with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

How to Succeed in the Business of Nature Photography

Making $$ Doing What Comes Nature-ly?

Duane Hansen takes aim. Photo by Brent VanFossenYou’ve spent a lot of money on equipment, classes, trips, film and processing. This hobby should start paying you back, right? Thinking about turning your hobby of photography into a business?

The photography business is just like any other business – it’s a real business. You need to get a business license, pay taxes, set up an accounting system, monitor inventory, advertise, solicit, and spend a lot of time in the office.

Reports from professional photographers say from 70% to as much as 95% of their time is spent doing the book work and office work and not out taking pictures, the real reason they got into photography in the first place.
Source: International Media Photographers Association

Turning professional, you are entering a highly competitive field. It is a complex and diverse marketplace. Your competition will run the gamut from the occasional seller and hobbiest to huge corporate publishing houses. You have your choice of specializing or not. You can sell your work to anyone who wants it, or specialize in selling only editorial or print work. You can Outdoor and Nature Photography Magazine, Fall 1996, article about advice for the traveling photographer by Lorelle and Brent VanFossendiversify your clients to include the whole commercial advertising market or narrow them down to only the note card and stationery market. There are so many ways photography is used in business. Ever consider having one of your images on a coffee mug? On a watch face? What about on the tail of an airplane?

Income and asking prices vary depending upon the market. A sale to a magazine may not earn you as much as a sale to an ad agency, but 100 sales to a magazine over a year can earn you more. If you make your own note cards, you are responsible for all the costs. People have a hard time understanding why you charge them $5.50 for a note card similar to the one they can buy down the street for only $2.50. The only difference is that it’s your photo on the card. Making money comes from creative marketing, but it also comes from a lot of research and planning.

This is only a warning, not a discouragement. If you choose this business, be prepared to work long hours and to work hard. Taking pictures is the smallest part of it. Study and choose your market(s) carefully. The Photographer’s Market published by Writer’s Digest is the main source for marketplaces. They list everything from stationery houses to galleries. Follow their guidelines and you get a jump on the uninitiated.

If you want to become more professional about what you are doing and to prepare yourself for the day when you might want to sell your work, the following are some tips and guidelines to get and keep yourself going. Go for it!

Get off your duff!
In order to do anything you must do something. In order to get something done you must do it. Talk is cheap. Get moving. Now. It’s that simple.
Educate yourself!
In order to do the business you’ve got to know the business. Read books, attend educational programs and workshops, talk to the pros, visit stock agencies, and join organizations focused on photography, business and networking. Try everything you learn at least twice. Everyone has their own style in business as well as art. Find what works for you. Trial and error is the best teacher. Do try to learn from those who already made the big mistakes, then go out and make some new ones of your own.
Read Everything!
Ramona identifies the wildflowers in Texas from a guide book, photo by daughter, Lorelle VanFossenEverything, everything, everything. Read junk mail, books, newspapers, flyers, posters, magazines, everything. If it comes near you, read it and learn from it. The key word is “read” not just look – absorb. Study how photographs are used in different mediums. Newspapers handle photographic images differently than a slick magazine. One travel magazine may want sweeping scenics and another may want close up details and vignettes. Some only include photos with people in them. How are the photographs used? Do they tell a story, add to the work, or are they just artwork? Is the whole image used or only part? Do they write over the image? Study everything to learn how to photograph your work for use in a variety of ways.
Ready, aim…
Bull's eye targetWhat do you want to photograph? Where do you want to photograph? How do you want to photograph? Who will buy your work? Where are they? How much are they willing to pay? Learn what your market place is and who the competition is. Study how they work. What will your market hold? Are you one in ten thousand or one in ten? When looking for your niche, don’t be afraid to be as specific or as versatile as you want. Some photographers will work in every market from high school portraits to wild birds, and others only photograph food and nothing else. Find your place, research its needs and go after it like an arrow to the target, be it travel, scenics, fine art, wildlife, education, cauliflower, or whatever.
Hire yourself.
When you are not working on a project, it’s easy to get lazy, to go with the muse. Set up a schedule and hire yourself to do self-assignments. This keeps the “juices flowing”. These self-assignments can be great additions to your portfolio and the self imposed risks may stretch your abilities. Don’t let yourself get lazy. Go through your work and find what is missing. Where are there holes? Practice becoming an art director, producer and assistant all in one, and then become a photo buyer, editor and critic.

Think Digital
While digital technology for the nature photographer is still not quite up to snuff, it is here to stay and needs to be considered. While developing your business, carefully watch the marketplace. Talk to other experts in your field to see what they are using. Scanning with a top quality scanner from an original slide is still the best way to go, so keep using traditional slide film. But watch the market and what the buyers are buying. animated graphic of a spinning CD-ROM Move slowly into the technology so you aren’t locked into something that will become obsolete or lack the professional quality standard you require.
Get Help!
Outdoor and Nature Photography Magazine sampleHelp comes from two sources: mentoring and hiring. Study from the best and then get someone to help you get your business together and keep it running. Your job is to take pictures, but when turning your hobby into a business, your job description now includes cataloging, numbering, editing, marketing and sales, promotions, advertising, faxes, computers, answering machines, long distance telephone calls, meetings, presentations…..do you really want to do all that? Get some help. Get your family to pitch in. Get assistants to help with your work. Get a good tax accountant. Get a good copyright/arts-oriented attorney. Get a good business consultant. Hire a secretary/assistant to do the paperwork and make the phone calls. The money is in the images and if your time is spent on paperwork and not images, you have fewer images to market. Getting help could be well worth it in the long run.
Work with, not against.
This is similar to getting help. When you do get a publisher, editor, agent or agency to work with – work WITH them. Find out their needs and work your hardest to help them sell your work. Really communicate with them. Be open to their needs and problems and they will return the favor. Be reliable and dependable. When they ask, deliver. Be firm but flexible. Be honest and up-front about what is going on and they will too. You have to work together. You are both dependent on the other for your livelihood.

Books by well-known nature photographers.If you are the only one with pictures of two-headed llamas, the industry will come to you for two headed llamas. But ask yourself “How many articles and stories and images of two-headed llamas can be sold?” Answer: not many. It is the law of supply and demand, but specialization can hurt you too. One photographer specializes in night photography, specifically stars and constellations in the night sky. The process of photographing these images is complex so there are few images available. The market for star images is vast: patterns, backgrounds, posters, text books, advertising, movie back drops, teaching, the list goes on. As one of the select few to create these images, and considering the time, money and energy that goes into producing them, this photographer can charge a lot of money. One image brought him $500 to $5,000 for single use depending upon the use. In his specialty, he can live off of fewer sales a year. Other photographers must sell hundreds of images a year to get by. It can pay to specialize. Remember, being the best at one thing can put you ahead of the game with a lot of photographers who are good at one hundred things.

Get Vertical
One of the loudest cries from the market place is for more verticals. Magazine covers and pages are vertical, books are vertical, much of the printed work today demands vertical images. Want to sell more work to stock agencies and the printing market? Get vertical.
No FX.
The term FX is movie industry slang for special effects. Special effects are great and have a place. They can also kill an image quicker than anything. Art directors and photo buyers can spot a filtered image immediately. Rainbow filters, green, red, yellow, cross-star filters, are all noticeable to the pros in the industry. Sometimes special effect filters can work, but anything done too much is too much. Be careful.
Warm Stuff Sells.
Warm colors outsell everything else in advertising and color editorial. Warm reds, oranges, pinks, sunset or morning light, all sell remarkably well. The best images are those which use the light naturally, but warming filters come in handy when nature is not cooperating. The filter most used to warm an image is the 81B. Recently, colder looking images featuring cool pastel tones have become very popular, especially for the market displaying home and food products. Note color tones and quality as you research and know what color tones your market demands.

Slide on in to first base!
A check for an article is always welcomeSlide Film. Use it. It is as simple as that. People are always asking what kind of film is the best. There is only one answer for most freelance editorial, commercial, and stock photographers: slide film. While digital cameras are slowly making their way into the commercial market, most photo editors and art directors want control over the end product and this means controlling the scanning process as well. Transparencies (slides) give them the best quality material to work from. While the market still requires slides, we will deliver them. If no one is buying apples, the apple grower needs to change to oranges. So will the photography industry shift with the trends.
The cost of reproducing your slide images can be expensive. Known as duping, duplicates, reproductions, or simply a “dupe”, many pros have learned to make their duplicates when they take the picture. When working with a still subject, fire off three to ten “copies” in a row – all perfect exposure of course. The estimated cost difference is from $0.25 each in-camera duplication to a starting fee of $1 and going up for a commercial dupe. For protecting precious originals and having more images to market, duping is the safest way to go.
Bigger Sells.
In an industry inundated with 35mm format, larger format (120, 4×5, 8×10…) images are specialty items. They stand out from among the rest. The clients can “see” the image better. If your competition is using 4×5, and you shoot 8×10, your odds of a sale may improve drastically. Bigger sells more, if all other elements are equal. Times are a’changing and with today’s computer technology, scanning a 35mm slide is faster than scanning a medium or large format transparency. Scanning equipment is set up for 35mm and is more readily available and less costly. Chose a format that will work within the publishing industry’s needs – or just stand out from the crowd in your own style.

Go somewhere
See everything and everywhere. Open your mind up to the possibilities the world can present. Get out and get off your duff! If you are not out there, you are not photographing it.
People, People Who Need People Are Indeed the Luckiest People.
Photographers who include people in their images often have better sales than those who don’t. Images with people in them draw the viewer into the image. It can also open the door for many different markets such as advertising, textbooks, magazines, newspapers and more. Images of people doing things, recreation things, working things; all are needed throughout the industry.
Release Yourself.
Keep yourself safe from lawsuit and keep your images salable – get model releases and property releases for everything, every time, everyone and in every way. As much fuss as this may seem, it will save you time and trouble in the future, present a professional image, and allow your images to be sold to everyone and anyone, everywhere. In one famous case, the photographer was asked to provide model releases for a photograph of a crowd in the stands of a football game, one release for everyone in the audience. He replied no and lost the sale. Even in foreign countries. The United States “Lawsuit Industry” is setting standards throughout the rest of the world on privacy and rights issues.
Protect your work.
Copyright your work. Protect your rights, protect your work. When you sign over images to a stock agency or client, know what your rights are now and in the future. Keep an eye out for illegal usage of your work and take action when you find it. Contact an attorney familiar with copyrights or the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington D.C. Protect your rights and protect your work.
Present only beauty.
Outdoor and Nature Photography Magazine article about professional tips for photographing wildlife by Lorelle and Brent VanFossenWhen your images are your career, they are your reputation. Present them in a sloppy way and your work is perceived as such. Image and presentation are everything. Have all your slides neatly and correctly captioned, labeled, properly mounted, and clean. All paperwork must look professional and neat. Get professional assistance in logo designs, letterhead and business cards. Look professional, be professional, and be treated as professional. There are no exceptions to this.
Be You.
Don’t try to be Art Wolfe, Pat O’Hara, David Muench, Diane Arbus, John Shaw or Robert Mapplethorpe. Follow their guidelines, learn from them, study their work, but avoid imitation. All it does is flatter them. Create your own style by being you and trusting your natural instincts and abilities. You will only be true to yourself when all is said and done. Don’t be true to the you who is trying to be someone else. Your work will reflect it. No one wants to buy a David Muench done by someone else. Be you.


  • Posted August 21, 2006 at 23:41 | Permalink

    Thanks Lorelle. This is a great resource for photographers.

    I do a lot of photography as part of my business. If you can point me to any resources on the business management side of photography (how to maximise efficiency with book and office work), that would be greatly appreciated.

  • Posted August 22, 2006 at 7:49 | Permalink

    Reality is that no matter what you do, it feels like the business of nature photography is 80 percent office work and 20 percent photography. Honestly.

    Go through the other articles in our Business of Nature Photography category, and check for the many business books we’ve listed in our Recommended Books section for books on the business of photography and nature photography. I highly recommend the book by John Shaw’s Business of Nature Photography.

    The only way you can maximize an efficient office is to hire someone else to do it. There are ways to streamline, but without you marking the photographs, meeting and greeting, sending out the photographs, receiving the photographs sent back, and keeping on top of all the new industry and business changes, you have a hobby not a business.

    I recommend two things to all my photography students. First, get a degree in business. Second, don’t give up your day job. The very last thing I recommend to my photography students is to take a photography class. IF they are serious about going into the business of photography.

    Business, marketing, advertising, and financial acuity is more critical to your success in photography than your exposure and depth of field skills. Photography is the least of the things you need to learn.

    Good luck!

  • Posted October 14, 2006 at 23:28 | Permalink

    I am at the point of needing to have someone print my photographic note cards and market them. I want them done on a larger scale, etc. Any ideas for taking my business to the next level? I am not a professional photographer, just an amateur who loves photographing nature (florals).


  • Posted October 15, 2006 at 8:07 | Permalink

    What this really means is that you are at the point of being a professional photographer in denial. ;-) The moment you sell more than 5 photographic items within one year, you are a professional photographer. That’s what an old photo teacher once told me.

    I’ve also learned the hard way that if you still want to call yourself an amateur after that point, you need to either stop selling your images and just concentrate on the fun of photograph for photography’s sake and sharing with friends and family, or take business classes and get on with the business of photography.

    The moment you start selling your images past the arbitrary 5 photos/year or whatever point, you will spend more time in the office than in the field. Running a photography business, whatever it looks like, is costly and time consuming. Instead of setting a schedule around photography, you will be setting a schedule around the business, with photography on the side.

    As for having someone print your note cards, you need to interview and test a variety of printers, locally, nationally, or internationally, depending upon the quantity and quality. You need to research the market and make sure your images will sell, where they will sell, who will buy, and who will sell them. You need to make up promotional and marketing materials, website, and all the advertising to get the cards promoted and sold. You need to establish distribution routes and processes. You must research your competition and find ways of making your product better than theirs in order to compete. You need to estimate annual sales including seasonal variations and flows. There is inventory management, packaging, accounting…

    In other words, if you are basing your “point of need to expand” on sales to friends and the cost of printer ink, take some business courses from your local Small Business Administration offices, senior center, business school, college, or whatever to get an understanding of how business works, how to report and monitor income (especially taxes as you will now be dealing with wholesale and retail taxes as well as out of state taxes possibly), marketing, advertising, and setting up a business BEFORE you take the next step.

    It doesn’t matter if you want to print 100 cards instead of 25, or sell only to neighborhood gift shops. Business is business no matter the size.

    To get to the next level, stop calling yourself an amateur. Start acting and behaving on a professional level, and take business classes. And spend less time photographing. That’s what has to happen. The note card and stationery market is VERY competitive, so study it thoroughly. And let me know what you decide to do.

  • Anonymous
    Posted February 3, 2008 at 19:17 | Permalink

    Yo u should be able to copy pictures for school homework

  • Posted February 4, 2008 at 16:43 | Permalink

    You can if you ask first. :D

  • Posted October 25, 2008 at 12:27 | Permalink

    Hey, Lorelle! Watching you on stage at PodCamp Hawaii! What do you think about Creative Commons?

One Trackback

  • […] An article I’d sold repeatedly under various titles was basically titled “Tips On How to Succeed in the Business of Nature Photography”. She came up with “Making $$ Doing What Comes Nature-ly?” It was brilliant. Creative. Eye catching, and a perfect description – if you were reading it in a magazine. Search engines and searchers ignored it. […]

Post a Comment

Your email is kept private. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.