The Most Surprising Amateur Photography Success Stories

Image: Twitpic

When a picture sells, it’s traditionally the result of plenty of planning, lots of practice and years of professional training. The low cost of professional quality digital cameras, the ability to show the results on the Internet, and the rise of microstock have now made it more common for buyers to license pictures from talented enthusiasts. But sometimes, those sales are more than an occasional purchase by a Web designer with a small budget. Occasionally, an amateur will break through and create the kind of pictures that land a big client, a ton of attention, a pile of cash — or all three.

Kevin Bauman’s Houses

Kevin Bauman used to be a professional photographer. For five years, he had been shooting architectural images, product photography and lifestyle jobs for businesses in the Michigan area. As the economy sank though, work began to dry up and Kevin turned to Web development as an alternative line of business.

But he didn’t give up photography entirely. As he traveled around Detroit, he would take pictures of the empty homes abandoned by former residents trying their luck elsewhere. The houses were shot front-on without adornment or any attempt to make them look better than they appeared to someone driving by.

Kevin built a collection of the photos then placed them online, offering the prints for $35 with a portion of the fee going to charity.

The pictures were noticed by The New York Times who ran a story about them, delivering around 8,000 visitors to Kevin’s website in a single day. He sold almost 70 pictures that week alone.

“It has generated quite a bit of interest, and because of it I’ll be donating a lot more money to a few Detroit charities than I ever would have without the project, but I don’t think it’s actually done much of anything to change people,” Kevin told us. “Maybe it could serve as a warning. Maybe that warning would be, ‘prepare for the future.’ Detroit didn’t.”

Vanessa Dualib’s Fruit and Veg

When illness forced Vanessa Dualib to remain indoors, the outgoing Brazilian Fine Arts graduate chose to bring together three things that interested her the most: food, photography and humor. She pulled fruit and vegetables out of her fridge, photographed them in the form of animals and placed the images on Flickr.

That’s where the story should have ended: with a collection of amusing pictures enjoyed by other members of the photo-sharing site. But Getty was looking for creative new pictures to add to its growing Flickr collection, and invited Vanessa to contribute some 60 percent of her “Playing with Food” photography. Worried about the two year exclusivity, she agreed to provide just four of them which, she says, “sold a few times already” in the first four months they were on the site.

Unlike much stock photography, these are images that weren’t shot by a professional and weren’t created with any particular use in mind. They were created solely to entertain a bored photographer — and yet they were picked up by one of the world’s biggest stock companies, proving that you don’t need to be a pro to succeed, just creative and good.

Citizenside’s $100,000 Headless Movie

When it comes to news images, the line between photography and videography isn’t as neat as used to be. While the press will prefer the clarity of a still shot, when the story is hot enough and when there’s no competition, they’ll also pay through the nose for the right images. At that point, the kind of device you’re holding doesn’t matter any more than the professional status of the photographer — or whether the images are still or moving. If you’re in the right place at the right time with a tool capable of capturing light you can still produce successful images.

“Jerker08,” for example, a contributor to citizen news site Citizenside, got lucky in January 2008 when he found himself in an office opposite the Brigade Financière building where Jerôme Kerviel was being questioned about the trades that cost French bank Société Générale around 4.9 billion Euros.

With the lights on in the building and the blinds up, he had a grandstand view of the interrogation. He pulled out a camera, shot three minutes of footage and sent it off to Citizenside. The video was sold for around $100,000.

And yet it’s a terrible clip. In some of the video, Kerviel’s head is blocked by part of the window; in the remainder of the clip, it’s entirely hidden behind a light. But it was topical enough to land a six-figure sum, demonstrating that you don’t need to be a professional to get lucky with location.

Astro Soichi’s Space Shots

Soichi Noguchi’s profession certainly has made him lucky with location. Since December 20, 2009, the Japanese astronaut has been a crew member on the International Space Station. It’s a position that gives him a grandstand view of the Earth, of space and of other astronauts flying around in spacesuits.

As Astro_Soichi, Noguchi has also been providing updates on Twitter. Shooting through the space station’s windows, he links his tweets to his collection of photos on Twitpic. The images have been stunning and have included shots of the space shuttle Atlantis hovering in space, a storm over the Atlantic, and plenty of satellite-style photos and close-ups of the world below.

There’s no question of Noguchi making money out of his amateur photography, but his tweets, and his images in particular, have given him a following that’s almost a quarter of a million strong – an impressive audience for a professional engineer with a minimum of photography equipment.

It’s always going to be easier for a professional photographer to make sales than it will be for an enthusiast. They have the time and the resources to go out and create the photos that sell. But if you have the right idea, the right technique, a decent amount of talent —  and sometimes a reasonable amount of luck – you too can produce images that other people will want to see.

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