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kmo_underwater

Underwater photography - The professionals

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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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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
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Alex

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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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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...

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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

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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

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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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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.

 

 

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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

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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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Guest patrickwilson86

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.com/Learn-And-Explore/Nikon-School/fu02mcno/1/Underwater-Photography.html

 

http://www.photographytalk.com/photography-articles/677-photography-tiphow-to-introduce-yourself-to-underwater-photography

 

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

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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.

Thank You Walt for this great and wise sentence! I visited you website. It is really impressive! It is really fantastic to see what kind of art can be done under water.. Respect.

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So what does it mean to be a professional UW photographer? I havent quite seen that answered except maybe by John. Get paid for assignments that make up most of your income?

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The "Professional Underwater Photographer" that Walt refered to as being entirely fiction would be someone who makes their living entirely from getting paid for the photos they have taken underwater.

As it appears, a more realistic job title is "Professional in the Underwater Photographic Industry", where the bulk of an underwater photographer's income is made from underwater photography, the associated equipment, education, magazines, trip organising, competition judging, etc etc .

In my humble opinion anyway, as I don't fit into either of these categories I'm happy to be corrected.

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Competitions that have "amateur" and "professional" categories generally describes "professional" as getting more than 50% of their income from photography.

But, no mention of specific "underwater" photos.

and it should be added a "minimum" income.

as a student you could make 0 money from anything else and sell a photo for 100$ once a year. Then you make 100% of your income from photography. Yay !

Edited by Autopsea

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So what's the definition of an amateur photographer? Someone who spends all their money on UW photography? tongue.png

 

-Gina

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It can be useful to remember the origin of the word amateur..French, meaning 'the love of' (or close - francophiles please correct me).

 

There is much I could add...but not via an iPhone keyboard...follow-up to follow...

 

 

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It's not just the underwater photography business that has changed. When I sued the Daily Telegraph (a British national newspaper) a few years ago, for non-payment of a repro fee, the editor, under oath in the witness box, said that his newspaper did not pay for pictures. They got them for free!

Edited by John Bantin

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Simon wrote : "It can be useful to remember the origin of the word amateur..French, meaning 'the love of' (or close - francophiles please correct me."

 

Amateur means in French: someone who loves/like something. "Un amateur de vin" means "someone who loves wine". Same for photography or football.... This is the first meaning of the word amateur.

 

"Sport amateur" means non-professional sport... ie. "amateur sport". Same for photography or other human activities where there is a distinction between a professional or a non-professional/hobby-like endeavour.

 

So, we can infer that in French or English "amateur" describes someone who engages in u/w photography for the love of the disciplin as opposed to someone who does it to make a living.

 

Having said that, many amateurs take pro-level images, they simply do not earn their living doing so... So we all start as amateurs and some become professionals, just like in golf, sailing, or astronomy...

 

This topic is interesting and the insight provided by distinguished members of the profession is great food for thought... And so is the quote about the change brought by image-making technology and the internet/telecommunication industry in the field. Internet/IP-based technology have been major disruptive technologies in so many fields... And we are in the infancy stage of that era.

 

Question: Who wants to go back to 36-exosure rolls... No instant feedback... 100 ISO slide film... Film processing... Snail mail communications and shipment of images..? Or flashbulbs for that matter :-)

 

Michel Gilbert

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Not me! I like the digital form factor and what I can with the camera at the time I am shooting, as well as what I can do with the image afterwards. The thing I don't ever miss was the need to bring 50 to 100 rolls of film on major assignments and trips, and the cost and time to get all processed once I got back home. Today a single Flash card I can carry in my pocket would cover that and more.

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Agree, Walt. Except cords and chargers and hard drives now take up more space than film rolls used to.

 

I don't miss the film cost and processing fees, though.

 

What I do miss are film canisters. Handy for carrying and storing stuff.

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