Monday, 21 November 2011

Five ways to monetize your nature photography business … with a focus on running workshops (where the big bucks are)

I find it flattering. I probably get one or two emails a month from aspiring photographers asking for my advice on building a successful nature photography business. While, I am nowhere close to running one of those, I do have some thoughts on the subject as I strive, like them, to become a recognizable, respected nature photographer.

The answer I do have for people that contact me is probably not a satisfying one. The bottom line is that it is very difficult to build a successful business as a nature photographer, and getting more and more difficult all the time. In my business life I have run divisions of companies, and I would probably sum up the current state of nature photography as follows: “the supply far exceeds the demand.”

In other words, there are too many people taking nature photos and not enough people buying them; the world is flooded with cheap or free nature photographs. As you can probably imagine, the words “cheap or free” are not a sound basis for a flourishing business. That said, the opportunities do exist to make a living wage from nature photography.

So, what does it take to succeed as nature photographer in today’s world? Well, I have summed up the TOP 5 things I believe are key. Please note that this is merely my opinion; others have their own business models that may differ from mine.

DON’T SUCK. Although this seems self-evident, it really needs to be said. Because the competition out there is so good, there’s only room for success at the top. Be ruthlessly self-critical of your own work, and always strive to get better and to do something that hasn’t been done a million times before.

Shoot Big. Although you can build a successful business shooting your local landscapes and wildlife, if you want to make a name for yourself nationally or internationally, you probably need to photograph charismatic mega-landscapes and mega-fauna. That means extra expense and time traveling to exotic locations, but it is an investment that pays off in the long run. Of course, it helps if you happen to live somewhere that is really cool, but if you live in Cambridge, Ontario like I do, you really have to crack out the credit card and sign up for a frequent flyer program.

Get Noticed. These days, if you are not big on the Internet, you don’t exist. Heavy participation and promotion online are vital. You should have a good-looking website and a blog, but neither will help you if you don’t have visitors. Lots of traffic to your site means nothing if you can’t make any money from it. Your site needs to offer products and services that will keep your finances in the black and help you pay your mortgage every month.

As for me, I monetize my site primarily through Adsense and currently talking to corporate advertisers to be on my site.

You should also promote your work by participating on a number of online photo sharing forums and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Get Published. Even though traditional print publishing is on the decline, it is still a hugely vital source of potential business. Submit to magazines and other publishers as much as possible. It helps if you can write well; magazines are usually looking for articles first, photos second. If you can provide both, you’ve got a good chance of making a big paycheck. Articles in magazines are also a great way to promote your website.

Run Photo Workshops. Almost without exception, every professional nature photographer I know makes a majority of his or her income running photo workshops. The digital revolution has flooded the world with aspiring photographers with money to spend. There are literally thousands upon thousands of people out there who want to learn more about photography, visit beautiful scenic locations, and enjoy a good time doing what they love in the company of like-minded individuals. If you really want to make a living as a professional nature photographer, be prepared to spend some time teaching. But before you decide to start running those photography workshops… do some research by attending some workshops on your own to learn how to put on one by yourself.

I know people who think that running a workshop is easy and try their hand at it. Very fast, they realize it’s not as easy as it appears. To be successful you have to make your attendees happy, and that’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Conducting a successful workshop requires you to be like a chameleon. No two workshops are alike. Things always come into play that have to be adapted to; weather conditions, subject availability, group size, the level of proficiency of the attendees and more. I like take the time to prepare and send out two pieces of information before an attendee come on a workshop. The first is information regarding what to expect from each workshop PRIOR to the attendees leaving home for the workshop. This not only gets everyone excited with anticipation, but it educates them on things such as weather predictions, what to bring, as well as a complete outline of a typical day is so there are no surprises when they get to the workshop location. The second is a reminder notice. I remind them that it is their responsibility to know how their camera, lenses and accessory basic functions work. There is nothing worse than leading a workshop and one person does not know the difference between F/2.8 and f/18. That person will take more of your time, leaving the more proficient photographers on their own more than they deserve.

Usually groups will vary in skill level, more will be beginner photographers. I totally encourage this. Getting off on the right foot and developing good habits in the beginning is really important. It’s also interesting to see customers who have $5000.00+ cameras, along with expensive lenses using their equipment in the wrong way. Unfortunately, this is not unusual and it is my job to correct this situation, while not insulting or offending the customer. Again, I try and keep the surprises to a minimum however, there always are a few. Like everything else in photography, preparation is mandatory to avoid too many surprises. There is nothing worse than looking out at 3AM to see cloudy rainy conditions, when the prediction the night before was for a great sunrise. But, it happens!!!

Running a successful workshop is not easy. Late spring and summer feature long days. 16 hour days, and for some workshops, 3-5 days in a row are typical for attendees. That easily transcribes into 18-20 hour days for me. So, eating at abnormal times and getting little sleep throws your body clock off, yet you have to stay fresh when you are teaching the paying customers. It is also important that everyone get the nourishment they need and stay well hydrated, so not only do you have to worry about the photography elements, making sure your attendees needs also have to be top of mind. This is just as important as getting to prime locations at the right time.

Another factor is making sure that all the attendees are happy and are getting the attention they paid for. The bigger the group, there is a greater chance that different personalities can affect things. Also, different needs and expectations all have to be taken into account every hour of the day.

For the most part I am quite sure that everyone gets what they come to my workshops for. In a large group, there are always one or two people that for one reason or another don’t seem to be as happy as everyone else. All I can do is continue to work hard and do my best to get them to quality locations and try and help in making them better photographers. I tell everyone in the beginning that I am here for as much or as little attention that they want. It is also not uncommon for one or two folks who wander off by themselves, and that’s fine, as long as they know I am there for them if they want my help. In essence, I am a photographic instructor, tour guide, and psychoanalyst, making sure everyone is happy and getting along with each other.

Over the years, I’ve seen other workshops run haphazardly. I see instructors doing more shooting than their customers offering them little or no real attention. In these circumstances, I can only hope my customers realize the difference between what I offer and others offer.

No two workshops are alike and Mother Nature has her own agenda. Trust me, I have seen this hundreds of times... the forecast at 10:30pm shows a perfect sunrise... then you get everyone up at 4:00AM and to the location by 5AM and having a non sunrise, but that’s life in nature. I’ve also been in situations that upon arrival early in the morning the chances for a great sunrise was nil, and in the last minute the clouds parted and we had spectacular light. You never know and you work with what you get.

Another factor you must remember is that most folks don’t spend 3-4 days partaking in intensive photography. By day 3 or 4 everyone is tired. Motivation becomes important. I plan an itinerary for every workshop but remain flexible to weather and light conditions.

Scouting the area prior to the beginning of the workshops is also something that has to be done. So a 3-4 day workshop for me is actually a 5-6 day event. Where will the sun rise, when is optimal light, where should we stand to have the light at our backs, what will the wildlife be doing? You have to consider, bugs, pests, spiders, and creatures that want to eat you... Do you have enough power to power laptops, charge batteries, is the GPS working and make sure the emergency kit is packed properly.

You have to think like this, “The attendees well being is in your hands. They are relying on you to keep them safe. But they also expect you to put them in the right place, at the right time, just as Mother Nature wants you to be in order to click the shutter”

If you do this all right, positive word of mouth will spread, and the busier your workshops will be. The more money you will make.

Click here to see some of the animal photos taken on my photo workshops

Click here to see some of the landscape photos taken on my photo workshops

I wish you all luck in building your nature photography business,

Kev