Where has all the money gone?

Imagine a waterhole on the plains of Africa. Now imagine that each buffalo drinking there is a photographer, and that the water is their livelihood. Now backtrack 25 years and picture the scene. Every few days a buffalo wanders by and takes a leisurely drink. The water is clean and plentiful, the mood of the savannah calm and tranquil. A few years on and more animals start to drink; there’s still enough water to go around but the buffalo are more fractious; conscious of the dwindling supply. Fast-forward to the present day and the times of plenty have disappeared. The buffalo arrive in large herds all eager to quench their thirst but the demand for water exceeds the amount available, and desperate to sustain themselves, the herds scatter to eke out an existence from tiny, drying pools. This is modern day nature photography.

Travelling the world taking pictures of wild animals and wilderness landscapes, never struck me as a ‘proper’ job and yet when I entered this business back in 1999, there were lots of established pros all doing exactly that and, seemingly getting well paid for it. Joining their ranks and working my way into various image libraries, it did seem relatively straightforward to earn a half decent living from what I enjoyed. I supplemented my income from stock imagery with magazine features, commissions and lectures, all relatively abundant back then. Most of the images I took had an outlet, a market. No matter where in the world I travelled, I was confident I could take pictures that would sell. Happy Days.

Around the turn of the new millennium a bomb dropped in the photographic waterhole. The bomb – a digital SLR that satisfied the needs of nature photographers – changed everything. Yes it opened the door for creative possibilities hitherto only dreamed about, but through that door came vast herds of buffalo, new photographers – young and old – equipped with the latest digital weaponry and the ability to use it. They wanted to take their place at the waterhole and who could blame them? The old school might have smarted at this new, technically savvy generation but no matter, they were here to stay and “adaptation” was the new word on the block.

In truth nature photography has always been a marginal existence for most professionals. There are the ultra-skilled or ultra-lucky ones who made a real killing back in the day, but as the digital revolution tightened its grip, even they could see the writing on the wall. The internet and the emerging economies of the world very quickly turned nature photography from a specialist art into a mass participation sport. Today, the waterhole is all but empty and the seething mass of buffalo are squabbling over the few polluted puddles that remain. Given such a severe change in their environment, you would imagine that most photographers – like the buffalo – would wither and die but remarkably, that doesn’t seem to be the case. So how are they, and the ranks of new photographers, managing to survive?

In short, I have no idea. I know lots of professional photographers and some of them, especially those with homes and families to pay for, are really struggling. And some of these guys have been around a long time. For those entering the business today, I’m not sure I can offer many suggestions as to how to make it work.

There is however, a lifeline. So many established pros who can no longer sell their product due to diminishing demand and burgeoning supply, are selling their knowledge or their hard-won photographic sites. For many, photo workshops, tours, tutorials and “how to” eBooks have saved the waterhole from drying up completely. With mushrooming growth in recreational photography, the demand for photographic knowledge, the desire to take images that were not so long ago the preserve of the highly skilled professional, has saved many working pros from the brink of extinction.

We live in a society that is cash rich but time poor so there is good business to be had from putting a hobby photographer in front of a stunning landscape or a charismatic animal and tutoring them on how to get the best from the opportunity. I’ve heard it said that inviting paying photographers to a hide or a site that might have taken years to perfect, is tantamount to selling your soul. I would argue that it is simply adapting your business to a rapidly changing market.

Selling your knowledge has become the mainstay of the photography business but it calls for a number of attributes that have nothing to do with photography. On my own tours I often feel like I’m a Logistics Manager, a Chauffeur, a Waiter, an Entertainer and a Social Worker long before I’m a photographer. It’s fair to say that running workshops or tours isn’t for everyone.

In a distant corner of the African plains, there is another waterhole that very few Buffalo visit. It isn’t yet full of water but it has potential. Notwithstanding the current market for photographic learning, it’s probably fair to say that the future for the lone wolf freelance photographer looks at the very least, uncertain. But for those willing to work alongside other media professionals – video, sound and production specialists – to embrace new technology and tell fresh stories in fresh ways, the prospects are perhaps brighter. Despite the massive over-supply of top class stills imagery, there undoubtedly remains a demand for visual communications. In fact, as the natural world claws its way into mainstream media, that demand is set to grow significantly.

Photography has never been about the money for me but like, everyone, I need to keep a roof above my head and food on the table. To be honest, I’m never quite sure how I’ve managed to stay solvent for so long but somehow, being a “Nature Photographer” has kept me afloat. Today however, I’m not sure that’s what I am. Yes I still take lots of pictures and yes I still sell a few here and there, but alongside that and my tour business, it’s my ‘new’ job as a “Visual Communicator” that pays my bills. I’m aware how terribly pretentious that sounds but these days, I’m often working as part of a small production team creating short films, multimedia sequences, conservation messaging and so on. Communication has become the product rather than the image itself.

The nature photography landscape has close parallels with the African savannah. Both are shifting, dynamic habitats where change is both inevitable and in many ways, desirable. The animals that survive and prosper are those that are able to adapt to new conditions, to exploit new opportunities and despite the unprecedented competition, find new waterholes to sustain themselves.

This article was originally published in Lumo Magazine. http://lumopublishing.fi/



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5 thoughts on “Where has all the money gone?

  1. Ay up there young Pete. Indeed these times are a changing but as I always tell people, with every door that closes countless others open. I’ve no idea what the future holds but diversification is key, for me property renovation is something that I’ve enjoyed almost as much as photography and it will inevitably create a continuous revenue stream for me. As for my sites, I just can’t rent them out, no matter how tempting it is my desire to protect my sites, maintain a truly unique body of work and to continue to work largely in isolation always trumps any desire to profit in the short term. The caper was a big one for me and whilst my swan sites would never draw the numbers when a site is out there then its game over. I’ll continue to tell UK stories, avoiding ospreys (still never seen one!) kingfishers and the like, there is so much yet to explore in the UK alone that will no doubt keep me going until I peg out. I actually like to see the congragations all gathering at one spot, the Thetford otters, a Lincolnshire shortie, it leaves a lot more quiet space for me to explore

  2. If what you say is true, Pete, and from where I’m standing it’s pretty close, I timed my entrance into the nature photography world spectacularly poorly. Having gained an insight into the ‘business’, not least from yourself, I’m amazed how many other buffalo I found next to me in the space of about 2 years, many of them very young (and I’m not that old) and raring to go.

    It demonstrates that this trade or at least its market is unlike others. There’s no need to get your apprenticeship and 3 years experience under your belt before going out to make an income. Experience doesn’t necessarily count for much as long as the image is good. Technology has lowered the entry bar and allowed everyone to contribute to the point where being a marketing manager in a past life is more likely to make you a successful photographer than having 20 years experience in the trade.

    Realising that selling images is not a viable way of making a living, I’ve had to look at other streams of income but it doesn’t feel like nature photography and these streams feel altogether separate.

    Andy is right. When it comes to the photography and making images for myself, where the big groups of people are is where I won’t be. I picked up a camera as a way to justify spending more time outside witnessing nature and occasionally sharing what I see with people. I consider myself quite a sociable person but sometimes you just have to be alone to really appreciate the world around you and understand how you fit within it.

    I don’t know what the future holds for those not willing to adapt to the change but I can see a lot of buffalo thinking about selling bottled water…

  3. Thanks for your response Chris although it’s dangerous to ever concede that Andy Parkinson is right!

    This sentence struck me: “Being a marketing manager in a past life is more likely to make you a successful photographer than having 20 years experience in the trade.”

    That maybe true but of course it depends on how you define the word “successful”.

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