Ah, the life of a nature photographer: gallivanting around the world, enjoying the planet’s most beautiful places, and getting paid to take pictures! Was a better job ever created?? Unfortunately reality often doesn’t live up to this romantic notion of what it means to be a working nature photographer. Here in 2018 I love what I do with a passion, but for the first four years after I left my stable engineering job to pursue photography I honestly doubted if it was the right decision. And even to this day I don’t think nature photography is a great career for most people, even if they love photography to death. Here’s why:
Reason #1: You Get to do Photography a lot Less!
This one surprised the hell out of me once I took the plunge into full-time photography. I assumed that I would be out shooting all day every day. But, oh crap! How does that actually EARN any money? Nature photography is a weird thing; unless you are really lucky you probably aren’t going to have any clients paying you to go out and take pictures. Instead your income comes from marketing your photos after the fact, whether it’s through stock, prints, tours, or other means.
And that marketing takes a TON of work! With stock you’ve got to organize, edit, keyword, size, upload, write descriptions…. and then you are still just playing the odds that a buyer somewhere will select one of your photos. With prints you need do the printing, matting, and framing, shop around to local galleries or arts festivals, package and ship sales, invoice customers, deal with returns and damaged prints. For tours you have all the thousands of hours of scouting beforehand (if you are a diligent leader anyway), then the logistical work begins: getting permits and insurance, creating an itinerary, finding transportation, hotels, food, creating a website, finding clients, dealing with their questions and issues, etc.
Oh, and regardless of which financial avenues you choose you will have website maintenance, editing photos, emailing customers and clients and manufacturers, blogging, tracking finances, etc. For most pro photographers actual shooting time comprises somewhere between 1% and 20% of their working hours. And it’s important to note that there are many times you’d like to be shooting, but you just can’t because the business comes first. Whereas if photography is a hobby you don’t have these constraints; you can shoot as much as your other life duties allow.
Reason #2: You Will Work Harder Than You’ve Ever Worked in Your Life
Speaking of work, building a career as a photographer will take every ounce of ingenuity, determination, and grit that you have. Especially in the beginning when you are building your name and reputation. No longer will you have the freedom to clock out of your 9-to-5 and enjoy your life completely separately from your job. That distinction doesn’t exist anymore. Goodbye nights. Goodbye weekends.
Owning a small business is an incredible challenge (especially if you start with no business experience like I did) that requires you to work your butt off even if you don’t see any lights at the end of the tunnel. If you have a business partner that can help tremendously. Otherwise every job that is required to maintain a successful business falls squarely on your shoulders, and your shoulders alone. Expect 14 to 16 hour workdays 7 days a week as you are starting out.
Yes, the rewards can be great, but the struggle to get there is real.
Reason #3: You Will See Your Friends and Family Less
One of the main reasons I left my engineering job to pursue photography was to have more time to spend with family and friends. Then one day in 2011 as I was sitting in my booth at an art festival in Walnut Creek it hit me: I hadn’t seen my family or friends in months! Much longer than when I was working a regular job. And what hurt especially about that particular weekend: all my best friends had rented a cabin and a boat in Tahoe to celebrate one friend’s birthday. Why on Earth was I sitting in a booth in Walnut Creek by myself??
In those days I was spending all week preparing prints for arts festivals, and I didn’t have time to socialize. Then on the weekends I would be locked into those arts festivals trying to sell enough prints to make the experience financially justified. What the heck was I doing with my life? This was not what I wanted.
Since then I have stopped doing arts festivals and moved on to other income sources that have allowed me to reclaim my free time. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m free to spend every waking moment with the people who are important to me. Picture this scenario: it’s Friday night and your friends are meeting up for dinner and drinks. You’d love to join but there are thunderstorms brewing over the mountains and you think there’s a great chance for an incredible light show. So you have to choose: friends and socializing, or doing what it takes to get the shot? I’ve been in this dilemma more times than I can count.
When photography is your career and getting paid and building your reputation depend on you creating the best possible imagery, then you have to start making some tough choices about your priorities and how you want to spend your time.
Reason #4: Relationships Can Be Very Hard
Building on that last point, nature photography can make it extremely difficult to build solid long term relationships because of the huge amounts of travel involved. I have a few friends who have successfully navigated this hurdle (typically because their partner is also a photographer and they travel together), but aside from a few examples I know very few pro nature photographers who are in long term relationships. Even Art Wolfe, one of the most legendary photographers of our time (and a damn handsome silver fox to boot) has said that he has never been married simply because his travel schedule makes it impossible.
I myself have also experienced two relationships which failed in part because I wasn’t around to nurture the bond in the way it needed to be. So if having a solid relationship is something that’s important to you, you need to think long and hard about how to make that fit with the lifestyle of a nature photographer.
Reason #5: A Thing You Love May Become a Thing You Hate
Finally, consider this: when photography is simply a hobby it is a very pure thing. It’s done entirely for enjoyment and you don’t have to please anyone except yourself. Whether you take a picture at sunset or simply enjoy a beer with your friends doesn’t have an impact on your bottom line. But as soon as you switch gears and bring money into the equation things change.
All of a sudden this beautiful thing that was purely recreational is now the primary cause of stress in your life. Instead of being able to explore your own artistic expression perhaps you start to photograph things you otherwise wouldn’t because those images will sell better. Perhaps now instead of having a personal experience with a place that is particularly meaningful for you you are responsible for the care and enjoyment of a workshop group you’ve brought there.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I still love and adore nature photography; more every year in fact. But not everyone is so fortunate. Taking something you love and putting a huge amount of pressure and expectation onto it is a surefire way to change your relationship with that thing. Are you willing to accept that risk when it comes to your photography?
But wait!! Nature photography isn’t all dark rain clouds. Be sure to read this next: