Not a Professional Photographer? You May Be Better for It

Not a Professional Photographer? You May Be Better for It

If you're not a professional photographer, you're not alone. While I sometimes wish I had it in me to be a professional photographer, in the end, I do not. Alas, I believe I’m better for it.  

Perhaps I ignorantly believe that the life of a professional photographer is jetting around, meeting interesting people, going to interesting places, and making beautiful photographs. Perhaps my vision of a professional photographer is based on the feeling I get when I see photography from spectacularly cold and remote locations that evoke only the greatest sense of wonder in me. With that said, while I know those photographers exist, I’ve never met one. Instead, the professional photographers I know make a living as wedding and/or portrait photographers. They are still meeting interesting people and (I would hope) doing something they love and are good at. 

This brings me to why I do not ever intend to be a professional photographer. I have the personal belief that we all owe it to the world to do what we are properly good at, indeed, that we are even most likely to succeed if we pursue that which we are truly most gifted at. For me, this is being a statistician. As such, photography serves as a passion without serving as an income. It is perhaps because of this that I have been able to focus exactly what styles and genres of photography I find most interesting and stimulating without concern for it affecting my pay. Arguably, the greatest benefit to not being on the professional side of things is the ability to constantly learn from those who have achieved such mastery of their trade at the expense of mistakes. I am no stranger to photographic missteps, and I do believe they’ve made me better for it. I am also aware that without the insight of better photographers, I would have made a lot more and would surely make more in my future.

All this is to say I admire professional photographers more than I can express with words. Without them, I wouldn’t be half of the photographer I am today. I use my camera and the skills I have acquired to document my life and commemorate the experiences and sights I want to never forget. If you are a professional photographer, I appreciate the work you do and hope that you use your abilities to inspire people and teach them. If you’re someone, like me, whose photographic pursuits are purely for sole enjoyment, that is great. Fstoppers and the material on it are for everyone, irrespective of where you are on the continuum of hobbyist to professional. 

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Stoopy McPheenis's picture

"Perhaps I ignorantly believe that the life of a professional photographer is jetting around, meeting interesting people, going to interesting places, and making beautiful photographs."

I mean, I don't want to sound like a jerk, but that's exactly how my life has been for the last few years as a full-time travel/landscape photog. Took a while, but it's pretty good. So, if that's your dream, hang in there.

James Madison's picture

That's awesome. You should post share some of your work on Fstoppers - I'd love to see it!

I like being abroad. I however hate aeroplanes and airfields. Not my carreer.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

I hear ya. I’ll admit that I don’t love the planes and hotels, but they’re part of the territory. I use an RV in North America, though. Did 40k miles last year!

That is a smart and comfortable solution.

Tom Reichner's picture

Stoopy,

As one who road-trips around North America quite a bit myself, I am interested in seeing your work. But you haven't posted any images here, there is no link in your profile, and when I Google your name, I don't get any results that make sense.

Could you share links to your work, your real name, any social media accounts that you have, etc?

You write quite grandly and present yourself as someone who is living some kind of glamorous life filled with travel and lucrative, fun photography assignments, and that makes me want to see the substance behind your claims.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Hm, well... I could stop commenting, if it really bothers you.

I like sharing my opinion but I don't care to have my identity exposed on the internet. My replies are truthful but if you need proof of that, I'm not entirely interested in providing it.

And, for the record, I've mentioned my struggles as well as my successes. I don't claim to be better than anyone else here.

Tom Reichner's picture

I never said that your comments bothered me. I like you commenting here. I find your comments interesting enough that they lead me to want to know more! And that, my friend, is meant as a big compliment!

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Ok, good to know! :) Thank you. I'm always happy to share. I love sharing. I just prefer to share my knowledge over my identity!

Ryan Luna's picture

My wife wants me to monetize my images. I think she thinks it's a lot easier than it really is. I don't want to monetize them. I love it as a hobby and don't want it to feel like "work".

I also see the landscape/travel photography game similar to the housing bubble of the mid 2000s. There are so many #vanlife people monetizing off of photography, and I think many don't realize the bubble will pop. Some will end up meeting a future spouse and want kids, then what? The travel/landscape photog life is not sustainable for the vast majority of those doing it now. The "Invisible Hand" will most likely one day smack a lot of the current Pro photogs in the face and force them to become amateurs.

James Madison's picture

I can understand that completely. I suppose the idea of selling something you already have possession of would not necessarily move it into a "work" category unless there was a substantial amount of time taken to print, package, and ship the prints yourself. However, I don't know that I personally would ever be able to separate the two again - I'd likely start pursing photographs I think would sell well without regard to whether I actually want the photo or would have taken it had I not been trying to make money.

I would argue what you're referring to is more of a lifestyle photographer. Though, I don't know that I could accurately describe the difference between a travel photographer and travelling lifestyle photographer.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

They definitely overlap, but I think a travel photographer tends to focus more on travel industry related places and things like accomodation, transportation, restaurants, tours and attractions, and the “feel” of places/cities/towns. Whereas a lifestyle photog that travels focuses more on niche businesses, events and... well... personal lifestyles (jobs, routines, fashion, hobbies, home-life, relationships, etc...)

But that’s all just a generalization. There really aren’t a whole lot of rules for this stuff!

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Whoops double post. :p

Tom Reichner's picture

Ryan, you said:

"I also see the landscape/travel photography game similar to the housing bubble of the mid 2000s. There are so many #vanlife people monetizing off of photography, and I think many don't realize the bubble will pop."

The bubble already popped ..... many years ago.

Today, most of the people monetizing their landscape, nature, and wildlife images are making a given amount of CENTS per sale, not DOLLARS. This has actually been the case for well over a decade. 2003 or 2004 was the last time a good photographer with an average work ethic could make decent money licensing their nature photos. Ever since then, only photographers with a way above average work ethic can make decent money by licensing their stock images.

And when I say, "work ethic", I am not talking at all about the photography part. I am talking strictly about work ethic in terms of the endless cold-calling of publishers and ad agencies, being assertive and "pushy" to get them to use your images instead of the competition's, spending countless hours preparing submissions, etc.

For those of us who just want to work hard taking the photos, and not work hard at selling and marketing our stuff, there hasn't been any decent money available to us for years and years and years. The bubble is not about to pop, because it popped way back in 2004 or 2005.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Depends what you mean by bubble. For those of us with strong client bases and a robust distribution network, travel/landscape photography makes good money. Stock photography doesn’t make much, but working for hire in the travel industry, along with selling high end prints, is still a very valid business... you just need to find your market.

Tom Reichner's picture

I'm speaking strictly of selling stock wildlife photography.

There used to be assignments for wildlife, but even "back in the day" those were rather rare.

Selling usage licenses for wildlife stock photos used to pay very well, but pays peanuts nowadays. I remember a friend getting $80,000 for licensing a single image of a deer to a deer scent manufacturer about 20 years ago. And another receiving $40,000 for an Eagle photo that was used in some advertising campaign, about 25 years ago.

Today, for similar usage the photographer would be very fortunate to negotiate those deals for anything over $500, and the much more likely scenario is that an image would be licensed thru a stock agency, used on a royalty free basis, and the photographer would receive a commission of anywhere from 35 cents to $100. That is the reality for anyone selling wildlife photos.

There is still some steady income to be had, but you just need to be a very prolific shooter, because instead of licensing three or four images a month for $300 to $1,000 (back in the 1980s and 1990s), you now will have to sell three or four thousand usage licenses for an average of 60 or 70 cents a piece.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Absolutely. I completely agree with this. I don't have a whole lot of experience with wildlife photography and I haven't put much of my business into licensing. I was lucky to have built up a good amount of contacts before transitioning to travel photography but most of my money now comes from either being paid as a service for hire (by hotels, restaurants, museums, attractions, etc...) Or by selling high end prints to private buyers.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

You make a good point about life/career balance, but isn’t that always the case? I spent a couple decades in L.A. doing more mainstream celeb/doc/journalism work but the career still helped ruin my marriage. Luckily, it was after my kid had grown up. Now, that my kid has grown up, my wife has moved on and my rolodex (contacts list?) is fat.... I do the travel/landscape thing and it works out well. My rv is slightly larger than a van, though. ;)

Tom Reichner's picture

Stoopy,

While I do believe what you are saying, I must note that you don't look anywhere near old enough to have done anything for a couple of decades. And you certainly don't look old enough to have a biological child that is grown up.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Well, if you Google 'stock photo of man' you will see why. :)

Tom Reichner's picture

Hmmmmm ..... it is hard for me to understand why you would post a photo of someone who isn't you on your profile.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Partly as a joke but mainly because I enjoy being anonymous. I've gone 30 years without an online presence and, while I enjoy being able to comment on articles, I don't care to have my identity splashed across the internet. I think that's fair, no?

Tom Reichner's picture

But others could learn more from your experiences if you would make yourself more available. I want to learn about your travel photography. I am interested in the details.

Who hires you? Are you hired by hotels and resorts, or by chambers of commerce and regional tourism departments? Or both? If both, then what ratio does each represent?

What, exactly, do you shoot? Do you have a specific style that makes your work different from most of your competitors, or do you take on multiple styles, depending on the needs of each client and each assignment?

What venues do you target at specific times of the year?

How long to you spend shooting at each place once you get there?

Are you hired by the day and paid a daily rate? Or are you just paid a lump sum for meeting the requirements of the assignment? Or are you paid on a "per image" basis for images that your clients choose to use?

How are your photos used? Are they primarily used for advertising? If so, where? What are the various forms of advertising that your clients use and that your work appears in?

Are you given a per diem for your travel expenses, in addition to the daily rate, or are expenses "on you"?

There is SO MUCH that others could learn from you.

The main reason that most people have for joining an online community is so that they can share what they know with others, so that others can find similar success. I would think that would be your motivation, as well.

At some point, we all eventually have more interest in giving back than we do in furthering our own success.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

But what precludes me from answering any of that just because I use a pseudonym? I'm here to give back, if people want it. Honestly. But I choose to do it anonymously.

So.... to answer your questions:

My primary clients nowadays are private investors who have upcoming openings of hotels/restaurants/entertainment venues. The way it works is... Let's say Marriott is opening a new Moxy hotel. Well, Marriott doesn't actually do all of the funding, permitting, building and staffing for said hotel. It's usually wealthy real estate companies with wealthy investors. So, a lot of my clients are these type of companies.

Tourist boards rarely offer lucrative payment, but they are good to work with if you're looking to have travel covered and they also have a lot of connections to wealthier potential clients in their cities. I will often make a deal with a tourist board/ministry/etc... which works out where I get my travel covered and a small stipend while using the trip to secure more lucrative clients, which works out for all of us.

My style for travel photography is slightly overdone HDR (not BAD hdr-- but a tad cartoonish), which is one reason why I like to stay anonymous. There are so many opinions on this and I don't really care to open up my work to those opinions. But, my clients experience high levels of satisfaction.

I have a day rate and I negotiate a minimum number of images that will be received for each project, as well as how many rounds of notes/revisions from client will be allowed (usually two rounds).

I like being warm places but I don't choose jobs based on weather or time of year. I didn't want to go to Oslo in January.... But I'll admit it was a perfect time to shoot.

How long I shoot depends on the gig and the desired deliverables.

The images are used primarily for promotion, advertising and marketing. They are often used as large prints on the walls of said hotel/restaurant/venue. They also get used in magazines from time to time, depending on the licensing deal.

I do receive a per diem. It's usually $40-$60/day, depending where I am and who the client is.

I appreciate that you want to know more about me. I would hope that I can share these things by continuing to comment on individual stories. But if the fact that I do so anonymously keeps others from learning... I feel like that's on them and not me.

Tom Reichner's picture

Stoopie,

Thanks for the detailed answers. I think that I know more about your corner of the travel photography business because of what you have written here. This interests me because it is a type of photography that would fit in well with my lifestyle, and I am always considering possible sources for potential income. You've actually been quite helpful.

Do you know how the answer to one question often leads to ...... another question? Well, that is what has happened here. I am now interested in how you get your clients in the first place - these wealthy hotel investors that hire you. Do they all know you already, and just contact you when they want you to go do another shoot for them? In which case you never have to go looking for assignments, because they always come to you?

Or is it that you often/sometimes go to these investors and ask if they have anything upcoming that they would like you to go shoot?

I ask this because the think I hate most about what I do is having to look for work. Introducing myself to potential clients who don't know me yet, telling them what I do and what I have to offer, and then asking them if they would like to use my images for a fee ...... well, to put it bluntly, I find that to be a horrible thing to have to do and I despise that part of my job. I have always hated assertiveness - any time someone is assertive, it makes me cringe and I think, "what the hell is wrong with you?!" So needless to say, when my job/financial situation requires that I assert myself to try to drum up clients, it is extremely distasteful to me. No, distasteful is not the right word. "Loathsome" more correctly describes how I feel about asserting myself in the search for income-producing opportunities.

So I am interested in knowing if you ever have to do the horrible task of asking someone if they could use your services, of if you are in a much better position, where 100% of your work and your assignments are the clients coming to you first and asking if you could please go shoot something for them.

Any insights or experiences about this would be quite helpful.

P.S. - I love the cold, ice, snow, and winter conditions in general. You mentioned something about somewhere being ideal to shoot in the winter time, but that you don't like to be there then. Do you think there are any opportunities for someone to go do such shoots, if others find them unpleasant?

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

I'm not going to lie, I think a lot of it was good luck in the beginning.

I happened to grow up in L.A. I started very traditionally as a PA/runner on magazine and commercial sets... actually my very first gigs were as a catering assistant from a restaurant gig I was working. I slowly worked my way up in fairly traditional circles like celeb/journalism/events. The travel thing started to present itself during the course of other gigs, if that makes sense. And, yes, at this point (a quarter century later lol) it's a whole lot of word of mouth referrals. It makes for some very odd and often very difficult clients.... investor types are an odd breed with very strong personalities and opinions. I've worked on more than one project for a hotel or venue that was completely built, staffed up, decorated, furnished, photographed and had a few events before never actually opening. Those were in other countries and are sitting empty to this day, from what I know.... But it shows how wild it all can be, imo.

I do pitch myself to potential clients here and there, though. Maybe a handful of times a year. I don't love it, but it's necessary. It doesn't always work out. But, if I want to explore a new market, I'll reach out to a tourist board or a certain company I've got my eyes on working with. But, at this point I'm very lucky in the referral department. And the contacts I made in L.A. while I was there give me a great pool of private buyers for my prints.

I will say, I always try to value myself high and I stick to what I know best. I don't do video work, drone work, 360 imagery, etc.... and that cuts out a lot of markets and clients. But people that call me have seen my work and know what they'll get. They like who I've worked with and they believe that I'm worth their money. I'm not the cheapest guy out there and I think that actually helps.

On the weather thing... I'm just a wussy California boy haha. But I still go where the gigs are and I think most photogs do the same. That said, winter photography is gorgeous and it certainly never hurts the portfolio! :)

Most people know that before he succeeded as a writer, Mark Twain became a qualified Mississippi River pilot.

What fewer people know is that once he had mastered every snag, every sandbar, every eddy, he could no longer look at the river and just enjoy its beauty.

"I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!"

https://www.thoughtco.com/two-ways-of-seeing-a-river-by-mark-twain-1688773

That's what photography is like for me as an amateur. Even if I were good enough, I can't imagine letting it become work. I hope for many more years of taking pictures as the thing I escape *from* work to do!

James Madison's picture

This is a wonderful reference! That you for sharing.

Tom Reichner's picture

I understand what Twain was saying, but not everyone is that way.

When I gain more thorough knowledge about something, I appreciate and marvel at its beauty even more. When I can break something down into all of its parts and understand how each part contributes to the whole, then I like the whole even more, and am even more impassioned for it.

I used to love Whitetail Deer. So I started making a point of photographing them. Ever since 2009, I have spent 35-50 days every year specifically photographing Whitetail bucks. Over the course of those years, I have spent thousands of hours researching these deer.

I read every scientific paper about Whitetails that I can get my hands on.

I have spent many hours examining carcasses of dead deer that I find along roadsides and out in the woods. I have taken parts of the carcasses and cut them open to dissect them and learn about the tissues of which they are comprised.

I spend hours upon hours every month of the year going back into my archives of deer photos and examining the deer in those photos to study things such as facial markings, antler growth from year to year, the changes in muscularity from season to season and from year to year, variations in antler characteristics from region to region and year to year, the changes in body shape from year to year as bucks mature, the differences in the way they posture their tails and ears when engaging in various behaviors, etc, etc, etc.

I also look over many of the photos in which they are eating and attempt to identify the plant species that they are feeding on, and what time of year they prefer specific species.

I also research other photographer's images online (Google Images, Flickr, Instagram, etc.) in order to document when bucks shed their antlers each year in various regions of North America. And I use the same resources to document when the deer begin to shed their winter coats and when the shedding process is completed in the summer at different latitudes.

When I see a deer now, I do so with a much more intimate knowledge of its biological processes and of all of the parts of which it is comprised. And because of that detailed knowledge, I love deer even more, and am all the more smitten with their beauty! I wasn't able to really appreciate the beauty of the deer until I knew a whole lot about them.

I guess I am the opposite of yourself and Mr. Twain in that regard.

Hi Tom - I think your perspective makes a lot of sense. Mine was easier to arrive at because going pro is purely theoretical anyway. :)