Professional Landscape Photographer?? You wish!

I’m often amused (and jealous for that matter) when I met somebody who claims to be a professional landscape photographer. I mean, why not, how hard can it be? You take a few photos, sell them and VIOLA! You’re a professional landscape photographer!

But seriously, how many photographers out ther are making money, and I mean serious money, out of landscape photography??? I know of four here in Australia – Peter Lik (USA), Ken Duncan (NSW), Christian Fletcher (WA), and Steve Parish (i’ve included Steve Parish here although I classify his photography more as travel photography than world-class landscape photography). To take a decent landscape photograph, find a buyer, then sell it for a decent price is not easy. I mean, if it was, everyone would be doing it. Although are they already, given that many people I run into are “professional landscape photographers.”

Let’s take a look at the definition of a professional landscape photographer. The Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP) classifies a professional photographer as someone who earns the majority of their income (ie. over 50%) from their photography. Now there may be some out there who earn 50% of their income from photography, but is this all from landscape photography, thereby classifying them as professional landscape photographer? I doubt it.

Others would argue that their landscape photography is of a professional standard, which I have no doubt it is, and therefore they can claim to be professional landscape photographers. Not in my eye. For being a successful photographer is more than just taking professional photographs. Many students who come to me for advice on how to make it in the world of photography. I’m always emphasising the need to run a successful business first, take professional photographs second. There are plenty of professional photographers out there who take fabulous photographs who are penniless.

In an article 10 years ago, Peter Lik said that he wanted to be the most successful landscape photographer in the world. A high goal indeed. One that I doubted would come true – many people claim that they want to be the best, or the most successful, but don’t have the skill, courage, tenacity, or business nouse to make it. But I believe he is close to achieving this goal. Sure, his photography may not be the best in the world in his field, however his created a highly desirable product in many different markets to be a very successful photographer. He gets paid to take landscape photographers! What a life!!!

Being a professional landscape photographer is not about taking world-class, professional landscape photographs in my mind. It’s about identifying opportunities to market your product, shooting prolifically, and selling product (and heaps of it). Why heaps? Because there’s lots of beautiful landscape photography out there, and with so much available and little uniqueness to the imagery, the price is driven down by oversupply. It’s a low margin, high volume game.

Happy shooting!

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~ by Tom Putt on January 20, 2009.

30 Responses to “Professional Landscape Photographer?? You wish!”

  1. Great article! Making a living from selling any kind of art is hard indeed, landscape photography is probably the hardest area of photography to make a living in. Also one of the hardest areas of photography to master. As Ansel Adams said it is the ultimate test of the photographer and often ultimate disappointment. Even Ansel himself did commercial work to support his landscape shooting. But it’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great – to paraphrase Tom Hanks in League of Their Own ๐Ÿ™‚

    I agree about your definition of being a pro landscape photographer. I also agree that running a successful business is the first priority and super hard and has nothing to do with being a great photographer. I work half the week in IT and sell my landscapes the other half of the time (so I call myself semi-pro hehe) and I spend much more time running my business than I do shooting photos. Running a business takes a lot of commitment. Also, just because one can shoot it doesn’t mean one can sell it! Often we need help with that, I know I do, I can shoot the photos but need someone with marketing skill to sell them!

    Great and interesting read, thanks mate!

  2. Who was it that ticked you off?

    I’m only new to the game of photography.
    I live in the Grampians, I believe a niche exists for high quality photographic work in this area, whether it is provided by a pro or not.
    Retail wise, in a tourist town you will always sell a huge proportion more of the shitty quality work by a Steve Parish, Nucolorvue or Travellers Notes. It is the most frustrating thing a professional photographer would possibly find.
    That is why you need to find your niche and work on it.
    It would be fantastic to have tourists pop into a gallery after their visit on their way home to purchase high quality work.

    My classification of a professional photographer is a person that commits 100% of their working life to the photography industry.
    Hobbyist, enthusiast, amateur, semi-pro or professional.

    I class myself in these three categories: hobbyist, enthusiast, amateur. I have met a few real professional photographers, but I have also met a lot of frauds.

    Most photographers dream is to have a gallery or their own, I have other priorities before that dream.

  3. Good read Tom and well said, I think your right on most counts.

    There seems to be a new “Landscape Photographer ” pop up nearly every other day and quite a few gallerys around as well, I always wonder how they make a living. It seems that all you have to do is buy a digital camera, take a few shots and bingo your a “Landscape Photograhper”.

    Christian Fletcher would have to be the most prominent landscaper going around over here in WA and he runs several slick galleries ( in between trying to keep up his sexy image ) and anyone who has seen his work would know the quality of it. I’m sure it’s not an easy gig and staying ahead of the pack is probably the name of the game.

    As for me , well I just take a few shots for the shear enjoyment of it , I like some of them and a few make it onto my wall but most never see the light of day.

    Good luck with your own pursuits.

  4. Good article Tom and I do agree with you. The term professional photographer these days is quite a loose term that a lot seams to use as soon as they register an ABN and get them selves a .com.au

    I think it is mostly used as a marketing tool for prospective buyers to read “Hey this guy says he is a professional” just like some people state on their websites that they are “A house hold name” and or “Internationally renowned”. It is all about marketing yourself. I remember someone telling me there was a life size photo of Peter Lik in the international airport here in Sydney years ago and it stated, “I am the world best photographer” bull shit “Yes” great for marketing… “Yes”.

    Taking a good photograph is the easy part, making a living from it is what keeps you up at night. I have been shooting landscapes for about 9 years and my work has been the same quality after the first year. Now I do landscapes on a full time basis and it is my soul income and it is only in the last three years I was calling myself a professional landscape photographer and when I did I felt proud to do so.

    Great article.

  5. Well said Tom, I think what Thomas had to say made a lot of sense and I think this applies to any business, 100% commitment and the rewards will come eventually if you stick at it. It,s taken me 25 years to get to this point in my business ( steel fabrication )
    but it,s been fun.
    I always have a giggle when I check out Nick Melidonas,s web site and he has that quote from Elliot Erwitt that says
    It,s about time we take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.
    that,s how I treat my photography.
    cheers Pete.

  6. Nice article Tom.

    I think the term professional gets used and abused to its own detriment. I always liked the term “Photographer” or “Landscape Photographer”

    Never heard of a “Professional Electrician” or “Professional Doctor” Could I be called a “Professional Website Marketer” because I have been making a living from the internet since 1998 ? No … I am just a small business owner, just like the local sparkie/ brickie or doctor, only my business tool is the keyboard.

    We all know Lik has the marketing pretty much licked “pun intended” and more power to him. I wish there was 100 more just like him, it would make the idea of selling a photograph more palatable to the general market.

    Best place as they say to start a hamburger stand is next door to a hamburger stand. When I finally realized this life became pretty damn sweet and enabled me to pursue another stream of income and for me its al about streams flowing into a river.

    Just my 2 cents …

    Spool

  7. mate I’m flattered to be put in the same league as the other three, however I am still the best looking,,,, how about the best looking professional Landscape photographer who make 50% of his living from photography and the other 50% from just looking good. Mate you are halfway there!

  8. Thank you to everyone (except you Fletcher) for your thoughtful comments on this post.

    Firstly I must say that no one has ticked me off and I haven’t got a carrot stuck up my bum about this one. It’s more a comment I’m making in light of the fact that I’m beginning my journey as a full time landscape photographer and the exciting challenges of creating a business around that. There are many opportunities, I feel, that are out there for professional landscape photography to be marketed, and my post here was also a comment on how little the market is being serviced well.

    Again, there are many photographers out there calling themselves professional landscape photographers, but if they are, why haven’t I heard alot about them? Where is there work? How are they selling it if I’m not seeing it? etc etc. Most love taking landscapes, as I do, but many of their images will never see the light of day and that’s fine for them. But if they’re looking to making a living out of their landscape photography, and call themselves professional landscape photographers by my definition, they won’t make any money by having their images sitting in a draw or on their hard drives…

    Now a fellow professional landscape photographer pointed out to me that in fact by mentioning the likes of Lik and Duncan that I was referring to Fine Art Landscape Photography, as oppose to landscape photography, which is true. In that case, I would promptly remove Parish from my list (which is ok too – he’s seemingly done very well from his own publishing business. Horses for courses).

    As some of you have pointed out also, every second person wants to call themselves professional landscape photographers, but for most of them, I don’t see professionalism in their work and I don’t see it in the way they conduct themselves, both online and offline.

  9. Hey Tommy, how about the best looking, most talented, biggest ego’d burger eating professional landscape photographer! There would only be one of them in Australia if not the world………………………you guessed it, me!!!

  10. Your right again with this reply Tom…………..Fletch , you’ve got hold of yourself !!!!!

  11. Thanks Merv.

    I think the problem with Fletch is that he’s got too firm a hold on it, if u know what I mean!!!

  12. yep the best squirrel gripping landscape photographer on the planet!

  13. Interesting post peoples and Tommy P.
    The road to being a landscape photographer seems to be one paved by only a few, walked by many (many of whom perish along the way, some mercifully quick and others slow and painfully…some just get malaria, but I digress), and pondered by thousands.
    If you wannabe a wannabe Lik or Duncan, there are gonna be tears. Their models worked for them for so many reasons that are simply no longer valid. Think laterally and you can pave your own road, or just take the damn chopper if it works better…catch my drift?
    Regarding definitions, I’d be hesitant to say, for example, that a writer isn’t a writer if they’re not JK Rowling, but there’s a lot of professional writers I haven’t heard of. I was in the US recently and stumbled across a photographic gallery of some guy I’d never laid eyes on, and his work was amazing. It was a delightful surprise not to have him tell me he was the best in the world. He just said he enjoyed it more than anything and evidently people buy it (his prices were also higher than Lik’s, interestingly). Then I met a guy last week who spent a career photographing roads and trees for the Dept of Roads and Infrastructure here in SA…all landscape work and all professional (that’s the distinction Tommy was referring to between fine art and not, I think)
    However, inflating credentials for the sake of marketing is common, and does make me cringe too, but it’s also very transparent and doesn’t get people very far in the long run. A customer won’t slap down 5 figures for photos if you’re credentials don’t actually check out.
    Of course, I should say that if you wannabe a wannabe Christian Fletcher then I understand completely as he’s pretty hot. He’s in my girlfriend’s top 5 which I’m not happy about ๐Ÿ˜‰ She thinks his work is good too which doesn’t help, thanks Fletch!

  14. Interesting topic Tom. I certainly know of a few more landscape photographers here in Australia that are able to make a living out of their chosen profession ๐Ÿ˜‰ Funny enough, none of those photographers actually call themselves professional landscape photographers.

    Also, you use the term “serious money”. For the likes of Peter Lik, Ken Duncan et al, that is probably true but to be a successful landscape photographer does not have to equate to “serious money”, for most, being able to have a comfortable living and doing something you are passionate about is actually plenty. You will probably find that is the same of a majority of small business owners, regardless of trade.

    Anyway, good luck with the new endeavours and I’m looking forward to the announcement of the opening of your new gallery ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Sorry David, what can I say, your girlfriend has taste. See Tom a 43 year old grey haired washed up photographer can still be successful. maybe you should dye your hair or shave it off! Would be a start!

  16. Interesting Read, Ive had it sometimes when out shooting people ask are you a professional and I always so no I just do it for the fun, to be honest I dont mind what people refer to me as, I think Pro in Photography is a prety broad definition, But I know who I think are Pros and they are the Photogs Who inspire me haha :).

  17. Everybody at school thinks im a pro but i dont have the honesty to direct them to this post.

  18. Hey Tom great article, I fully agree with the ‘business’ aspect of professional photography of any kind. Sure Peter Lik isnt greatest photographer, I reckon he’s one of the smartest though!

  19. Hi Tom

    Interesting article but i felt a bit saddened that we are measuring success by a monetary level. For me Duncan Lik and Parish are way down the bottom, they are purely marketing machines so does this make them the best we have ?? Peter Domrovskis and Olagas Truchanas ( 2 of my heros ) dedicated their lives to photography and the environment but didn’t make a huge amount of money from it, so does this make Peter Lik more SUCCESSFUL. Not in my view….
    At the end of the day i hope I am remembered for the images I made not the amount of money I have made.

    Cheers Dean

  20. Hi Dean thanks for your comment. I choose to measure my success on a monetary level because I feel there are great opportunities to make money from landscape photography, probably better now more than ever. Duncan, Lik and Parish have thrusted landscape photography into the mainstream, and people are now buying it (not just in books), but as artwork. Yes they are good marketers which allows them to make a living from landscape photography.

    Why not be remembered for your work AND make a healthy living from it also??? I believe you CAN have your cake and eat it too! See you at APPA.

  21. hang on… you forgot WA’s own Richard Woldendorp… Pro ariel landscape photographer

  22. Thanks Stacky we don’t hear much about him over here but yes, a legend of the industry…

  23. Hi Tom,
    I by no means think of myself as a ‘professional’ photographer and find this evident when I look at work from the likes of Christian Fletcher, Peter Lik and even yourself. I hold a high regard and gain inspiration from you and your work and thank you for that. However I do apply myself to my work and strive for professionalism in the ‘quality’ of my work and in my approach.

    Although I am unsure where my photography will take me, I am enjoying immensely the path I have finally settled on; which I strived for from before the beginning of my working career. I chose to study fine arts whilst work professionally within business first, gaining the benefit of knowledge of business operations whilst refining my eye for art, composition and techniques of a variety of ‘instruments’ to create it with i.e. painting, illustrating and photography alike.

    I feel these skills have provided me with an edge and a kickstart to my photographic business venture ensuring a solid foundation to build on.

    I am aware however some pro photographers are of the opinion that unless you started as a photographer from the outset, you’re not ‘worthy’ of being one, especially a professional one! Their point being that you’ve not really applied yourself and that a mere conversion to the profession doesn’t count. I’m not totally in agreement on this but perhaps he had a point? I guess for this and reasons you have mentioned as well, I am with the understanding that to be a professional landscape photographer, it takes a plenty lot more than a bit of skill, application and especially more than throwing the words ‘professional’ out there for a mere marketing ploy.

    But similar to what another mentioned on here earlier; I am passionate, I love what I do and I love learning (which is most important in photography), being outdoors, planning landscape ventures, talking photography, being inspired by others and the natural landscapes around us here.
    On a personal level if all I get out of it is the sheer enjoyment and satisfaction that I get each day, that others can appreciate (and fund :)) along the way, then so be it and I’d go tomorrow sensationally happy ๐Ÿ™‚
    On a professional level (as in business) a little more than satisfaction is always welcome and definite strategy is in place!

    My two bobs. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Laura

  24. Hi Guys
    This has been a great article and great replies, I agree with Laura above, any form of art/photography is a way of self expression, ultimately the artist\photographer tells a story. So in saying that the guys like Duncan & Lik have understood how to tell the story through their work and draw the viewer (buyer) in and form the emotional link. From the business side Duncan, Lik are the masters in marketing, look behind the marketing smoke screen and you will find passion and purpose, they understand the journey they are on. Success leaves clues, study these guys, and you to could be sharing in the success as well.
    Cheers Matt

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  28. What a load of rubbish! There’s so much crap out there in terms of ‘composition that sells’ that you’re advocating for that! I’ve seen some of the worst photos being sold to the public that should be thrown in the garbage: Poorly composed, poorly processed and the worst of the lot: blurred and pixelated and they pass it off as “professional work”. That’s crap! Julius Shulman was a professional photographer and he believed first and foremost that you had to make great images first and be able to sell them second. If all you do is make and sell garbage, then you’re not a ‘professional photographer’ your simply a really successful garbage salesman!

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