Students often ask me a rhetorical question: “What is it like to be a professional landscape photographer?” Well, it’s fantastic if you’re into the outdoors, natural landscapes, and of course photography. However, that’s not entirely the point of the question. The real question you want to ask though, is “How do you find a sustainable income to support such a career?” Typically, we all have a preconceived idea of what a landscape photographer does for a living. But that idea seems to stem from a time when there weren't that many people in the business.
Documenting the landscape on commission simply isn’t a feasible business-model anymore. Fine-art landscape photography, while having a basis in documenting the natural landscape, is about creating something that sprung from the mind of the photographer. But what if your mind is all over the place? Can you deliver consistent enough work in order to attract potential clients with a turbulent mind?For the most part, an income in photography, especially in outdoor photography, was generated through shooting on commission. Think of it like how wedding photography works. A respectable company (the bride or groom) would phone you asking if you’re available to photograph a particular landscape (the wedding) to support a story about that area (the lives of the married couple).
Well, yes. There are still commissions like that available, but there are many more photographers than potential clients with particular wishes beforehand. As such, the pull-economy of landscape photographers has become a push-economy. This is why social media is so full of self-promoting artists and why I will say that being a professional landscape photographer is as much about marketing as actual photography.
Let’s talk a bit about a tip I read somewhere that would help in landing that commission: The homogenous portfolio. One of the key things that I would tell photographers that are just starting out, is to find the genre or subject that you deeply care for. Instead of developing yourself as a jack of all trades, my advice is to find focus and really master the art of a single genre. Within the realm of landscape photography, this may translate to becoming a master at forest photography, storm photography, mountainscapes, nightscapes, seascapes, or cityscapes; whatever tickles your fancy.
The thing is, however, a homogeneous portfolio doesn't stop there. The most respected landscape artists around the world actually do have a range of subjects on their websites, but the thread that binds them together is having a specific stylistic approach. One artist portrays the wilderness in all its facets, while the other seeks out a dramatic film-look in his or her images. Some find beauty in the smallest of landscapes and others portray the world from a birds-eye perspective while dangling out of a plane using medium-format cameras. It also helps to have a particular taste in post-processing your images. In any way, shape or form, it all boils down to having a set of images that have at least something in common.
Imagine yourself as a client browsing the web and landing on a photographer’s gallery page. Now imagine that all the photos, while being good photos themselves, look different. Can you tell in advance which guy you’re going to get if the next step is contacting the photographer proposing a commission? These are the demons of a diverse portfolio.
A Case for Diversity
The flipside of the story is a personal one. I have a very turbulent personality. In photography, that means that I’m appreciative of more than one kind of landscape and that I feel that a certain type of post-processing is better fitting to a particular photograph than any formulaic approach like using presets. In other words: I appreciate many things and find enjoyment in diversity. One moment I could be photographing light painted mushrooms and ten minutes later I find an intimate mountain scene, swirling in dramatic clouds.
To be honest, I’m quite happy with not chasing after commissions at all if it means that my portfolio has to be homogeneous. I’d rather create from the heart and occupy the push-economy of photography than wait for a client to pass by asking to emulate a set of pictures that I already photographed. However, I do think that if your personality isn’t all that turbulent (but rather more assertive), you’re better suited to find focus in your specialty or niche.
In the end, it comes down to putting your heart and mind into your work. The very definition of fine-art photography is to have a vision as a photographer of what your images will look like in the end. It is about what the artist sees – not what the camera captures. The camera is merely a tool for creating art. This sets fine-art photography apart from photojournalism in the sense that fine-art photographers are not documenting the subject in front of the lens in a strict sense. The fine-art photographer is open to interpretation of the self through the camera.
The homogenous portfolio isn’t just about attracting potential clients though. If you’re active on social media, your followers have come to expect a certain style, subject or quality from you too. One part of my own following doesn't care much for those mushrooms at all, while another even got to know my work through them. A handful of those followers eventually became clients during one of my glowing mushroom workshops. So there is actually an income to be found in having a diverse portfolio.
This is why I’m at a crossroads in my photography career. If I go left, I choose to create a new brand, or even more than one, for the ability to spread out my diverse portfolio while displaying consistent work to potential clients under each of those brands. Choosing the path on the right will keep everything under one roof, proudly showing off everything my turbulent personality came up with over the years. Celebrating a diverse taste comes first; followers and clients second. Fine-art photography is much more about accepting who you are than we care to admit. It isn't simply a minimalist interpretation of a crashing wave or patterns found in rock or lichen. Photography, for us, is an exploration of our psychological connection to the surroundings. In whichever subject we find solace or beauty, there's always a substantial piece of ourselves that goes into its capture.
Next time, we’re talking about another personality trait; one that seems to be more common in landscape photographers. In the final part of this series, we’re talking about how being an introvert strengthens your attunement to your surroundings.