with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Hire Yourself – Restarting Your Creativity and Motivation

The Peter Principle. Guerilla Marketing. The Glass Ceiling. The Corporate Ladder. In corporate business, these phrases describe the drive upwards through the hierarchy, achieving more and more success as you climb to the top. As a nature photographer and sole business owner, you are probably already at the top of your corporate ladder, but you may be at the bottom of your creativity and marketing potential. It is time to hire yourself and climb your own corporate ladder.

Whatever your speciality in photography is, think back to the time when you were learning something new every day, like learning to photograph. You might have started with a point-and-shoot camera and slowly grew into a more sophisticated camaera, but look back to the days when you unwrapped that first advanced camera. The camera was overwelming with all its buttons and bells and whistles. Over time you started associating the button’s actions with the end result. Then you started experimenting with “seeing” instead of button pushing as you’d twist yourself into strange shapes in order to “get the picture”. For a while you constantly pushed yourself and your camera out the door seeking the next photographic opportunity. How long has it been since anything got your camera out of the camera bag that wasn’t connected with a vacation?

By developing your own self-assignments, work you might be hired to do for someone else, you can push yourself to improve your photography as well as your work habits. What skills have gotten rusty and need some lubrication? What do you have to do to get excited about your photography again?

We’ve designated four areas in which you can “hire yourself” to motivate yourself and your photography to a higher standard and get out of your “rut”. These include developing your creative skills, honing your marketing and business abilities, and tackling a project to keep you “goal-oriented”. You can work on all four parts or you can just pick one. Either way, you will be moving forward and up.

We’ve broken up the different areas in which you can “hire yourself” into the following:


Thirty-six satisfactory exposures on a roll means a photographer is not trying anything new.
Freeman Patternson
A word of caution. Whenever you step out of your comfort zone and try something different, don’t expect the results to immediately be lovely and saleable. They might be terrible, as were your first photographs – remember them? They are hidden away in some old plastic photo album, right? Be willing to toss the images if they prove to be horrible, but work with the concepts for a while and you will improve, just as you did when you started. The idea is to push your comfort zone to a new level and that means experimenting and risk-taking. The end result is more important than the trials along the way.

The “comfort zone” is the path you walk in your life that keeps you “safe”. It is like your security zone. Stay within it and life is just “fine”. Move out of it and you are taking a risk. Imagine a road. You are walking down the middle. If you stray too far toward the shoulder, your heart starts beating a little faster and the adrenaline kicks in warning you to move back to the safe middle. Unfortunately, the middle of the road is BORING. Sometimes we just have to leave it, or at least widen it. Remember that when you leave your comfort zone, you will feel fear and life will present opportunities that will convince you to go back to your safe zone.

For instance, as soon as I started working on one of my books, after a year of planning for that time, and knowing how much fear I felt about the risk involved in doing something so different, the air conditioner over my desk started leaking on my head. Then a dear friend became seriously ill and I needed to be there to help her recover. Next, cockroaches moved into our kitchen and we had to yank everything out to find their source of entry, spraying chemicals everywhere. Then I caught a cold. Everything and anything was popping up in my way to stop me from taking my writing risk. I had to buckle down and work under a plastic tarp to direct the water into a bucket, let my husband deal with the roaches, and slowly let my friend learn to fend for herself. I slept for two days and called my cold a done deal and went back to work. I kept pushing towards the edge of the road while the universe wanted me to stay safe in the middle. In order to move your comfort zone to a higher level, you have to face your fears and push through them, shoving aside all the obstacles that keep you safe.

Keep a journal, a record of what you are doing and what you are learning as you go. These little lessons and insights will help you determine what aspects of your work you need to work on next, as well as help you measure the results.

Photography is based on creativity. Yet, after you’ve been doing it for a while, especially if you have turned your hobby into a business, it gets boring. So much time seems to be spent doing “other things” like paperwork, the effort to create new work seems like too much effort. You need to kick start your creative cycle, renewing your energy and motivation.

New Eye Level
When was the last time you looked at the world through a rain drop? Photo of flower through raindrop by Brent VanFossenTo “see the world from a child’s point of view”. Nice philosophy, but when was the last time you gave it a try? Pick a height and work for at least two hours photographing from that height with a wide-angle to moderate zoom lens. Do the trees and bushes look taller? Is the ground cover more interesting? We get so used to seeing things from our own height, we forget that the world looks different from higher or lower. Use up at least two rolls of film during this assignment and check out the results. Try it again in a few weeks at a different height and compare the results.
Lock Yourself in the Bathroom
Lock yourself in your bathroom for a minimum of one hour with at least three rolls of film. Now, photograph it. After you’ve spent the first 20 minutes photographing the faucet, tub, toilet, and sink, you’re going to be pretty bored. So you work with the mirror for a while. Then what? Open up the cupboards. Hmm, something interesting about the shiny reflections in the angles of the pipes? Or the colors and textures of the stacked towels? Or the bottles of shampoo and drain cleaner? Open yourself up to the possibilities. We’ve had some students spent several hours photographing their bathroom without even realizing the time had passed.
Only One Lens
Part of learning to use our equipment is understanding how it all works, but more importantly, how it “sees”. Take only one lens and spend a day or weekend working with only that one. Leave the rest at home so you won’t even be tempted to switch. Use at least two rolls of film. How does that lens see? How close can you get and still be in focus? How much of the scene does it include when set to infinity? If it is a zoom lens, photograph the same subject from different focal lengths. Watch how the background, foreground, and subject changes at each point. Try a variety of subjects to determine how the lens sees under different situations. Take notes of what you “see” through the viewfinder and compare these with the final results. Did your expectations match the final results?
Emulate Others
They say that copying others is a form of flattery, but it is also a method long used to develop creative talents. Painters copy the masters to learn how they did it, and so can you. Search through magazines and books to find a photographer whose work you admire. Thoroughly research their work and their efforts to create the images. How do they do it? What tools do they use? What makes their work distinctive? Make a list of what subjects and techniques they use. How does the photographer use the light? Do they tend to use wide angle lenses or long lenses, playing with perspectives? What do they see that you don’t? And how can you learn to see like they see and return similar results?
Treasure Hunt
Remember the treasure hunt games you played as a child? Create your own. Check stock lists or want lists of images available on the Internet. Or you can make your own list. Be as specific or vague as you want to be, and then set aside a day to find the items on your list. Be imaginative and take some risks. Don’t pick a familiar neighborhood or town to begin your hunt. Drive to a nearby community you are less familiar with. Open your eyes to the possibilities and try to get everything on your list.
Pick a Shape, Any Shape
The heart shape is filled out by the Northern Flicker in the burnt tree. Photo by Brent VanFossenNature is filled with geometric shapes. Pick a circle, square, hexagon, or triangle, whatever shape you want and go in search of it. Find as many examples of that shape as possible. Set a time limit or a film roll limit to push yourself to get as many examples as possible. This process will open your eyes up to seeing something new in familiar subjects.
Pick one subject
Similar to the bathroom exercise, pick one subject and photograph it using at least two rolls of film for a minimum of one hour. Make it a natural subject, preferably one that stands still for great lengths of time. Choose a tree, flower, bush, plant, log, slug, or spider’s web, something non-moving or slow moving. Photograph it from all angles and levels, from the front, back and side, and then from high and then from low. Try different lighting angles, then try backlighting and silhouette effects. Move your camera from horizontal to vertical, and maybe even at an angle. How many different ways can you photograph the same subject?
Read, Look, and Collect
There are thousands of books featuring every kind of photography out there from the erotic to the esoteric. Stop at a bookstore or peruse your own library. How are photographs used? How are they made? What subjects tend to attract your attention? Study the techniques. How is the light used? Is it artificial or natural? Time of the day? Where was the location? How did the location work into the subject matter? If the subject is an animal, is the background representative of the animal’s natural habitat? No? Then why was it used? Put yourself behind the camera to determine what lens, film, effects and techniques were used. Look for places you would like to go, places that seem to inspire you to take out the camera. Make a list. By studying what others are doing, you can improve your own techniques by constantly gathering information. Put this information into action by assigning yourself to either plan a visit to the location or create an opportunity to put into practice a technique you’ve studied.
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Attend a class or a course in photography or art. It doesn’t matter if it’s a basic photography class and you’ve been doing this for 30 years or it is an art class on sculpture which is of little interest to you. Try it. You never know where the next source of inspiration will come from, but the odds of it coming while doing something different from “normal” increase when you step out of your comfort zone.
Join up
Field trips with groups are a great way to get to know people and get moving with your photography. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenJoin a photograph or art club to increase the creative input in your life. If you are a member of a club, consider changing to a new one if you are seeing the same old stuff. Find your inspiration and motivation from within a club by learning and watching others and how they work. Many clubs offer theme competitions, giving you another opportunity to take on a self-assignment. Member organizations like the Photographic Society of America feature international competitions for all types of photography, as well as annual conferences. Take every opportunity you can to get to know others in your industry or specialty. Learn from each other.
One of our favorite quotes is that “you teach best what you most need to learn.” Not everyone can teach, but if you have a bit of talent in your ability to share your knowledge with others, give it a try. Teaching others how to do what you do compels you to do what you do better. You can find new inspiration and new forms of creativity as you process your old information into new forms to share with others. Remember everyone learns best from their mistakes and when they are ready to learn, not when continually corrected or forced. Same applies for learning to teach. Learn from your mistakes and grow with the process.


How are your marketing skills? If you aren’t selling as many images and/or articles as you want or need to, then it is time to get out of the comfort zone you’ve created. How do you climb the business ladder unless you are always striving to do more business? Doing more business means becoming visible.

Get involved. Join a club or a group tackling an issue near and dear to your heart. If your area is facing an ecological problem, go to the organizations tackling the issue and ask them if you can volunteer your services as a photographer. Examine how they have been tackling the issue and come up with a plan to not only help them, but help yourself get known within that industry. This not only expands your photographic creativity, it also can expand your image inventory. Any time you are passionate about something in your life, it spills out into everything in your life. So get involved and give of yourself. It will give back in many ways.
Attend Conferences
People meeting during a conference can help with your networking and attracting business. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenIf you are a member of a photographic, nature, environmental, or group of any kind, attend their national and regional conferences. Bring some business cards and brochures with you. Ask questions. Find out what others are doing right and wrong, how they think the world works, and then tell them a bit about yourself. Come to learn but also come to meet and be met. The more people you know, the greater the chances they will know you and want your work. Conferences are great opportunities to learn from a wide range of people and to make great contacts for future business.
Update Your Market Analysis
When you turned your photographic hobby into a business, did you make a marketing plan? Did you research the marketplace to determine who your audience and clientele was and how to reach them? Did you put this all down in writing? If not, start. If you did, it is time to update it. Markets change. Scenic images from North America were hot for the entire North American magazine and stationery market for decades, but then it became saturated. Instead of giving up on these locations, North American photographers began to sell their images overseas, especially in the Asian market where anything “American” is highly desired. Are you still selling to the same people? Digital cameras are the hottest thing around, but are the magazines really buying mostly digital images? They aren’t now, but they will be. Are you ready for this big change in the marketplace? As a rule, you should reevaluate your marketing plan every two to five years to keep up with changes in the market and economy.
Visit Your Clients
Many nature photographers sell to a variety of clients within the stationery and editorial market but they have never personally met their “buyers”. Why not take time out for a visit? You don’t have to visit all of them, but pick a couple of your best buyers and go visit them in their offices. Take them out to lunch. Find out about how they work, what their goals are, and where they see the market going. The personal touch never hurt and may result in an increase in sales.
Discover New Markets
Go through a pile of magazines to find out what others are doing and how you can do more. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenEveryone asks us if we’ve had our images published in National Geographic, as if this is the scale all nature photographers must climb. In fact, we haven’t. Sure, if it happens, we will be thrilled, but they are not our goal. Our business is about reaching “you”, and anyone and everyone, with our message that nature is wonderful and worth exploring and preserving. Are you limiting your market? Where else could you sell your images? Are you reaching a market saturated with images just like yours? Are there smaller markets who need your work? Look around. Visit a magazine rack and check out your options. Who says that you can’t sell a nature photography article and/or story to a travel, health, or spiritual magazine? Don’t limit yourself to the editorial market. Nature images are needed by the educational textbook market, stationers, calendars, guide books, posters, and more. Broaden your scope to attract more sales.
Read the BIG Books
Writer’s Digest publishes a series of “Market” books aimed at the literary and photographic marketplace. “The Photographers Market” is a must have in your library, along with “Writer’s Market”. Research through these books for new clients and new ways to sell your work. These books are brimming with information and new ideas. Visit their web site at http://www.writersdigest.com to get even more information and resources.
Read Everything
Read books by photographers, artists, and everything you can find. Photo of books by Lorelle VanFossenStay connected to the marketplace by paying attention to what is happening in the world. If there is a sudden crisis somewhere in nature, you want to be there with images to feed the need. For example, as I write this there is new research being announced about the “Brown Cloud” over southern Asia. Created by pollution, it is causing massive droughts below it and horrible flooding and temperature rises around it. Its impact on that part of the world is felt by millions of people, and is resulting in a terrible loss of life and illnesses that are destroying the economy and society of the area. Photographs depicting the visual impact of this environmental disaster are in demand right now and will continue to be so for months to come. Do you have images that meet this need? Maybe. It is hard to anticipate what the next “need” will be, but you can work hard to make sure you have enough images of subjects that might be popular in the future. Photographs of endangered animals will always have a need, but then so do images showing us how something “used” to look until humans moved in with their bulldozers and plows. Right now, on Israeli television they are starting a new series on the history of Israel, gathering together an archive of visual images from over 50 years ago. Do you have images of how things used to look somewhere? Read everything and learn about how the world works to find out how you can fill a photographic need.
Create a New Marketing Plan
Just as you can create your own photographic project, you can develop your own marketing plan. Get out the calendar and start noting seasons. If you want to sell winter theme images you have to start in the summer, at least six months before that season begins, longer for some markets. Note that date on your calendar. Go through the rest of the seasons accordingly. If seasons aren’t your thing, then what do you have to offer that is timely in some fashion? Want the calendar market? They start 18 to 24 months in advance of the year. Have a great collection of bird pictures? The editorial market for birds is best just before the spring, promoting birds that will be in peak breeding plumage within a few weeks of the article being published. To sell images and articles for that time period, you have to start soliciting them 6-12 months in advance. Whatever your market it, put some dates on the calendar and then start creating a plan to promote the appropriate work at the right time. Look at your past marketing projects and see if they worked or not. Research what others are using and develop your own. Be it a postcard of an image or three, a customized calendar, or just a new brochure, get it together, get it printed, and send it out on a regular basis to remind clients that you are still around and have great stuff to sell.


graphic of a loupe and slides on a light tableEvery business gets bogged down with stuff and things piled high. Take time to hire yourself to clean up your business, thus improving your job performance. When you are working within a clean, organized space, you tend to feel more committed to your work, less overwhelmed, and definitely more professional. There is a belief that when you make space in your life, because nature abhors a vacuum, it tends to fill it, and often what comes into that space can be increased business and clients. Clean up your business and maybe you will find a new purpose and motivation.

Update Your Inventory
Toss out slides that are old or have no value. Photo by Brent VanFossenWhen was the last time you dusted off all the filing cabinets and boxes of images and really inspected what you had? It’s time to clean out some images and evaluate what you have and what you need. Make a list of the image categories you have. Thought you had dozens of whale photographs but you actually have only three good ones? Put that on the list of images you need to get. Too many photos of reddish egrets? Maybe you should look at your marketing plan and find a way to start marketing this fact. While poking, prodding and cleaning up, make sure your inventory system is working for you. Can you find what you need quickly and easily so you are ready when the request comes in? If not, consider updating your filing system in general.
Stock List Checks
Stock agencies, photo buyers, and fellow photographers all post their stock lists on their web sites. Compare their list to yours. Do you have a subject which is not mentioned? Does it need to go on? Do they list some subjects that you should go out and get? Make a want list for yourself and put this on your self-assignment calendar.
Clean Your Office
It is amazing what a little “spring cleaning” can do to your business and your attitude. Things pile up, and often among those things are bits of inspiration and business that almost slipped through the cracks. Give your office and work area a complete and thorough cleaning up, even going so far as to pull out the desks and filing cabinets and vacuuming behind them. You never know what has slipped down into those cracks. As you put everything back, consider how you use it and how you can arrange your office to maximize your space while giving easy access to what you use the most. The more efficient your workspace is, the faster you can get your work done and get out behind the camera.
Update Your Resume
When was the last time you updated your resume? Make time now. Consider what you have done and consider what you have yet to do. Are you missing some bits and pieces from your resume? While you may not pass your resume around very often as a self-employed worker, you never know when it might be needed for bank loans or investors, so keep it updated on a regular basis.
Update Your Business Stationery/Logo
Brochures and portfolios require frequent updating. Photo of photo travel company brochures by Lorelle VanFossenIf you designed your own logo and business card, great. Maybe it is time for a change and a fresh look. Does your logo really reflect what your business is or what it was? You can do it yourself, but consider hiring a professional graphic designer to update your image. Since few nature photographers ever meet their clients, their first impression comes from the papers and images you sent out. Make sure you send out your best.
Create a Business Consulting Team
We all know people we respect, whose work is exemplary, and whose opinion we trust when it comes to business matters. Why not invite a small group of these people over, or to an evening in a hotel room away from distractions, and ask them to discuss your business and your business techniques. Tell them what you do and where you want to go and then let them brainstorm with you. Record the discussion with a tape recorder. It is amazing what great things can come out of the minds of people totally unrelated to your industry. Their perspective can help you focus your business in a new direction, take it to a new height, or just energize you in the right direction. People love helping others do well. Be sure and thank them all appropriately later.
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Besides art and photography courses, consider taking some business courses. Maresa Pryor, acclaimed nature photographer specializing in Florida’s ecosystem and wildlife, credits a series of business courses with a local college and her participation with the local American Society of Media Photographers chapter for giving her the business tools to turn her little freelance hobby into a full-time job. She learned marketing and negotiation skills, as well as how to create contracts and set up an accounting system that is easy and works. She learned about delegating some of her responsibilities and making others easier, giving her more time to be out in the field. What courses and programs can you take to help you do your job easier and better?


Big horn sheep stands along the sheer rock face. Photo by Brent VanFossenA project is a well-defined self-assignment based upon one subject, technique, or location. You can pick a diverse subject like butterflies or narrow it to a specific subject like helicon butterflies. Pick a subject and then write out a plan of action to pursue it photographically. Pick a subject and/or location close to your home and office to start with, allowing you to continue with your current business efforts and still have easy access to your project.

If you only photograph when you feel like it…you’ll never be totally successful as a photographer.
Freeman Patternson

Brent is surrounded by big horn sheep near the road, photo by Lorelle VanFossenWrite down all you know about the subject, and then go and research some new information. Where is it found? How does it live, eat, reproduce, and die? Is it big or small or does it change sizes over time? What is unique to it? What is dependent upon it and what does it depend upon? How does it keep itself safe and protect itself from attack? What is its purpose in the chain of life? As you research the subject, make a list of questions that come up, as the more you know the more you want to know. Consider the subject an interview candidate. What would you really want to know about the life and times of the subject? Make a list of interview questions you would ask if you could sit down with a personification of the subject and have a chat.

Project: Big Horn Sheep

A big horn sheep stands high in the mountains. Photo by Brent VanFossenBrent and I spent several years in and out of Jasper National Park photographing big horn sheep as a self-assigned project of ours. We enjoy these socially friendly creatures that are often found right along the road, stopping traffic and tourists. Their amazing ability to scale the steepest cliffsides and mountains fascinate us. Throughout this article on working on projects we’ve scattered some of the images from our own self project.

Use a calendar to schedule your project. Photo by Brent VanFossenGet out a calendar and start filling in dates and times over the course of the life of the subject. A good project is one that lasts over time with repeated visits, not just for one day. If your subject is an animal, when is the prime mating season? Does it develop special fur or feathers during or in advance of breeding time? When is it nesting? Does it migrate? Where and how much territory does it need in order to keep the gene pool healthy? Does it eat once a month or constantly? What time of day is it usually feeding? Go through the life cycle of the animal and chart its course on the calendar. The same with a location. What does it do each season? Are there more animals there in the winter or summer? Does it experience all the seasons and diverse weather conditions? What kinds, how much, and when? List all of these in your calendar. Then time your photographic excursions to capture these prime moments.

A baby big horn sheep hides behind its mother. Photo by Brent VanFossenOne trip won’t do it. Even if your subject is the life of a fly, keep going out and finding new subjects over and over again. Work it from every angle. Take notes. What did you discover along the way that you need to come back and photograph? Did you really capture the essence or do you have to keep working at it?

Closeup of the cloven hoof of a big horn sheep, photo by Brent VanFossenDon’t limit yourself exclusively to that subject. Consider widening your perspective to include the interrelationship that subject has with its environment and other animals. If you are working with a spider that eats flies and you never have a picture of a fly, aren’t you missing something? Part of defining a subject is to define all the relationships around the subject.

This process may inspire you to go beyond your original time limit, maybe making it a life long project. Or it might not. Either way, stick with it and see what happens as you create a project photographically. You will learn about your equipment, master your photographic techniques, and understand the effort required to get to know a subject as you work with it.


We’ve covered only four categories to break your own glass ceiling and to move forward in your business. There are many more. The more involved you are with your work, the more work you do. The more you enjoy your work, the more your work will enjoy you. Get moving. We expect only great things from you.

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