Eating Humble Pie – Lessons Imparted

I just finished up (I think?) what I imagine is a common year-end process for new small businesses: I balanced up the books, generated an income statement, starting looking into taxes and potential deductions, polished up my gas mileage log, and generally just took a good deep look at where I had been, where I am now and where I’m heading. The results were mixed. I alternate between content satisfaction and what my sister terms a cyclical “entrepreneurial depression,” cursing the whole darn lot! After a year as a full-time outdoor freelance photographer I’m only now entering a period where I can truly assess my strengths and weaknesses as a business, and because I’m a sole proprietor what that really means is a point where I feel adequate enough to assess my own strengths and weaknesses as a person. The process of self-evaluation is exceedingly uncomfortable and requires a degree of vulnerability that I’m not personally accustomed to, at least outwardly in a public sense.  This is my story; it’s my only one.  I don’t know where it goes or what the ending is, but this is where I’m at right now.


PHOTOGRAPHIC PHILOSOPHY: towards a project-centric, focused effort to represent place
I had high hopes of being more mobile this coming year, seeing many new areas and seeing the familiar ones more often. In hindsight, I begged and borrowed my way into travel funds in 2014, often times moving about the landscape using monies that were generated not through business successes but through the sale of personal items and/or through the result of lifestyle changes that eliminated liabilities and allowed more discretionary income in the short-term. I essentially infused the business with one-time funds to make last year a reality! Coming into 2015, all travel funds must come from business profits, and that’s after expenses, savings, and Uncle Sam sweeps through and takes their fairish share. In 2014 I did not draw any salary from the business. It was difficult enough to meet minimum account balances while feeding the necessary professional and governmental agencies required of being a business. Fuel and automobile expenses (which are two of the most consistent and sizeable expenses) came from my own personal savings. In 2015, fuel and automobile expenses must come from profits, and thus, in 2015 I will be required to make enough (and to make it consistently enough) to pull a salary. The net results for 2015 in terms of mobility go something like this: the wings are grounded; travel is suspended. In the past, if some weather-related condition made things interesting I was in the car chasing light—I can’t do that this year. I wish I could, but it’s time to be more focused. I’ve got to be far more strategic about when I leave and where I go if I’m to survive another year of this adventure.


These financial pressures have created a new project-centric mindset for me, changing the very way that I’ll be traveling and shooting in 2015. Excluding a handful of trips that I’ll be able to experience with family and friends that are on the books for 2015, any time I head out on my own for a sizable trip (overnight) I’ll be asking the question: “How would a successful shot(s) from this location fit into a broader project / theme that could help to define me as a photographer?” I’ve taken the time to come up with a fairly deep list of project / portfolio themes that could develop into unified pieces of work with the potential for multiple income streams. I’m moving away from the single-image, fine-art sort of mindset that has been an uncomfortable and handed-down shoe to start with, and into a more focused, project-type of photography that will align more seamlessly with who I am as an artist, as well as hopefully allow me to create deeper works in the near future. More on this as I develop the various areas and ideas!


With a more focused, project-centric strategy, the danger exists to become so intentional with my photography that I might pass by, overlook, or pay no attention to opportunities that don’t fall within the parameters of my goals—essentially, to lose spontaneity and the magic of the moment. Thus, I do not want my focus to reach as deep as say the subject level (waterfalls, landmarks, etc.), but to stay at a broader place-based level. I’ve always considered myself to be a place-based photographer providing images that accurately illustrate and excite others to experience, understand and enjoy places as more than just collections of man-made structures and surface-level attractions. More focus in my photography efforts will hopefully allow me to develop stronger bodies of work representing specific places. Author David duChemin writes in his book, A Beautiful Anarchy, that “creativity has always happened best within constraints. For the artist, a lack of constraints would be paralyzing” (p.88). So, perhaps my financial constraints in 2015, will, through a more strategic photography philosophy, allow me to become more productive and successful as a business in the coming years.


PRODUCTIVITY PARAMETERS: Redefining standards of success in a constrained environment
My youth was spent involved in a continuous annual rotation of team sports where I learned experientially the value of practice, and more importantly, the process of developing habits. As a photographer, I’ve always placed a high premium on practice: on getting outside and actuating the shutter, over and over again, becoming intimately familiar with myself and with my gear to the point where capturing an image should be instinctual—a trained autopilot that should enable my thoughts to wonder towards deeper artistic concerns while conditions are present in the landscape instead of occupying my mental space with trivial technical jabber like what aperture or tripod height or ISO I should be set on. As such, I often kept an eye on my monthly shutter actuations this past year to measure whether or not I was engaging what I considered craft ‘practice’. While I still firmly believe in practicing consistently behind the camera (and within the darkroom for that matter), I need to reconfigure and expand my success parameters in light of this year’s financial constraints: more and more actuations must be rounded out with broader success parameters that are more holistic, as well as parameters that can, more importantly, be accomplished within my new financial restraints.


In 2014, my heaviest shooting months were March, June and October with shutter actuations of 2800+, 3500+ and 6000+ respectively. This is logical as these months represent the times of heightened seasonal change in my primary shooting regions—spring color in the Lowcountry of South Carolina (March/April); spring color on the highest peaks of the Southern Appalachians(June); and autumn color along the entire spine of the Appalachians(October). In comparison, my average shutter actuation numbers for the remaining nine months of the year averaged only 650/month with my least active month occurring in August 2014 where I literally did not even pick up the camera.  The question I really need to answer is whether or not my most productive months (in terms of my best photography of 2014) occurred during these three months–another review to conduct!  Moving into the coming year of extremely limited funding for travel, fuel and automobile expenses, I’ve got what appears to be nine months where I can (and should) shift my concentration from the capture of photographs to other valuable business activities. My profits should be preserved as much as possible for travel and fuel during the three months of March, June and October when I’ve historically had the best opportunities to capture the largest number of photographs to fuel my portfolio. I want to be out every single day. Reality dictates otherwise. At least when I do go out, I know when I have the best chance to maximize my dollars and experience the greatest return on my personal investment.


Some other business activities that I can use to measure success other than shutter actuations include: words/pages/chapters/books read; words/pages/articles/blogs written; images shared/placed in front of potentially interested parties; marketing/selling/printing images; new clients/organizations/relationships etc. Any activity that allows me to advance my business without large financial input is fair game and should be pursued. And any activities that could allow me to travel and shoot without incurring complete financial responsibility during those nine “down” months should be approached honestly and enthusiastically. As I gain experience, I’ll be able to focus my mix of non-shooting activities to those which have the greatest return on investment, as sterile as that may sound.


TRAVEL PHILOSOPHY: from vacation mindset to a lifestyle engagement
I adopted a travel philosophy without much thought as I transitioned from an amateur photographer to a full-time, hoping-to-earn photographer in 2014—what I’ve heard called a vacation mindset. Basically, there is a home base–be it a permanent location or a hotel room / rental property–from which I would depart, travel to a wild location, lick the surface of what’s there, and then head back to the comforts of the aforementioned. The inefficiency arises in the enormous amount of time and dollars spent traveling to and fro from home base to trail head. Even when I camped on or near location last year, it was only for a maximum of a few days typically—no more than a week. If I’m going to be truly successful at outdoor photography I need to get away from the vacation mindset and into the outdoors as a lifestyle. I’ve got to have the physical gear and the mental fortitude to spend extended periods of time on the spot, waiting, watching, learning, and capturing the place. Both efficiency and effectiveness would likely spike in the positive direction with this strategy. In 2015 I need less vacation and more lifestyle: when I do get the privilege of traveling, it’s time to be what I project…outdoors.


MICROSTOCK: away from royalty-free and towards premium stock outlets
This one is difficult for me. I participate in the royalty-free microstock photography markets—Istock, Shutterstock, Dreamstime etc. And I don’t make any apologies for my participation. Plenty of folks have strong opinions on microstock photography and on its overall effect on the photography industry, specifically the downward pressure it theoretically places on those trying to make a living behind the camera. When I started in with microstock (2011) my photography was not good. I was just not a great photographer. I used the reviewers and the community of these various agencies as free coaches—part of a more comprehensive strategy to better myself and my photography. I allowed them to advise me on what aspects of my imagery needed to be improved (white balance, sharpness, subject placement, subject choices). Granted, all advice/criticism has to be taken with a grain of salt and an understanding of purpose, and microstock rejections without the aforementioned perspective, I promise you, can become especially onerous! Microstock helped me become a better photographer. By 2013 my images were competing with the big dogs of the agencies for search placement rankings (for whatever that is worth) and I was beginning to see consistent interest in terms of downloads. Microstock confirmed that I had a commercially viable product in my photography. In 2014 I licensed over five thousand files through various microstock photography agencies and settled into a predictable and consistent monthly income that was not insignificant. Microstock quite literally paid my bills last year while other earnings were erratic and inconsistent. I have no regrets about microstock. However, my strategy going forward needs to evolve–and evolve away from microstock as a primary earning source.


I’ve done some research and reached out to a few agencies over the past year or so regarding switching over to rights-managed stock which is largely considered the most professional way to engage the licensing market. However, placing images with agencies that sell rights-managed stock is generally conditional on a beautiful little term known as exclusivity—you will only sell licenses for an image through one agency and one agency only. All direct licensing must cease. In terms of risk, rights-managed stock would be considerable for me. Three-quarters (75%) of my business would be, essentially, out of my own control if I shifted all licensing over to the exclusive, rights-managed game. That makes me a bit anxious to say the least. The upsides of rights-managed stock are fairly self-explanatory: each license is matched to a specific use and thus the quantity paid to the artist is matched more effectively with the value being extracted from a photograph for each specific use. Complexity is decreased (with a prescriptive template detailing prices for each various use there is no more different rates for different people based on infinitely different factors, and the process is handled from cradle to grave through a third-party, freeing up your time for other business activities). The equity/fairness of pricing your photos is theoretically increased as a result as well. When sales do occur, earnings are substantially (and I do mean substantially) higher. As a branding strategy, your photographs are now considered of higher quality (whether they truly are or not), more exclusive, and better protected. As a photographer, you’re now considered more professional (again, whether you are or not). Rights-managed agencies set-up the rules to essentially shift the game from success through quantity (royalty-free) to success through best-fit (rights-managed).


Many folks try their hand at using the rights-managed stock approach without an agency (and thus, without the exclusivity and split royalties) by setting up a personal PhotoShelter site or some equivalent. However, unless you’ve got the clout of an Art Wolfe or you’re some other marketing guru with an enormous following and lots of time to reach out to and engage the market, the loss of the agent/agency in representing and pushing your work to the art buying public is considerable. There are also a crop of newly created “premium” royalty-free stock agencies making a play in the market, such as Offset and Stocksy that do not require exclusivity but pay considerably higher royalties and rates. However, as with all premium offerings, a photograph that has been sold through a non-premium royalty-free agency in the past (Shutterstock, Istock etc.) is not eligible to ever be used again in premium or rights-managed agencies. The image is considered spent…used up. Thus, most of my past portfolio is relegated to stay in the royalty-free market until it burns out. For a while I was sending in applications to these agencies and getting either no response or flat rejections and I couldn’t figure out why! I was viewing their offerings from similar areas and screaming at the screen, “We can make money together! I’ve got that covered. Let’s do this!” However, my work was obviously disqualified for its presence on other agencies—why would someone buy a $250.00 license when they could pay $10.00 to Shutterstock for the same photo? Which raises a similar question in reviewing my year one business: Why would individuals continue to license directly through me at higher rates when they could use one of the various microstock agencies representing my work to get the same photograph for a fraction of the price? And what does this dual pricing strategy say about my integrity as an artist/person when I’m invoicing one individual for one price while allowing others to purchase the same photo for the same uses (or more) for a different price somewhere lese? Confused yet? Which brings me to the present conundrum: I have a small, but well-earning portfolio on microstock sites that will earn for however long it will (who knows?). And I, very frankly, need those earnings really badly! Really badly. On the flip side, I’m shooting at a higher level, with better gear, and an advancing understanding of how to represent a place visually. Newly created photographs (those produced in 2015 going forward) need to be placed in as many earning markets as possible if I’m going to find any measure of success. In 2015 I want to explore placement with non-exclusive royalty-free agencies first, and perhaps even test my toes in the rights-managed, exclusive market if I become so brave. Either way, it’s time to present a different image, both literally and metaphorically.


LABELS – finding a definition that works for me
Fine art. I’ve always disliked the descriptor. Telling others that I create fine art photography has never felt good. It makes me cringe actually. Somehow the sweating, bleeding, cursing, muddy, freezing, wet, rough, rugged reality of outdoor photography doesn’t jive with my personal concept of a fine art artist. I think of jewelry or crystal or otherwise fragile things when I hear the word “fine.” Outdoor photography, for me, is smelly hiking boots, vehicles that welcome gravel and puddles and mud, tripods and camera gear that are scratched, dented and beat to hell with stories of certain doom, and people who are salt of the earth, seeking the worst weather conditions imaginable with a sort of humility and deep respect for the places they experience and the conditions they witness. There’s nothing fragile or clean or refined about the process of obtaining great landscape photography, so why would we label the finished product as such? Or ourselves? I mean no offense to those who utilize the descriptor, “fine art photographer.” Outdoor photography and fine art just don’t fit well for me personally!


I’ve decided to describe what I do as place-based photography and who I am as simply an outdoor photographer. My passion, no matter the location, is to understand place at a foundational level: the land; the water; the interaction of the natural landscape and the man-made elements that invariably exist around and within. I don’t make any special efforts to eliminate the hand of man or to make a place seem more wild than it actually is. I strive, quite simply, to understand my surroundings and my place within them, and then to communicate that understanding through the visual art form of photography. My aspiration is not to simply portray beauty. I don’t want to have the brightest photography or the most catchy photography. It doesn’t matter if my photographs are not the first to be seen on a wall of many. I want more than anything to be accurate and honest with my interpretation of place, whatever that means to me and the place at any given moment. Sometimes it just happens to be beautiful. Others, not so much. I’ve chosen to chase a brand of photography that is non-HDR, single-exposure, lightly developed and focused more on creative composition and moments of magic more so than artist rendition or interpretation after-the-fact. If National Geographic were to ever call for one of my images and ask for the digital raw as well to confirm the authenticity of the scenic, I want that opportunity to be one that I’m not only prepared for but that I welcome with a smile.  I want to be transparent with my artwork.  I want the magic not to come from my ability to create digital artwork, but from my connection with a given landscape at a particular moment.  That is not to speak ill of those who enjoy high-dynamic range photography or layering or any other means to capture the greatest range of values possible with today’s technology. My choices are simply my own policy manual…my own set of guidelines to navigate the photography market for however long I’m around to participate.


Why is putting what I do into words important? Refer to lesson one on obtaining better focus with myself and my craft! It’s important that in 2015 I become more vocal about the brand of photography that I wish to personally practice, and that I give those who follow my work a clear and concise understanding of what I do and how I do it (mission, vision, values etc.).  There are thousands upon thousands of tremendously talented artists creating outdoor landscape photography at this very moment, and I don’t have a single bad word to say about them.  In fact, I enjoy their work and gain inspiration from their vision and their words.  I encourage you wholeheartedly to get involved with those whose work strikes a cord with you:  comment, favorite, like, and otherwise encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing.  My job, at the most basic level, is to make what I do as clear and easy to understand as possible such that you can decide whether your time and energy (and perhaps even your dollars) are worth the investment in me as one of your artist to follow.


2014 was an exciting year. 2015 will surely be the same, although for entirely different reasons I’m sure. Month-to-month, year-to-year comparisons are already showing marked differences in January. The only question that remains now is…good or bad?

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