In the 90s Boris Johnson famously wrote two articles. In one, he argued for Britain’s leaving the European Union; in the other, he outlined reasons for remaining in political union. The anti-Brexit article went unpublished and barely two decades later, Johnson became the figurehead for the leave campaign. Although Johnson claims the pro-EU article was satirical—a mere foil to develop his thinking—at one point Johnson seemed undecided on the matter that defines his political career.
I often find myself torn on important decisions in my life. The ‘Ayes’ and ‘Noes’ of realising an ambition can be finely balanced, and it’s hard to know if to proceed. Where photography fits in my life is one such quandary. I’ve developed an aptitude for photography and I could monetise this skill but something has always held me back. So, in Johnsonian fashion, I thought I would write two articles. One will outline why I would like to be a full-time professional landscape photographer, while the other will explore my reservations. Unlike Boris, I will publish both. You are reading the latter.
Cards on the table
Right now, going full-time in landscape photography is hypothetical: I have a stable job in a successful family business and I enjoy what I do. If we sold the business, landscape photography is where I would pour my energy. But not yet. I occasionally think of taking this step sooner rather than later, but I worry that doing so would be more a vanity exercise than a decision from the heart. Let me explain.
I spent so much of my late teens and twenties travelling and living abroad. I studied Mandarin in China and Taiwan, went to university in Bristol and lived in Moscow. During this time, I always felt very pleased when someone asked me, “What do you do?” Travelling gave me an ‘interesting’ identity.
I returned to the UK in 2017 and started working with my dad and uncle. We run a small group of nursing care homes and a home care business. No matter how you dress it up, health and social care is not ‘cool.’ We help people live their lives to the best of their ability in challenging and often distressing circumstances. The day-to-day of a nursing environment is rewarding as it is essential, but it is quite different from #livingmybestlife working abroad in my free and easy 20s. For the first time in my life, for a few years after returning to the UK, I hesitated to tell people what I do. And as a lifeline to my ‘explorer’ identity, I leant very heavily on being a photographer.
Nowadays, I don’t feel this so much—I own what I do and feel none of the awkwardness I did in those fleeting moments at parties when new acquaintances ask me about myself. Nonetheless, part of me wants to be a photographer to protect a sense of self-perception and how others see me.
Retiring from the Chase
In the last couple of years, what I get from photography has changed. Nothing is ever one thing, but shooting for Instagram encouraged me to consider the camera and the subjects I shoot in a certain way; photography was often about ‘scoring’ on social media and always about chasing good conditions. This style of photography—’the war of the spectacular,’ as David Ward puts it—relies on planning and perseverance, and a big dose of luck with the weather.
You would think that as my photography leant so heavily on acts of god, it would be hard to attach an identity to it. But I did. The images below are the fruits of these labours—and the shots of which I was most proud during that period:
A comet plays a role in three images and is part of this story too. Comet NeoWISE arrived in the summer of 2020 while we were gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. Some people took a rather medieval view of this rare visitor, associating the comet with the coming of the plague—and perhaps portentous of struggles to come. I felt about it differently. When NeoWISE arrived, the spring lockdowns were over and chasing the comet was a welcome return to normality after months working hard to protect the clinically vulnerable in our care homes.
Though I don’t hold with superstitions around the comet, a change to my photography did arrive in the comet’s wake. This comet caused me weeks of late bedtimes, early rises and one all-nighter. Predictably perhaps, after this excitement, a slump in my enthusiasm followed: could there ever be better photographic conditions than a comet visible to the naked eye? This realisation, coming at a time when Instagram was a less fun place to share photos, meant chasing the spectacular started losing its appeal and for a while I feared I was losing interest in photography altogether. Luckily, instead of packing in photography, I found something more fulfilling: I discovered artists who inspired me; I took a deep dive into composition; and I started reading about, and grappling with, the ideas of photography.
In the years since NeoWISE and my losing interest in Instagram, I am less addicted to the high of the chase. Don’t get me wrong, I love when conditions come together—when nice light strikes the clouds or snow blankets the ground—but rather than being a foil to my ego, something more has emerged through photography. Photography is becoming to me an art whose craft is worth mastering, and whose ideas merit thoughtful engagement. I have only taken the first steps in this direction, and I am excited by the decades of learning and experimenting lie before me.
Yet… from a technical perspective, there is not a lot more photography to learn. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant; I know craft can be endlessly refined, but I could take my technical ability and understanding of what makes a pleasing photograph—such as it is—and throw myself into the market. I’m sure I could have some success. But what would I compromise?
Do Not Compromise That
People often talk about compromise in negative terms. I try not to view it that way. All we get to have, do and be in life we make so by hard-fought negotiation, and nothing turns out quite the ideal you had in mind. Take the exposure triangle as a simple example. In digital photography, you can affect exposure using three controls—shutter speed, ISO and aperture. Each of these variables has advantages and trade-offs, and you have to choose what you are willing to sacrifice: noise performance and dynamic range (ISO,) a frozen moment or motion blur (shutter speed,) and depth of field and sharpness (aperture.) Although modern sensors are very good, you can’t have everything at once—whatever camera manufacturers tell you. In some conditions such as high wind speeds or when want to create effects such as smooth water, you may even be limited two, or even one of these camera inputs. In photography as in life, you have to sacrifice one thing to gain something else. Rather than limiting, knowing this can be liberating. Having guidelines helps you determine where to make compromises.
I used to believe that to be a true artist, you needed to be uncompromising. One aspect of the starving artist archetype is the inability to sacrifice the integrity of one’s vision and focus for a day’s pay. This tendency is especially common among musicians, but I see it with martial artists too and I have friends and mentors who embody this trope. Some of these people are so engaged with the truth of their practice—and the resultant worldview—that they refuse to meet their community halfway. Artists seem willing to die, often slowly and by a thousand cuts, for their vision. I see merit in this approach and I go to classes and learn from these obsessive people, but is this the only way? More recently, I have found role models who balance bread-winning with the passion for their craft. Bruce Percy seems like he’s doing this well. Bruce has a defined artistic style and he makes money as a full-time landscape photographer from workshops and prints.
“What would I change if someone was paying me a million dollars to take this photo?” I’m not sure where I read this—it may have been in OnLandscape—but it is hardly an original notion. I know how this question is framed; it is meant to inspire you to pay care and attention to what you are doing and your composition. However, you could read it differently: what if to get paid, you change the wrong thing? The market can be fickle; what if to make your millions, you sacrifice your integrity and abandon what inspires you about photography? I often see professional photographers who I respect taking photos of honeypot locations in different conditions. Doing so is exciting and perhaps they are still really enjoying this, but what if you felt compelled to take these sorts of photos because that’s what sells on market stalls or stock image websites?
In the gallery above the subjects are landmarks. The conditions are fantastic, but none of the images are adventurous in their subject matter. The photos below were all taken since 2020. They represent where my photography is going. Some of them are still of popular locations, but they are much more experimental.
When I came back to the UK from Russia, I thought I knew what I was doing with a camera, yet I look back six years at those images and cringe—and I expect the standards by which I judge my work to continue changing. I would be disappointed if a year from now and I was entirely happy with the images I am taking today.
The last two selections explore two dangers that would concern me if I went professional now:
- Shooting and editing in a certain way to produce a preconceived aesthetic. Of course, creative stagnation can happen as a result of intrinsic forces—because you are afraid to move on from an idea that works—but social expectation plays a large role in how we express ourselves too. Being typecast would be an even greater danger when your work enters the market.
- And being swayed by market forces can lead to more than just the ossification of your style. My favourite images are not the ones that people ‘Ooo’ about. If you wished to make certain money from your work, you might find yourself dutifully returning to honeypot locations seeking premium conditions because that’s what sells, even when being there is an exercise in camera craft rather than interpretation and creativity.
I am in a privileged position right now. Earning my money from something other than photography means I can continue to explore photography in a free and easy way without the need to compromise the wrong thing. I get to explore photography as an artistic enterprise and experiment without market constraints.
Expectations vs Reality
Let’s put those concerns aside for the moment. What if you could earn money from landscape photography while sidestepping the psychological pitfalls we’ve discussed above?
Being a professional landscape photographer does sound appealing. My time would be my own. I could shoot when I want, as much as I want and I would spend my days thinking about photography. But is this realistic? Or a simple and idealistic? Would I spend any more time taking photos as a full-time working professional than I do as a passionate hobbyist? To answer this we need to explore the work-life of a professional landscape photographer.
How do landscape photographers make money? If I were approaching this question fresh, without years of photography behind me, my caricature of a photographer would have been part NatGeo adventurer, part artistic print-maker: a clumsy composite of Steve McCurry and Ansel Adams. But while there was a golden age when it was possible to make money from selling images to magazines and doing commissioned work for companies and trusts, it seems less achievable now. Joe Cornish’s recent article about photographing the Arctic, suggests that even the most established professionals are travelling to places more and more remote to make a living this way. Print sales are similarly difficult. I often see photographers with regular stalls in covered markets selling prints of the local landscape and I am sure you can make money this way. Yet there are so many talented photographers out there and it is hard to carve out a niche and sell in any great volume.
So if print sales, commissions and magazine features are harder to challenge for, how then do nature photographers make money? Looking around, tours seem popular; even the most successful photographers offer workshops: Paul Nicklen takes people out on Zodiacs to photograph killer whales in Norway, Viktoria Haack offers workshops and mentoring, and even David Yarrow—who I had assumed was focused on fine-art printmaking—has a Masterclass online. Writing is an important skill for working photographers to develop too. Guy Tal’s books, articles and blogs are an excellent example of this. In short, as a full-time working professional, you are as much an educator and an author as you are a photographer. I am not making a negative judgement here; just an observation. Being an educator does not make the job any less appealing; I worked as a teacher for a number of years and I enjoy talking to small groups of people and I enjoy writing; but it does tell you where to expect the admin load of professional landscape photography.
For a while, in my mid-20s I planned to start a tea import business. My motivations were based on an idealised vision of the tea trade. In Taipei, there are tea shops everywhere. These tea houses are not like Western cafes, where everyone has their own table and is absorbed in their own activities. Taiwanese tea shops can be quite small—maybe 5m2—and in them, you sit around the tea table with the proprietor. You might be the only guest, or there could be other people too. The ‘tea master’ offers different teas to try. No one is in a rush, and over hours of getting tea drunk together, you put the world to rights. At the end of one of these tea sessions, you buy some tea and take your leave. I have fond memories of this routine. I did it once a week for a couple of years. Not only did I consolidate my spoken Mandarin this way, but I also made lifelong friends. My dream of bringing tea to the UK owed a lot to these experiences of this tea culture.
After I finished university, I returned to Taiwan to rekindle contacts to import tea. On my recce that summer, I told one of my tea friends, Ayi, about my ambition in the hope that I could source tea through her. She politely declined and sat me down with her accountant who was in doing the books that day. The accountant gave me a short lecture about my lack of experience in retail and advised me that the tea business wasn’t romantic. Perhaps I should have listened. Actually, that’s unfair; I did listen, but only to the part about my lack of experience and when I returned to the UK, I looked for a job in tea to learn the trade. I got a job at Canton Tea Company in Bristol.
At first, I enjoyed being immersed in that world, but it didn’t take long to become disillusioned. What I realised about tea retail—especially mail-order online tea trading—is that inventory management is fairly tedious and, with a perishable product like tea it is risky, especially when you scale: Canton’s modus operandi was to buy just the right amount of tea for the year, with most sales coming in the Christmas period. After a season in the trade, numbers on a spreadsheet became more important than the story of tea; the good feeling of the culture I imbibed in Taiwan and China started to evaporate, like water from a kettle with a broken thermostat. I could have saved myself the time if I had listened to Ayi’s accountant, but I needed to learn for myself, and learn I did: being a successful tea trader is about as romantic as flogging bog roll.
I once read an article by Mark Manson about finding your life purpose and one of the subtitles was, What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive? Manson observes that every career path has something negative associated with it. Again, we return to compromise. In Canton Tea Co, I realised that I was unwilling to make the compromises required to run a mail-order tea company in the UK. I might do something related to tea in the future, but it won’t be that. What about photography? While I would be willing to be an educator to make photography a career, what shit sandwich comes with that tasty olive?
The Shit Sandwich(es)
As certain as death and taxes, you will do admin. Even just keeping afloat in society, takes emails and paperwork; think how this translates to managing a business, even as a one-man band. Whether you earn your landscape photography money through selling prints and calendars or running workshops and one-to-one tuition, behind each purchase, there is a lot of legwork.
I’ll take you through the workflow of a print purchase, as I know this best.
- An order comes through my website. This can be the first step, but often a purchase is preceded by an exchange of emails or messages on social media. When social media is involved, it can mean that I have to create a bespoke product. People usually send a message after they have ordered with extra requests. 2-30mins
- I print proof the image on my home printer. This is especially important when it comes to bespoke prints that I have never worked up to print before. Even if I know that an image works well in print, I might still print it out to see that I’m still happy with it. 30-90mins
- Send the file to a local printer that has better-quality, archival ink 2-10mins
- Pick it up from the printers, quality control, package and ship. Sometimes this can all be done in one trip. 40-60mins
So anything between an hour and fifteen minutes and three hours to get a print out of the door. This is not done in one go either. These processes can be spread out over a couple of weeks. (And we won’t mention the hours and days of accumulative time spent planning, taking and editing an image.)
My prints are expensive and I have probably priced myself out of the casual-purchase market and I only sell a handful of prints a year. Maybe it is because I don’t sell prints at scale—and I don’t have the processes smoothed out—but I don’t enjoy the mail-order side of the business. Conversely, Thomas Heaton seems to love the operational side of his business. In a recent video, he documents the Christmas sales rush on calendars and he relishes packaging physical products and sending them. Maybe I would too if I had systems in place and I was shipping enough products. However, the dispatch line was the part of the tea business that really killed the romanticism of tea working at Canton Tea Co.
Ok. So much for prints, what about workshops?
Before we even get into the admin, there are concerns I have about leading tours: (1) Like Theo Bosboom, I worry about the impact badly led tours could have on the environment. The commodification of the natural world can be detrimental to it, and I cringe when I see people geotagging barely known locations on social media. A responsible tour guide could mitigate much of this and steer people carefully in delicate environments, but I have my reservations with nature photography tours nonetheless. (2) I don’t have children yet but if I do, planning workshops and tours around childcare commitments would be difficult. Looking at Bruce Percy’s website he is running seventy-five days of workshops in 2023. Taking travel time into account, eleven weeks away is a lot if you have shared responsibilities at home.
Even if we park those concerns, running tours is a lot of work and responsibility. On the surface, landscape photographers might appear to have little client contact. Granted, unlike wedding photography, there is no danger of attack by a stressed bride, but as the bullet points above demonstrate, even a print sale takes a fair amount of client management. I once had an email exchange of eleven messages. While it might have only taken half an hour in total typing time, it went on for days and took a bit more psychic space than I would have liked. But prints are nothing compared to a workshop.
One-to-one tuition and group workshops may be a less tense working environment than a wedding, but not always. As a tour guide, you would have to prepare themes and lectures, and scout locations to death—you always need plans B, C and D if the weather doesn’t play ball. And there is another pressure. You have brought people to critical environments and critical environments are not without their dangers. A few years ago, there was a widely publicised death on a photography tour in the UK. I am sure that the tour leader took all the necessary precautions and this was a tragic accident. But what a devastating experience for the family and friends of the tourist. Can you imagine how hard the event and the aftermath would have been for the photographer leading the workshop?
If I were to lead a workshop, it would certainly involve coastal work and hiking through tough environments. No amount of waiver forms and insurance documents would shield you from the devastation of human tragedy as the result of a tour that you arranged.
Then—turning from the profound to the banal—there is social media. I have written before about Instagram. Updates—starting in 2019—made this ‘photo-sharing’ app barely useable for landscape photographers. I have a lingering affection for Instagram, but only because I cut my photographic teeth there. In reality, I no longer enjoy posting and doing so has become a chore… Yet running a photography tour service, you couldn’t avoid using Meta’s services. Stories, reels, answering comments and—unavoidably—paid advertising would become a daily grind. And that’s just Instagram and Facebook.
Social media is a hydra and if you rely on it for sales, you would be wise to split your attention between different platforms. At the Landscape Photographer of the Year awards back in autumn, fellow photographers asked me variously for my Flickr, TikTok, 500px and Vero account details. I’m sure each of these platforms has their pros—I’m glad not to deal with the cons.
Regrettably, what sales I make mostly come from Facebook and Twitter. This is a strange reality as I put very little effort into these platforms. If I ranked social media by time and effort expended, Instagram would count for 96% with Twitter making up most of the remainder. There is a good reason for me sticking mostly to Instagram: it is a more community-focused experience, and I rarely dealt with trolls. Facebook groups, on the other hand, can be a toxic nest of vipers—I am amazed by the partisan sniping that goes on in the Landscape Photography group for example. Twitter is no better. Only one of my posts has gone viral, one where I shared a rock that looked like a dragon:
Half the audience thought the rock was a great find. Others shared some surprising thoughts. People variously saw here: proof of the historical reality of dragons (and thought me a fellow traveller), or thought I posted this as proof of dragons (and wished to correct my mistake,) and somehow within these milieux, my post was used in an argument about whether the earth was spheroid—as I have long suspected—or in fact flat.
There is another problem with social media: it is an unreliable marketing stream. There is a lot of chatter about high-profile contrarians being banned on Twitter. But the algorithms that censor social media are capricious and even rule-abiding users have their accounts blocked without warning. One of my friends Edd Cope puts in loads of effort on IG and has been rewarded with followers and business from a successful account. However back in January—without warning—Instagram suspended his account. He managed to get it reinstated for a month, only to be unable to log in again in February. As of writing this, Edd has been unable to regain access. So far he has had no explanation and little or no recourse with Meta customer services. As content creators, we have become used to our reach falling by half when the app changes, but having years of hard work and effort stripped away by an error? If my business relied on the stability of these platforms, I would be tearing my hair out!
Far from doing more photography as a professional, the administration of running a landscape photography business—marketing communication, preparing teaching material for clients on workshops and general business admin—would be the majority of your daily experience. As Mário Cunha notes in his interview in OnLandscape:
“Now I spend more time in nature but don’t be fooled, a professional photographer working alone can’t always be out photographing and having fun. A lot of work has to be done at the office if you want to make a living out of it, especially in the beginning.”
Would I take more photos as a full-time professional landscape photographer? Perhaps. At any rate, I would be thinking and talking about landscape photography more, but would earning money from a passion fund me to take any more photos than my current full-time job? Worse, could the pressure of earning money from photography sap the joy from the activity?
Photography is a funny discipline; while it is both technical and precise, it is also accessible. Consequently perhaps, while photographers can be gear obsessed and technically focused—think trolls who dwell in obscure threads on the DPReview forum—many people aren’t. Some of the images in Eikoh Hosie’s Simmon: a Private Landscape are out of focus or ‘suffer’ from motion blur. Meanwhile, a disposable camera with poor image quality and unflattering direct flash brings people together. In the liberated way they wield a camera, artists and casual shooters capture the emotion and truth of spontaneous moments that you might miss if you are worried too much about technical perfection.
Photography engages both sides of the brain: calculating exposure and fiddling with camera settings can entertain the scientist in us, and at the same time cameras are easy enough that we get to express ourselves without much technical hindrance. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle—we want both a high level of craft and to tell a story.
Telic activities are undertakings with a clear goal: driving home from work, cooking a meal for your family, or reading a work-related email are all telic activities. When I go out to take a photo, I act under mixed motivations. The calculating, categorising part of my brain has a clear goal: I have a composition in mind, or I want to explore somewhere with potential, this part of me will be disappointed if I finish the day without producing a pleasing image. However, when I edit or take photos, I am completely absorbed. When I find something to shoot, I spend hours watching a scene, puzzling out a composition and tweaking my settings as the light changes. I’m so absorbed by photography—whether taking photos or editing them—I don’t listen to audiobooks (and anyone who knows me knows that headphones barely leave my ears.) Although my logical mind is taken up by the mental calculations of producing a nice photo in many ways for me photography is atelic, I do it for the sake of itself, without the end in mind. Although I can have a clear goal in mind, photography is often less about the resulting photo and more about just being out. Landscape photography is an excuse to go on an adventure: I get to explore forests, watch the stars for hours and camp on mountains. Of course, I could do all these things without photography, but sometimes your rational mind needs a mission.
Jennifer Roberts, an art historian at Harvard, sets her graduate students an assignment. Roberts asks them to pick an artwork that hangs in a local gallery. Before researching the painting, her students should go and sit with it for three hours and note their evolving observations. At first, people resist the exercise: “How can there possibly be three hours’ worth of incident and information on this small surface?” However, Roberts’s own experiments with this process reveal that seeing is not as immediate as we assume. Looking at Boy with a Squirrel by John Singleton Copley, Roberts notes:
It took me nine minutes to notice that the shape of the boy’s ear precisely echoes that of the ruff along the squirrel’s belly—and that Copley was making some kind of connection between the animal and the human body and the sensory capacities of each. It was 21 minutes before I registered the fact that the fingers holding the chain exactly span the diameter of the water glass beneath them. It took a good 45 minutes before I realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain are actually perfect copies of the shapes of the boy’s ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs distributing or imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on.
Roberts suggests that giving students permission to spend three hours with artwork helps them slow down and really start to see.
You might argue that I shouldn’t need an excuse to go out and enjoy a sunrise or camp in the hills, but photography is the permission that Roberts gives her students in her classes. Photography offers something to my grasping mind—a goal to play with while I enjoy the decompression of being in nature and experiencing novelty. More than this, spending this amount of time surveying a scene, I start to see connections between different elements in the landscape. The obvious ones are colour and tonal values, but there are texture and compositional relationships too. And there are more subtle interplays and contrasts that I am only starting to notice and I have yet to put into words.
Oh to wake up and enjoy a sunrise without desiring anything. No need for a cigarette. No need to grab the camera and run out the door to find a composition. I gave up smoking over a decade ago, and maybe one day I won’t need to take a camera to give myself permission to be in nature, but right now photography provides a set of rules and constraints that permit me the freedom to explore. In the section on compromise above, I spoke of things that I feared losing by making money from photography, and this is the part that I would least want to sacrifice. What if the pressure of making money from landscape photography meant I could no longer slow down the pace I need to immerse myself in the craft of photography, and in the slowness of nature? To use a popular term, I worry that the mindfulness of photography—or photography as an atelic activity—would be lost in the rush to make a living. Something Sherwood Anderson wrote to his son is relevant here:
“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself. . . . The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you live.”
Although it can sometimes sound like it, ‘amateur’ or ‘hobbyist’ photographer should not be heard as a pejorative. You might keep photography from becoming a financial necessity for many good reasons. We have explored a few above. I’m not sure that earning money from photography increases its presence in our lives by all metrics. In fact, it may diminish some that are important to me. Not everything you master has to become a side hustle.
In many ways, I am glad to be an amateur photographer. Without economic constraints, I have had the freedom to experiment. As much as the end result, I enjoy the process of photography—and where it takes me. I am building an online presence and I continue to work on my writing and photo-making. Perhaps one day I will make more money from this activity, but I don’t feel pressured to do so and I don’t want it ever to become a chore. To make money from photography, you must necessarily treat it instrumentally and it could become a technical exercise where you subjugate art and experience to profit.