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Underwater photography - The professionals

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I see (with undisguised envy) that there are a lot of great photographers on this site who travel extensively and have invested enough money in having the most up to date gear that they could have bought a house instead! There is often the mention of "professional level" equipment, and the requirement for massive resolution and detail in photos.

 

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 understand that stock agencies will sell license to your work, and that dive magazines will pay for articles, and in some instances you could hook up with an advertising agency which requires your special skills and knowledge to do a shoot looking for a specific shot.

 

What other methods are people using to eek out a living from their passion and skills? Is anyone able to put an estimate on the number of u/w photographers who don't require a second job?

 

I'm merely curious, not considering a career change smile.png I don't have the equipment, talent, money or time to make the change.

 

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.

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You're right. It is difficult to make a living off underwater (or any kind of) photography these days. But some on this forum do it. If you look at those who do, you'll notice that not only are they the very best in the world at their craft, but they also usually have something very unique to offer and combine it with other services and products. For the big majority, underwater photography is just a very expensive hobby. There are quite a few people on this forum that are independent wealthy and a few, like me, that are what my accountant would call "stupid".

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How many people tune their cars and how many make money racing them?

 

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The best way to make a small fortune from underwater photography is to start with a large fortune!

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There is one way to get a lot of money out of your expensive uw-photo-gear: Sell it :P

 

- Morten

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Haha, thanks for the replies. I certainly didn't mean any offence to the 'independently wealthy', I've just started to get a sneaking suspicion that there might be more professionals out there than I first thought. Mainly due to the apparently rapid take-up of the new crop of high end cameras to hit the market.

Any time I've been paid for a photograph it hasn't even covered the cost of boat fuel, so it got me curious.

A quick walk around the local marina proves that there are plenty of people in the world who would happily buy a nice toy with more money than I earn in a year!

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The very idea of “Professional Underwater Photographer” has come to the point of being almost entirely fiction. Even the best/largest stock agencies can not deliver a sizeable check for a photographer specializing in only that field like they use to due to the saturation of good imagery that keeps flooding the market. Most magazines are still paying the same rate for image use as they did during the 90’s, with less and less work becoming available due to the crush of the internet on their own bottom line.

 

When I was able to make a living as an underwater photographer, the circle of those who were able to realistically do it was small enough that we knew each other. But it took more than being good at your craft, often times, it required the ability to write the story to go with it. To use the worn out clique The Time’s are a Changing, technology has changed that. The range of camera systems are for ranging, not mention frighteningly capable at what they can deliver in even less than competent hands. Canon alone recently celebrated their production of 80 million EF model lenses alone. And then there is the internet, which wasn’t around during the height of my game. Now it has advanced to a point where I am seeing images that would have been reserved and deserving for a high-end publication now gracing the pages this forum and facebook on a daily basis.

 

Today, the label of Underwater Photographer is a small facet of what I do. Take a quite tour of my websites – UnderwaterJournal.com, WaltStearns.com, as well as both my facebook pages (Walt Stearns and Underwater Journal), and my wife’s (karenstearns) not to mention the ones we serve as admins for (Wakatobi Dive Resort and KISS Rebreathers) you will get (excuse the pun) a picture of what I do now.

 

As piece of advise, look at your investment in your camera equipment and travel as an investment into your passion, not as an investment into a career path, you will be a lot happier that way.

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Years ago, maybe 10-15, I was in a lecture given by Scott Frier. He then was Nikon Product Manager for Underwater Products.

In response to the question about making a living from U/W photography, he replied that he could count on his two hands the number of pros making their income strictly form U/W images. Every one else had to have several other things going for them to live.

 

That was before digital age where now amateurs will give their images away just to see their name in print!

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The reason that so many are able to give it away for free is that technology makes it so easy to do so. You can run, but you can't hide from it.

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Oh, one last thing. 15 years ago, I was one of those professionals Mr. Frier was talking about. That was then, this now.

Edited by Walt Stearns

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A quick look at the numbers and you will understand for most it's near impossible to make a living as an UW photographer. There are just a handful of paying dive magazines. Most only publish 4-10 times per year. Rates for photo use vary from $100 for a spot image to $1,000 or so for a cover image.

 

Now each issue runs a couple feature length stories and several smaller stories. Flip through a magazine and look at how many people contribute to each issue. There's a big pool of photographers and a not so big pool of cash.

 

M

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I forgot to mention that obviously dive magazines aren't the only user of UW images. The point is the number of shooters has gone up while rates have gone down along with the opportunities for publication.

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Quite some yrs ago, my family vacationed at a resort that had a play performed. Those waiting our tables stopped long enough to perform the play as we ate. My young daughter was impressed by the play and told me she wanted to be an actress. I told her to look carefully at what she saw. Their jobs were waiting the tables, their passion and hobby was the play. I told her to never confuse her hobby with her income. Be an actress for a hobby all you want, but have a job that pays the bills.

That speech seems to fit here as well.

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The tipping point in the US was when Skin Diver went under. As maligned as it was, it set the standard for underwater photography and paid professional rates.

 

The tidal waves of digi and the Internet sealed the deal.

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Thanks again for the replies, and the advise :)

In the same vein, I notice a lot of discussion on shooting to print at large sizes. Is this something that is done mainly on a personal level, or is there a market in the exhibition and sale of limited edition underwater prints and/or underwater portraits?

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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

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Very well said and interesting, Alex (I still feel partly guilty for whale swim part...unsure.png )

 

I think that in Spain there are about 3-6 pro uwphotographers and all of them have related side activities (trips, normal and/or self made gear sales, workshops, contests organizing, wedding and social photography...) but they all have one thing in common: reputation for delivering what is expected in all those fields. That reliability is what clients seek for peace of mind (and not necessarily images but also well run trips, good gear service...) even if sometimes we see images in different media provided by one of these pros (or any other in the world) that are not the very best (but they were surely provided on schedule with due resolution etc...)

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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.

Taking pictures underwater and then trying to sell them afterwards is a very different matter. It is finding a solution and looking for a problem to fit it. That's not the usual way things are achieved when money-making is concerned!

I have been taking pictures underwater professionally for 20 years but my success has been that, as an editor, I made myself the client! So I just call it 'taking snaps'.

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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
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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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(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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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 smile.png

 

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 smile.png

 

Adam

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