An open letter to aspiring professional photographers

(I got asked by someone I know tonight who asked the question we all consider at some point: Am I ready to try to make money with my camera? How do I do this?

It’s a topic I’ve been meaning to cover here for a while, so I wrote it not just for him, but for all photographers who’ve had that “Hey, I’m pretty good with a camera, I can make money doing this” thought. As someone who’s done that myself and did some serious research and soul searching into the decisions I made, I’m hoping this may help some of you avoid what I think is a road to disappointment for many.

If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them…

Hey —

You’ve since shifted away from all that, and your photography/blog posts about your
process suggest to me that you’re pursuing this sort of thing somewhat (in addition to
whatever day job you’re doing

My day job is still building and running communities, now for Infoblox, which builds network management appliances. It’s a fun gig, and a lot less chaotic than Palm was. The photography is still a hobby and at this point, I don’t see that changing. I am starting to look at ways I might be able to create some secondary income off of it, but that’s actually more writing about photography than selling it.

There’s a reason for that.

but I like photography, and try to do it when I can. I have almost no formal training,

but I’ve been thinking about putting up some of my favorite shots  for sale.

I’m very interested in all your thoughts on this, from workflow/online presence,
to the legal side, to best practices, etc.

I’m actually planing to write about all of this. My guess is there’s six months of writing in it,
and I expect it’ll take me a year. So I can’t cover it all in one email, but stay tuned.

What I did want to start out with this is: Going pro is not something you can do casually or on the side. Back around 2005, when I was leaving Apple, I thought I was pretty good with a camera, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in high tech, and I figured I could spend some time building a portfolio and then sell prints and stock. I knew a number of folks who did exactly that like Bill Aktinson {yes, Mr. Hypercard!} and Dave Cardinal. I figured I could, too.

I sat down and started studying the market and trying to figure out how to make the shift from geeking computers to being a pro nature photographer. What I found is that “Going pro” is tough, especially if you are doing what I call “portfolio photography” — building a portfolio of images that you then sell. It’s a much different beast than assignment photography where you’re doing doing weddings or commercial assignments or that kind of specific client work. If you want to do portfolio work, where you take images and then market and sell them as stock or prints or licensing images for publication, then the sad truth is that you’re going to have to compete with 20,000 or so other people with cameras who are thinking they’re pretty good and they can take images and then sell them.

So my answer on “how do I do this” is — don’t.

The market for portfolio photography is really soft. Stock income has plummeted. Microstock and sheer numbers of people with digital cameras have caused a glut of inventory, so it’s harder for any one image to generate much income. Microstock is a number’s game and a few players make much of the money in it. Stock is tough to break into and tougher to turn into significant income. Prints — if you’re Art Wolfe or have an established name, you can sell prints and printed versions of your images. I’m not Art Wolfe, and neither are you. Very few photographers are.

Putting up a web site that says “buy my prints” isn’t going pro, and won’t sell many prints. Prints, in fact, are almost always only a small part of a pro photographer’s income stream. Most photographers don’t sell many, and the ones that do put a lot of time and energy into marketing and promoting their work.

An open “secret” especially in the nature photography part of the industry is how many of the established pros are actually making most of their money from teaching and writing and workshops and photo tours and not from their images. And that, if you ask me, is this huge bubble that’s going to burst sooner rather than later. Is bursting, I think, as camera sales flatten and new photographers willing to spend money on those things start to shrink.

Many traditional markets for licensing images for prints — magazines being a big chunk — have either gone away or have cut way back, and now have a large number of those 20,000 people with cameras chasing an ever-shrinking number of chances to sell a print to a publication. Many of those photographers are damn good — so being good isn’t enough, it just gets you at the starting line. You won’t get noticed just by being good.

I took a look at your portfolio. They look very much like the images I took back in 2005. To be honest, I didn’t see one that I thought would get a second look from an editor at a  magazine or would stick out and have much chance to be chosen out of a stock site. That isn’t a criticism of the images; many of them show potential and that you have been working on figuring out what makes for a good images. They just aren’t professional quality images as the market currently demands, but they are images that show a potential to get there.

Since 2005, I’ve shot about 25,000 images, and put god knows how many thousands of hours into studying my post-processing and studying the market and studying other photographers. I’m just now at the point where I’m averaging about one request a month to use my images (These are unsolicited requests as I do no marketing or promotion). A year ago, that number was — zero.

I had a site at one point that pushed my images for sale. In about 2 years, if you don’t count family, I sold three prints. Compare that to the number of hours spent building and managing the site and the cost of hosting it. Those results are a lot more typical than you’ll hear from the people who make an income from selling those services or writing about this stuff. There is an industry built around those 20,000 people with cameras who think they can sell their images. Back in the days of the Gold Rush, often the people who got richest were the ones who sold shovels to the miners, not the miners themselves. Today, it’s the people selling web sites and advice and training to photographers who are more likely to make money than the photographers.

So my advice to you and to any photographer who’s hit the “I’m pretty good, maybe I can go pro” stage of their progression is — don’t do it.

Or more correctly don’t do it until you can easily answer these questions:

  • Take a list of photographers doing similar work to yours. Can you take one of their images and put it side by side with one of yours and honestly believe your work is as good as theirs, both technically and artistically? Can you explain in technical detail why yours is as technically well-processed as theirs? If you can’t, why should anyone buy your image instead of theirs, especially since they’re known and marketing their work and you aren’t?
  • If you were to sit down with a photo editor and show off your images and they asked you the question “why should I buy your image instead of one from (say) QT Luong?” how would you answer it? If you want to compete with the people already in the industry, you have to give buyers a reason to buy your images: they have to be unique in some way that makes them valuable compared to everyone else trying to sell images. Are they technically better? Do you have a unique style of composition? Are you taking photos of things or places that others aren’t? What’s your unique value or contribution that you can market that pulls you out of the thousands of “people with camers who want to sell photos”? you need to answer that question and understand how to build a marketing plan around it before you have much of a chance of success. If the only answer you have is “price” then it’s going to be really tough to build a business around this.

My decision was to stop any thought of “going pro” and focus instead on working on my photography. My bottom line was that until I could stack up technically with the working pros, it was a waste of time and energy to put any time or money into the business side. I feel that decision was the absolute correct one.

I see way too many people putting their energy into their web site, or flogging their stuff on social media, or doing all sorts of things that aren’t really effective rather than focusing on what matters, which is becoming a better and technically competent photographer. If you aren’t that, the rest is a waste of time. All the flacking of an image on twitter won’t sell it if the image is just “good”.

So I suggest you do what I did: don’t put time or energy into trying to build a business. Put that time and energy into your photography. Enjoy it, work on it, build your skills and grow your portfolio. Edit your portfolio ruthlessly: and you improve as a photographer you’ll find work oyu did earliy and thought was pretty good that makes you wince. Retire it and get it out of public view. Take lots of images. Share lots of images. Study what others are doing and learn from that skills you can adopt into your own work.

At some point you’ll look at your work and the work of the pros you respect and say “yeah. My stuff can share a wall with them”. At THAT point is when you should start thinking about building a business around it and at that point you should know how you can market your work against everyone else and be able to say “this is why you should buy my images instead of theirs”. Look for niches and types of photography you enjoy and that gives you images that other photographers aren’t doing (that’s hard. but it’s worth it). Find your unique voice, because that’s how you’ll stand out from the crowd when you do decide you’re ready to wade in and go pro.

WANTING to be a pro photographer isn’t enough. You’ll get run over by the ones that HAVE to be pro photographers. Desperation matters. Look in a mirror: if you don’t have that desperation, accept it don’t pretend. It’s okay to do that. (that was a hard lesson for me to learn).

Whatever you decide to do, good luck. But do it with an open mind and a clear plan, and always ask yourself where your time and money that you plan to invest can do the most good. For me, it was to focus very intensely on my photography, and not sidetrack myself by trying to also run a business and investing in marketing and promotion and sales for a product that honestly wasn’t going to be competitive in a really competitive market.

That’s what I wanted to tell you tonight. Becoming a pro photographer is a wonderful goal. If you feel that you’ve hit that point where you are ready for it, though, the reality is that the journey is just beginning. There are literally thousands of others just like you with a camera and a dream and a goal. Being good isn’t enough. You have to be best of breed. You won’t become best of breed as a photographer if you spend your time on the business before your technical side is ready.

You’ll know when that happens. Until then, put your time and energy into the camera.