Nature has to be among the most popular of subjects for photography enthusiasts. Unlike a model, a tree on a hill doesn’t complain about the cold, a sunset will arrive exactly when you expect it to and you often need to do little more than point and shoot to capture all the beauty you can see. You don’t even have to go looking for it. A photogenic scene can strike you on the way home on the daily commute or during a stroll on a Sunday afternoon. That’s why the keenest photographers carry a camera with them wherever they go. It takes something special to create pictures as exceptional as Ansel Adams’s but a personal gallery of breathtaking nature photographs is something available to any photography enthusiast even as they’re still learning the ropes. The troubles begin when you want to sell them.
Because nature is such a popular topic and one relatively easy to do reasonably well, the supply of images is always huge while the demand is always minimal. Microstock companies, for example, consistently state that the subjects most required by buyers are business images. A search for “nature” on iStockPhoto however, turns up over 870,000 results; a search for “business” produces fewer than 330,000 photos.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no demand at all. Photographs that offer something unique will always find it easier to attract buyers. Even posting an exceptional image on Flickr can attract the attention of photo editors as Steve Jurvetson famously discovered when he uploaded a picture of an eagle chomping on a mouse’s head. The photo was printed in Maxim.
Café Owners Love Art
A more reliable sales channel for nature photographers is the art market—which also happens to be one of the toughest markets to crack. Gallery owners who rely on regular sales to pay the bills will be particularly choosy but there are other ways in. Cafes and restaurants are increasingly willing to display photos on their walls, are frequently undersubscribed and often pass the entire sales price to the photographer without taking a commission. Gallery owners will take half. One owner of a café franchise which was displaying images of underwater photography told us that his business provides wall space “because we love art.” Requests come from the photographers themselves—the café doesn’t seek exhibitors—but they only come occasionally and usually from young photographers. Although not as prestigious as a gallery opening, the exhibitions are usually interesting enough to pick up some local media attention—and sales with no expenses other than the cost of printing and framing.
Art fairs are another good outlet, attended by buyers on the lookout for attractive images to hang on their walls. Places are usually limited and expenses can be high though. You’ll need an exhibition tent to display your photos and a broad enough selection in a range of different prices to suit customers with different budgets. Results vary but it’s not unusual to walk away with four-figure profits and, if the fair is juried and your images good enough, a line on your resume interesting enough to attract the attention of a gallery owner in the future. Many gallery owners consider exhibiting at a juried art fair a sign that the photographer is ready for a more formal exhibition space.
Pick a Natural Niche
One way to generate lots of sales at an art fair is to make sure that your images match the theme of the fair. The Napa Wine and Crafts Fair, for example, is mainly attended by locals, and uses the local wine industry as its theme. According to Craig Smith, a spokesman for the event, “all things wine and wine-related do well.” Artists who exhibit at the juried show make an average of $1,500 to $2,000 in sales, he says.
That niching works well outside exhibition spaces too, whether those spaces are in cafes or at fairs. One of the most satisfying sales outlets for nature photographers is books but these tend to sell best when you’re pitching not just the quality of the photographers but the subjects they portray. John Fielder self-published a calendar showing Colorado landscapes in 1981, a venture that led him to create his own small publishing company. Altogether, he produced 39 books in 28 years, all but six them about his state. He also focused on environmental themes, relying on the publicity he would receive from conservation groups to help him promote the books. With environmentalism now a fashionable topic, it shouldn’t be too hard for a nature photographer to pick a theme that supports a position and wins press coverage.
Other photographers find that focusing on one animal—such as horses—that they know best allows them to specialize in a particular way of shooting, become known within their market, build up the connections that enable them to find subjects and win commissions… and indulge their love of photography with their passion for their subject.
Taking portraits for stable owners might not be quite as romantic as standing in a meadow shooting wild stallions, but in practice, equine photographers may well find themselves doing both. As Rachel Waller, a professional equine photographer, told us:
“I have been knee deep in mud, asleep with hay in my hair, made peace and now embrace the dust, been smack dab in the middle of wild stallions fighting on the range, and stood in a field with a herd passing me at a thunderous speed (I can still feel the wind in my hair from that one!), up all night waiting on a foal birth to photograph and if I didn’t love horses, I wouldn’t have experienced any of that or captured some of the most amazing moments in my life.”
For nature photographers, those amazing moments are always the best reason to pull out their cameras. If it’s hard to make a living out of photographer with even popular subjects such as weddings and portraits, it’s a real struggle to turn a love of the wild into work that can pay the mortgage. If you’re looking to supplement your income by doing something you love though, then what you see can bring you a little extra cash.