Fine Art Landscape Photography (Part 2): Demons of a Diverse Portfolio

First frost of the year on autumn leaves

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?

Seascape with seagulls hunting for food in the last magenta moments at dusk

"Song of Darkness" - Seagulls hunting for food in the last magenta moments at dusk. Laanscapes Photography

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.

Homogeneity

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.

Tre Cime by Night

"Temple of Time" - Tre Cime (Dolomites) by night. Laanscapes Photography

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.

Abstract image of the raging river following Goðafoss in Iceland.

"Ijóma" - The raging river following Goðafoss in Iceland. Laanscapes Photography

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.

Two alpine choughs chasing each other in swirling mists.

"Unfurl" - Two alpine choughs chasing each other in swirling mists. Laanscapes Photography

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 Following

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.

A mosquito is taking shelter inside a glowing mushroom.

"Spellbound" - A mosquito is taking shelter inside a glowing mushroom. Laanscapes Photography

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.

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12 Comments

Anonymous's picture

I don't give a damn about push or pull. I just want to be able to create landscape images like yours. ;-)

Daniel Laan's picture

Haha. I appreciate the compliment, Sam.

Daniel Laan's picture

Thank you so much for you kind words, Bob. As they're created from the heart, it's a personal compliment. Cheers!

Alex Armitage's picture

I'm in the same boat Daniel. It took me years to finally get to just shooting landscapes, aka when I went from "Hobby" to "Professional." Although I still wouldn't say I'm nearly professional considering I've yet to make any money from shooting landscapes. That said, you end up in a place where you are kind of locked into that subject. Anytime I start thinking about shooting something else, even if it's a genre of landscapes like blending some modeling into landscape style shots - I begin to think; Do I need to do this under a different name/portfolio?

My instagram has quite a lot of mountain shots. What about all these wonderful beach shots I have? What about the cityscape shots I got while I was in another country? It's tough. I've decided to shoot what I want and stop worrying so much about the perfect feed for my audience. Which might be why I have yet to monetize my work lol, but even so. I made the conscious decision that I should enjoy my work and have freedom in what art I want to make. Gaining following/influence isn't going to dictate my work.

William Howell's picture

Good article, great photography.

Daniel Laan's picture

Appreciate it, William. :) Cheers.

Thomas Heaton did exactly the same photo on his recent video, the frozen leafs.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roSzE4_ajrA

Daniel Laan's picture

That's great. Now everyone knows how you can shoot frozen leaves.

I was looking forward to read this article about "turbulent" minds and homogeneous portfolios.
I'm agree about all, I think indeed that the limit of coherence is a portfolio with many pictures of a kind of subject, but also images that represent a different subject, but of the same "enviroment" and edited with the same style (proper of that artist).
For example my portfolio contains mostly mountainscapes, even if there are also seascapes, deserts... etc. But the style is the same and they are all related to the nature.
It's true that you also have a gallery about mushrooms, but I see your own style on it and they can be seen as little landscapes. These have the same style that I can recognize in the other pictures, for instance in the mountains and especially in the forests.
But it's true that you have a turbulent personality and it's great, cause I think that gives different shades to your photo style and I can recognize a soul when I observe them.

Daniel Laan's picture

Thank you kindly for those heart-warming words, Isabella. Last week, I've read a comment from Mads Peter Iversen (he was also at Tre Cime, only days before us) saying that it's funny that we can end up shooting the same composition, but that our processing styles seem to dictate the difference between those shots; yielding wildly diverse shots. Isn't that the truth?

I think we therefor should take pride in post-processing. The difficulty therein lies in the balancing act between learning new approaches and maintaining you own style.

You did quite fantastic job, i'm finding my way to create my style, hope you can give some advice.

Great article. It's a great dilemma and stresses the importance of staying objective. Personally, I'm keeping my day job so I can feed my creativity with wanton subjectivity.