The idea of an art detached from its creator is not only outmoded; it is false.
In recent weeks, I was asked by two different people for advice on how to become a professional landscape photographer. One was an ambitious and precocious young teenager who, at age 13, had already decided that this is the right career for him. The other, I assume by his manner, was a young adult (I am not sure of his age) seeking to learn more about certain aspects of artistic photography. The best I could do for both was to recommend some useful resources and to encourage them to discover their own way, rather than attempt to mimic mine. “Landscape photographers,” professional or not, are not fungible.
What does being a professional landscape photographer mean? That’s a bit like asking what being a doctor means. People tend to assume it means one thing, which it sometimes does, but not always. If you’ve watched enough comedies, you likely have seen some version of a scene where a person with a doctoral degree, who is not a physician, is asked to offer medical advice, and responds with “I’m not that kind of doctor.”
Even among physicians (“that kind of doctors”), there are many distinctions. While all physicians possess a deeper understanding of things like anatomy and biochemistry than a layperson might (in the same way that all professional photographers have a deeper understanding of, say, exposure and image processing techniques than most laypeople do), some physicians specialize in certain types of medicine or in specific classes of illnesses; some spend their days in private clinics, others in war zones; some perform surgeries, others prescribe psychiatric medications; some chose their profession because it pays well, others because they want to do humanitarian work, and so on. So, even if you ask a bona fide physician about a particular medical topic, you may still hear back, “I’m not that kind of doctor.”
Yesterday morning, I went for a long drive, taking a day “off” after spending two weeks alone in my campsite on the edge of a sparse aspen grove on the high slopes of a desert mountain, where I spent most of my time working on my next book. A powerful thunderstorm moved in while I was away, rendering the dirt road leading back to my camp inaccessible. I took an alternate route back to pavement and decided to head home for the night and to use the opportunity to resupply before returning to my camp. Earlier this morning, the damaged part of the road was re-graded, allowing safe passage, and I was able return to my camp. I intend to spend another week here, then head home again to catch up on some office work before deciding where to go next, and for how long.
Each day, after I finished writing, I went for a walk and/or spent some time reading. I’ve read three interesting books while here (a science book on psychology, a philosophy book about modern art, and an anthology of poems). I have savored the last of a wonderful wildflower season, communed with various wildlife, and photographed a little. I spent most of my evenings cooking good meals and savoring them by a campfire (when it was not raining). As darkness came, I often listened to music and sat in my camp chair, sometimes for hours, gazing into the night sky, rapt in thoughts. When the moon became bright, I went on a couple of nocturnal walks. Thanks to the miracles of technology, I was also able to watch a couple of television shows, communicate occasionally with my wife and close friends, and process a handful of new images.
Although each of my outings is unique in some ways and never entirely planned, my time here and the experiences it afforded me, are not unusual. This to me, is not a “photo trip,” or any other kind of trip. This, in a nutshell, is how I live and work. It’s how I have lived and worked for many years now, since leaving my former career and urban home.
Please don’t take any of the above—including my description of my cherished times in nature and my freedom to roam—to mean that my life is free of struggles and sufferings. It is not. Also, please don’t take any of it to mean that you should envy me or want to be like me. You should not. This life, with all its beauties and miseries, is the life I made for myself because other lives I have tried did not satisfy me. Some of my times are breathtakingly beautiful, some are utterly miserable, some I enjoy sharing with the world, some are only known to a small handful of people who are close to me, and some will die with me never to be known by anyone. The same is true for anyone else’s life, no matter how idyllic or glamorous it may seem from the outside. You are not them; they are not you.
My advice in guiding your life, both personal and professional, is not to choose a label (“professional photographer” or any other) and then find ways to justify it. Rather, my advice is this: consider first what you have to work with—your unique personality, knowledge, abilities, resources, commitments, opportunities—and then find what works best for you, whatever that ends up being and regardless of how others might label it.
Mark my words: no life that any person may live can ever be perfect or entirely blissful. If you aim for perfection or lifelong bliss by some contrived, preconceived notion of what these terms should mean, how to achieve them, and how to shoehorn your personality and life experiences into them, you will fail and be disappointed with yourself. Aim instead for meaning. A meaningful life is not necessarily a happy life; it is a life that is interesting, rewarding, and sustainable—by whatever these terms mean to you.
When I decided to give “professional landscape photography” a try, I knew a few things about “the business,” but most of what I knew was not relevant to what I wanted out of becoming a professional photographer. Most professionals I knew at the time were stock photographers, which I did not want to be. However, as more photographers began to use the internet and a new economy was starting to emerge, I had an inkling that I might be able to earn an income as a photographer, not by selling photographs but by becoming a “photographers’ photographer”— by writing and photographing with the goal of inspiring other photographers to find beauty and meaning in photography and in nature, even if they never wished to become professionals themselves. Thankfully, my instincts proved right.
With that said, however, if I had to start fresh today and the only photographic professionals I knew of were popular internet influencers, I would not have wanted to be that, either. No matter how lucrative or how tempting the fame, it is not a good fit for my personality and for the ways I wish to use my time.
I was lucky to have established my practice and lifestyle in a time of transition. I never had to earn a living in whatever the prevailing definition of “professional photographer” was at any time. I got into the profession when one definition of the term was becoming obsolete and the next one was not yet established. This freed me to carve my own niche somewhere in between. In fairness, this should disqualify me from giving advice to aspiring professionals. The best professional advice I have to offer from personal experience is, alas, not a very practical one: try something new, and hope you get lucky.
While “get lucky” may seem facetious or simplistic, in fact there are some bits of practical advice I can offer sincerely to those who hope to do so: work hard, even if you’re not sure you’ll succeed; research and learn as much as you can about the opportunities open to you, even if they may seem far-fetched or outside the norm; make sure you do what you do for the right reasons (i.e., not just because you want fame or a paycheck—if that’s all you want, there are better ways than photography to get there); live frugally and resist getting on the so-called “hedonic treadmill”; don’t commit to things or situations that may have long-term implications if you are not sure that’s what you really want to do with the rest of your life; don’t get so caught up in your daily routines that you lose sight of the “long game”; become comfortable with the possibility of failure or having to change course; consider everything you spend time or money on in light of its opportunity cost—what else you might do with that same time/money, and whether there may be better ways to use it; be willing to disregard critics, naysayers, or even experts, if you are convinced they are wrong. While these may not guarantee luck, they absolutely may increase your odds of getting lucky. Just as important, they will help you find out what getting lucky means to you (and perhaps only to you).
If you ask around or listen to other professional photographers describing their modes of work, you will find that we don’t all do what we do in the same ways, for the same reasons, or even with the same philosophy. Many professional landscape photographers are content spending relatively little time in nature. Many only go into scenic locations to photograph them, and spend little or no time experiencing them—camping, hiking, learning about their natural histories, communing with them, being mindful, respectful, and knowledgeable about their communities of life, forming intimate relationship with them over time, getting to experience them at all times of the day or the year, making them your habitat—learning what it is like to live in them, finding creative ways to express your own unique relationship with and experience of a place or a subject, in photographs or other artwork. For me, these are essential aspects of being a naturalist and an expressive artist—aspects without which photographing these places will be meaningless to me, and thus pointless. For other professionals, this is not the case.
Many professionals are content visiting known locations they have no intimate, personal familiarity with, repeating other people’s compositions rather than striving to be creative and expressive. Many are enamored with the mechanics of the medium, and care less about expressing themselves in it. Some love being public figures, centers of attention, community leaders, brand loyalists, or marketers. Some present themselves as professional photographers even if they only earn a small part of their income in photography and dedicate most of their working time to other professions. I am none of these things.
I don’t mean to criticize anyone else’s way or their definition of what it means to be a professional photographer. I only mean to say that, despite producing similar products, what these photographers do is not what I do. I am not “that kind of landscape photographer.”
The distinction of making similar products despite taking different approaches, is an important one. Despite having different modes of work and being driven by different motivations, landscape photographers often produce similar-looking work, and consumers may not be able to tell just by looking at an image what kind of photographer had produced it.
This may fairly be irrelevant to some consumers (e.g., if they are happy with how a print they bought looks on their living room wall or on the cover of their corporate report). In other cases, it may be extremely relevant to some consumers (e.g., if they wish to purchase a piece of creative, expressive art and want to know that it is an original creation and conveys genuine emotions rather than copied from someone else). In the latter case, it is the consumer’s responsibility to research the product, perhaps even to contact the photographer to ascertain what “kind” they are. In either case, the fact that the resulting product may be just as appealing to consumers, regardless of the kind of photographer who created it, should not matter to you in choosing what kind photographer you want to be.
The choice of what kind of photographer to be should be rooted in one consideration only: which kind seems most meaningful to you to be—the kind that has the potential to enrich and to elevates your own life the most, the kind that will yield you the most satisfying experiences and lifestyle, the kind you may look back on in your elder years with pride and satisfaction, and congratulate yourself for having had the courage and wisdom to become.