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Underwater photography - The professionals

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#61 Paul Kay

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Posted 12 September 2012 - 06:17 AM

Having said that, many amateurs take pro-level images, they simply do not earn their living doing so...

I'm not sure what a 'pro-level image' is! By definition a pro takes an image which is then sold (or tries to be sold). An amateur does not, and therefore does not and can not take 'pro-level images' (other than by selling them and in effect turning 'pro'), but In terms of content and technical excellence there may be little difference......
Amateurs do something 'for the love of it' and are in an enviable position of being able to take as much time and expend as much effort on one shot as they want, a luxury that few pros ever have. Making a living from pro photography is IMHO a very different affair than most people think.

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#62 cor


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Posted 12 September 2012 - 08:52 AM

Just like I said before, confusion over the term 'pro', which is shown all over this and other industries :) It is confused with a measure of quality. (the other side of that coin is, that being a pro doesnt necessarily mean high quality, something ive seen quite a bit with resort photo/video pros).

Of course, many amateurs/hobbyists do sell their work, creating that huge grey zone.
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#63 blueglass



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Posted 12 September 2012 - 05:45 PM

What other methods are people using to eek out a living from their passion and skills?

I imagine that back in the film/slide age it was probably easier to be a professional, as the market wasn't flooded with amatuer images. I know this is the case for friends who are surf photographers.

Interesting to read all these thoughts. I agree with most opinions here.
I´ll try to answer your question based on my own experience. It is possible to make a living in underwater photography nowadays when you are willing to work very hard and keep a modest cost of living.
It was definitely easier in the film days like you have suggested, but even then it took me a high degree of commitment. I washed dishes and filled tanks for a couple of dives a day in liveaboards to built up my stock, used home made and third-hand gear, and saved every cent for film processing and of course rolled my own film because it was cheaper. Every camera, strobe, lens and housing was considered as a tool that had to pay for itself.
Accepting I´d never be rich (in money terms) by becoming a UW photographer was the first step to overcome. Once you have that clear, everything is much easier. Why go on a $2000/day vacation when you can get paid to go to the same place? My holidays are more like $50/day trips and I´ll never be able to afford to pay for the trips that my guests are doing with me. But who needs a vacation when you work everyday in something you love.
You must have your priorities clear and realize that if you are making a living from UW photography you are already privileged. You don't need a big house or a nice car to be happy, because you are already happy doing what you wanted, right? I think if someone considers becoming an underwater photographer strictly as a job it is a bad investment, put that money anywhere else and it'll be more profitable, but if you consider it as way of life and value all the other benefits and positive experiences it may become your best decision in life.

But as low as you may want to keep your cost of living, there are bills to pay and gear to replace (mostly since digital era if you want to keep up). With the stock prices being frozen since the 90s (or even lowering), like Walt said, and the cost of living increasing annually it didn't take me long to realize that diversification was the key to survive. Looking at the general photographic business which may move a few years ahead of the underwater niche, it was easy to see that relying solely on stock sales and assignments could become a problem in the medium term. In my case, diversification came from photo courses, photo trips, gear sales, exhibitions, books, art galleries, writing... and keeping the stock sales, articles and assignments as healthy as possible.

People skills are as important as photo skills to keep the business rolling, or even more. I meet so many dive guides, editors, resort managers, writers... who have had bad experiences with arrogant "super-UW-photographers" with big egos. Hey, we are just photographers, like any other type of photographers, like butterfly photographers, (but poorer because our gear is more expensive and the photo prices are similar), nothing too special about it, no heroes of any kind. We don't even look good with all that gear ! I know all of you are super nice people :-) but some talented photographers put themselves out of business because their lack of people skills. Make a good job, leave a good impression and they'll call you back. I know this is general stuff for any kind of business, but in UW photography you really need them to call you back ! There aren't that many clients !

For me, every sale is important and every customer gets the same exquisite treatment. The teenager girl who buys a $1,5 postcard of a lovely dolphin is as important as the editor who pays big bucks for a front cover, because in few years that girl, in love with the Ocean, may work for a large company that becomes your advertising client, like it happened to me. I always think long term and try to keep the business rolling in circles, a quick buck is never good business: The new diver who buys a compact housing from me and is happy with my service will take a course to learn how to use it, and realize he needs a strobe (hopefully from me), If I teach him a nice course he may become interested in my entry level trip to practice what he learnt and after having a blast for a week, next year he will join me for a two weeks trip in a destination where I will be able to take new stock and when I come back I can write an article about those islands and place the stock in agencies and if I am lucky maybe win a price or two in a competition that may bring awareness of my last photo gadget to a new customer... by then the first customer will want and SLR housing and will bring his friends, and all over again. Keep the ball rolling...

Am I less "pro" because a larger percentage of my income doesn't come from direct photo sales? Maybe, I don't really care, because the old dream of diving around the world taking photos has turned real.

Now seriously, nobody else is thinking about becoming an uw photo pro, right?

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#64 decosnapper


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Posted 12 September 2012 - 11:23 PM

Carlos - we have never met, but I think we have an almost identical view on life. Your summary was perfect...
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#65 Alex_Mustard


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Posted 13 September 2012 - 12:54 AM

A very valuable contribution, thanks Carlos.


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#66 Cal


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Posted 13 September 2012 - 02:09 AM

"From this I can only assume that at least a few of the photographers on here must make a living from underwater photography. My question, put simply, is how?"

I'm a full time underwater photographer - my sole income is from underwater photography and I make a comfortable living (I'm paying rent, bills, food and still saving for a house) but my needs are also different. I'm 25 and have no kids

3 years ago I decided I wanted to go 'pro' after finishing uni and realizing I didn't even enjoy what the career path I had chosen.

"What other methods are people using to eek out a living from their passion and skills?"

The key (for me) was diversity. I started shooting fashion and commercial underwater work. That was really hard for the first year and I basically lived off rice and soy sauce (i'm not kidding) and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I now have quite a few regular clients and a solid agency backing.

The fashion shooting had the roll on affect of enabling me to shoot model portfolios as well which helped to fill the gaps between commercial gigs. I now shoot at least one private client a week and have the sales skills to make a comfortable living from prints/canvases from this.

I also have managed to do quite well from exhibitions contrary to what most people think of art shows. The trick to the art shows for me was advertising. I printed several of my pieces up to 2x3m sizes and invested a few grand in advertising slots in various magazines. My first show nearly sold out and I've booked on for two more shows next year. Printing huge enabled buzz, higher prices and a different target market.

My gear is old but still rocks - I use a d90, Ikelite housing and some ds 125 strobes. I have a backup D80. People always ask me why I don't upgrade and to qoute Alex "once you are operating without serious expenditure then sales become profit" . I still make the same sales from my gear that I would from a newer system. When I do need something special for a client , I hire it and include it in the invoice.

I have also started taking bookings for university lecturing spots. These barely pay anything but it's good fun (plus I get to suit up awww yeah! )

Anyway, that's how I make my living from underwater photography. Do I make huge amounts of cash and drive around in a Ferrari? No, but there is nothing else in the world that I would prefer to be doing.

Hope that helps?
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