of their own are perfect candidates for social media management positions.

Whether being a full time “influencer” is a viable career option (some do make it work!) is up for debate, but to me, Instagram is a great business tool, particularly for freelancers, and is the perfect platform for building a personal brand.

It's a Passion and We Have Our Individual Goals

Everyone has their “thing”, and we love and to express our creativity in this on this platform. Some want to do influencer work because styling shoots and promoting brands speaks to them, some want to launch their own brands, some are boosting a photography or filmmaking business, or, if you’re like me, you’re building an author platform…

I reached my 10K follower goal earlier than I thought I would (yay dedication!) and while traveling I began to set the wheels in motion to self-publish my book. When I say I’m going to do something I have to do it! My Instagram journey changed my life for the better – it has given me purpose, a creative outlet, a stream of revenue, new friends, new skills, and unforgettable adventures that could easily fill another novel. Speaking of… It gave me the confidence to publish the novel I had spent years writing and thought would never see the light of day.

So… Here’s my shameless plug – it would mean the world to me if you would check out my novel, Runaways. 

If you’re interested in hearing more of my story as a content creator and novelist, please check out the blog post, My Story

If you’re interested in learning about how to grow an Instagram following, I’ve got a blog post for that too!

Have you had any fun experiences traveling and getting photos? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!

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1 comment

Heather Chilvers 13/11/2020 - 5:40 pm

Great article Rachel!


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