Story and photography by Budd Titlow
So…you’ve been an avid nature photographer for several years. Your shots always win compliments from family and friends and ribbons at local camera club competitions. Now you want to move up to the next level and start selling your work. How do you do this?
Be realistic. Don’t even think about quitting your day job—at least for a while. The romantic allure of traveling the globe—camera in hand—is very enticing. But unless you’re living off a trust fund, just hit the lottery, or have one‑in‑a‑million shots of mutant pygmy crocodiles in Borneo, it’s not going to happen. You simply aren’t going to suddenly start making a living from nature photography.
Consider the facts. The competition in the world of nature photography is incredibly fierce. How can you compete with the likes of George Lepp, Art Wolfe, Frans Lanting, and other pros who travel the world with $100,000 worth of camera gear and a paid entourage? The answer: you’re not going to—at least not immediately.
So what do you do? While the following suggestions may not make you rich, they will help you gear up for the world of photo marketing. If all goes well each year, you’ll be able to pay for equipment upgrades, travel to some exotic locations, earn a little extra sending money, and move your career along to future self-sufficiency.
Work your way up. In many ways, the publishing world is a Catch‑22. Editors like to see previous publication credits as verification of the quality of your work. But if you haven’t been published, how do you break in?
Start small. Chances are your first sales won’t be to National Geographic, National Wildlife, Audubon, or Outdoor Photographer. But think about all the publications right there in your hometown or local area. Town and city newspapers, conservation and corporate newsletters, city, regional, or state magazines—most of these publications depend on freelance submissions. They are always interested in well‑crafted photo essays targeted to their audiences. After you’ve got a few of these under your belt, then move up to the larger regional and national markets.
Originality works. Photo editors typically review thousands of digital files each month. How do you make your work stand out from the rest? First you have to build what I call a “foot-in-the-door portfolio” of eye-catching shots. Then lead every submission with some of your showcase images. In addition to getting an editor’s attention, the photos might wind up in places like Outdoor Photographer’s “Showcase,” Outside Magazine’s “Exposure,” or—who knows—even on a National Wildlife cover.
Remember, the one thing Lepp, Wolfe, and Lanting don’t have is your individual creative eye. And the development of your creative vision doesn’t require trips to exotic locations or telephoto lenses that cost as much as compact cars. It just requires a willingness to break the mold and try a few things that will set your work apart. If you’re true to your own heart and personal vision, you will eventually be successful. How can someone else market what only you can see?
Determine your marketing targets. Whether you’re trying to publish a 1,000-word photo essay or a 400-page book, you first need to decide who is most likely to be interested in your ideas. This means undertaking a comprehensive review of the magazine or book publishers who specialize in your preferred subject matter. I’ve found this is best accomplished by buying the most recent annual editions of both Photographer’s Market and Writer’s Market. If you’re an aspiring author or photographer, these two publications are literally worth their weight in gold. They provide you with the latest and most up-to-date information on each publisher’s contacts, preferred subject matter, what they are currently seeking, and how to format your submission. Both of these books are published by Writer’s Digest Books in Blue Ash, Ohio and can be ordered online directly from Amazon.
Photo essays sell. A picture may be worth a thousand words but words certainly help if you’re trying to sell the picture. Editors love photographers who provide the complete package. It makes their jobs a whole lot easier. Learn to write crisply and engagingly. Draw the reader in with fact-filled text presented in a rapidly flowing, readable style.
Travel. Nothing spurs the creative process like travel. Anytime you go anywhere, think about unusual angles and perspectives that would make a good photo essay. Spectacular scenery, colorful characters, rare wildlife, local lore—anything is potential photo essay material if it’s presented with the right twist. If you capture the essence of your trip in well-crafted photos and words, you’ll definitely have some sales when you return home.
This approach worked well for me during my early photographic years living in Colorado. Every time I returned from a weekend trip, I fired off several ideas to local magazines. In less than a year, I was a contributing editor to both the Sunday Denver Post and Colorado Homes and Lifestyles Magazines.
To query or not to query. The professional approach is to pitch your ideas to editors in brief—one page is best—“query letters.” A query letter outlines your idea, tells why it would be of special interest to the publication’s readers, and describes your credentials for preparing the piece. But when you’re first starting out, it’s difficult to get editors to bite on query letters. Since they are “buying into” a piece when they give you the go-ahead, they like to know what they’re getting. If you haven’t published anything, it’s difficult to give them this comfort level—the old Catch 22 strikes again!
So here’s a twist. I recommend to bypass the Catch 22 when you first start out. If you think you have a truly marketable photo essay, go ahead and bite the bullet. Prepare the complete text and accompanying photos—and then try to sell the whole package (instead of just writing query letters). In fact, pull together several solid photo-with-text packages and start sending them to your list of target publications (as developed from Photographer’s Market and Writer’s Market). This way editors get to see exactly what they’re buying—with no guesswork on either side.
Once you’ve sold a few pieces, especially to the same publication, then you have your foot in the door. Now you can start working on a query letter basis—pitching ideas first and getting editors to bite before you invest the time in pulling the pieces together.
Follow the publisher’s guidelines for submissions. Before you submit anything to one of the publications you have targeted, ask for their submission guidelines. You must make sure that you follow their specifications to the letter. Such things as digital styles and file sizes for your sample photos are critical to know. Approximate numbers of words and document formats are also critical to follow. Finally, you need to know exactly how to submit your packages including email addresses of receiving editors (if provided). If your packages don’t follow specified submission protocols, chances are they may never even reach an editor’s desk.
Don’t take it personally. When a submission gets rejected—and believe me, many will—just immediately turn around and email it to the next publication or editor on your list. One thing the world of publishing will do is help you develop a very thick skin. If you don’t handle rejection well, you might want to think twice about even trying to get published.
But if you’re braced for rejection, the thrill of that first acceptance—which will inevitably come if you’re persistent—is well worth all the disappointment that preceded it. Few things in life can compete with the satisfaction of seeing your own photos and words in print!
Budd Titlow has written four books and more than 300 magazine and newspaper photo essays, and has published an estimated 5,000 photographs. Each photo in this story has been published at least 10 times. A professional wetland scientist and wildlife biologist, Titlow is author of Protecting the Planet, Bird Brains, and Seashells. He has moved to La Jolla, California and continues to teach photography and birding workshops. He has been published in BBC Wildlife Magazine, Outdoor Photographer, National Wildlife, Audubon, Outside, Nature’s Best, Travel Holiday, Time Life publications, Sierra, Popular Photography, and Petersen’s Photographic. He uses Canon cameras. See his website at www.buddtitlow.com.