Making a Living as a Nature Photographer 2021 Part II

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

In part one of this article, I covered some of the training and skills needed to become a professional nature photographer, gave some tips about marketing, and explored the various income streams available. If you haven’t already, it’s worth going back and starting there. Once you’ve absorbed part one, it’s time to dive into part two.

Develop a good business acumen

I remember talking with John Shaw right about the time I was ready to devote all my efforts to building my photography business. I knew, thanks to experience, that I wanted to be a workshop leader. John told me two things. First “Don’t quit your day job” (I already did! Whoops.) and profit is what is left over after everything was paid. That one I remember to this day.

I know may renowned artists that are failing or have failed, not necessarily as artists, but at making a living from their art because that did not pay enough attention to the business aspects of their work.

Here is a good example of what NOT to do. I know of someone who had a momentous day job paying over $100K. Whether he liked it or not, I do not know. However, he decided to “take the plunge.” Coincidentally, he had just inherited some money and that is why he took this chance. A famous television personality had just published a book about America, and this fellow thought that if he went out and make images about the places written about in the book, the author would not only pay him but republish the book with his images.

HIS BIG MISTAKE: Before he went to the author with the idea he went out and purchased all new gear, camera, lenses, and so forth, and, I believe, a new vehicle as well. After that hefty expenditure, he then pitched his idea to the author, looking for an advance. The author loved the idea, but only wished him success and declined his advance. The photographer was left with all new gear and no income.

A photographer stands in the rolling, green hills of the Palouse area of Washington state.

You must consider

Cost of gear: You will need roughly as good a set of gear your competitors have. Showing up to lead a workshop with a simple, point-and-shoot camera isn’t going to cut it.

Cost of travel: Air travel, vehicle costs (gas, depreciation, maintenance, rentals, insurance, etc.).

Cost of Food & Lodging while you travel.

Office expenses: phones, office space, utilities, office equipment , insurance, etc. You need to know Quick Books or a similar program to keep your accounting accurate. You have to have a good computer and the requisite photo processing applications.

Accounting: Learn how to invoice and brush up on your accounting and tax knowledge. Keep business and personal accounts separate.

Registration as a business: Do you need to be an LLC? Consider this to protect yourself and for tax reasons. You will need a Federal Tax Number from the US government as well as a state tax ID number.

Taxes: Beware of the IRS. I have my taxes prepared by a highly skilled professional. I document and retain every receipt. Yes, it is another cost. I don’t cheat! The risks are too high. Remember that deductions are worthless unless you have income. Get a good accountant and do it right!

Online presence: You will need a professional looking and functioning website, hopefully with e-commerce functionality built in. These are not cheap if done correctly.

Marketing costs: It takes money to make money. SEO is not cheap if you do not know how to make it happen on your website. Its 100% necessary to be found. Google changes its protocols very often.

Insurance for your gear, office, car, liability (if you are leading workshops or doing Art Shows).

Permit costs for working as a pro in National Parks, State Parks, and many other areas.

Health Insurance: This can be a major expense and concern, since you’re striking out on your own, without an employer subsidized plan. NANPA Member Health Insurance Program is one of the most comprehensive programs available, featuring extensive PPO networks, worldwide coverage, prescription coverage, multiple deductible options, and a 10% healthy member discount. (Learn more about it in the Members’s section of NANPA website.)

… and remember “Profit is what’s left over after everything is paid.”

Am I scaring you off? I hope not. If you want to do this bad enough you can!

Read on just a bit more!

Snowy winter scene of the Moulton barn at Grand Teton National Park.

Other considerations

Get good!

I go back to the previous discussion in part one about getting proficient. It takes many years to get good as a photographer. Now, having said that, today making photographs is easy compared to days gone by. Musicians spend years practicing and working hard to hone their craft. With today’s technology, anyone can take a decent photograph. Learning to see, evaluate and become a true artist is where the rubber meets the road. I see many good photographers these days, some particularly good. I see few true artists.

I recommend reading The Art of Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles. You never stop learning and practicing. I do not ever remember a photography workshop I have led that I have not learned something from a student!

Photograph what you love. This one is easy. Pick subjects and locations you enjoy. Learn everything you can about them. Trying to be all things to all people can, but usually does not work.

Look for opportunities

It is important to talk to other photographers and study areas that interest you. Networking is imperative. Keep your ears open. Some opportunities will be great, and others might fail. We learn from our mistakes. Just try and not repeat them!

Develop Patience. This is the hardest thing to realize. This is a journey. Being disappointed by the lack of instant success can be detrimental to your outlook. Be as positive as possible. I don’t know of any successful artist who gained instant success. I bet you don’t either.

Read this article from the Ansel Adams Gallery. You will see that it was not easy, even for an icon like him!

Logo and imagery for Jack Graham Photography consisting of the initials J and G with a leaf coming out of the J.
My brand and visual identity

Build your brand

It is an overcrowded market these days. Branding helps present who you are, what you offer and what value you can provide for a client.

Define:

  • What do you provide?
  • Who are your clients?
  • How are you different?

It is important to know this even before you venture into the business. It will help you establish your pricing and structure. But it’s also key to figuring out your brand.

Think about a brand you love. Why do you love it, what does it provide for you? How is it different from brand “X”?

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the brand does not pay a premium, select or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.” – Seth Godin

Do not be afraid to fail.

We, as humans are brains are disposed to conform, take the effortless way out. We do not want to fail! That can make us too cautious to take risks, to step into the unknown, to do anything!

To reverse this way of thinking it is necessary to:

  • Be aware that that is how we are programmed
  • Consciously produce creative ideas
  • Promote your individual expression vs. the easy of sticking to what is normal, customary, or expected

Leaving the security of benefits and a paycheck every week or two is difficult. If you have a family, it is even more difficult. I get it.

Photo of a rainbow arcing up across the landscape

The part-time photographer

You will need to abide by most of what is detailed above about Full- Time Photographers, but with less pressure! But pay attention to detail!

The only way to make any meaningful income in nature photography is to do it full-time. However, being a part-time photographer is also a wonderful way to supplement your income and live an enjoyable life.

Being a part-time nature photographer can be a way to subsidize an existing income or make it possible to afford new gear, travel, etc. For some part-timers, any income from photography is often just extra cash, over and above income from a regular job or other source. In other words, if you make no money in your photography, your lifestyle will not significantly change. You can shoot when you like, quit when you like, and not worry who likes your work and who does not.

Fortunately, depending on how hard you want to work, many of the opportunities that full-time pros have are also available to the part-time photographer as well. I know many who outperform pros.

The opportunities to make money, however, are fewer when working part time. It is hard, for instance, to be a part-time workshop leader. The income of most part-time nature photographers comes from print sales or stock.

I know quite a few full-time pros who really enjoyed life as a part timer before committing to the full-time job. Being a full timer means more office time, more stress, and other concerns. Being a part timer, then, might not be a bad option! It can often allow more of your creativity to flourish.

Do not be discouraged because you cannot make the jump into 100% full time nature photography. I did not in the beginning, and I know of others who did not as well. They used their part-time status to build up their clientele, reputation, and products to the point where they could take the leap.

For all the challenges that I’ve described there are also opportunities. This life sure isn’t easy, but it sure is rewarding. If you have the passion and drive required, it can be a very fulfilling career. I hope this article can help you realize your dream and become a professional nature photographer.