When my son Harry was about four years old, he became curious as to why I was at home so much when other dads went out to work every day. “Don’t you have a job?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “but I work from home.”
“What do you do?” he wanted to know.
“I’m a photographer,” I told him, for some reason feeling rather pleased with this announcement.
He looked at me for a moment and then, with what sounded like a mixture of confusion and outrage, demanded: “Is that a job?”
Well, apparently it is, and more and more people seem to want to do it - I regularly get requests for advice on how to turn professional.
To be honest, I’m often strongly tempted to try and discourage this ambition. This is partly out of self-interest: does the world really need any more professional landscape photographers and how will it affect my business if there are more? But it’s also because I want to be helpful; making a living from photography, especially landscape photography, is really, really difficult. In fact, it’s hard to convey just how difficult it can be. You will probably end up working harder for less money and will have far less security than you would in most ‘normal’ jobs. But experience has taught me that it’s impossible to get people to understand this, so I’m going to go ahead and give some advice.
Firstly, in order to survive in this difficult business, you will need to have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies. Among the various streams that make up my income are editorial work, commercial commissions, writing books, selling wall art, selling pictures through image libraries and, of course, running workshops. There is no short cut that will take you to the point where these income streams add up to a living – you will need to build up a strong, varied portfolio and an extensive library of images before you can consider becoming a full-time pro, so don’t give up the day job until you have reached that stage. In my case, I worked full-time and then part-time for several years while also running my photography business.
While you are establishing yourself, be prepared to take on jobs and photograph things that you really don’t want to photograph. I am now in the very fortunate position of making my living purely from landscape, but along the way I have photographed lipstick, a match, a bottle of champagne and my personal favourite, a toilet in a Bournemouth hotel. None of these assignments filled my soul with joy, but they did help pay the bills at the time.
When it comes to breaking into the different markets, the advice is similar for all of them and I will try to explain with a real-life example. A while ago, a budding photographer who was keen to sell her pictures as wall art, phoned me up for some advice. How could she find some galleries where she could sell her pictures? The answer to this question is really simple. Galleries don’t hide away. They are there on the high street, they have websites, Facebook pages and even good old-fashioned Yellow Pages listings. Finding them is easy. Then you need to approach them: write, phone, email some examples and ask for an appointment, or walk in on a quiet day and show them some of your work. Whichever approach you take, make sure your presentation is professional. Use properly headed notepaper, supply sample prints on good quality paper, make sure emails and letters are polite, clear, to the point and that your grammar, spelling and punctuation are good.
Be prepared for a lot of rejections. Most galleries probably aren’t looking for new artists, but if you speak to one that is, and your pictures and presentation are up to standard, then you have a good chance of being taken on.
The same is true of magazines. They all have contact details inside and most have submission guidelines published somewhere in their pages, so getting in touch with them is not a mysterious process. If you are targeting a particular publication, buy a couple of issues (at least!) and study them – find out what type of pictures they use, what the house style is, and so on. Make sure you follow the submission guidelines; if an editor wants to be contacted via email, then don’t annoy them by phoning. Likewise with picture libraries: Google them, look at the websites, read the submission guidelines.
The other big piece of advice is basic business sense, but it’s amazing how many people ignore it: look for gaps in the market and aim to fill them, rather than just copying what other people are doing.
Again, I will use an example from the world of art galleries. I sell a lot of photographs through a local gallery. As a result, quite a number of other photographers approach the gallery asking for representation. A lot of them walk in and say something along the lines of, “I’ve got lots of pictures like the ones you are selling here. Would you be interested in selling mine?”
The gallery owners’ standard reply is that they don’t want any more pictures ‘just like’ the ones they are selling, because, well, they already have the ones they are selling. The lesson is simple: if, for example, you see a gallery that has lots of highly-saturated seascapes on its walls, don’t approach them with a selection of highly-saturated seascapes. Try monochrome prints, or rural scenes or architectural subjects – anything different. It sounds obvious, but it’s actually the complete opposite of what most people seem to do.
The same lesson can be applied to picture libraries. For example, Alamy definitely doesn’t need any more pictures of Durdle Door shot in golden light. Maybe they will accept your version of it, but it’s unlikely that picture buyers will see it among the other 3,649 (at the last count). However, it’s likely there are subjects they do need: do your research and find out what these are.
When it comes to editorial work, the old advice still holds true: learn to write. I can’t remember the last time I supplied a magazine with just pictures; a package of words and pictures is so much more attractive to an editor. And don’t assume that because you got an A* in GCSE English or you had to write essays at university, you will therefore be able to write good magazine articles. Writing, just like photography, is a real skill – and a reasonable person wouldn’t expect to pick up their first DLSR and immediately begin to start shooting pictures of a professional standard.
Like photography, though, it’s a learnable skill, so approach learning it in the same way that you would learn photography: practise, ask for feedback, read books about it, follow a course. Only when you feel confident about your ability should you approach editors. If an editor finds that he/she needs to substantially re-write your first article, it’s less likely that a second will be commissioned.
Finally, I need to point out that you are highly unlikely to become a landscape photographer by becoming an assistant – there is really no such thing in landscape photography, as they are not necessary. We don’t have that much kit to carry and there are no complicated lighting set-ups that we need help with. Also, most of us became landscape photographers because we enjoyed being out in the middle of nowhere by ourselves and most of the time would prefer not have the company. And, to be frank, for most landscape photographers the thought of mentoring a potential competitor in a very cut-throat business doesn’t make much sense – you will need to strike out on your own.
So, if you have been thinking of turning pro and all this hasn’t put you off, try to think as creatively in business as you do with your photography – and the best of luck!