So you want to be a nature photographer? To get paid for doing what you love, photographing the rocks and trees and animals. It’s a worthy goal, and one worth pursuing. This article will provide some inspiration to do just that, mixed with a few reality checks.
As you walk the path to becoming a nature photographer you will find many things, an increase in self-reliance and a lifestyle most can only dream of, are two that spring to mind. One thing you probably won't find however, is riches. You'll be walking a dusty old fire trail, not a yellow brick road.
I'm not privy to the finances of other photographers, but from what I've observed, if you're a very good photographer (one of the best) and a smart business person as well, you should just be able to make a living.
So if money isn't the attraction with nature photography, what is?
Solitude? Self reliance? Being with nature?
All of the above and more. Ask yourself the following questions: Why do I take photos? Why do I bushwalk?
I actually consider these questions rhetorical because, in my opinion, there is only one correct answer.
"Because I love it".
You must enjoy bushwalking for its own sake; you must love just being in the bush even though its not always comfortable. I can't honestly say that I am happy about slogging up a hot dry ridge, and I don't particularly like being wet. But I can make these situations bearable, even enjoyable.
When the climb in front of me seems endless, I turn around and look where I've been. I look at the tiny creek hundreds of metres below and congratulate myself for gaining so much height in such a short time. If it's raining, rather than dwell on the unpleasant feeling of wet feet and water trickling down the back of my neck, I'll stop, and exercise my other senses. I listen to the soft patter of raindrops on dead leaves, watch the glistening eucalypts recede into the mist, and smell the ozone released from the soil.
These sensations are the essence of bushwalking.
When you can feel achievement instead of defeat; peace, not irritation then, and only then, are you ready to pick up a camera and photograph the landscape.
Here are some more questions. Answer them honestly now.
Do you enjoy being dumped on by bad weather?
Do you like standing on the edge of a 100-metre cliff in a strong wind?
Do you think its fun to do the above while carrying nearly half your body weight in camera gear?
If you answered "Yes" to any one of these questions you're too crazy to be a landscape photographer.
You don't have to enjoy adversity, but you do have to deal with it. I've described the methods I use to convert two of bushwalking's less pleasant scenarios into something much less onerous, even beautiful. How you do this is up to you, but deal with it you must, or you will not have the staying power required to become successful at nature photography.
No matter what the field of endeavour, it's enthusiasm that separates successful people from the also-rans. Enthusiastic people don't knock off at five o'clock. Enthusiastic people know, and have an opinion about, their subject.
Nature photography is like any other worthwhile pursuit: to be good at it you must be enthusiastic. I can't stress this enough. You must be totally enthused about, and immersed in, your chosen field of endeavour, nature photography.
In other articles I've talked about working in the bush or covering social issues, and how you should do what you feel comfortable with. No matter how much you feel something should be done about homeless people in the city slums, or anything else, if you don't feel comfortable photographing such issues then you aren't the one to be doing it.
In the late seventies I was living in London. I couldn't help but notice the people living in cardboard boxes under Charing Cross bridge and in similar places. I thought that I could make some powerful images of these people and their plight, so I bought an old army great coat, stopped shaving, and spent my weekends as a down-and-out. On Friday nights, after work, instead of going home I would head into Soho, down to the Thames or across the river into 'The Elephant' and the dock areas. Usually I would just walk around, but sometimes I would sleep in a park, I even had my own cardboard box one night.
After a few weekends I'd had enough. I sympathised with these people but my heart just wasn't in it. Because of this I didn't have the emotional stamina to see the project through. And there's part of the problem. I saw what I was doing as a "project", something that I could get published or exhibited. I sympathised with the unfortunate people I was trying to photograph, but I didn't empathise with them.
I was an outsider who, at any time, could buy a good meal or catch a train to my nice warm apartment. Because I had no enthusiasm I failed. I didn't make one successful image during the entire exercise: in fact I hardly made any at all.
Bruce Barnbaum, in his book The Art of Photography, quotes Frederick Sommer: "Subject matter is subject that matters". I think this quote gets to the heart of the matter. If your subject is not important to you, it doesn't matter to you, and this will show in your images.
In 1992 I decided to return to photography, specifically large format landscape photography. Unfortunately I had a very large house and a mortgage to match. Buying new camera equipment was strictly a fantasy.
The house had to go.
It's not easy to sell large houses, but I had a dream. I would miss the indoor pool, gym and electronics workshop, but I had a dream. I didn't know how we would fit into a small town house, but I would figure it out because I had a dream.
It was nearly two years from the time the first neuron fired with the thought "I want to be a nature photographer" until I exposed a sheet of 4x5 film. Two years of holding on to the dream, until finally, I stood in the mountains with my Tachihara and my tent.
And for once, the reality was as good as the dream.
Just do it
Years ago I was keen to get into stock photography. I had quite an extensive range of shots from all over Australia and New Zealand and I was sure the quality of my work was up to scratch. New York was the centre of the stock photography world, and that's where I wanted to go.
Then indecision reared its ugly head. Was I good enough? What if I blow it? What if they don't like my shots? Looking for excuses, I decided that I didn't have images covering enough different subjects. For example I had plenty of wildlife, motorcycle racing and city scapes, but didn't have any gliding or sailing photos.
I wasted months. Eventually, with emotional and financial support from my parents, I boarded a plane for the USA. At my fourth interview I was offered a contract with Globe Photos, the world's largest stock photography library. They didn't mind that I had no sailing photos.
One of my favourite sayings is:
Don't let it apply to you. It's very easy to make excuses. You're waiting for a promotion, for the kids to leave school, to get the latest camera, to get this, to get that. Nine times out of ten these excuses are caused by a lack of confidence, and lack of confidence is a serious problem.
The first thing to realise is that your biggest obstacle may be yourself. Excuses such as, I'm not ready, I'm not good enough, or I don't have enough money, flow freely until you convince yourself that they are true. Of course they may be. You have to decide if you are ready and if you are good enough, or if you're just making excuses.
Alchemy: the business of photography
As photographers we have access to that which remained elusive to generations past. We can combine paper and silver to create a photograph, and sell that photograph for gold. Admittedly the process can be very inefficient at times; using vast amounts of silver to produce little or no gold. You can toil for months, even years, swilling chemicals around small trays and inspecting the results until, at last, you see your first speck of gold. You sell a print. Now you're hooked, and like all good addictions it will last until the demise of your finances or yourself. Whichever comes first.
It's at about this time that you decide there is a chance of making a living from your hobby: worthy but dangerous thoughts, especially if you are gainfully employed. Before you run off to tell your boss what he can do with the job listen to the little voice in your head. The one saying, "Wait a minute, what if?" No such voice? There should be. Before you give up a real job (defined as an activity that pays you more than it costs) and launch yourself into a career in nature photography (usually an activity that costs more that it pays) you need to find out if you have what it takes. You need to come to terms with the fact that, as a working nature photographer, you may actually spend less time taking photographs than you do at present.
A friend of mine is a keen and knowledgeable bushman. He thought it would be nice to have people pay him to guide them through the Australian bush so he started a business conducting eco tours. He was right, people will pay for this service. He did well, but spent far less time in the bush than he used to. His time was taken up organising insurance, marketing, bookkeeping; in fact just about everything except bushwalking.
As a small business person (even when only part-time) you will have dozens of tasks to deal with that have nothing to do with taking photographs: public liability insurance, display manufacture, signage, advertising, framing, accounts receivable, accounts payable, accounts forgettable (my favourite), the list goes on and on.
I've heard people say that they will start a business, build it up for a year or so, then lease a BMW, hire a manager and get on with the good life. Yeah right, with a massive budget and a marketing whiz on the payroll, maybe. In the real world, probably not. The business is your life, and will be for a long time.
Are you still with me? I haven't put you off? Good, because the only thing that will get you through this is a passion for being in, and photographing, nature.
So how do you decide if professional nature photography is for you? How do you find out if your images are good enough? I'll describe one method in the following section but first I would like to digress slightly.
In the previous paragraph I wrote, "How do you find out if your images are good enough?" Maybe I should have written, "How do you find out if your images are popular enough?" After all, the concept of a good artistic image is a little esoteric to be of much use when making pragmatic decisions about your business success. What will make or break you as a professional photographer is the popularity of your images. If the public doesn't like them they won't buy them, and if they don't buy them you will starve.
Personally I'm not the type to starve for my art; on the other hand I cannot condone the taking of photographs to please others. This will transfer your power to them and replace it with fear, fear that they won't like it, fear that your work will not be accepted, and fear that your photos won't sell.
You must take photographs for yourself. Do this and you have nothing to fear. Do this and it will show in the quality of your work. Do this and people just might come to you.
Are your photos good enough?
It's no good just asking strangers either. The only true test is money. You've got to hang out your shingle and let the public decide your fate. One way to do that is to get down to the local markets and try to sell your photos. The public has no vested interest one way or the other. They will buy or they won't.
Go down every weekend for a year. What's that you say, you haven't got the time? If this is true then you will find it even harder to succeed. If it's an excuse, then what you really meant to say was "I haven't got the enthusiasm". In this case you have two options. Go back to the top of this article and start again, or skip to the next one and forget about professional nature photography.
If, at the end of that year, you've made $58 then the answer is clear, nature photography is not a career opportunity for you. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't continue to take photographs, if you're enjoying it then that's all that really matters. But as a career choice it may leave something to be desired.
On the other hand, if you've made $58,000 the answer is also clear, go for it. Anywhere in between and the decision is a little harder to make.
Some caveats apply here. Two scenarios may illustrate them. The first is the situation where you sell a lot of prints, but of a small percentage of your images. Let's say you have a large range of photos and, at the end of the year, your records (naturally you kept detailed sales records) show that 98% of sales were from one image. All you've proved is that you managed to strike it lucky once. You need a higher hit rate than that.
The second is where your sales are evenly spread over your images but to only a few people. A photographer I know held his first exhibition and sold all the images on display. Buoyed with his newfound success he bought an 8x10" camera and took six months leave without pay to 'make it' as a landscape photographer. Three months later he was back at work, poorer and wiser.
His problem was that the photos he'd sold at the exhibition were all sold to the same person. He had found someone who really liked his work. That's great. Unfortunately he couldn't find anybody else.
Art vs. business
"...to a study of success versus perfection. The fight for the attainment of perfection — or to attain the foothills, even of the peak — cannot be waged while compromising. Success, on the other hand, demands a loosening of standards, a catholic point of view, a willingness to submerge one's own point of view in that of the masses."
So it seems we have a dichotomous situation. On the one hand, the desire to create art; and on the other, the need to eat. But what if your vision leads you to create photographs that people enjoy? What if your point of view is the same as that of the masses? In this case you can follow your quest and make a living.
As it happens this appears to be my situation, I have photos hanging in hundreds of homes and offices around the world. It's very gratifying, and evidence that one can follow one's dream and sell the results. I don't believe that I compromise at all in the making of my images, I photograph what pleases me, fortunately the photos seem to please others as well.
Remember that there is the art of making photographs, and the business of selling them. Don't confuse the two. Let me give some examples of such confusion.
You see a potential photograph that you don't particularly like but you think it will sell, so you take it anyway. You are using the business side of your brain to create art, the resultant photo may well be financially successful but it almost certainly won't be a fine photograph.
The reverse side of this coin is the case of using your creative brain for business, for example, hanging your photos in a café for free. At first you will probably jump at the chance to show your images in any venue. This is both reasonable and necessary for a new photographer because you need experience at showing your work and you need the exposure. After a while though you get tired of providing free décor for other businesses.
Currently I only hang in such venues to support my local camera club, or if I feel the exposure will justify the expense. I once placed about ten large photographs in a café, total cost to me about $1500 for framing, paper etc. and probably as much again for my time. They were on the walls for about nine months during which time I sold one unframed print for $30. That's an annualised return of around 1.33% on my investment. Now I'm no business tycoon, but my gut feeling is that you have to do better than 1.33% to make a decent living.
What was the problem here? I just stated that people like my images, so how come only one sale in nine months? There's a couple of reasons, firstly, people go to a restaurant to fill up, catch up, chat up etc, not to buy art.
Secondly, when somebody does show an interest they need to be helped along with the sale, and that's not going to happen in a busy restaurant.
Their core business is not selling photos, it's feeding people. This was made clear to me when one night, dining 'in cognito', I asked the waitress if the photos were for sale. "Dunno" was the hurried response as she balanced 14 half-empty plates and wondered how long till the end of her shift.
I believe in the kind of luck that seats you on a train beside a publisher who has just decided the world needs another book on nature photography (a scenario that has yet to happen to me I’m sorry to say).
Or the kind of luck that gives you the perfect light for a particular rock, or that stops the wind blowing for the ten seconds you need to make your exposure. But it’s perseverance that prised you from a warm bed at 3AM to be in place for that perfect light. It’s hard work that got you to the top of the mountain in time for that brief period of still air.
There are many planks in the floor of success. Luck is one of them, but not one you should depend on. Stick with enthusiasm and perseverance, and the ‘luck’ will follow.
Just don't get carried away. Never forget to keep some humility. Always be prepared to show others how to improve. Conversely, always be prepared to learn from others.
"A landscape photographer eh?, my brother-in-law does landscaping, maybe you've photographed some of his gardens."
Photographer's ego dies. But then, on the phone one day...
"Is that the Rob
Gray who used to live in Kingston?"
"Oh, you're Rob Gray the photographer?", she said. "I've seen your work in the QANTAS magazine. And haven't you got a display on in town?"
"Your photos are lovely, they're really peaceful..."
Photographer's ego is resurrected. Some people do know and care about nature photography, and maybe even your work.
The ego is a much maligned part of the brain. Of course no-one wants to be thought of as egotistical, but I can see no way of succeeding without being extremely confident, and such confidence can border on egotism.
OK, so maybe ego is a dirty word, but confidence isn’t, which is good because you need plenty of it.
Look the part
There were two Indians walking through the desert when they happened across a pile of...Well, to cut a long story short, if something looks like dog poo, smells like dog poo and tastes like dog poo, then it probably is dog poo.
Similarly if you look like a nature photographer, and act like a nature photographer, then people will assume that's what you are. More importantly you will start believing you are a nature photographer, and beliefs have a habit of being self-fulfilling.
Once you have decided you are going to be a nature photographer, it's time to let everybody else know. Get business cards and letterheads made, you're going to be corresponding with a lot of people and you should look professional. You don't have to spend a fortune, if you have a computer, a laser printer, and an eye for design, do your own.
Make some signs for your car saying something like, "Josephine Bloggs, Nature photographer", but please don't do this yourself unless you are capable of creating a professional sign. Some of the hand-painted signs I see on the side of vans make me cringe. Nobody will think "Poor bloke, I'd better give him some work". They'll assume your photography is on a par with your sign.
Many photographers are concerned about advertising the possibility of expensive equipment being inside the vehicle. I've never had a problem, but then I don't live in the down-town area of a big city. Just to be on the safe side however, my signs are easily removable. When I'm visiting a dubious area, down they come.
For the most part I find the signs are good for raising my profile in the community and, in the photography business, a high profile is a good profile.
Part of maintaining a high profile is exhibiting your work.
Advertise, advertise, advertise
Send press releases to all the local newspapers. If they are large enough to have permanent art critics then address the release to them, otherwise to the editor. Your press release should be short, to the point, and written in the third person to increase the chances of the copy being used directly by the paper without tying up a sub editor for a rewrite.
Send invitations to everyone you can think of. For example, heads of photographic sections in government departments, and visual arts teachers at local schools. Send invitations to the owners of other galleries. Not only are they interested, but it's important to let them know you exist. You will probably be approaching them for your next exhibition. Ask to leave invitations in the local camera shops. Oh, and don't forget your friends.
Do I have an opening?
A typical opening goes something like this. It's advertised for 5:30pm but you get there far too early. You have a drink, then busy yourself straightening the photos three or four times; have another drink then help cut the cheese; have a third drink then wait...and wait.
Eventually 5:30 arrives, but no people do. 5:35, you hear footsteps coming up the stairs. You think, "At last, someone's turned up". Your Mum walks through the door. You have another drink. Eventually the drinks have the usual effect and you head for the loo. Just when you're wondering how to disappear out the window, you hear the sound you've been hoping for. People. Thank goodness. You put on your best 'I was confident all the time' face, leave your sanctuary, and force your way through the crowd to the bar. You need another drink before you can face the throng, and probably a few more before you can make a speech.
The truth is that most people only come for the wine and cheese, and to be seen by their friends as being important enough to be invited. However, it's usual to make most of your sales at, or shortly after, the opening, and openings are great for raising your profile in the local photographic and art worlds.
Will I make the big bucks?
Ok, I want to be a professional
landscape photographer, how long will it take?
Notice I said part time. As I said before, if you have a good job I don't think you should give it up. On the other hand I believe it's only people who are hungry for something that work hard enough to get it. It's possible that the very existence of another income stream will satiate the hunger, giving you less reason to try. On the other hand a cash strapped business is doomed to failure. On the other hand...I guess you can sense my indecision here...my unwillingness to forego a steady income may be the very thing that stops me from succeeding. I don't think so. I believe I can maintain the hunger, but you may be different in that regard. There are many stories of people who only followed their dream after being made redundant, then wondered why they hadn't done it years ago.
I used to work for Prime Computers. Being a large American firm Prime was into staff development, and we engineers were frequently sent on courses for team building and whatever. Of all the courses and all the subjects and all the bull that was spewed forth at these events I can only remember one thing, the results of a survey performed on elderly retirees. The survey asked a single question, "What do you regret not doing in your life?" The results were stunning. Almost all the people surveyed expressed regret that they didn't take enough risks in their life. Risks of all kinds, physical, emotional, financial, it didn't matter. The point was that (calculated) risk-taking is what keeps you alive and kicking.
Now what was the question again? How long will it take? Well as I said, I've been going for three years now but only seriously selling and promoting for two of those years. I had a five year plan and I'm pretty much on course. However I know another photographer with more time and resources than me who also had a five year plan.
Last I heard it had been revised to a ten year plan.
I guess it just takes as long as it takes. Assuming your photography is of a high enough standard, there is, I believe, a way to speed things up. I call it 'The three Ms'.
The three Ms
It's here that the first M enters the arena. Bright ideas and advertising usually cost money, but to get that money you probably need to do some marketing.
When I first realised this I thought I had discovered a kind of commercial perpetual motion machine. Very quickly though I realised that it's just the opposite. Rather than never stopping, this machine is never likely to start without priming with, you guessed it, money.
So unless you've just won the lottery this brings me back to my earlier point, don't give up your day job. You need it to prime the machine.
Your web site is a fantastic way to show your work to people all over the world, and it’s quite possible to sell prints from the site. I ship photos to people from all walks of life, living in countries from Algeria to Alaska.
The other thing about a web site is that it allows you to be ‘found’ by people who use images. At the time of writing I have photos going into books being published in England, Switzerland, and Australia. Not one of those publishers would be using my photos if they hadn’t found me on the web.
There’s quite a lot involved in producing a web site that people will want to visit and revisit, and web site design is outside the scope of this article.
Is it worth it? or, a day at
I open my eyes, place my hands under the back of my neck and look up. I have been sleeping in a small cave formed by two massive boulders and surrounded by gum trees. My gaze follows the sandstone ceiling of my shelter then rests on its eucalyptus roof.
There I see galahs crack open seeds, eat the contents and discard the husks in a rain of debris. I watch them and chuckle at their comical antics. A lizard appears on the stone where I placed my torch last night. Just inches from my face it stares at me, possibly wondering at the nature of this new obstruction blocking its morning path. Tilting its head as if to say, "Don't be here tomorrow fella", it scurries towards the growing pile of seed husks. A small movement shifts my attention to some dark shapes in the trees to my right. Three crows sit, black, silent and malevolent. Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds comes to mind, until one of them dives to pick a morsel from the ground and the others follow to wrest it from him.
This timeless scene is mine to enjoy, free of any thoughts about computers, mortgages, electricity bills or whatever. As long as I am quiet and pose no threat, the inhabitants of this place will accept me and go about their business.
I am camping at a place called "The Saddle" in the Budawang Ranges. For the next few days this will be my 'office'. From here I will sortie into places with magical names: Monolith Valley, Shrouded Gods Mountain, The Castle, Seven Gods Pinnacles and The Green Room, to name but a few. While there, every moment will be filled with the possibility of making a great photograph.
And I get paid for this! Is it worth it? You've got to be joking.
I am writing this post script while living under a tarpaulin at the rear of a workshop in an industrial area. I couldn't be much further from the Australian bush if I tried, and I've little time for photography, but I'm happy. I'm happy because I've left my job, sold my house and I am building a 6x6 motor home which will, in a few months, transport me all over Australia and allow me to stay where I like for as long as I like. This freedom should allow me to get some good images.
So I've sewn up half the dream, ie. how do I get the time and opportunity to make photographs. I have yet to figure out the second half, how do I sell them from a truck in central Australia.
After all, even in the bush, I still need to eat.