Making a living out of professional photography in the digital age is not always what you might expect.
Perhaps this assertion can be rephrased by replacing photography with any other profession/skillset in the age of Internet and social media. Because, does it really matter at all these days what your specific skillset or profession is, to make a living through the use of Internet and social media? And is there, behind the label I attribute to myself to describe my profession, something else that is more generic and is the actual source of my income or anyone else’s income who uses Internet and social media to make a living?
Joel talking about his fine art prints at a workshop in New York City 2015 (c) David Fowler
Let Me Try To Explain
But before I start explaining I need to clarify the following used terms in this article:
- Authenticity: when I talk about authenticity in this article, then I’m referring to authenticity in our core activities and in our related activities. What authenticity means in this context is the innate ability to not only conceptualise thoughts and ideas that are useful and valuable, with a very high degree of independency of other ideas, but also to execute and utilise those valuable concepts in practical situations and in their artistic expressions. This implies that authentic ideas are usually also trendsetting and leading. If you come up with an idea that is a rehashing of other concepts, people will know and feel this and are not inclined to follow and adopt that idea.
- Authority: when I talk about authority in this article, then I’m referring to the degree that people consider you the go-to person for a specific skill/expertise. The more people, articles and organisations refer to you in a neutral or positive way, the more you are a considered an authority.
Apart from a handful of people on a few photo sharing sites, who knew my photographic work before 2009, I was largely an unknown entity in the world of photography till I started blogging about it and shared my knowledge. And I need to emphasise it since it is important: I started blogging and sharing knowledge out of passion with an almost naive enthusiasm. And not with the intention to make a living out of it.
Obviously, besides writing about it, I kept publishing my photos, without which I wouldn’t even have a reason to write so enthusiastically about it. And even though I believe in the photographic creations I published – first on pure photo sharing sites like Flickr, Redbubble and a few others, then on other social media like Facebook, Google+, etc. and later on followed by awards, publications and interviews in leading (physical) photography magazines and websites worldwide – I doubt it was the impact and artistic value of my photographs only, that have brought me the recognition and accolades I received ever since, off of which I could make a living. I believe it was more than photography: it was the increasing exposure of my ‘brand’ which is a combination of photographic work, writing content, presentation and sharing. All those elements together, and not just the photographic work only, resulted in the income sources I now live from. Again, I didn’t create my ‘brand’ intentionally or even consciously: my brand was the unintentional result of my labour of love.
Let’s Elaborate On This In More Detail
Just a year after I started having increasing success with photography in the form of exposure and praise on the aforementioned photography sites, I started my website www.bwvision.com to write about photography. That was in 2009. The main reason: I was thrilled with the photographic results I obtained and wanted to share my findings and my methods with the world. Just out of sheer enthusiasm. No other reason. I created tutorials on B&W photography and Long exposure photography that were among the first on the Internet on that topic, that were elaborate and very detailed, practical, and most of all, free of charge and with authentic and original content. Less than a year after publishing the first versions of my extensive guide to long exposure photography, it was already a top 10 article in Google’s search machine results. And it stayed up there to this very day. All this, was not just a matter of good SEO, in fact, I initially didn’t care about SEO at all. I only cared about sharing a wealth of authentic information, as much as possible.
Just google ‘long exposure photography’ or ‘long exposure photography tutorial’, and you will find my tutorials in the top 3 or top 5 search results. It was even number 1 for a long time, only now to be surpassed by similar tutorials from a much bigger website with many contributors, called digital photography school. Honestly, without false modesty, and I know many people will agree: I believe that today’s version of my free long exposure photography tutorial is still the best and most detailed out there. Written out of passion with authenticity and the enthusiastic urge to share knowledge. Which, I believe is the main reason it stands the test of time. Anything done out of passion will always stand the test of time.
Besides the enthusiasm about sharing knowledge, authenticity is another important factor in all of the successes, perhaps the most important factor
An almost similar success can be noted for my black and white photography tutorials: search for black and white photography tutorial and you will see one of my tutorials in the top 15 Google search results. If you search for black and white fine art photography, you will find my tutorials in the top 3. Also those articles were written out of passion, with authentic content and the enthusiasm to share knowledge.
Besides the enthusiasm about sharing knowledge, authenticity is another important factor in all of the successes, perhaps the most important factor. Not only authenticity in the work I tried to create but also authenticity in the content I published. It was far more than just rehashing things that were already considered common knowledge you could find anywhere on the Internet: often the content was original or had a completely different angle on popular topics. Something that is lacking in most tutorials or articles you find on photography on the Internet these days. It is as if everyone is rehashing the same information.
Authenticity, passion, artistic value and the willingness to share valuable information were key-factors for the initial creation of my brand.
Let me give an example of what I did and shared: in 2010 I created a manual but highly structured workflow to obtain a high degree of control and accuracy in B&W processing, together with a set of artistic rules that gave practical guidelines what exactly made up for a good black and white photograph. I think there was a specific need for this in a time when everyone mainly processed through plugins and other software or were using informal and random personal methods with no structure. This is something that has gained me a lot of praise and most of all a loyal global following when I started teaching about it in workshops from 2011 onwards and started selling popular video tutorials on this black and white method. It was not only a reflection of someone who believes in continuous improvement and isn’t afraid to think out of the box, but it was also authentic, and that is what people are drawn to. And this all contributed significantly to my exposure and authority as an artist. Authenticity, passion, artistic value and the willingness to share valuable information were key-factors for the initial creation of my brand.
A good brand doesn’t only consist of 1 decisive factor, but of multiple decisive factors that are consistent over a longer period of time
At the same time, I didn’t stand still in terms of pure photographic work: early 2010 I won my first major international awards: shortlisted in the Sony World Photography Awards and 2nd place winner at the International Photography Awards. And I kept winning either first place or second place for five years in a row at the IPA till 2014 when I decided to stop entering competitions. This could be considered an indication of the quality of my work and that this contributed to the exposure of my brand. I agree. But… there are many other people who have won similar awards, and some even more than I won, and they’re struggling to make a living out of photography. The difference is, that in my case it contributed to a brand that is built up from many other significant success-factors that I’ve mentioned earlier, while for others, the awards were the only factor besides, probably a few other factors. A good brand doesn’t only consist of 1 decisive factor, but of multiple decisive factors that are consistent over a longer period of time. In my case the consistency of the value of the photos I created, the consistency in publishing valuable and authentic content for my website, and on top, the consistency with which I won awards. From this followed more exposure and more authority and if you keep this up long enough, which I did, photography or other commercial brands want to identify themselves with you and are willing to to use your name and work for their own promotional activities, hence even more exposure and authority. It’s a positive vicious circle, that feeds and amplifies itself, just like the vicious circles that are usually associated with negative, self fulfilling prophecies.
All this created demand for my knowledge. Hence, teaching workshops, creating video tutorials and a book, was a logical step and also a successful one as people came to my workshops or purchased my videos, because they were drawn to the artistic value of my work, and the authority and authenticity that is an intrinsic part of the brand I created, unintentionally. These days, educational activities make up for the largest part of my income. Workshops in real life across the globe, online workshops and mentoring, video tutorials and books, they form the core of my income.
The best-selling eBook From Basics to Fine-art, that I co-wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou is an example of how I made money out of indirect, educational activities. Here are two similar creators who both are authentic and protagonists in what they create and in the type of knowledge they share and how they share it. Not just a rehashing of commonly available information, but often information that is unique and different from the usual information. It contributed to the increase of their individual brands. The collaboration between the 2 artists with similar qualities and similar brands, became very successful and has gained high praise among the community of fine-art photographers and is still gaining, since the release of the ebook in 2014. But this collaboration could not have been a success if the photographic work we created, didn’t have any artistic and authentic value.
Another important activity that has generated substantial and structural income since 2013, was the collaboration with Formatt-Hitech filters. It resulted in a line of ND filters with my name on it in 2013. The income out of this collaboration has no direct relation with my core activity of shooting photographs, but obviously, if I didn’t have a history of shooting long exposure photographs that appealed to a larger audience and if I didn’t publicly shared my knowledge on long exposure photography prior to this collaboration for many years through the tutorials on website, my video tutorials and in my workshops, and hence wouldn’t have had a brand, then there wouldn’t have been any reason for Formatt-Hitech to collaborate with me. The Firecrest ND filters are considered to be high quality filters that match with the quality and knowledge I stood for and shared.
Except for the few commissioned projects I did, all other income-generating activities I did and still do, didn’t involve the normal photographic activities but were activities driven by the brand I was associated with.
To illustrate that, I’ve created a table to present a summary of the activities that contributed to my ‘brand’ and to the income I’m living from now.
|+||low or indirect value||-||no or neutral value|
|++||direct and moderate value||--||negative value|
|+++||direct and maximum value||---||negative and harmful value|
Impact of all (core and non-core) activities on brand and income sources
|Activity||Impact of activity on: exposure||Impact of activity on: authenticity (in core activity and side-activities)||Impact of activity on: authority||Impact of activity on: financial benefits||Remarks|
|Free (own) Work Pre 2008 - Ongoing||++||+++||+++||+||Work I shoot for myself as an artist, not commissioned – free work.|
|Blog Posts/Tutorials - 2009 - Ongoing||++||+++||+++||+/-||Blogs/articles/tutorials as published on my website since 2009|
|Publications - 2009 - Ongoing||+++||++||+++||+||Publications and interviews in leading (printed) photography magazines in the USA and Europe, also many online publications since 2009|
|2010 Automotive Campaign||+++||+||++||+||A global campaign for a major German brand.|
|Awards 2010 - 2014||++ (depending on the reputation of the competition)||+||+++||+/-||Won 5 years in a row either 1st place or 2nd place in the most important photography competitions (International Photography Awards (IPA) and Sony World photography Awards)|
|Nik Software - Silver Efex Pro 2 Ambassador and Affiliate - 2010 - 2013||+++||+||+++||++||Featured prominently in online ads and magazines|
|Workshops - 2011 - Ongoing||+||++||+++||+++||I’m referring to real-life workshops and to online workshops and mentorships|
|Commissioned Work - 2011 - Ongoing||++||+||++||+++||Largely for German companies in the automotive industry – after 2012 only incidental and smaller commissioned assignments|
|Affiliate Or Ambassadorships For Topaz Labs, B&H Photography, Lumejet L Type Prints - 2012 - Ongoing||+++||+||+++||++||Being an affiliate with known brands in the photography world, is definitely a plus in terms of exposure and, depending on your own active engagement, can result in moderate sometimes higher financial benefits.|
|Video, Book, Panel Sales - 2013 - Ongoing||++||++||+++||+++||Videos and book are all tutorials and purely educational|
|Exhibition/Gallery Representation - 2013 - Ongoing||++||+||+++||++||Various exhibitions and gallery representations in Europe and the USA|
|Formatt Hitech Signature Edition Artist - 2013 - Ongoing||+++||+||+||+++||A line of ND-filters with my name was introduced in 2013|
|Phase One - 2017 - Ongoing||+++||+||+++||+||Even though Phase One doesn’t formally have ambassadors, I became one of the ‘faces’ and collaborating artists for Phase One’s achromatic camera.|
What can be concluded from the table is the following:
1. Real photography assignments, that result in the type of work that is typical for a ‘professional photographer’ are very scarce, but very lucrative. But a few commissioned assignments in 8 years is not enough to make a steady living. Not by far. Of course I could opt to go shoot weddings, but I didn’t quit my job to do things I prefer not to do. Besides, I have nothing with wedding photography.
2. The type of activities that have made me the most and consistent money over time are the sales of videos, books, panels, conducting workshops and being a Formatt-Hitech signature edition artist. But those are not activities that are inherent to being a professional photographer and not exclusively related to being a professional photographer: painters, carpenters, financial consultants, writers, IT professionals, etc. can also make money out of the sales of videos, books, workshops and being a signature edition ‘expert’, in their own expertise, in this digital age.
3. Selling prints is an activity that most fine-art photographers rely on, but unless you are a big, almost household name such as Michael Kenna or Ansel Adams, it is almost impossible to make a living out of that only. It helps but it is an illusion to think it would be enough to live from. If you do succeed in that, then you’re among the lucky few, but don’t bet on it.
4. As was already apparent; educational activities are the most important and most consistent source of income. But educational activities are more lucrative and more prone to a successful result, the more your brand, authenticity and authority are recognised. So you have to keep doing those activities that are not directly a source of income but increase and give exposure to your authentic character, your authority and hence, your brand. As you can see from the table, publications, ambassadorships and collaborations with major brands will give you the most exposure. But before a brand is willing to collaborate with you or a magazine is willing to publish your work, you need to have a solid authority and artistic authenticity. And the only way to build on those is to create authentic free work for yourself and write, blog, vlog or talk about it in a critical but constructive way. Just avoid rehashing information. Only the big websites can get away with rehashing information, in any other case it is just wasted time and people will simply forget you if you can’t offer something different than the big websites already do.
Setting up a shot in the field – my core activity – for a video tutorial – not my core activity but the money-generating activity
So, Am I Really A Professional Photographer?
Hence the question: am I really a professional photographer if I don’t make a living out of direct photography related activities that involve shooting photos for money? I’m very much inclined to say that the traditional professional photographer have become extinct. Of course, they’re still there, the people who shoot photos and make money just by clicking on the shutter. But they’re a minority. The answer to the question is not very interesting, it doesn’t really matter, what is more important is to be aware that you shouldn’t limit yourself to archaic principles. Adapt.
So find a skill set, make it your own, love it and be passionate about it, and then just be authentic in what you create (avoid rehashing!) and be the authority in it. The Internet and social media are unlike anything we’ve known before to give exposure in an unrestricted way to your authenticity and authority. Everything will follow then.
These days, someone who calls himself a professional photographer, painter, or writer can also be someone like me: someone making money out of activities that don’t involve clicking the shutter for money, typing a sentence or stroking the paintbrush, but out of indirect activities. What we all have in common is that we make money out of the reputation, the authority and again, consistent authenticity we have accumulated over the years. Those things don’t come out of nothing but are rooted in the type of work you create and their impact on the audience. They’re impactful as they do these things because they’re passionate about it and they’re very good at it. And what the successful ones have in common is that the authenticity is structural and deeply rooted. Or in other words: they’ve consistently created work that is regarded authentic. There’s no replacement for that. There’s no better asset than to be brave enough to be yourself.
This is a different situation than, give or take, 20 years ago. The professional photographer then could only be a professional by entirely making a living out of direct photographic activities. With the Internet and social media an entirely new way of making a living revolving around a core activity, has emerged, without needing to make money out of that core activity but out of related activities. The thing you need to work on is to be an authority in something you’re good at and to always stay authentic. Always. And I believe it doesn’t matter what it is you’re good at. As long as you’re good at it and passionate and critical about it.
So if you’ve built yourself a brand around a specific skill set you have, and if you do it right, then you have enabled yourself to do more than your core activity to make a living. A brand can be summarised as the sum of authenticity, authority, quality of your product and the way you convey and communicate those attributes to a larger audience through exposure. So find a skill set, make it your own, love it and be passionate about it, and then just be authentic in what you create (avoid rehashing!) and be the authority in it. The Internet and social media are unlike anything we’ve known before to give exposure in an unrestricted way to your authenticity and authority. Everything will follow then.
One More Thing
Making a living as a professional photographer in the digital age requires a different mindset and approach. If you try to adopt the usual activities of a professional photographer from the pre-Internet era, in the current day and age, chances are you’re not going to be able to make a proper living, or no living at all. You’re limiting yourself too much, unnecessarily. Times have changed and if I’m honest then I don’t think these are bad times to live in as a self-employed and independent ‘professional photographer’, as long as you’re willing to adapt yourself to rapidly changing situations. And these are volatile times.
Owner of bwvision.com
By Joel Tjintjelaar – (c) Copyright 2018 Joel Tjintjelaar – bwvision.com
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