By William Sawalich
Photo by Sony Artisan Don Smith
The democratic beauty of photography in the 21st century makes it possible for amateurs on Instagram to compete with established professionals in practically any photographic pursuit. Quality work is in higher demand than ever, but the competition has grown exponentially and paths to success aren’t well defined. This is particularly true for photographers who hope to march to their own beat and shoot for themselves without a client in tow—those working in specialties such as travel, landscape, wildlife and fine art, for instance.
In an effort to guide young photographers on their way to success, I called longtime landscape photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery Don Smith for advice. What should photographers do, I asked, to build a prosperous career shooting what they want, when and how they want to? He explained that creators of all kinds are challenged these days by an overcrowded marketplace, and it’s those who are willing to hustle and adapt that will find a path to prosperity.
“It is probably more difficult today than it has ever been,” Smith said. “And I’ve been in the business 42 years. Over those years I’ve learned a thing or two about photography that I can pass on. If I were sitting down to counsel a young college student who wanted to go into this business and start making money today, I would tell them to make yourself as diverse as possible.”
Smith doesn’t mean trying to be all things to all people, but rather honing the variety of particular skills necessary to succeed in a particular niche of the photo business. In almost all cases that means shooting video along with stills, and mastering the essential art of self-promotion.
“It’s not that you should try to be an architecture photographer today, a sports photographer tomorrow, a landscape photographer the day after,” Smith says. “I mean that you should try to make yourself as diverse within this industry as you possibly can. Video skills in the marketplace are super essential. Anybody that’s doing any kind of production nowadays – it’s all 4K video. With the way cameras are built now, they’re a fully functioning 4K video camera and a fully functioning still imagery camera. It really behooves people to learn both sides of the camera if they’re coming into this business.”
The Stock Reality
By definition, staying in business requires sufficient income. And photographers like Smith, by virtue of working on self-directed assignments, have long relied on stock licensing to keep the lights on. In the good ol’ days it was the linchpin of the outdoor photographer’s business plan. Today, though, stock is only one small part.
“I think if it’s 20% of a total take on what a photographer makes in a year,” Smith says, “they’re doing a great job. If you go down the traditional list of how landscape photographers used to make a living, stock was a key place for people to go. That’s really not the case anymore. When I joined Getty Images 15 years ago or so, I was one of 800 candidates they were interviewing for one position. But now I’ve had students in my workshops come up and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m with Getty.’ I know they’re not doing it full time. That’s how much the industry has changed and how rapidly it’s changing.”
“Nowadays in the stock industry,” Smith says, “there’s an ugly term called ‘royalty free.’ That doesn’t mean they’re giving your stuff away, but, for example, if people are writing travel blogs and they go download a picture, it’s pennies on the dollar. I know it’s happening to musicians also. Any creator, their worth is really in what they create. A successful songwriter can write a hit record and nowadays it’s out on Spotify and that hit record might bring them a 98-cent check a month.”
Make Social Media Work For You
It’s no coincidence that Smith sees a parallel between what it takes to make it in photography and what it takes to make it in the music business. “My son is trying to get in the music industry,” he says. (His name is Aaron Cole, and the name of the album is Atmosphere.) “We were just in Nashville and we’re hoping that we can get him to a record label, but he has to build a social media following. That’s really the gist of this now. I think it’s the same for any creative genre out there, whether you’re a painter, whether you’re a photographer or whether you’re a musician: how do we get our work in front of an audience today?”
The crux of the issue, Smith says, is getting your work seen any way you can. Where once that was accomplished by publishing books or showing work in a gallery—perhaps even a gallery owned by the photographer himself—these days a higher profile is a matter of building a following on social media. “It’s all in the social media,” he continues, “because that’s your advertising now. Instagram and Facebook are really our two biggest promotion areas out there.”
Like budding rock stars, photographers have to engage with their social media audience all the time. Which social outlets should a photographer target? Start by identifying where your audience is. A corporate photographer might find an audience on LinkedIn, and Instagram is always a safe bet. Because of Smith’s workshop repertoire, he knows he’s more likely to find his customers on Facebook.
“That’s my primary demographic,” he says. “I can reach my audience that has A, the disposable income and, B, the time to take my workshops. They want to be with a couple of pros who really know the locations. So that’s the target audience I have to go after. Even though I post across the board on all these social media sites, and I’m developing quite a following on Instagram, I haven’t yet heard of anybody saying, ‘Hey, I first found you on Instagram and then I got to your website and here I am.’ But I do hear it from the Facebook side.”
Wherever a photographer reaches his audience, it’s imperative, Smith says, that the engagement not be one-way. It’s the interactions and connections that keep followers coming interested.
“When I post something,” he says, “I’ve got to get back. I don’t answer everybody, but I’ll always hit the like button to at least say I got your message and I liked it. It is incredible the volume of work that has to go into self-promotion. When you decide to be a creative, you’re not signing up for a nine-to-five job. It’s a life you’re living and it’s seven days a week. It’s all about the promotional end: following and getting the numbers up. It’s a long path.”
This advice echoes what Smith has told his son to expect as he navigates the music industry and it’s equally apropos for photographers too. Spending so much time and energy hoping to catch a break can make someone young and hungry and, unfortunately, willing to sign a bad deal. Starting off on the wrong foot rarely works out in any industry.
“When you’re young and you want a record deal,” Smith says, “it’s, ‘Here you go, but we get 90% of the profits.’ When you’re 19 years old and hungry, you’ll sign anything they put in front of you. And that ties back to young photographers: don’t be so quick to give your work away. When I started out, I never tried to cut the legs out from the guys who were out there trying to get the rates up. But nowadays it’s like the Wild West and people are giving their work away, selling their services cheap. My advice is if you give your work away to get a stronghold in the business thinking you’ll be able to suddenly say, ‘OK, now I’m worth this amount of money,’ you will never make it. That attitude will brand you as that person who companies can take advantage of very quickly.”
Be A Master Of Your Craft
“If there’s any advice I can pass on,” he continues, “it’s to get your craft in order. You can be the nicest guy in the world who’s great to work with, but at the end of the day it’s really about your images. If your images aren’t moving people or making an impact, then you’re going to get passed over. It’s more important to become a good craftsperson first before you try to jump into this game. Because once you get in it, you’re going to go up against the best of the best.”
“That means working jobs you don’t want to work that aren’t even related to photography,” Smith says. “Maybe for the first 10 years of your career you’re working a part time job or you’re working full time and you’re shooting on the weekends and shooting in the evenings. I know guys who get up very early in the morning to go out and shoot before they go to work. They’re trying to build an online presence – we used to call it a portfolio.”
How Much Do You Want It?
Building a body of work and engaging a growing audience simultaneously is no easy feat. But nobody said fame and fortune would come easy. Ultimately a lot comes down to the passionate pursuit of success.
“I started shooting landscapes at 14 years old and I never stopped,” Smith says. “Even when I was shooting sports, I would shoot landscapes too. I spent 14 years shooting spring training out in Arizona, and there were beautiful parks with saguaro cactus I would always go and shoot after. You’re tired, so you have to be very self-motivated. This is what I’m telling my son: if you’re going to do this music thing, you just can’t put on a hat today and say, ‘Well I recorded five songs in Nashville.’ That’s great and you’re leaps and bounds above a lot of people, but you’re not an immediate success. You’re far from it. How bad do you want it?”
“You have to have that passion and drive,” he continues. “If that means working 14-hour days at a regular job to make your money and then spending every other spare minute on your photography, in front of the computer working on Photoshop, Lightroom, new third-party filters, learning a workflow that’s repeatable. These days 50% is being on location shooting and 50% is how you’re crafting and stylizing that picture for final presentation. You have to be both sides of the coin. There’s no other way around it. And then just market the hell out of yourself.”
“You’ve got to factor all this in,” Smith says, “because that’s the reality of it. You have to really want it because you’re going to dedicate the rest of your life to doing it. Because if you don’t, you’ve got a thousand people behind you that will completely trample you coming through.”
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master’s Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.