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.
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.