with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Letter to Those Desiring a Career in Nature and Travel Photography

Brent VanFossen balances his long camera lens on roof of car while photographing big game animals from the road. Photography Lorelle VanFossen.

On a regular basis I get emails and comments from students attracted to the photography bug. To them, photography represents the exotic, exciting, and adventurous. While there are some aspects that involve travel, adventure, and excitement, for the most part photography as a hobby is fun. Photography as a business is hard work and boring.

A couple years ago I created the following form letter in response to the quantity of requests for advice and help with a photography career in travel and nature. I’m updating it but I thought you might enjoy the older version for posterity.

Brent VanFossen balances his long camera lens on roof of car while photographing big game animals from the road. Photography Lorelle VanFossen.Dreams of a nature and travel photography career is a good dream, but one that requires an education first.

I know I sound old, but I wish I’d had the photography, art, and business training I needed before I first hit the road with my camera. Traveling costs money, but it also presents a lot of opportunities I could have turned into income which would have allowed me to spend more time exploring and expanding my art and skills rather than taking any job I could to pay for the next trip. No matter how you look at it, photography is expensive.

School is boring. Go Anyway.

School really doesn’t teach you what you need to know to succeed in life. Still, you have to have the piece of paper that says, “This is proof I know how to complete things. I know how to suffer and make it through it.” There is no photography career you can take on without that piece of paper if you wish to do more than run your own business. Even then, a fine art or graphic arts degree is a minimum. A business degree is a requirement.

Lorelle sites in the grasses as spotter for eagles, British Columbia, Canada.

I recommend that you triple your educational activities outside of the traditional classroom. Honestly. Do not play all the time, throw away the television, and sign up for every class you can at the local college or training schools or wherever on photography, art, business, public relations, contracts, negotiation, sales training, advertising – take any class you can. All will apply to a photography career. Go to school until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, then head right out for one to two classes a night elsewhere. Learn to manage your time. Learn everything. Learn how to take notes and how to flex your memory so you don’t have to take notes. Ace everything.

If you spend two to four years immersed in classes and education, you will emerge ready for the next 50 years of a photography career. If you do not, you will spend more time learning and studying, losing deals rather than winning them, than out and about with the camera.

Make a plan

Photography is not about the camera. It’s not about taking the pictures. It’s about selling them.

It’s about understanding the marketplace and trends to be taking the pictures you can sell three years before the style is in fashion because you were paying attention with how the market was moving and there, before everyone else, to respond to the shifts in the purchasing power. It’s about negotiating business contracts for publishing books, videos, CDs, from simply selling an image then leveraging it to sell it again and again. It’s about know how to negotiate with an airline company that wants to put your photograph on the tail of several of their airplanes. It’s about negotiating with a movie company that wants to use your image on their marketing and promotional campaign.

Duane Hansen hides in camo in the trees behind his camera.It’s about learning how accounting works and how the tax system works in your country and outside. Because I travel and work all over the world, I have to know what the tax rules and laws are in the various states within the United States (income tax, no income tax, sales tax, no sales tax, property tax, earned income taxes, investment taxes – will they tax money I earn outside of the state or only within the state) as well as the tax rules for living outside of the country and how to pay taxes on money earned outside and within…and the list is long.

I’ve never been good with basic numbers, even though I can program a spreadsheet, database, or computer. I had to take a lot of classes later in life to figure out how to estimate jobs for photo assignments and work with the stock photography industry. Do you know how to write a release form and ask for someone to sign it before you photograph them or their property? Do you know the laws pertaining to the photography of public areas, public parks, national parks, and private property? Do you know how to determine value for insurance when traveling with the camera gear, and deal with insurance companies after losing or having the gear stolen? When I work with big companies or magazines on photo projects, they use a language all of their own. I had to learn all that.

Traveling is fun. Travel and Learn to Travel at Home.

Taking pictures is fun. Selling and making a living to pay for the travel and the gear sucks. If you don’t know how to do that, the traveling sucks and the taking pictures just gets you pictures – pictures that you can’t show to anyone because no one cares or wants them. Any twit with a cell phone now has a camera and they are more interested in their pictures than yours.

Travel far but learn to travel near. What you call home, a familiar community, it boring to you. What you call boring is exotic to others.

If you live in Hawaii, you may take it for granted. For those that don’t live in Hawaii, it is a far away place of mystery and fantasy.

What is special about where you live? Pretend to be a tourist and treat your community like a tourist haven, somewhere exotic that people would flock to see. Identify the unique qualities and photograph it as if you were photographing for National Geographic, Traveler, or any travel and nature magazine or website you respect.

Travel, even in your own neighborhood, teaches you how to see things as someone else sees. It teaches you how to frame, plan, and capture images that define a location, a community, a people.

Set Goals and Self-Assignments. Practice Gets You to Carnegie Hall.

Set self-assignments. Set personal and professional goals. Make a plan for pushing your craft to its limits.

Photograph subjects you would not normally choose to capture. If you are interested in only nature photography, spend time aiming your camera at man-made objects and find your art in them. If you are a people photographer, push yourself to photograph inanimate objects and nature.

Get out a calendar and set deadlines for yourself. Places, subjects, people, whatever it takes to push your art beyond its current state.

If you are not pushing your abilities, you are staying static, keeping your expertise at a level that anyone can achieve. Go deeper and further with each task, honing your skills and strengthening your art form.

If I Could Do It All Over Again…

If I could do it all over again, that is what I would do. I would immerse myself in 4-6 years of fine arts, graphic arts, business, advertising, marketing, and entrepreneurial classes. I’ve got the business degree, but it isn’t enough. I was working while going to school and my mind wasn’t in the game as much as it should have been. Learn from me.

Duane Hansen in the mud photographing tulips closeup, Skagit Valley, Washington.I’ve learned from the best in the business that they stayed in school and went to night school to get the training they really needed because they sat down at 16 years old and made a plan for their lives. They went where serendipity took them, but only because they had the training and education to recognize an opportunity when it stood in their face and followed their heart along with the money trail.

That’s my little bit of advice. Over the years, thousands of people have taken my classes and workshops. They have talked to me about how they gave up school and everything to hit the road and photograph. Some worked for 30 or 40 years then gave up everything for photography. Either way, without a plan, without the education to make it happen, they wasted years of their lives flailing around. They are not photographers but wannabes. They are mechanics, doctors, lawyers, dentists, writers, hair stylists, and whatever job they fell into, not photographers. They didn’t take the time nor had the plan to learn what it takes to be a photographer. Art Wolfe did. Galen Rowell did. George Lepp did. Frans Lanting did. Look at the ones with dozens of books and you will find someone who made a plan and learned what it took to implement that plan, and grabbed the best opportunities (not the loser opportunities) because they knew what they wanted. They have the papers that say “I know how to complete things.”

Good luck and know that EVERYONE feels the same as you at your age. If we didn’t, the world would be broken. It’s natural.


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