MAKING A LIVING AS A NATURE PHOTOGRAPHER, Story and photographs by Jack Graham

© Michael Struble

© Michael Struble

I am often asked if it’s possible to make a living as a nature photographer. No matter whether you attempt to do it as a full-time professional or a part-timer to supplement income from an existing job, there are many things to consider. Nature photography is a tough way to make a living. However if you do it right, you can make it work.

Both full-time and part-time photographers need to remember and understand these concepts:

You need to get really (and I mean really) good as a photographer. This takes many years of working hard. As the late, great Henri Cartier-Bresson famously observed, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
Be prepared to spend as much or more time in your office as in the field.
You must deal with rejection.
Full-time photographers can add these to the list:

If no one buys your work or attends your workshops, you don’t eat.
You have to know your market and change when necessary.
Develop business savvy.
Be able to justify expenditures such as travel, equipment and extensive marketing (website, social etc.).
Become known.
Part-time Photographer

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. Any income from photography that comes along 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 would not significantly change. You can shoot when you like, quit when you like, and not worry who likes your work and who doesn’t. The income of most part-time nature photographers comes from print sales or stock.

Full-time Professional Photographer

The only way to make any meaningful income in nature photography is to do it full-time.

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 don’t understand that this job involves being in the office and on the computer or phone at least as much as I am in the field. The reality is that making a living at nature photography is hard work, both physically and mentally.

As a full-time photographer, there are three ways to make a meaningful income.

Print Sales—Few nature photographers sell enough prints to make a meaningful income from print sales. However, those who sell enough prints between $300 and $1,000 can make somewhat of a living. You might have to adapt your style to suit a specific market as the iconic images don’t always work as art prints. More expressive and large-sized works sell better these days. Think outside the box.

Stock: Stock agencies are not paying what they used to. Microstock and subscription stock has changed everything. Today there are so many photographers selling their work for next to nothing that the overall business is very different than it was years ago. Can you make some income as a part-time stock photographer? Sure, but only a few can make enough income from stock to rely on it solely. The only reason to sell images to magazines is to get the exposure; most don’t pay anything near what your work may be worth.

The stock industry has changed with the advent of digital. A huge inventory of digital images has driven down the payment to photographers. Some microstock agencies operate on a quantity basis and are an inexpensive source of images for businesses of all kinds. A lower payment to the agency means the payout to the photographer is smaller as well. It’s a numbers game. One way to try making money in stock is to shoot large quantities of images. They should be of subjects that are in demand and different from the norm or subjects not often photographed.

Workshop Leader: To my mind, this is the only way to make a living in nature photography today, but it is not as easy as you might think. It takes many years to build a photography business. You have to be prepared to:

Travel like crazy and be willing to be away from your home and family for weeks at a time.
Shoot less and become a competent teacher and communicator.
Develop some business savvy. When you determine your fees, be sure they will cover all your expenses and still show a profit.
Learn how to market and promote yourself. Do you know how to make yourself marketable enough to get folks to want to take your workshops? You have to get your name out there.
Know your client base and be able to relate to it. Can you deal with people and their idiosyncrasies and not let them affect you?
Know your competition. Can you compete with successful photographers who have been doing this for many years?
Eat, sleep and drink photography, and know your place in the market.
Being a full-time professional photographer isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. It takes time, knowledge and dedication.

Jack Graham (www.jackgrahamphoto.com) is a JackGrahamheadshotprofessional photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. He has an extensive schedule of workshops throughout the United States and beyond. Jack was chosen as one of FujiFilms X-photographers. His work has been published in many well-known magazines as well as for stock and fine art print sales and e-books. Jack is currently on NANPA’s board of directors. See more of his work at www.jackgrahamsblog.com.