‘Going Pro’: Is Landscape Photography Your Calling?

April 27th, 2017 by Erin Babnik

 

Castles in the Air

Anyone who develops an intense passion for landscape photography is likely to ponder its potential as a career choice. These thoughts may pass quickly for people who have ample time and money to satisfy their photography cravings. Others will feel a nagging desire to make an expensive, time-consuming hobby pay for itself and will at least dabble in options for producing some side income from it. For a smaller percentage of enthusiasts, however, photographing nature develops into something much deeper than a part-time interest; it becomes a calling, a lifestyle, and a basis for self-identity. A person in the latter situation is likely to give some serious consideration to the idea of making landscape photography their full-time profession. If the siren song of life as a landscape photographer is luring you into deeper waters, then the following realities of the profession may help you to decide whether or not to heed the call.

THE LIFESTYLE

Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll

As often as people jokingly refer to prominent landscape photographers as “rock stars”, the reality is rather sobering. Most professional landscape photographers are self-employed, and like proprietors of any other small businesses, we tend to devote most of our time to our work. Having a strong work ethic and a high tolerance for austerity are crucial to building and sustaining a business, especially in the early years.

Of course it helps that some of this work is a labor of love, but much of it is quite mundane. Depending on the business model that you follow, tedious paperwork may be necessary for insurance purposes, for permits, for exhibition space, for all sorts of contracts, or for certifications, just to name a few of the more common necessities. In the United States, having to establish your business as an LLC or S-Corp means an extra level of complication at tax time each year, and the annual bookkeeping is no party either. Besides the demands of business compliance, a whole plethora of routine tasks requires attention on a regular basis. Email correspondence is particularly never-ending. I have heard more than a few professional landscape photographers refer to themselves as “professional emailers” because keeping up with email and various types of electronic messages is such an ongoing commitment. Similarly, the maintenance of social media accounts can be a career in itself, and website development and maintenance is another area of activity that can easily consume many precious hours.

And what happens after you do get to enjoy some quality time in the field? The actual photography also creates more work down the line. Developing, cataloguing, backing up files, and keywording all have the potential to draw you into a black hole of busy work. Being out in the field regularly also means using your camera gear more often, and heavy professional use tends to necessitate frequent maintenance of that gear and of the peripheral equipment and vehicles associated with outdoor activities.

Indeed, the life of a professional landscape photographer is not nearly as glamorous as the most obvious features of the occupation might suggest. A large array of responsibilities are involved that can cause the profession to feel a lot like a traditional desk job at times. Nonetheless, the actual photography is enjoyable enough to make it all worthwhile for the right kind of person. It is an incredible feeling to stand behind a tripod in a majestic location and to have the thought occur that “This is my job!”

Photography Business Paperwork

A professional landscape photographer has all of the responsibilities of a business owner in any field, and those include a wide range of office tasks.

 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Travel is another facet of the career that many aspiring professionals may underestimate and misunderstand. A rare subset of full-time landscape photographers are able to restrict their activities to local areas, but most spend a significant amount of time traveling far and wide. My own travels take me away from home for about 300 days each year, an amount that is probably well above average but that is not highly unusual. Contrary to common assumptions, this travel is not entirely dedicated to creating new photographs for my portfolio. I travel to teach, to give talks, to meet with partners, sponsors, or other business owners, and to attend conferences and expos, among other purposes. Purely personal travel aimed at pursuing my art is something that I crave as much now as I did before I went full-time with my photography. If you think that a career in landscape photography will give you more opportunities to travel freely, then you could be right, but those opportunities may still be fewer than what you would like. I know many amateurs and part-time professionals who are able to devote more time to personal travel than is the case for most full-time landscape photographers.

Regardless of why a photographer might end up traveling, a lot of time away from home complicates many aspects of daily life, especially those involving communication. These complications include being without phone or data signals, dealing with time zone differences, and not receiving mail or packages easily. It can be very difficult to reply to messages, to return calls, or to keep in touch with friends and family. If you are not able to travel with the people who are closest to you, then you may have to accept that communication with them is likely to be very limited.

Of course frequent travel does have its benefits. Life on the move tends to be exciting, especially for anyone who enjoys a frequent change of scenery and is invigorated by cultural variety and by meeting interesting people. If you ‘travel well’ and can tolerate a certain amount of discomfort and inconvenience, then life on the move can be a wonderful existence. Even if it is often exhausting, a life full of travel is a life full of living.

Tent Office

The common romantic notion of the mobile office holds true for about five minutes when you really need to get some work done. It quickly becomes annoying not to have basic conveniences such as electricity and data connections when important projects are involved.

 

Long Exposure

Anyone who takes a keen interest in nature photography probably enjoys being outdoors, but working professionally can require an especially intense level of outdoor activity. For example, on a recent run of five workshops in the desert, I spent 28 nights sleeping in a tent over a six-week period, and the quality of sleep was often quite poor due to extreme temperatures and high winds. While teaching workshops in the mountains I do a lot of hiking and backpacking, so much that I have permanent marks on my hips from the waist belts on my backpacks. My knees have seen happier days, and one of my ankles frequently reminds me of the time that I broke it when I fell into a snowy terrain trap. Frequent exposure to the sun and to the elements means dealing with a whole variety of skin issues, from dry skin to sunspots and the related risk of skin cancer. Alas, spending a large amount of time outdoors does come with some consequences, any one of which could be particularly serious for a person with relevant health issues.

On the other hand, a life lived outdoors also brings some substantial health benefits. It is a great feeling to be very physically fit due to continual outdoor activity, and breathing fresh air on a regular basis is an additional boon to overall good health. Even frequent exposure to sunlight has its advantages, causing positive psychological effects that can improve a person’s mental health quite noticeably.

Erin Babnik Shooting Dunes

Outdoor activity on a very regular basis eventually takes a toll on the body, but it comes with great health benefits as well, including physical fitness and psychological well-being.

 

Shooting Wide Open

If you are the type of person who prefers to maintain a low profile, then a career as a landscape photographer will present some special challenges. As an artist in any medium, your name is inextricably linked to your business, meaning that anonymity will tend to hinder your success. The more willing you are to ‘put yourself out there’, the easier it will be for you to sustain yourself with your art. This openness may mean agreeing to do interviews, to do some public speaking, to network with industry professionals, to cooperate with brands, to make appearances at gallery openings and art shows, to write a blog, to correspond with fans, or to be engaged on social media. If you can embrace the idea of being open to the photography world and its appreciators, then life as a professional will be easier for you.

Erin Babnik Talk

Being open to the photography world and its appreciators means living a more public life than most people do, so it will help a lot if you are not very concerned about maintaining a low profile.

 

THE ART

Balancing creative interests with the need to survive is the classic dilemma of the professional artist. No matter how you bring in your photography income, you will always reach a point where you know that some amount of creative compromise could have the potential to improve your financial results. Even if you maintain the highest level of integrity in privileging your own creative interests, you may still feel uneasy about it, especially if other people depend upon your income to some extent. Moreover, you will sometimes encounter the not uncommon notion that professional artists are ‘in it for the money’ or are otherwise ignoble, an idea rooted in antiquity, when the art forms with the highest status were those that required the least amount of labor. Having the ability to tune out such distractions is essential to staying focused on your art and to enjoying a career as a landscape photographer.

Erin Babnik Framed Print

Being a professional artist does not mean that you have to make compromises with your art in the least, but you can count on the tensions associated with this issue weighing on you at some point—and probably at many points throughout your career.

 

THE MONEY

While there will always be exceptions that prove the rule, in general, a hardworking landscape photographer can expect to make a middle-class income. Many aspiring professionals wonder how to achieve even that level of sustenance, and the best advice that I can offer is to evaluate the full range of options for putting a strong photography portfolio to work for you. The classic idea of photos as commodities that can sell as prints or as licensed images is only one possibility. A compelling body of work can also attract other photographers who would like to learn from you, so photography education can be a good option for anyone who has the inclination and aptitude for teaching the techniques, craft, history, and ideas that can help other photographers to advance their art. Other options include writing books, writing for magazines, creating videos, monetizing social media accounts, or accepting support from sponsors. If you can create a special body of work, then you can probably find a way to make it bring in a reasonable annual income, provided that you are willing to put in the effort and to make the necessary sacrifices that might affect your lifestyle.

Erin Babnik Teaching Workshop

There are many business models that a landscape photographer can follow aside from the traditional ones regarding print sales and image licensing.

 

THE REWARDS

Despite the many drawbacks that I’ve mentioned above, I awake each morning excited to get out of bed (or out of my sleeping bag) and get to work. A lot of what is required can be onerous at times, but it nonetheless results in a special feeling of satisfaction that my efforts are all supporting my art and my greatest ambitions. Just as rewarding is the great pleasure that comes from teaching and sharing my passion with people who are so happy to indulge in it themselves. It is truly wonderful to see the light that seems to switch on inside of a person when they learn something new, when inspiration sets a fire within them, and when saying goodbye, they offer a hand or a hug and their eyes sparkle with sincere gratitude or camaraderie. It is a great privilege to meet so many interesting and inspiring people each year and to feel as though we are jointly contributing in some way to one of humankind’s greatest collaborative projects, the ongoing exchange of ideas that is art.

Of course most of these rewards can come without any amount of professional activity, but a life dedicated to their realization is likely to bring them more often and at higher levels. If you feel fueled by such motivations and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, then life as a professional landscape photographer may be the right path for you.

Which features of the profession do you see as the most challenging or rewarding? Do you have any questions about professional landscape photography that I haven’t addressed in this article? Please feel free to comment below!

ErinBabnikWebLogoWhiteText

Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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  • Matt Aden

    Thank you for sharing this! You hit on so many topics in your article that I never would have considered. I, like many, started out for the love of the art which evolved into a small business and untimely led me to the place I am now…. Do I “Go Pro’? While I know your intentions aren’t to deter folks like me, your article really does make me second guess the notion. I have a great job that I am able to walk away from each day at 3pm to go pursue my passions, one of my favorite being relaxing. I’ll take some time to let this article really sink in. I applaud you for not only your portfolio but also your drive as a thriving business woman.

    Matt Aden
    500px.com/mattaden

  • Haha! “…I have permanent marks on my hips from the waist belts on my backpacks.” 😀

    Those dark, purple ovals are the birthmarks of a modern life in the outdoors. There’s a third mark at lower back bone which suffers from the same amount of abbrasion. The way you soberingly describe the business without deterring people from the art, fun and proximity to the natural world is entoxicating, Erin.

    About your question. The most challenging is without a doubt the balancing act of being intensely connected versus the simplicity of camping or backcountry exploration. Maintaining social media responsiveness and scheduling can be a full-time job in itself, like you described. But it’s nothing compared to wildlife encounters, sleeping under the stars and the realization that at home, comfort isn’t about anything the consumer society throws at us. It’s about a shower, sitting and a place to sleep that doesn’t have to be set-up and broken down every day.

    • Daniel, thanks so much for your kind words and thoughtful comment! Yep, dark purple ovals…so it goes! I love how well you just put life outdoors into perspective with that last paragraph. Indeed, comfort becomes pretty basic when you’re out camping, and the simplicity of it all does contrast starkly (and sometimes frustratingly) with the demands of modern enterprise.

  • Tom Herriman

    Erin,
    This is great information that should be considered by anyone considering a self employed career or a potential entrepreneurial change of careers.
    Confucius’ concept; “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” is far more complex and difficult than it seems. Especially in a legalized global economy.

    You obviously love your job.

    • Hi Tom. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the article. And yeah, you’ve seen firsthand just how much I love my job. 🙂

  • Brad Mangas

    There has been a plethora of unknown people pop up over the last 5 or so years that are considering themselves “professional” photographers. For the most part they are completely unknown and somehow have simply dropped into society and are now trying their best make a name for themselves “after” the fact of becoming so called “professional” photographers. Photographic artists have been replaced by workshop leaders and marketers. We seem to no longer rely on craft or artistic abilities, but rather locations and technical knowledge. Everyone wants the next “great shot”. I am not sure this is good for photography in general. This whole approach seems backwards.

    • Hi Brad. I certainly do know some people who ‘hung out a shingle’ within a very short time of taking up photography, including some who went the route of teaching workshops. Those who lack true “craft and artistic abilities” as you said don’t get very far, however. It just doesn’t work that way. No amount of marketing can make up for a portfolio that does not inspire students to sign up for a workshop. The only possible exception would be those photographers who market themselves as guides rather than as educators, in which case clients simply evaluate location knowledge in deciding if a ‘tour’ is right for them.

  • Erin this is a fantastic piece of writing that you’ve put together here. This hits home even harder now as more and more people are seeing Instagram feeds from the top photographers and thinking that it’s all so glamorous and easy. However, when the reality sets in you’re spending around 10% of your time (if you’re lucky) and the remaining 90% of your time operating a business.

    But, like you say it’s a hell of a lot better waking up with a smile on your dial and leaping out of bed to do something you love. Working in a field you love is the key to a long happy life. Happiness is priceless!

    All the best!

    • What a great comment, Ben. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it! And thanks also for your kind words. I’ve been happier than ever before in my life since I went full-time with my photography. The lows can get pretty low sometimes, but on the whole, it’s all completely worthwhile to me.

  • James McGrew

    Many thanks for your sterling piece of writing here. I have come to the conclusion that I have no interest in spending hours online daily, as every successful professional I know does, cultivating potential clients/followers. I am searching for a couple of sales sites where the work does its own cultivating. I am thinking of 500PX and Alamy as perhaps the two places for someone like me to try. Do you think the whole idea of selling landscape photography without deep engagement with a potential audience is hopeless? Thanks…

    • Thanks so much, James! If you mean deep *online* engagement, then I would say that no, it’s not hopeless at all. Some landscape photographers concentrate on juried art fairs, galleries, writing books, etc. and do not need to cultivate any kind of online following to be successful with those endeavors. Even I manage to get by without investing a huge amount of effort into social media, but my writing does get around online quite a bit, and I do a fair amount of public speaking, so those outlets of ‘reach’ make up for the fact that I have only 29 photos on Instagram, that I post only sporadically to Facebook or Twitter, and that I haven’t posted to 500px in about a year.

      • Larry Clay

        I recently decided to try the juried art fair route. I am 68 and have never worked harder in my life! You are right that loving what you do makes all the difference. The getting up at 4 AM, not to go shoot, but to drive to the art fair and set up before 9, the heat, the cold, the wind that tries to take your tent and all of your precious prints to the next county. None of this overshadows the pride when strangers love your work or the thrill of a selling a piece of art you created .

        Thank you for a wonderful article.

        • Thanks for the comment, Larry. Yes, that’s a great feeling, probably made all the greater by dealing with those early drives to the fair and the prints taking off like Dorothy in her house. 🙂

  • Sam Hunsberger

    This is a really great article Erin. As an amateur photographer with a passion for landscapes it’s so interesting to get the behind the lens perspective from a pro like yourself. Leaving my 9-5 job and pursing my passion in photography is something that’s always in the back of my mind. I think about what it would take to become a pro myself most the time it feels like it’s a goal I don’t know how to reach or even what it would look like if I one day reached it. Reading this helps me prioritize the weight of those thoughts. Thanks for the post!!

    • Sam, it’s really gratifying to get a comment like yours. I’m so glad to hear that you found the article helpful because I know exactly how it is…I went through that same “what if” thought process for years myself. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

  • Hey Erin

    Thanks for this great article that gives really insight for people thinking about going pro. So many people say to me that it must be great taking photos all the time when the reality as you know is far from that. But it is all so worth it. For me, public speaking has always been my enemy but it’s something I knew I’d have to get over if I wanted to go further with my business and I feel a lot better about it now.

    Again, thanks for the honest article and keep on being you!

    • Thanks for chiming in, Anne. Yeah, I’ve had many photographer friends tell me that they would never feel comfortable doing any public speaking, and some won’t even do podcast interviews. I’m fortunate to find speaking very enjoyable (I was even a theatre major at one point), so I never had to get over any fear of it and can only imagine how difficult that must be. Congrats on making that progress!

  • Matt, thanks for taking the time to comment and for your kind words. I’m glad that you found the article helpful in thinking through your own situation. Best of luck with that decision…it’s a big one!

  • Armando Diaz

    Hi Erin!
    Thanks for this article, I saved it under my education folder XD. I also “liked” your page on FB. I think in my case, being confident with my abilities would be my biggest challenge, at this point. At least I can do the outdoors part happily… Is the 4th picture in this article related to the desert workshops you mentioned? Where was that? Just curious, I live in PR!

    • Hi Armando. Thanks for the FB page like! I’m also happy to hear that you liked the article enough to bookmark it. 🙂 Yes, that fourth photo of the article was taken during one of my desert workshops in Death Valley National Park. We had a lot of fun out on the dunes that day!

  • Randall J Hodges Photography

    Another fantastic article Erin. You summed it up quite well, as many only see the glamorous side of the art. After doing it full time for 16 years, I can still say it excites me every day. Speaking for myself only, I truly believe this was something I was born to do. I feel honored and privileged every day that I get to do it, as I know hundreds or thousands of very talented photographers that wish they could. but you are absolutely correct, there is so much more to it then just taking beautiful photographs, and it takes a certain kind of personality to accomplish it. As always, very inspired writing. Happy Shooting!

    • Hi Randall and thanks for your kind words. I think you’re onto something there with the feeling that landscape photography is simply your destiny…it certainly makes it easier to forge a difficult path when you’re not considering any alternatives.