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Underwater photography - The professionals


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#21 StephenFrink

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Posted 27 August 2012 - 05:42 AM

While I don't disagree with the points raised above, I'll take a more positive attitude for the sake of the discussion. And explain some of how I made it work in the early days of this career and then try and make some general comments, not using myself as an example. Most of this is entirely logical.

First, it is not impossible. All the same arguments were made to me when I considered "going pro" a decade ago, but ultimately I was able to make it work. I will never be rich, but I now earn several times more than I did in my previous job in the university. I am very happy with my life and current income. Although the sporadic nature of earnings means that income does not feel as disposable as being on a salary.

I eventually took the gamble (in 2004) at a time in my life when I had nobody else depending on my income. Also I was already a known name in the UW photo community and publishing regularly. The first year, in particular, was tough financially. I actually did 3 months without a camera + housing because I had to sell it for cash flow reasons. And even so I did most of the next 5 years with just a single housing and body (I couldn't afford a second D2X). Having no backup means you are very careful with your o-rings, but the camera and Subal never let me down in over 100,000 underwater photos (if they had I would have probably gone under)!

The key to survival in those early days was being careful on expenditure. So I didn't own all the camera gear I lusted after and I have never been able to travel to all the places I have dreamed. I've never been to the Galapagos (despite always wanting to go) and I still have not yet swum with a whale. To make sure I operated in profit, I travelled where I could afford to go - the places where I was offered hosting/support. And typically this means the big, mainstream dive destinations - as these are the ones that have enough bums on seats to spend money on supporting a photographer who will bring them publicity (and ultimately bookings) in the future. Out of the way, small or new operations will rarely have this budget. So being a pro rarely means going to all the hot new places (that is really the realm of the well funded).

Anyway, to talk more generally, once you are operating without serious expenditure then sales become profit. As both Eric and Walt have stated above, the income from an editorial photo sale is greatly reduced these days. But then it is much simpler to process images and deliver to clients (there is no way I could deliver the amount of images I do these days as slides in the post! Especially when the same image is going to several magazines in different parts of the world). But ultimately the loss of editorial earnings has big consequences.

As a result you see photographers diversifying, as Walt describes above. There are few businesses that are still earning their money in exactly the same way as they were in the 1990s. And this is very true of underwater/nature photographers. I note that Art Wolfe is running a workshop tour in Europe this autumn - presumably because even his picture sales are not as lucrative as they used to be. Multiple income streams also protect you from the unpredictable nature of image sales.

So what are these streams? When people ask me about making money in underwater photography, I direct them to look at two of the most financially successful underwater photographers currently operating and to study their portfolios of activity: Michael AW and Stephen Frink. Although I know both of them, I've tried to make these observations (below) as an outside - basically what you can learn from looking at their websites.

First, both work very hard (this is a very important point and the one most commonly overlooked by many wanting to "go pro"). The money is always earned out of the water not in it. And they always seem to be doing at least several things at once.
They both sell lots of images and do commissioned shoots. You always see their images in magazines, books and adverts. They also both run magazines (Ocean Geographic and Alert Diver) - where presumably they get paid for being editor/publisher roles and also have an accessible outlet for their own images. They both have done lots of books. The both run workshops and tours. Both sell underwater photography equipment (Seacam, as it happens). And much more.

Of course, you can't start up and expect so many things to be a success. Workshops, tours and gear sales are unlikely to work for you unless you have already built a reputation for taking fabulous photos and respect in the UW photo community. But hopefully these examples give show a successful business model to aim towards.

Alex


Thanks Alex. You are very gracious, indeed. Your comment "The money is always earned out of the water not in it" is especially astute. The in-water work is a passion, but a means to an end as well for the commercially motivated shooter. Many who travel with me have done very well in their chosen careers, and enjoy UW photography when they have the opportunity to get wet (which is quite often for some of them). They shoot "pro quality" images, but have chosen a different path in their lives. Others hope to make it a career. You are living proof that someone with talent and dedication and an admirable work ethic can still carve out a viable niche in UW photography today. Good on 'ya.

Edited by StephenFrink, 27 August 2012 - 05:54 AM.

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#22 Stuart Keasley

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Posted 27 August 2012 - 01:05 PM

The test of professionalism is to come back with a brief accurately fulfilled. How many underwater briefs are made? Very few, I bet. In all my years as an advertising photographer, the only picture I took that required me to go underwater, I did as the 'underwater technician' to a top car photographer who was not a diver but had been given the commission by BBH for Audi.

Funnily enough, I got one just last week (all be it quite a vague one), allthough in fairness, it's on the back of some filming I'm doing, very much a "While you're there, if you get a chance". However in my experience, on productions at least, seeing a pro photographer on location is a rarity, generally speaking the job of stills is handed across to any spare set of hands that is capable of and prepared to press the shutter, with no payment other than the fact that they being paid a daily rate to be on location.

Based on that, I'd say the career prospects for pro photographers is pretty grim regardless of whether you are shooting underwater or topside.
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#23 vetdiver

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Posted 27 August 2012 - 01:55 PM

(OT of initial question) Alex, I enjoyed reading your response, in part because I have so much respect for your photographic curiousity and ability (warm water! cold water! macro! wide! wrecks, sharks, reefs, dogs....he can do it all, folks!), but also because I am always interested in reading your excellent writing - which I feel is an important part of who you are as an artist. You and Steve touch on something you (both) do that is incredibly important - work hard. I am always amazed at the number of photos and articles you create - and you're doing this while while constantly diving/creating new images, improving your work and teaching others while leading trips Your success is wonderful to watch for those of us who love diving and photography but will never give up our "day jobs".

Now, back to my day job (which I fortunately love).
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#24 kmo_underwater

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Posted 27 August 2012 - 06:16 PM

Thanks again for the responses - all very enlightening and it has certainly developed into an interesting discussion.

#25 adamhanlon

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 06:58 AM

I've just posted about thIs thread on the Wetpixel front page as I feel the responses (and question) have thrown a great deal of light onto the business of being an underwater imaging professional. It is already a fascinating thread Posted Image

One of the other attributes that I think is crucial is an ability to change and adapt to a changing business landscape as well as being able to embrace new technologies and techniques. I am fortunate to meet and chat with many pros, and a common link is how they have moved with the times, and have restructured/reinvented their business models to cope with this.

In addition, in many cases, they have a greater understanding of the technical aspects of new gear and technologies than the average enthusiast. I guess this is not surprising in itself, but expertise can still command a fee, whereas enthusiasm often cannot.

More please Posted Image

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#26 cor

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 08:12 AM

Alex, well said. I really respect you for making it work for you. One thing id like to add is that you're partly describing how to start any business from scratch. Photography isnt the only field with few opportunities and a tough market. So basically, if you want to run a photography business, make sure you know or learn how to manage a (starting) business.
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#27 vetdiver

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 09:30 AM

I encouraged my husband (Andy Sallmon) to respond - he wanted to, but he is on the road today (working - see a theme?) and asked me to put in a bit about him. He started diving back in '79 and was an instructor by '80 - and diving all the time (and with a camera) even when he wasn't teaching. Years later, he found he was making quite a bit of money from images, so he started saving up for his dream. He quit his day job and went pro back in the '90's, thinking at the time that he'd maybe get a year or two of time before he had to go back to a cubicle - and as Walt describes, it was a different world. I know that Andy made a lot more of his actual income from photos then - fewer people pursued it, and as film was the medium, it made improving rapidly much more difficult.

He added sales repping for several underwater imaging companies to the mix after a few years, and certainly, that is the majority of his income - but from my standpoint, it counts. While I am at work talking about science, Andy is at work, talking about diving, underwater photography techniques, and gear. It cracks me up to come home and walk into his office and listen to his "work" discussions! Gear sales have changed in recent years, though, too - there is less money to go around.

His hours are long - he definitely works much longer/harder than I do, and his work does not stop on Friday afternoon at 5 or 6 pm. There have been times that he gets an offer to do an assignment or a shoot, and plans will have to change in an instant - which can stink. Also, he does get to travel to some amazing places, but having seen what it takes to run a trip, I can assure you - it is hard work (I recall a trip last year - we were both jetlagged zombies, and he was trying to put together a passenger's gear, which had been (a) flooded and (b) additionally damaged - I think there was a pin sheared off from the sync port - and he stayed up for hours getting it to work while I went to bed and collapsed). Not a dreamy vacation by anyone's standards.

I think some of what makes it work for him, aside from his unstoppable work ethic, is the fact that he truly, truly loves diving and the ocean - we are always diving, even when the conditions stink, and he is always shooting, even on days that the conditions are so appalling that I refuse to bother. If I leave him alone on a boat for 10 minutes, I always come back to find him discussing diving and/or photogrpahy with another passenger, and he always tries to ensure that he comes away with a new contact - if for no other reason than we have someone new to split a local charter with us. He has maintained a lot of relationships from years in the industry, which sometimes brings him business from unexpected sources. He also has to be willing to shoot things that aren't terribly exciting, and he has to be enthusiastic and kind about doing so.

The final thing - Alex touched on this - is budgeting. Andy doesn't just run out and buy gear or even a new pair of flip flops on a whim. Everything is carefully considered, even when he has a few great months. You never know when money is coming in, and sometimes, invoices must be sent over and over and over... It blows my mind. The sporadic nature of his income would never work for me, I'd be a total stress case.

I think having home support is a factor, too, though maybe it's not primary - I do think it's helped that I'm a freak about diving and photography, as well - we bounce ideas off of each other and it's more fun to do presentations together, we're more prolific with articles as a team, and I hope it makes it easier when I can manage to be understanding about last-minute solo trips to places that I'd love to go...at the end of the day, this is his primary work and not mine.

I'll ask Andy to check this later and make sure I've got it all in here - oh, the one other thing he did mention was not giving work away for free - other than the occasional donation, compensation for work is critical. This is something that all of us must uphold...but I think Tony Wu has discussed this best on his blog, so I'll leave it at that.

Allison

Edited by vetdiver, 28 August 2012 - 09:32 AM.

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#28 tdpriest

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 11:50 AM

I've never been to the Galapagos (despite always wanting to go) and I still have not yet swum with a whale.


It sounds like you, me and Dive Quest, and a few rich friends (Gordon Brown: this means you), need to get together before I get too old!

I'm lucky (I think) that I didn't take up underwater photography until I was settled in a profession, so it's what I spend my money on, not a way of scrabbling for a living.

I do sometimes feel a little guilty that talented (not necessarily myself, you understand) amateurs queer the pitch for would-be professionals trying to break into the field. The very talented still succeed, as Alex M has shown.

I also have respect for Charlie Hood, master of the basking sharks in Cornwall: I knew him when professional status was a dream; he makes the point that it isn't just photography that can consolidate a professional career: journalistic skills and access to a popular subject (that you can share?) help a lot.

Alex has a great, and thoroughly justified, reputation as a teacher. I think that you need to bring something above and beyond photographic skill to the marketplace...

Edited by tdpriest, 28 August 2012 - 12:04 PM.


#29 diverdave1

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 07:24 PM

At the risk of possibly getting flamed, another trend I have noticed is magazine editors are increasingly using their own photography throughout a magazine, presumably so they do not have to pay for higher quality images. I had one editor of a very well known magazine actually tell me that he relies on 'contributions' from their readers for content. In other words "we don't pay for photography even though we charge for the magazine". All though this is an unfortunate direction for stock UW photography, I think, by far the biggest problem is inexperienced photographers giving away their images for their name in print.

#30 petern

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 09:23 PM

The one thing I have notice over the years the ones that Make it do so by belief and self promotion Getting out there and promoting their name is the key, also at sometime just deciding to give it a go. Glen Cowans is one example of just doing it, he saw an opportunity, invested a fair bit of money and it has paid off for him. He also embraced digital while other were more reserved.
Another point is longevity, those who truely have the passion that exceeds 10 years. Just have a look at the names that are still around after 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years. People who still produce great images and for these the rewards are the images themselves. So isnt that what a professional is all about.

#31 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 10:43 PM

Definitely becoming an interesting discussion.

One important point not to loose sight of, is that professional does not mean better that amateur. Many of the most stunning and memorable underwater photos taken each year are produced by talented amateurs. Just because highly experienced and capable amateur shooters choose to keep underwater photography as a passion and not a career has no impact on their ability or achievements as a photographer.

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#32 Paul Kay

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Posted 28 August 2012 - 11:57 PM

Being a 'professional' is never quite as clear cut as it might sound. My core business for the last 20 years has been underwater photography (and the previous 10 years it was on a part-time basis too), but any other opportunities that I have seen have also been added into my business. This has encompassed everything from general photography to writing and even book publishing. I would find underwater photography on its own to be very difficult to make a good income from, and combining it with other, sometimes allied, work, helps and provides more varied and interesting things to do aswell.

A few have commented on the increasing difficulties of making a living from photography and IMHO it is becomming far more difficult to survive as a photographer with increased competition, higher quality material available more easily than ever before, and demand at the moment significantly down. One thing which does help though is understanding your subject matter. Supplying correctly identified images which users know are correctly identified is a real help, but can mean a lot of work in learning about the subjects that you shoot.
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#33 johnjvv

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Posted 29 August 2012 - 01:24 AM

From what I am reading here it is quite clear that in order to make money you cant just be a poser professional. You need to quit your day job and commit your time to selling and marketing your skills, rather than images to magazines as those are basically free of charge to publishers.

Thus this leaves the pros with two other avenues, selling to other photographers or the rest of the world.

In order to sell to other photographers you need to have earned credentials and to sell to the public you need to knock on doors! Both of these are probably full time jobs.

I think one of the the attributes that many photographers (artists) do not inherently have are marketing or selling skills, which must be essential to become a pro...this is why musicians and athletes have agents.

I totally agree with cor above....business skills are a must to be a successful pro...otherwise if you have the skill then get someone that can sell your service for you...

#34 John Bantin

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Posted 29 August 2012 - 01:33 AM

I got my job as a writer because I could take reliable (in the days of film) underwater pictures. I'm still a writer and I get hundreds of pictures published every year but few with my name on them so I have no reputation as an underwater photographer. It's still a thrill to see them in print though.

The parallel is that if you want a job as a diving instructor, become a diesel mechanic/electrian/joiner first!

Edited by John Bantin, 29 August 2012 - 01:34 AM.

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#35 SimonSpear

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Posted 29 August 2012 - 04:37 AM

I probably have some input here even though I'm involved with filming rather than still photography as I come at this from the angle of a diver with no photographic background who took down a camera one day and now makes a living out of it. This will possibly give you an insight into what is possible if you were thinking of making the jump.

I happen to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world (London) and I have a young (and expensive) family and yet underwater filming and sales from footage shot underwater probably accounts for 30-40% of my income with the majority of the rest being made up with filming above water. Could I get the 30-40% up to 100%? Well yes I possibly could, but it would either involve breaking into an organisation like the BBC on at least a semi full time basis (very difficult if your face doesn’t fit and you don’t live in Bristol) or it would involve reducing costs by moving our family to a less expensive location that would also be more convenient for filming. We probably could live quite comfortably in many dive locations across the world on what I already earn from underwater work and yes we have considered this, but that is not a move we want to make right now. I say all this to make you realise that you don’t need to be a student bum or a homeless vagabond if you want to be an underwater imaging pro, unless that is the road you want to take of course.

I think you may be surprised at the number of divers out there who can make a living as a liveaboard videographer or resort pro. Many places like Koh Tao or Sharm have literally dozens of divers filming professionally, while more or less every island in the Maldives has at least one photo pro at hand. This happens the world over. I know I could not do that type of filming for a living as the monotony of filming open water divers putting on their regs upside down for the 1000th time would drive me insane, but it is an option, especially if you are single and have no commitments. It has to be said that it is a great training ground and many of the very well known names in the industry started this way...

I also agree completely with previous comments that you shouldn’t necessarily look at earning money underwater with an all or nothing approach. It can often be used to supplement your income from other sources which can be especially useful if you are a contractor or self employed in some way. Teaching or leading trips/expeditions is also a great way to either reduce your costs or get some additional income if you have the charisma and patience to pull it off ( sadly I don't :( ).

The other item of note is kit. Well apart from a new 3mm which replaced my old one which was literally falling apart I don’t think I’ve bought a single bit of new kit in the last 5+ years. When you are making a business decision on return on capital you soon become a miser! The same applies to imaging equipment. While some are purchasing the latest and best cameras out there for filming and photography when your income depends on it you really need to make a business case for the investment. I currently film on a Canon 7D in either a Hugyfot (when it is working) or Ikelite Housing. Well the Ikelite especially is never going to be described as top end kit, but it fits my purpose and I can make a living out of it. As much as I’d like to, if I went out and spent £50,000 on a new set up I’d have to be absolutely certain that I’d not only get that money back, but I’d also still be making a profit on top.

So are you ever going to make a six figure salary purely out of underwater work? Well in any western currency I’d say it would be very difficult, but you should be ok in Yen or Rupee’s!! :D

#36 Stuart Keasley

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Posted 29 August 2012 - 06:09 AM

From what I am reading here it is quite clear that in order to make money you cant just be a poser professional. You need to quit your day job and commit your time to selling and marketing your skills, rather than images to magazines as those are basically free of charge to publishers.

Sorry to take it on a tangent, however I think that statement needs correcting, i.e images are not free of charge to publishers. They will certainly do all they can to keep costs down by finding cheaper or free ways to source images (e.g reader subimssions to name butone), however they do still pay for photos if they fit the article/requirement etc.

The start of your post, I agree with entirely. As others have said, as in any business, you need to apply yourself full time and commit to it, not just dip your toe in when the mood fancies. And again, as has been said, be open minded about diversification, apply your skills broadly to expand your money making options (although in the same breath, don't market yourself as a jack of all trades, people would often prefer the master when they're paying good money;)).
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#37 johnjvv

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Posted 29 August 2012 - 12:09 PM

Bottlefish...I think it is fair to say that I really dont know what I am talking about when it comes to being a pro as as I am not one so take what I said with a pinch of salt! :) Only by reading what is being posted here by others I have moved to the conclusion that selling images to publishers is a very small portion of the pie and services are the larger bite.



#38 John Bantin

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Posted 29 August 2012 - 02:51 PM

The big fees have always been paid in the past for producing a picture that was wanted but that did not already exist. Once the picture exists, it loses most of its value. I have never earned much from a picture I made speculatively.

Edited by John Bantin, 29 August 2012 - 02:52 PM.

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#39 johnjvv

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Posted 29 August 2012 - 03:22 PM

John

I am sure it would also be disheartning if you try to sell something and you dont get what you value it to be....

In the end of the day people that make money out of photography are business people and therefore it should work the same as selling any other product.

I just got denied by a receptionist knocking on a door attempting to sell my product but somebody else called this morning to ask for a solution whom I am meeting this afternoon. Guess which one is going to buy??? :)

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Posted 30 August 2012 - 04:17 AM

A good place to start your underwater photography experience is in the safer and manageable confines of a swimming pool. You can learn how to handle the camera in a wet environment; and if it falls to the bottom of the pool, then you don’t have far to go to retrieve it. Use your friends or family members as practice subjects. Shoot images from various angles above the water, at the water line, and then underwater.

Get more tips from the following articles :

http://www.nikonusa....hotography.html

http://www.photograp...ter-photography

Hope you will some good tips for underwater photography from the articles.