Do You? 7 questions to ask before you go turn full time landscape photographer

Photo by Rusty Parkhurst Photography (www.rustyparkhurst.com)

From the time I write this article, I am six days out from going back to work full time as a biologist. For the past four months, I have been playing professional landscape photographer and frankly have had good success. If I wanted, I could simply keep doing what I am doing now and I could keep living just fine. I am far from rich, but I am doing well. I really only work one full day a week, and a smattering throughout the week. Sometimes I have longer weekends doing shows and sometimes I am up late prepping for these articles.  But overall I live a comfortable life.

So why am I going back to a job? Why would I give up “the dream” that so many desire to achieve?

I will answer that in a sort of roundabout way.

But before I answer that question I want to pose some to you. They will be in a ‘do you' format and I will give my thoughts on each one. After you read the question I really want you to ask yourself your opinion on it. Write it out. If you really want, answer below or send me an email with your answer. I really want this to make a difference in your decision making. Now get out a pencil and paper and start thinking about what I am going to say.

Question 1: Do you love the landscape?

For all that's good in this green earth, do you care about what you are photographing?  If you do not have a resounding yes to this question I want you to put away your camera and spend every waking moment and free time outdoors, in the wilderness, for a year. Or however long it takes you to get it. Your work will be permanently affected by this questions.

Having a love for what you are photographing will make a difference in every aspect of what you are doing. Your representation of it will come through in your photos. Where and when you photograph it will come through as well. True passion in a subject spawns true creativity. It causes you to prod and poke and ask questions. It causes you to think beyond the mere appearance and look for something that might not be easily seen by many others. It also causes you to want to take care of it. Have a voice in its outcome, and causes you to speak up when a voice needs to be heard.

Want to know why I do not photograph weddings, even though I live in the state of Utah, probably one of the biggest wedding capitols of the U.S? Its because I don't like doing it. If you do not love nature, being outdoors, and what happens to it, you will not be a successful landscape photographer. You might become a good one, but you will hold yourself back on what you can achieve. Listen to Guy Tal sometime and you will understand what I mean.

By Kirk Bergman

 Question 2: Do you really have a passion for landscape photography?

Do you know how often I hear someone say they have a passion for landscape photography, then follow up with what camera should I get to pursue that? Probably once a week. It comes from some facebook group, or someone I meet out and about who finds out that I am doing this full time. Do they really have a passion? I don't know… maybe. But based on the follow-up question of what camera should I get, probably indicates that it is not the case.

Why do you think I say that?

It is like a marriage, you and landscape photography. If you say I love you and then follow up with “how big of a ring do you think I have to get to prove it” then you are missing the point. There is a 20% chance of a marriage ending within 5 years. I am banking it is even higher for those wanting to start a business and if there were numbers for landscape photography businesses it would be even higher.

A passion for landscape photography should be with you from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. It should be on your mind as you travel, as you buy gear, as you hang out with friends. If you do not have that type of drive, you will not make it.

This is a quote from Marc Metternich about this subject

As a full time professional Landscape Photographer for over 10 years, the very best advice that I can give someone who is interested in attempting to become a full-time professional nature or landscape photographer would be to take an extremely sober and hard look at your passion level, work ethic, willingness to sacrifice immensely and willingness to become a business person even before a photographer. I can not overemphasize how seriously these questions need to be considered. (from capturelandscapes.com)

The things with passions, they are built and cultivated. They do not spring out of the blue. They are not something that you wake up one day and say “you know what, I have a passion for outdoors and thus I will be a landscape photographer.”

I built a passion for what I do now over the course of years! If you were to ask me what my passion was 5 years ago it would not have been photography. Even two years ago I would have been hiking over photography. It has grown on me slowly but surely for a long time. And only because it has grown on me one piece at a time, will it be able to stand the test of time. Grow your passion for a bit before you dive in.

Question 3: Do you hate your current job?

Do you hate your job is a really relevant questions. There are lots of steller landscape photographers out there that do not do landscape photography full time. Partly because they love their job they are in. In fact, this is part of the reason why I am going back to my other job. I am a biologist by trade. I have a degree in it and I love working with animals. (not dogs per say, but fish… fish are cool)

So do you wake up every morning hating what you are doing with a burning passion? Do you dread getting up and getting ready for that life you currently live? Do you spend all your vacation time to go photograph?

Hate and anger and good motivators, that's how governments are toppled and big change happens within people. When you hate something you are doing presently it will give you the motivation to try something risky. If you don't hate your current job, and in fact kind of like it, but love doing photography, why ruin one job and potentially come to hate the other as well. If you want to get into landscape photography as a career, transition slowly and get yourself slowly built up for it.

Another thought would be if you hate your job now what other jobs besides photography could you take that you could possibly find happiness in.

Question 4: Do you stamp collect?

Stamp collecting is referring to photographing only the icons and recapturing the shots that others before you have done. I don't have many issues with this, but if this is your only goal, it is hard to separate yourself from the pack. The reason why you recognize most other landscape photographers out there is because they broke new grounds and photographed new areas and photographed unique structures. If your goal is to only stamp collect I don't think you will make it far. But I could be wrong. By the way, I stamp collect too, but I try not to use them for everything, they are scattered amongst everything, including Mesa Arch.

Sunrise at Mesa Arch. Photo by Rusty Parkhurst

Question 5: Do you think it will be fast?

I failed at making any money the first year of doing this. I had to borrow everything I was using and was still breaking even/ losing money. I would go to an art show and come back after 5 hours and only had earned 10 dollars of profit. Two dollars an hour is not a good profit margin. I even stopped for almost a year until I was in better situations. It was slow. Before I was doing art shows I tried to sell through Fine Art America. Never made a dime. Then it was Etsy. Lost money there. Before all of that, it was through my hiking blog. This has been years in the making to get to where I am at now. I still only make enough to cover rent and get what I need to function. This leads to the next question.

Question 6: Do you do this for money?

November of last year I went and joined a photo tour to photograph an arch that is really hard to get to. It was my best opportunity to do so. The weather went full overcast and the sun was blocked by a haze of clouds, the color sucked and I didn't get my shot. I got sick on the drive home and I spent a lot of money to get it. I was bitter about the shoot and was disappointed that I didn't get the “money shot.” The entire experience was tainted because I was solely focused on the money. I didn't get a shot I could sell, and I spent a lot of money to do it.

I got home and complained to my wife about it. By this point I had been working six days a week, five at my regular job and Saturday doing my photo gig. I was burned out, disappointed and was beginning to do all of this for the wrong reasons.

Money was the driver.

I was not having fun, I did not care for being out photographing unless it was amazing light. I hit rock bottom on my photographic journey. After that my wife said I needed to do this for fun not money. So when I went out and photographed, she would ask did I have fun instead of did you get the shot. That change in perspective helped me crawl out of that rut. Do those dark tendencies crawl back in, yes, but I really try to avoid them. Landscape photography should never be about money or it kills your desire to do it.

Question 7: Do you like failing?

I failed when I first started this. I failed at countless photo shoots. I failed at marketing (still do). I failed at editing some images (Still do that too). I lost money and lots of it in my first gallery opening. Be prepared to fail. If you are failure averse, you might not like this field. If everything has to be a success then you really won't like this field. You will find as you travel to shows that some of them will suck. You will find that you can't please everyone and some people will walk away yelling at you for not having wildlife pictures (true story).  Be prepared to fail at your business, your relationship, and your work.

The most dangerous of these is your relationship. I have been chewed out more than once because I put photography above my family. You have to fail a few times to figure out the balance.


First attempt, fail

Final Thoughts

If landscape photography is your main goal in life, answer these questions very seriously. They might change your photographic career path and your life path.

Before I go any further, I also don't want this to sound like I am bragging. I am very aware that my success is tied to my location and to the goodness of others willing to let me put stuff on their walls. I move in the fall and I am fully expecting my photography business to fall apart for a while. Then I will go through all the steps of building a business all over again.

Tell me your thoughts and answer the questions yourself.


10 thoughts on “Do You? 7 questions to ask before you go turn full time landscape photographer”

  1. Thank you Nathan for writing this, I just have an important question for me, what do you recommen for someone who didn’t study photography but it’s been practicing for years and want to pursue a career in landscape photography, by the way I have been painting landscape for years now through photos

  2. Анатолий

    Я почти полностью согласен с вашими мыслями за исключением денежных вопросов. Мне 84 года. Я никогда не занимался фотографией для денег. Для моей семьи это только убытки, но ни жена, ни дети никогда даже не думали меня упрекать за моё увлечение, а вместе со мной радовались моим удачам. Когда исчезла возможность заниматься чёрно-белой плёночной фотографией, я долго не занимался ей. С появлением у меня заняться цифровой фотографией, я снова учусь и мне очень интересны материалы, подобные вашим. Думаю, что человек, занимающийся фотографией по увлечению, больше любит то, чем он занят. Извините за многословность! Спасибо вам за учёбу!

  3. These are great questions and analysis for a landscape photographer. I enjoyed reading this piece. I get hung up in failure and money making so I’ll stick to retirement for now.

  4. Nathan;

    Your questions are incredibly telling.

    Clearly, you love both your careers – and just as clearly, you’ve felt the sting of failure through every step in your photography journey.

    I normally just gloss over the alerts from IP when they pop up on my screen, but given that just this morning I was chasing a moonset in the dark over Mark Twain Lake while waiting for a chance to interview a few more people for the local paper, it seemed almost like a sign.

    This has definitely been enlightening – And I don’t think it would have been as enlightening for me, in any other format.

    I don’t think you’ll have to worry too much on restarting your photography business – If you’re staying in Utah that’s still a leg up over most of the rest of us in location, and you’ve got a powerful body of work already!

    Wherever you wind up, however, I hope you get a chance to chase O. mykiss and his other salmonid pals!

  5. A lot of really great things to think about here.

    I will add that you’ll have a much better chance being successful at anything (a full time photography career, in this case) if you are running towards it instead of running away from something you hate (your current job). Running away from a job you hate instead of running toward your dream job is a huge factor in your motivation, desire, and in the results you’ll see in the end.

  6. I really like the last point. I hate failing, but I understand it is something you must do to improve. Everyone fails! I must remember that too! Thanks for the article.

    “Be prepared to fail at your business, your relationship, and your work.” Never truer words written!

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