Making a Living as a Nature Photographer 2021, Part I

Photo of Jack Graham teaching other photographers at a location workshop in the desert, with mountains in the background.
Teaching at a location workshop.

By Jack Graham

A few years back I authored an article about making a living as a nature photographer. It has been widely read, shared, and remains quite popular. Over the intervening 6 years or so, , the photography industry and the way we make our living has changed tremendously. It is time to do an update.

I am now going on 69 years of age. I have been in this business for 30 years and have seen many changes. Some are good and some not so much. Pre-COVID, I would conduct more than twenty-five workshops per year and would be gone from home over 200 days. I know many other leaders who were gone a lot more than me. It is what we do; it is what we love. When I run into another pro, usually in the field, we kid each other about our schedules, and by the end of our conversations we usually end with “Oh well, this is better than sitting in an office,” or something similar. It truly is. I always remind myself that, as tough as it can be at times, no one is going to fire me on Friday afternoon. I can work as much or as little as I want. Over the years I learned what it takes!

Photo of two photographers. One is pointing towards the viewer. THe other is standing by a tripod. It is a rainy day and both are wearing rain gear. The scene is in a forest.

I must be careful to tell workshop attendees or people I meet while doing speaking engagements and conferences that I am in no way complaining. I am blessed to be able to do what I do. I (we) am (are) one (some) of the luckiest people in the world. Yes, it is not easy, but it is an honor to get to instruct people, show people beauty, and instill in them the conscientious and ethical ways to conduct themselves in the field, so as to preserve the landscapes, animals, and the art of nature photography long after I am long gone.

Nature photography is a tough way to make a living, but it’s no less difficult than anything else you want to be successful at. No matter whether you’re attempting to make it as a full-time professional or are a part-time photographer trying to supplement income from an existing job, buy gear, or travel, there are many things to consider. I hope I can share some insights about these with you.

So let’s get started.

Photo of a page in a photographer's daily planner, full of markings for tasks.

Six truths about being a full-time photographer

Being a full-time, professional nature photographer sounds romantic. We travel to exotic places, spend hours outdoors in the wilderness, meet fascinating people, and more. Folks say I have a dream job. In many ways they are correct, but sometimes I think they do not understand that this job involves being in the office and on the computer or phone at least as much if not more than I am in the field. The reality is that making a living at nature photography is arduous work, both physically and mentally. Know that:

  • If no one buys your work or attends your workshops, you do not eat.
  • You need to develop business savvy.
  • You must know your market and change when necessary.
  • You must be able to justify expenditures such as travel, equipment, and extensive marketing (website, social etc.) with results.
  • You must establish a good reputation and have credibility, both in the photography community as well as with prospective clients.
  • If you are NOT a people person, think about another way to make a living.

Some facts about nature photography

The salaries of Nature Photographers in the US range from $10,013 to $228,975, with a median salary of $41,831. The middle 57% of Nature Photographers makes between $41,831 and $104,052, with only a few at the very top making around $228,975.

Required EducationNo requirements, but a bachelor’s degree in fine arts/photography is recommended.
Additional RequirementsExperience with cameras and editing software is beneficial
Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)-4% for all photographers
Median Annual Salary (2020)*$41,280 for all photographers


Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

A little history… but not that far back

Historical black and white photo of two photographers in the 1800s with large cameras on tripods. One man is wearing a tophat and adjusting his camera. The other us under the hood, focusing.

Once upon a time, nature photographers could make a comfortable living through stock and magazine sales and assignments, workshops and conferences, and maybe some fine art sales through galleries. Marketing was limited to getting published or advertising in a magazine or newspaper. There were no blogs, no podcasts, no YouTube, Instagram, 500PX, or similar websites. AOL was the email service of choice and social media was not even an idea. Remember when there was no Adobe, no digital? For some of you that might sound like ancient history, but that is the way it was not all that long ago. As unbelievable as it may seem today, it was our reality … and not a bad one!

Beginning around 2005, the internet, almost overnight, allowed photographers to market their work, workshops, and writings to the world quite easily. And that changed everything.

Some of the economic disruptions that have shaken the photography industry were already happening when I wrote the previous article. Stock sales and magazine assignments were already faltering as reliable sources of income. The shifts and changes introduced by digital photography and the internet have only increased in speed and intensity since then. The competition is more intense. The tools and technologies keep changing. The challenges are there.

Photograph of two men, Jack Graham on left and Bill Fortney on right.

In the mid to late 1980’s and 1990’s photography workshops became popular with budding photographers and a good source of income for the pros. My dear friend and mentor, Bill Fortney started a company called The Great American Photography Workshop. Bill would be bring in “Star Speakers” like Art Wolfe, Galen Rowell, John Shaw, Jack Dykinga, and others. They would go to great locations and provide classroom as well as in-the-field instruction. Other companies followed suit.

Now the industry is packed with photographers leading photography workshops, competition is intense, and they’re not the reliable source of income they used to be. Many workshop leaders are excellent. Others are not. Some of the stories I hear from attendees are amazing, and not in a good way.

Learning the Craft

It amazes me that some workshop leaders do not know the work of excellent photographers like Galen Rowell and John Shaw, let alone Edward Weston, Phillip Hyde, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Minor White. If you don’t already, please take the time to learn about the history, and study the past masters of photography. It will make you a better photographer and teacher. It’s an important enough topic that I spent an entire episode of my podcast “We Talk Photo” discussing this subject.

Strive to become an artist. You will need to get really (and I mean really) good as a photographer. It is easy to take pictures but it’s hard to be an artist. It is easy to use processing to turn a so-so image onto something folks may be impressed by, but that only gets you so far. Seasoned photographers can see right through this. I’ve written about this Path to Creativity previously.

You also need to learn the crafts of teaching and communicating. There are ways to get your points across clearly and effectively. There are ways to teach without condescending or sounding like a know-it-all. I can guarantee that, when you are well educated in photography and understand all the concepts and pedagogy, it gets a lot easier to teach. It is when you are not well versed that you flail and fail at teaching and communication. These skills are so important to your success that it pays to take the time to learn them well.

Getting proficient takes time and hard work. As the late, great Henri Cartier-Bresson famously observed, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” More recently, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours to “Get Good.” So true.

Find your niche

I sometimes jokingly begin my speaking sessions by telling the audience how smart they are to have me as their speaker because I am a great photographer. After I see the surprised looks on their faces, I tell them that “Well, I am a good photographer, but within 10 miles of us there are probably 100 good photographers.”

Today, there are thousands of good photographers and really good images on Instagram that can be seen by more people than ever subscribed to a magazine. So, even with talent, knowledge and a good reputation, how do you rise above the rest?

You will need to learn how to separate yourself from the pack. How can you offer something different to potential clients than anyone else? In an intensely competitive field, what sets you apart? The book, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin, does an excellent job discussing this concept. It is important, now more than ever, in an era where anyone can market their photos, create YouTube videos, or sell workshops.

Photo of a line of photographers silhouetted at the top of a hill against a colorful sunset.

Join Professional Organizations

NANPANorth American Nature Photography Association
NANPA is a great organization. It provides a way to learn, meet, and network with like-minded individuals, to stimulate and inspire your photographic life, and guidelines for ethical, conservation-minded fieldwork. Plus, NANPA has webinars, conferences, Regional Field Events, photo competitions, and more. I have been a member for many years and have served on their Board of Directors. What an excellent group of folks!

Nature Photographers.net
NPN is another excellent group. Here you can learn many techniques and the art of landscape photography online. Their membership is a sort of who’s who in nature photography and there are very active discussions going on a variety of subjects in the Forum.

Some others are:
International League of Conservation Photographers
Professional Photographers of America

I am leaving out more, but you get the idea. Professional associations can help you build your skills, knowledge, and network.

Credibility and reputation

Frankly if you are looking to get into this field to become wealthy, you will. be. disappointed. The joke in the industry is:  Q: “How do you make a million in the photography business?” A:  “Start with $ 2 million.”

Whether you are looking to be full time pro or a part time photographer, establishing your credibility and reputation is essential. You cannot buy them like you can “likes” on Facebook or followers on Instagram. It takes time, effort, talent, and honesty to build your credibility and reputation, to build your brand. They’re also things that can be lost quickly. You will see examples of how to grow these important assets later in this article.

OK, I’ve done all that. So, how do I make money?

Photo of a road winding off into the distance in the desert of the southwestern US. A sign identifies it as Route 66.

Making a living

A full-time photographer can derive income in numerous ways.

Photo of a green hummingbird flying close to red flowers.

Print Sales / Art Shows
Print sales in 2021-2022 are tougher than ever. There are folks who sell at art shows, and some do quite well. This, like anything else, is not easy. For example:

  • Most shows are juried. You do not just sign up and get to participate.
  • You travel like crazy and are away as much as a workshop leader
  • Inventory= $$money$$. Be prepared to have to lay out a lot of money for your display setup and for the images to build your inventory. When folks want a print, most of them want it now, on impulse. Not having the inventory can cost sales
  • A portion of your sales go back to the art show.
  • Be prepared for people who walk into your booth and say, “Your work is beautiful. I love it.” Then they walk out! Expect rejection.
  • The iconic image or pretty picture won’t always work as art prints so you might have to adapt your style to suit a specific market. More expressive and large-sized prints seem to work and sell better these days. Again, think creatively.

Few nature photographers sell enough prints to make a meaningful income from print sales. However, those who sell enough prints priced between $300 and $1,000 or more can make something of a living.

Black and white photo of rays of sunlight piercing clouds and slanting down to the landscape.

Stock and stock agencies.
Stock photography is not paying what it used to. Pros once looked on their stock images as their retirement plan, generating a steady stream of income month after month. Microstock agencies and subscription stock have changed all that, accepting photos from amateurs as well as pros but paying pennies on the dollar. It is a numbers game. A huge inventory of digital images means the agencies charge clients less, which means the payout to the photographer is smaller as well.

Can you make some income as a part-time stock photographer? Sure, but only a few can make enough from stock to rely on it as their sole source of income. That’s carried over to publications, as well. The only reason to sell images to magazines these days is to get the exposure; most do not pay anything near what your work used to be worth.

It is not necessarily pretty pictures that sell here either. Things like lifestyle, food, fashion, travel (especially lesser-known locations) often sell better than pretty pictures. So, one way to make money in stock is to shoot enormous quantities of images of subjects that are in high demand, different from the norm, or not often photographed.. To be successful with stock, you need to find your niche and build a large portfolio, concentrate in one specific area and be known for that.

If stock is in your plans, Medium has a good article about starting a stock business. Also know that sites like 500PX, Shutterstock, Photoshelter and other services that provide websites and photo storage can also be used for stock sales. Check them out.

Photo of a group of photographers standing in front of a seaplane, with a body of water in the backgrount.

Workshop Leader
For me, this is still the best way to make a living in nature photography today. I like to travel, teach, and am a people person, but it takes a lot more than that. You can’t just hang out your shingle and have people sign up for workshops. It takes many years to create and sustain a photography business. This is my 29th year. Remember reputation and credibility?

Back in the mid 1990s while attending a workshop with Bill Fortney and the Great America Photography Weekend, I remember walking up to Bill and telling him “I want to someday be a workshop leader. What a wonderful job.” I had a plan. Over many the years, Bill mentored me on the hows and whats of this business. Most of what you read here was taught to me by Bill and by learning, observing how folks like John Shaw, Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe ran their workshops. I surely did not write the book, but was taught by the like of Bill and others, for which I am eternally grateful.

Bill and I now work together on a few workshops. What a feeling it is to me working with my friend and mentor. I am also doing a few with John Pedersen, a great photographer and teacher and just maybe, with this article, I can give something back as well.

Photo of a group of photographers with cameras on tripods getting ready to photograph landscapes.

To be a competent photography workshop leader You MUST:

  • Learn how to teach, relate, and interact positively with people.
  • Learn to evaluate a client’s ability quickly and teach in a non-condescending way. There will be some who are hesitant to ask for help or simply don’t know what they don’t know. You have to figure out how to help them.
  • You will have to be able to correctly answer (almost) every question you are asked. Think about that. Do you know how to set the auto timer on that 7-year-old Nikon D7000? You will be asked questions like “Where is the best shot here?” “Why f/11?” “What lens should I use?” “What are the right settings?” After telling your group that they leave at 5:00 the next morning, inevitably, within 2 minutes, someone will ask “What time do we leave?” Get used to this. It is not those folks are being pests, they are looking to you, the PRO for guidance. That is what they are paying for.
  • Realize you are providing a service, no different from a plumber, electrician, waiter, or mechanic. Remember, if you give your clients a wonderful experience, they will tell ten people. If you do not, they will tell one hundred people!
  • You will be evaluated quickly as a leader by clients. First impressions matter.
  • Get used to traveling like crazy, sleeping when you can and not eating the healthiest of diets. You must be willing to be away from your home and family for weeks at a time. Your significant other needs to know and accept this, too. Unfortunately, the divorce rate in this business is quite high!
  • Realize that if a client is paying you $1,500.00 for a workshop, their costs are much more than just the tuition. They are also paying for travel, food, lodging, and a rental car, let alone using precious vacation time. That is usually three to four times what they are paying you. You need understand that and deliver enough value that they feel they got all their money’s worth!
  • Do not over or undersell yourself. Study the competition. I always look at the competitive pricing online. I pay attention to who my competition is. If Art Wolfe charges X and I charge a bit less, I know that’s OK. Art deserves to be charging more, that is how highly I regard Art. However, if Joe Blow, who I don’t’ know, is charging more than me, I might question that. After all these years I know where my pricing should be for what I do and who I am.

Create online courses.

Many photographers have created only courses particularly when the COVID lockdown stopped travel, conferences and most photo workshops in 2020. Again, if you have a reputation and some credibility, are comfortable with video production and editing, and are equally good in front of a video camera as behind it, you might entertain this as an additional business option.

If you are thinking about creating your own video course, consider taking one first. You’ll get a sense for what works and what doesn’t, what people are buying, where the opportunities are. For example, Art Wolfe has a great one called “Pathways to Creativity.” Others include Matt Kloskowski, Scott Kelby’s– Kelby One, and Creative Live, to name but a few.

Photo of Jack Graham speaking at a conference before an audience in a darkened room.

Speaking engagements

Once you have a solid reputation and credibility, you might be asked to speak about your craft or a certain subject at local organizations. What better way to market yourself? Do not discount this medium. A couple of years ago, speaking opportunities were limited to big conferences and groups in your immediate area. During the pandemic, Zoom and other forms of videoconferencing became everyday tools, to the point that you can now give presentations to conferences or camera clubs all over the country, building your brand, reputation, and credibility, all without leaving home.

Marketing tools

Photo of several people wearing name tags seated in front of a table comparing notes. Judges at a camera club competition?

Camera clubs

Above is a Camera Club Convention in upper New York State where I spoke and judged. You NANPA folks might recognize Dee Pedersen standing on the left. Along with me is Ellen Anon (left of me) and Rick Sammon (on my right)! Pretty good company!

Back in the day, the well-known shooters wrote for well-read magazines like Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, National Geographic and others. Remember, there was no internet, no social media. You needed to get published to market yourself.

Everyone lives near a local camera club. You probably belong to one. Judging and talking to camera clubs are a wonderful place to network as well as add to your resume. Some pay some do not. Remember sometimes even though you are doing something free the results down the road are valuable.

YouTube / Instagram influencer

Advertisers were paying influencers at the rate of about 18¢ per view in 2021. This medium is growing and if it is for you and, like everything else, you work at it, differentiate yourself, and really produce you can make some good money here. It takes time to build audiences and gain or retain advertisers. You may read about people making millions as YouTube influencers. They did not just wake up one day and become highly paid people. It takes a lot of time and effort to get there, and you really have to stay on top of trends. In a recent post, CNBC calculated how many followers you’d need on each social media platform to make $100,000. It is not the most creative way to earn a living, but it’s a job and lots of folks earn decent money.

This might not be what you envisioned when you set out to make a living in nature photography, but the social media influencer field is growing every year, both in the number of influencers, as well as the amount of money advertisers are paying.

Cover of Graham's book "Grand Teton Winter," a photo of snowy fileds and trees in front of mountains.

Book publishing (print and e-books)

Art Wolfe successfully published more than one hundred books in about 50 years in the business. How does he do it? Well first he is Art Wolfe and has built a tremendous and well-deserved reputation. He talked about his strategy a few years ago.

However, photography books are like a business card. Good books help establish credibility, but books are costly to publish, inventory, and sell. Art has publishers who do all that. If you are not something of a household name, you’re probably not going to get offers from publishing houses, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pitch to one or self-publish your book.

Today self-publishing is growing by leaps and bounds. Books from companies like Blurb are popular and rapidly growing more so. Instructional e-books are also widely available on photographers’ websites. I’ve published e-books and softcover books using Blurb. Kindle Direct Publishing is another option. If you’re thinking of creating a book, you absolutely must hire a good proofreader, editor, and maybe someone to do the layout. Take a look at Tim Boyer’s 12 lessons learned about self-publishing.

E-commerce on your website

You have a website, so make it easy for people to  buy your products and services. Can they buy your e-books, prints of your photos, spots in your workshops or online courses through your website? Can they book you for a conference or camera club presentation? Can they sign up for a newsletter or are you able to capture email addresses for a mailing list?

Podcasts

I have been publishing a podcast, We Talk Photo, with my co-host John Pedersen for a few years now and our listenership is not bad.

Another excellent example is NANPA’s The Nature Photographer podcast on Wild and Exposed.

Podcasts can be an effective way to market yourself. However, like everything else in this business, you can’t just publish a podcast, sit back, and watch the accolades roll in. You have to market it. Once again, your reputation and credibility are critical. They will help in getting good guests and establishing your initial base of listeners. Perhaps you want to talk about specific subjects to separate your show from a very crowded field. That’s great, but it better be in a way that holds and grows your audience. Often, when you interview a well-known photographer with their own podcast, they’ll wind up interviewing you on theirs, giving you even more exposure.

You’re not going to get rich from podcasting but it is fun and can be really good for marketing.

Blog and write

You have your own website, but do you have a blog? Writing is marketing. Potential clients find you through articles you’ve published on topics they’re searching for. Writing articles like this one, that might get shared and referenced on other websites or social media channels gets your name out and burnishes your credibility and reputation.

Photo of a rainbow arcing up across the landscape

Take a chance!

If being a full-time photographer doing art shows, workshops, speaking, and so forth is a career you aspire to, well, waiting isn’t going to make it any easier. Start planning. Set goals. Learn your craft. Don’t be afraid. I always advise people that at least once in everyone’s life you should take a chance and do what you dream about doing. Even if it does not work out, at least you can say you tried it.

For all its challenges, nature photography can be a pretty great life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Check out Part 2 of this article >

Jack Graham has been a professional nature photographer for almost 30 years. He resides in Graham, WA, close to Mount Rainier, in the heart of the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He leads both small groups and one-on-one photography workshops domestically and internationally, has been published in leading photography publications, and has several e-books available on this website. Jack has conducted workshops for the Pacific Northwest Art School on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, Washington and the Madeline Island School of the Arts. He is a NANPA member and past member of the NANPA Board of directors.