This is a chapter I wrote and organized for the book American Vision with the input of my great friends John Shaw and Wayne Lynch. Even though it was put together more than 10 years ago the information and the philosophy is as timely now as it was then. I hope you enjoy it and consider it thoroughly if you are thinking about making a living being an outdoor photographer.
Imagine yourself as a participant at a workshop that features John Shaw, Wayne Lynch and David Middleton as teachers. In the late afternoon, you are invited to join them on the terrace of the lodge for a beer and conversation. After the beers arrive and all pretense of formality depart you decide to ask them about what it takes to become a professional nature photographer. You are hoping the answers come more quickly then the refills.
Your first question is: “What is an important characteristic of a pro?” After you receive three utterly blank stares you decide to rephrase the question: “How would you define an accomplished photographer?”
John Shaw is the first to respond: “Learning when not to photograph is just as important as learning when to shoot. This process involves learning to see your subject as your film will see it. The human eye can accommodate roughly 10 to 12 stops of contrast; that is, we can look at a very contrasty scene and see detail in both the shadow and highlight area. Not so with film. Modern color slide films have at most a 5 stop range of light which they can record in any one image. A professional has to learn how to apply this limited vision when determining exposures.
From a medium, or middle-toned, exposure value slide film can only record tones from 2 1/2 stops lighter (pure white) to 2 1/2 stops darker (pure black). The pro has to be able to analyze a scene and determine if indeed it is possible to record his vision. He must know what the results will look like on film, even before the shutter is tripped. This knowledge lets the pro decide where to place tonal values and what details to sacrifice if necessary.”
David Middleton pipes up next: “I would answer by saying a pro is one who spends more time looking for something to photograph then actually photographing it. I am always amazed when I am out in the field and see a group of photographers pull up, jump out of their cars, walk to the nearest whatever and begin photographing! Now, how do they know that there isn’t something better to shoot just over there or around the corner? And what are the chances that they happened to park next to the best thing there is to photograph? The answer is: nil. A professional photographer gets out of his vehicle and wanders first, looking over the entire area. In any one spot there are only a few things to photograph. Better to spend the time looking for those shots then waste it photographing something that could be better.”
Practically bursting, Wayne Lynch, who has spent a lifetime studying and photographing animal behavior, knows that photographing any wild creature begins long before he steps into the field. “I think every nature photographer should also strive to be a good naturalist. Too often I have met wildlife photographers who didn’t know the difference between a northern moose and a chocolate mousse. The more you know about an animal the less likely you are to endanger it or compromise its survival. Understanding the biology of your subject will also alert you to subtle aspects of its behavior that you may otherwise overlook and fail to capture on film. Finally, knowledge of an animal is also the best insurance against injury. Many wild animals are unforgiving and will reprimand your clumsy ignorance with a bruising, or worse.”
Your next question is a bit more practical: “How do you approach shooting in the field?”
Middleton starts this time: “Photograph that which you are passionate about. Your passion will be evident into your images. If you photograph that which you don’t care about your ambivalence will be translated into your images and no matter the situation your shots will be mediocre.
I also allow a lot of time in the field to just absorb what is going on around me. I am not only talking about any animal activity but also the play of light and the relationship of the shapes and patterns that are around. This is especially important for me if I am coming to an area that I haven’t photographed for awhile. If I don’t take the time to slow down and begin seeing anew my first rolls will be disappointing. This is another reason I think wandering is so important. Just put your hands in your pockets and go for a stroll.”
Shaw continues: “I agree, first and foremost you should photograph the subject matter which you truly love. Even as a professional there is a difference between shooting for pleasure (even if you sell the resulting photos) and shooting solely as a commercial venture. Your emotional commitment is usually apparent in the quality of the pictures. If you like working all kinds of natural history subjects, do so. If you’re only interested in bird photography, fine. If all you want to do are landscapes, so be it.
Just remember that in terms of sales it certainly helps to diversify and to have unique coverage. Some subjects have been photographed so often, and are so easy to photograph, that selling the resulting shots is very difficult. Egrets and herons from Florida, common wildflowers, Yellowstone elk, and National Park vistas shot directly from the scenic pulloffs are four examples. Sure, you should have these in your file. But if one of these subjects is all that you photograph you’ll have a difficult time selling many photos. The same is true if you specialize too much. Only so many photos of bats or mushrooms are published in one year.
You should also differentiate between what is “interesting” and what is “photo-graphic.” Aesthetically pleasing shots will sell far more than merely “interesting” work. This is because ‘pretty’ is more universal than ‘interesting’. Most of us agree what is pretty but what is interesting to you may not be interesting to me. If all you can say when you look at a scene is “that’s interesting,” then you should rethink your photographic approach.”
“I photograph with my brain, not my camera” quips Lynch. “I try to be as analytical as possible when I am shooting in the field. It is easy to get seduced simply by the charisma of a subject, its flamboyant colors, or its rarity. For example, a photograph of a wild wolverine is extremely rare, but a bad photograph of such a subject is still a bad photograph no matter how rare it is.
It took me years to learn when not to shoot. You can be in an exotic locale, surrounded by exotic subjects but there still may be no photograph. If all you want is simple documentation then fire away, but most photographers strive for more than this. I never get discouraged when I am in the field because I view every outing as an opportunity to learn something new which I believe will ultimately make me a better photographer in the future.”
You decide to get right to the heart of the matter: “Any advice on getting started as a pro?”
Shaw begins: “Remember that a “pro” photographer is one who is “professional.” This is someone who runs a successful business, and the bottom line in business is to show a profit. One of the biggest fallacies is that a large gross income equates with a successful business. It does not. Net income ˜ what’s leftover after all your expenses ˜ is all that counts. It is easy to earn $10,000 if you spend $20,000 doing it!
In photography it’s easy to spend money. That new 600mm ∞4 lens which you just absolutely need…well, it’s about $10,000. That trip to Kenya you’ve always wanted to take…there’s another $4,000 or $5,000. Oh yes, how about film and processing? Shoot 1,000 rolls a year and you’ve spent around $12,000. I know lots of “professional” photographers who gross big bucks but spend even bigger bucks in doing so. Remember, a business should show a profit.
One answer is to keep your overhead low. Make do with the equipment you already own, but work with it to the fullest possible extent. Have your office in your house. Differentiate between trips for fun and business travel. Stay at Motel 6 rather than the Marriott unless someone else is picking up the tab. Don’t spend money unless you can justify how doing so will positively make you more money.”
Lynch hesitates for a moment, deciding whether he should reveal the “big secret to success”. Smiling, be begins. “The big secret about getting started as a nature photographer is that there is no big secret. It’s plain common sense. First of all, don’t quit your day job, otherwise how will you feed your cat, buy toilet paper, or pay for your cable channels? Secondly, work locally and become an expert in your home state or province. I have photographed wildlife on every continent on earth yet the photographs I sell most often are those I made in my home province of Alberta. By concentrating on areas close to your home, you can establish a reputation with local agencies, build a valuable network of contacts, and readily take advantage of chance opportunities without incurring tremendous expense.”
Middleton adds: “I think the biggest misconception about being a pro is that money is earned in the field. Actually, money is spent in the field, it is earned in the office. This is never what anybody wants to hear. They are earning money in an office right now, they want to be earning money sitting in a blind or chasing sunsets.
Aspiring pros want to know how they can spend all their time in the field and still have checks appear in the mail. Unless you know some magic it is not going to happen. Checks only appear when you spend the time in your office earning them. The more time you spend in the office the more money you will make. Office time means making submissions, calling people, doing research, writing articles, developing slide shows, labeling slides, etc. The tedium of doing this stuff is what pays; the glamour of being out in the field almost never does.
The other part of this is to become a student of the printed page. Loiter at newsstands, bookstores and libraries looking over every magazine or book you can get your hands on. How else are you going to know what is being done by your peers and what a particular magazine has published lately? It is not very glamorous but the more information you have the better you will be at earning money.”
Feeling slightly discouraged and wanting another beer desperately, you decide to take a different tack: “What are the biggest myths about making a living as a nature photographer?”
Shaw practically leaps at this one: “Here’s the nature photographer’s fantasy: National Geographic is giving you a 6-month assignment to photograph your favorite National Park, shooting any aspect you want in any manner you wish. Pay is $10,000 per month plus all expenses. When they finish using the photos you plan on self-publishing a book and calendar from the shoot. You’re on “Easy Street” for life.
Oh yeah? Don’t start packing for that move right yet. First of all almost no professional nature photographer makes a living working on assignment. In truth there are very few assignments for nature photographers at all. Almost all work today is stock (you’ve already have the shots in your stock file) and marketed on speculation. Assignments are normally self-generated and self-financed.
Think long and hard before committing to self-publishing. To have 10,000 copies of a book printed with full color plates, plan on spending at least 6 or 7 dollars per copy. Now what? All those books are sitting in your garage. How do you market them and where do you distribute them? Having both a marketing and distribution plan in place is the starting point and not the final consideration of self-publishing.”
“It’s time to burst another bubble” jokes Lynch. “Today, the average nature photograph used in magazines, books and calendars often sells for less than $250.00. Many publishers, in fact, expect to pay half that much when they buy multiple images from a single photographer. Oops, maybe you had better cancel that new 4–WD Jeep you just ordered. In 1998, my wife Aubrey and I spent April and May in the field in Alberta and Saskatchewan and spent about $3000. I don’t know how we could have done the trip any cheaper. To break even we had to sell at least a dozen photographs from that trip, and it took us almost a year to do that. Another trip we made several years ago to the Andes Mountains of northern Chile cost us over $6000. To this day, we have still not sold a single photograph from that trip. Ouch.”
Frustrated that his colleagues are suddenly so gabby, Middleton finally jumps in: “This is the one that I really like: pros get free film and gear and all kinds of special treatment. Some well known pros do get to use gear if they agree to promote it but most of their equipment and all of most other pros are purchased with little green dollars at the advertised price just like everyone else. I wish I could get my gear free but unfortunately Mr. Nikon, Mr. Canon, Mr. Gitzo and all the other misters out there want to make a profit just like I do.
The special treatment part is also pretty silly. The reason you see the same names over and over again is because these people are able to consistently produce high quality work. Publishers like that. Publishers don’t like to waste their time with people who say they can do something and then not do it. If you develop a reputation for producing high quality work consistently then we will see your work everywhere as well.
With a refill in hand and a new rush of enthusiasm you decide to stick with the simple questions: “How about a piece of advice on technique for the aspiring pro?”
Middleton, rising to the easy bait, snags this one first: “Repeat after me: tripod, tripod, tripod. Use it for every shot you take even if it is a pain in the neck to use. Nothing will improve your photography quicker than using a tripod faithfully.
I’m not just talking about the improved sharpness of your photos – and no you can’t handhold at 15th of a second and get tack sharp images- the biggest difference will be in your compositions. Precisely because tripods are a pain to use they slow you down. The slower you go the more deliberate you allow yourself to be. The more deliberate the better your craftsmanship. The better your craftsmanship, the better your photography.
With a tripod you can consider your compositions, you can examine the edges and corners of your shot and you can place objects in your compositions exactly where you want them. If you want something in the corner then you can place it there. If you are handholding the shot, dollars to doughnuts, you are going to place your subject dead center because it is the safest place for it and dead center is compositionally almost always the dullest place for it.”
Picking up steam now Middleton rattles on: “The one time I don’t use a tripod is when I am looking for a shot. Then I take my camera off my tripod and wander around. With my camera handheld I have the freedom and ease to move around and look at a potential shot from every possible angle. If my camera were on the tripod it would be too inconvenient to examine a shot from every angle because I would spend all my time putting the tripod legs up and down.
By handholding while you are looking for a shot you end up having your composition determine your tripod height. If your camera is attached to your tripod while you are looking for a shot you will end up finding a composition that matches the height of your tripod.”
Lynch jumps in. “A light meter makes a very good servant, but a very poor master, so don’t be a slave to your light meter. I don’t care how sophisticated you think the metering system is in your camera, it is still a simple–minded machine compared to the human brain. I have been photographing for 28 years, and for 28 years I have manually metered every exposure I have ever taken. The meter in your camera only sees light and dark. It doesn’t know which part of a scene or a subject is important, and which is not. Why then, would you let your camera decide how to expose the scene? “
Finally, Shaw elbows his way into the conversation: “Without a doubt good photographic technique is more important than the brand of camera you use or how much that new lens cost. Use a tripod, work static subjects with a cable release, focus carefully and accurately, don’t stack every filter you own, and determine exposures thoughtfully and precisely. Quality in technique equates with quality in the results.
I’ve heard it said that you need a 4×5 inch view camera to make it as a professional. Not true. While some pros certainly use this format, and produce some incredible photos, you can make great pictures with any format camera. Most view camera shots are broad landscapes, for which the camera is ideally suited. Medium format cameras (6x7cm, for instance) offer quite a bit of film image, but do not lend themselves to action, long lens use, or extreme closeups. 35mm SLR cameras have an extensive range of focal lengths available, have built-in motor drives, and are easy to handle. Most working pros shoot 35mm along with any other format they might use. In fact, I would venture to say that the vast majority of photos in books and magazines were taken with 35mm SLR cameras.”
With the confidence of a couple beers you decide to ask a final, more personal question: “Are there any important personal skills needed to become a pro?”
Shaw, beer firmly in hand, grabs this one: “A good reputation which is deserved is indeed priceless. Obtaining this status means doing nothing to diminish yourself. Be honest, be competent, and be professional. Don’t tell editors you have all the shots when you do not. Don’t be satisfied with the mediocre. Don’t run down your fellow photographers. And don’t be sloppy in your office habits.
Run an office in the same manner in which you would like to deal with an office as a client. Present a professional image. Keep a Rolodex listing of contacts, and return phone calls promptly and courteously. Label your slides neatly, legibly, and correctly. Use a computer and printer for all written materials, including slide labels. Learn to package submissions so that editors can easily do their work.
Here’s how to make an editor your lifelong enemy. Put your name on the reverse side of your slides, using a Magic Marker pen and longhand script. Use fuchsia labels on the front side giving each picture a cute title. Make checkerboard arrangements of the images when placing the slides in a page. Have horizontal and vertical images randomly inserted into the page so that the editor must flip flop the page continually to view the images. Fold the slide page over and staple the edges together. Wrap the slide pages in paper towels, then place your submission in a box filled with Styrofoam peanuts. Include a letter written on spiral-bound notebook paper. Not to worry…you’ll never sell a photo.”
Lynch interrupts Shaw whose eyes are starting to glaze over. “Try to be friendly, cheerful and helpful on the telephone no matter how bad your day has gone. Editors are often overworked, stressed, frazzled, and generally behind schedule. If you can lighten their mood and make them laugh, even once, they will likely remember your name and call you again some time in the future.”
Middleton, now increasingly distracted by the growing sunset, adds: “Find a group of fellow photographers with whom you can network and interact. It is too easy to become a little island and lose touch with whatever limited sense of reality photographers have. A peer group will keep you grounded as well as be a great source of encouragement and inspiration.
Speaking of which, photography, like any of the creative arts, is rich in criticism and negativity and poor in affirmation and reinforcement. Avoid negativity and shallow criticism while you treasure and cherish every positive acknowledgment you get, few as they may be at first. The affirmations will carry you through the long dark periods of disappointment and self-doubt and they will remind you of why you got into photography in the first place.
Affirmations nurture your creative spark and allow you to stoke its fires brighter. Do nothing to diminish your creative spirit, it will be your guide throughout your life. Follow closely.
Now, do you think we could go out and bag us a sunset?”
By the way, the beers are on you!