The Business of Photography: A Millennial’s Thoughts on Online Video Courses

Filmmaker Peter Hoffman on assignment in California.

A great online course offers something bigger than technical knowledge: it offers time hanging out with YOU. It offers the chance to experience your world, to join you in the field, to see, first-hand, your unique approach to the photography process. Here, filmmaker Peter Hoffman is on assignment in California.

Story and photos by Kika Tuff

The world of online education is a new frontier for nature photographers and one that can be quite lucrative. But making money isn’t as simple as building an amazing course and setting it free on the internet. Plenty of thoughtful, well-designed courses go undiscovered every day.

So, before you invest your time and energy into building a course, I wanted to offer some ideas on how to ensure you don’t get lost in the ocean of internet content.

First: know what you offer.

The internet is full of quick solutions to easy, everyday problems, thanks to platforms like YouTube, Reddit, and online forums. Wondering about a button on your camera? There’s a YouTube video for that. Interested in a technique you saw on Instagram? There is a subreddit to walk you through it.

But a great online course is different. It’s not about quick answers to common questions. It’s about spending time to master a complicated subject, like nature photography. From an audience’s perspective, online courses are a good way (and, sometimes, the only way) to enter the world of the professionals we admire. For me, and I suspect for others, it’s been as much about gaining access to the instructor, as it is about gaining access to the knowledge.

Let’s look at the Masterclass model as an example. Masterclass is an online education platform that hires the MOST famous, MOST idolized people in their industries. And that is because Masterclass knows that people will pay to spend time with those they admire. I paid to take a course on portrait photography with Annie Leibovitz. Not to learn how she sets her white balance, but because I want to hang out with Annie Leibovitz. I think the Masterclass course on Space Exploration is perhaps the best example. How many people actually need training in space exploration? Answer: basically, none. But how many people want to hang out with an astronaut and hear about his perspective on the world??? Answer: basically, everybody!

What I mean is that an online course provides something very different than a YouTube video or a how-to blog. An online course offers something bigger than knowledge. What your course is actually selling is time hanging out with YOU. People are paying to experience your world, to join you in the field, to see, first-hand, your unique approach to the process. The best online courses feel like hanging out with your heroes on the job. In my opinion, that experience is the one people are willing to pay for.

Matt Talarico on assignment in California.

Matt Talarico on assignment in California.

Second: make sure there are people that WANT to hang out with you.

I’m not talking about your family, or even your real-life friends. I am talking about an online audience that trusts and admires you. That will sign up for your course when you launch it.

One key thing about a profitable online course is also vital in going viral. You need to have systems in place—i.e. an online following already established—so that when you launch your “product” online (your photo, your course, your video), there are people there to receive and share it.

We have all had the experience of pouring our heart and soul into a piece of social content, releasing it out into the world, and no one seeming to take notice. No likes, no comments, no signups, no shares. It hurts the heck out of our online ego.

But the problem isn’t necessarily with the content. It’s that no one had the chance to see it. Without going into details, social media algorithms reward those who post frequently, who engage with the posts of others, who spend a lot of time on their platform. When you send a post out into the social media ether, the platform decides if you do or do not show up on people’s feeds, and that decision is driven by your engagement.

Now if you are famous, then lots of people already trust and admire you. Skip ahead to step #3. But for photographers early in their career, or those getting started online, you need to first cultivate a following before anyone will pay money to hang out with you.

Kevin Kelly has a concept he calls “1,000 true fans.” It says you don’t need millions of followers to be successful. You need exactly 1,000—1,000 true fans who will reliably spend $100 on your content, year after year. Assuming your overhead is low, you only need 1,000 fans to earn $100,000 per year.

What this means is you should develop an audience BEFORE you develop your course. And save your release until you have established your 1,000 true fans . . . or your 500 true fans . . . or your 100 true fans—however many it takes to achieve your financial goal. Otherwise, you run the risk of pouring your heart and soul into the photography course of your dreams, and no one is going to hear about it.

Filmmaker Peter Hoffman on assignment in California.

Filmmaker Peter Hoffman on assignment in California.

Three: Build an experience like no other.

Okay, let’s assume you have an amazing outline for your curriculum and 1,000 true fans established. How do you build a course that delivers? Because, make no mistake: you are up against some BIG names. Frans Lanting, Art Wolfe, and Cristina Mittermeier all have nature photography courses available on CreativeLive. Your course has to go above and beyond what they can offer. And the only way to do that is to be . . . well . . . YOU!

Never forget that your true fans are here for YOU—not necessarily your technical expertise, but your wit, your charm, your eye for composition, your choice of subject, and the way you tell a story. You have awakened something in them and they want more.

So, make sure that you build an immersive educational experience that only you can provide by being personal, by making the course feel intimate, by allowing your audience to feel like they are really hanging out with you. Take them on the journey only you can provide.

I have taken more than my share of online courses, only to find that hanging out with the instructor wasn’t at all how I thought it would be. They were too business-y. Or too silly. Or not nearly as funny as their social media suggests. And I have actually been a true fan of someone, signed up for ALL their courses, and left their entourage after a $300 online course that showed me we would NOT hang out in real-life.

Above all, I think, the key to a great online course is not expertise, but delivering an authentic online experience to your true fans. You need to be the person your fans believe you to be. The personality they have come to expect. You need to build an experience that fulfills THEIR expectations, more than your own. Because if you do, they will happily carry the torch that lights your way to prosperity.

Because your course may be the first step to a long and fruitful relationship with your fan base. If you deliver what they are hoping for in your course—an authentic, personal experience that helps them grow to be more like you—they are likely to go on to support you on Patreon and Kickstarter. They will be the first to sign up for your next workshop, and the one after that. In the digital economy, your true fans are like an online family—enthusiastic supporters with a stake in your success.

So, before you build your course, build your following. And then deliver to them an experience that is true to the online persona they love. Create a course that feels like hanging out with you, one-on-one, on a crazy photography adventure. It’s not easy, but if you can do it, the course is not the end goal, but a launch point, for a long and prosperous future with your ever-growing, ever-more-loyal fan base.

Kika Tuff earned her PhD in ecology in 2016 from the University of Colorado at Boulder. A few weeks later, she founded Impact Media Lab, where she helps scientists and science organizations find the compelling stories in their research. Her goal is to bring the same rigor, creativity, and experimentation to the business of communication that scientists bring to the business of research.  Realizing that, more often than not, scientists don’t have a good outlet for sharing their work and discoveries, Kika and her team develop media campaigns to share those stories with the world, using photographs, videos and design. Participating in NANPA’s College Scholarship Program in 2015 kindled a new interest in photography as a powerful storytelling tool.