Don’t become a professional photographer!

There is an old saying that something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. Sadly, in the age of digital photography that means nobody is willing to pay what you think it’s worth. Rarely now will they even pay you what it cost you to take the photo.

Let me give you an example:

I have some images from a recent trip on Shutterstock. They have sold quite well so far and I have amassed the grand sum of $2.25 for them. Yes, you read that correctly, I have sold my images and received $2.25. Now, how much of a loss am I at here? Well, petrol is the equivalent of $6.67 a gallon for starters.

Let’s say the trip consisted of 300miles at 54mpg (the average I get from my VW Polo), then I used 5.56 gallons at a total cost of $37.08. Without accommodation, food, or any other expenses (camera costs, insurance, or my time of course) then I am already facing the prospect of at least another 16months of consistent sales to break even on fuel alone.

Shutterstock, and they are just one drop in the competing ocean, pay just $0.25 per image sale on subscribers downloads until you get reasonably well known.

For many people this is a non-starter: Sure, over the years you might see a return on your money, and if you have several thousand images on several sites you might see a profit, in time. But, what you live off in the meantime and how you fund trips and creating new images is another matter.

What about selling your images as fine art prints? Well, you have the initial outlay of the print, framing, and then finding someone to sell it for you in a shop or gallery. You then you have to hope it sells and you get your money back plus a little profit, and after you’ve paid the commission to the gallery. You also need somewhere as storage to put them, between displays, if they don’t all sell. Which they won’t.

For many people this is a non-starter: Again there is the investment need, you have to spend to accumulate is the old saying, but where do you accumulate in order to spend?

So, what can you do to sell your images or make money from your photography in the 21th Century when everyone has a camera? I honestly don’t have the answer, but I do know that the number of people making a sustainable living is ever decreasing. Look in any magazine and you will see the same faces, and very frequently the same rehashed articles – if you want an example take a look at the excellent photos from Fukushima.

This is now the third magazine I’ve seen them in. They’re good, but I am not buying yet another magazine with them in so I missed buying this edition. You can’t blame the photographer for spreading them thinly to get a return on their investment, and you can’t blame an editor for wanting to use good images.

Getting in with magazines requires you to be able to write now as well as take excellent photographs, with the odd exception of art or photography magazines which will take your images only. But even then, often now you get a ‘gift’ instead of money – a camera rucksack for publishing your portfolio anyone? Not me, got one, and I can’t bank another rucksack. I could sell it on eBay I suppose but that won’t bring me a return anything like what it costs me to get those images.

What about getting your work noticed in the first place? Exposure, that fateful word…the one that to 99% of outlets means they ain’t going to pay you a dime. Have you tried to get a plumber to work for ‘exposure’? Have you tried to buy your lunch with ‘exposure’? Art industries are the only industries where ‘we’ (and not me actually) accept exposure as an excuse or licence for not paying a fair price, or even any price.

What does that say about how we value our own work? Aren’t we making a rod for our own backs? If I, we, are going to accept $0.25 an image what are we telling people we are worth? If some of us are happy to see our name in lights (or rather print) and have a swanky new camera bag in return for our hard won images what are we saying about the value we place on our images and our industry?

But, and here is the but, what choices do we have? The answer is very little because if we don’t then we don’t get a look in anymore. Unless you are already well known and established then I fear that the days of the full time photographer are sadly numbered, and even the most well known and respected professionals are diversifying and now make as much money (if not more) from teaching other photographers, either one-to-one or on group workshops and holidays as they do from selling the actual images they shoot. The best of the best – National Geographic – has shed staff and freelancers since the buy out by the horrible Murdoch lead group. Most newspapers now buy in images from freelancers and don’t employ their own photographers anymore.

We are bombarded with visual content, and for every images you have to pay for your can find a dozen that are almost as good for free, or for very little. Photography is now becoming a race to the bottom, and an industry that many dream of entering either as students or dream of turning hobbies into their living. Want my advice? Don’t do it.

There was an interview on my local news station the other day with a retired press photographer and he was asked what advice he would give budding photojournalists today. He said; ‘buy a guitar, there’s not money in photography anymore’.

Is there a future for photographers? I guess we wait and see. We continue to try to elevate our work to the highest standard, we continue to push new markets and new directions, we try to get our work noticed by those who still value the craft and the art of photography and we do so with thousands snapping at our heels who are happy with $0.25 an image or working for ‘exposure’ that they hope will lead to bigger things but usually just leads you to more payment free job opportunities or being passed over for the next hopeful.

It’s a cruel world.

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Moray Coast Trail – Hopeman to Covesea

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The Moray Coast Trail, or Moray Coastal Trail (not even the council can decide what it’s called) stretches from Cullen in the east to Findhorn towards the west, along the coast of the Moray Firth.

Officially, it’s 50 miles but there are some arguments about that…

…anyway, over the past few months we, as in Patches and I, have been tackling it in nice bite sized sections at the weekends. Patches is a mature gentlemen, with a touch of arthritis, and so those bite sized chunks range from five to around nine miles. This is a bit of a misnomer though, as we walk each section as a there-and-back, so we might only cover 2.5miles of the trail, but we do it twice, in both directions seeing it from both views.

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Some sections are easier to walk than others, as it shares the route with sections of cycle trails and on disused railways, so sometimes a nice wide flat path is provided and sometimes you are on the “walkers path” and therefore going around the cliffs (and up and down thin tracks being scratched by scratchy shrub).

I had been looking forward to yesterdays section very much, because the map has the words ‘caves’ printed on it all the way. It did not disappoint, although the scratches from the scratchy bushes on the very enclosed sections might take a few days to heal.

All along the route there are coves and bays, some sand and some pebble. Some are easy to get to, and some are definitely not.

The whole route gives excellent views across the firth to the coast on the other side, depending on the weather of course, and you can often see dolphins, seals, and a large variety of birdlife.

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Not marked on the map is the old Coastguard lookout station, which you get to see from quite some distance when walking west to east, but then it pops up over the gorse and undulating cliff top at you if on the route east to west.

It is a shame that you can’t go in it, or that it hasn’t been co-opted into a bothy like the one on Skye. I image the view from the balcony at the top would be quite something.

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The route does indeed take you past a number of sandstone caves and rock formations, as promised on the map. These ones (above) are not far from the active quarry and are reasonably accessible, although two of the three paths down are much steeper than the west most one and great care is needed.

Popular with photographers, mainly due to the natural arch you can just see at the bottom of the photo (above), and the array of weather worn large round rocks which form a stunning collection of geological complexity (below), it is unlikely you’ll be alone here for very long.

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At weekends, it is possible to park near to the quarry entrance and just visit these caves, although this is certainly not recommended on weekdays when the lorries are going in and out, and care should be taken not to block access at ANY time.

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The quarry produces some very large pieces of sandstone, and whilst it may be a bit of a blight on the landscape, it does facilitate the degree of weekend parking which is helpful, as well as offering much needed employment.

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Towards the Covesea end of the walk, which can be extended easily to Lossiemouth if desired, there is the Sculptors Cave. This feature is clearly marked on the OS maps in the serif type usually reserved for ancient monuments so there is a deeply historical context, obviously. It isn’t actually possible to see Sculptors Cave from the walk, as you’re actually walking over it, but nearby natural arches and caves that you can see give you a teaser of what it could be like.

Luckily, the wonderful Canmore website can shed more light on this;

‘Finds from the Sculptor’s Cave dating from the Bronze Age to the 4th century AD, and including Iron Age pottery, are in the Elgin Museum.’

‘The most striking feature of the cave is the (formerly) substantial assemblage of human remains that was revealed in both programmes of excavation’

‘The possibility may be considered that there were two periods of deposition….the deposition of the remains of children, with some emphasis on the placing of heads at the entrance, and….the remains of several decapitated individuals. Concern with the removal, curation and display of human heads is a persistent trait across prehistoric Europe…’
(edited, removing technical references for ease of reading, by the photographer)

This exciting site certainly warrants a further expedition to photography the carvings at a later date.

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The caves and natural arches extend along the seaward side of the cliff and also under where the photographer is standing.

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The coast of the Moray Firth is still able to enchant and interest, even after more than 13 years of living beside it. The geology itself is varied and interesting, and the human history of the coast is just as fascinating.

The eastern side of Scotland is often overlooked by the rush to the west coast and the isles, and whilst this keeps it from being unpleasantly crowded, it is a disservice to what is a very worthwhile destination. The weather of Moray is far more stable, and frequently warmer and drier than the west, although the residents will still bemoan the lack of a “decent summer”. It also suffers considerably less from the issue of the Highland midge than it’s opposing neighbours.

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Although the walk was only around 5-6 miles in length, ignoring some exploratory detours, Patches certainly enjoyed the outing as much as I did.

Update Sunday 8th October: attempted today to get down to the Sculptures Cave from the cliff above. It was difficult is distinguish the right path and I tried finding a way down and back to it from different points. In the end I found what seems the most logical path but I was only brave enough to tackle the first section and was slipping in the mud from the last few days of rain. As I peered over the precipice and contemplated the leap across the missing rock section onto the second path I am afraid that I bottled it. The caves remain unexplored until I can tackle them from the bottom having walked there from the beach at the far Lossiemouth end. For this, I would want to be there as the tide was going out rather than after it had turned and was heading back in, as being cut off is a very serious proposition. Another time…

 

Shooting my depression

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In 2004, and again in 2005, I had two major surgeries. I don’t know if I suffered depression as a result of the anaesthetic, the ill health that preceded it, or if it was just my time and my turn. I mean, one in three of us is going to get at some point. But, I got through it, without any therapy type help and with only a short spell on medication. Then it happened again.

Around five years ago I suffered another, more severe, spell of depression. This time I was suicidal, although I wouldn’t admit it to anyone. I think the doctor figured it out, and she talked to me about lots of things other than why I felt the way I did. She realised that my one channel of escape was my photography. At the time, creativity was the last thing I felt capable of. But, she also realised I had a hard streak, a defiant tenacity that surfaced, sometimes in anger, and sadly often in alcohol.

She saw I needed a direction, and she challenged me. She suggested that even a “professional photographer” couldn’t come up with a decent image every day.  I argued, that they could. I believed I could. The challenge was set.

Of course, she probably didn’t quite understand quite how tenacious I can be, or how determined (read also as ‘bloody minded’). I didn’t just decide to come up with one decent image a day, but to come up with one decent image a day EVERYDAY, for A YEAR.

I started on New Years Day, at dawn. And I took three photos;

They weren’t very good and I didn’t even have a decent camera at the time. I’d been depressed now for several months and I’d lost pretty much everything; work, money, I’d hocked my equipment, I sold my self esteem.

At the time I decided to do this, I didn’t actually realise how difficult this would be. It wasn’t difficult to come up with an image, but to come up with a new image, every day, when all I wanted to do was stay in bed and cry was bloody hard work. But, it did something for my depression; it made me get out of bed and get off my arse. It made me get outside in the fresh air, sometimes in the pouring rain, and do something.

My depression lifted, eventually, around four months after I first contemplated my suicide and realised I needed help. Medication was a part of it, a very necessary part of it, and regular conversations with my GP helped no end. Support from my friends, some who really understood because they’d been in their own hells, helped too. But the thing that I think made such a huge difference, to me, was getting out there with my camera and taking photos. I treated every day as an assignment, as if someone were going to be paying me to get the shot. It was hard, and I didn’t always feel like it, and sometimes I would rage against myself, my friends, and inwardly at the whole world. But I got out there and I took my photos. I did it with a cold, I even managed a photo with flu taken in the kitchen whilst trying desperately not to cough and then I threw up.

I couldn’t work at the time, nobody would have employed me the state I was in, but it helped me to think that one day they might. It helped me to think that what I was doing would be seen by other people so I made an online blog, and I published my photos of the day, each day, and every day. I didn’t have the money to go very far, so many of my images were based on the area in which I was living at the time and I think that’s partly why I ended up with a small but quite dedicated local following.

The photos that I took during this period weren’t very good, and looking back now I can actually see my periods of lowest mood from the images I shot. Some are very dark, and very sad. Some are angry and raging against the injustices I felt in the world, my little world or the bigger one. Some are just boring photos that I took to get the job over with. Some make me chuckle.

And just some of those images are still in my portfolio today.

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Looking back on them now whilst I can see my depression, or the effect it was having on me at times, I am also reminded that actually I am a damned fine photographer.

My depression is always with me, always lurking around somewhere waiting. I do not hide from it, and I do not pretend it isn’t there. Some days, even just this week, I want to stop the world and get off, to hide in the closet and never come out again. Some days I get up feeling inspired, then it sort of just…goes down hill from there. Whatever I am feeling though, I know I can channel some it into my photography. The results may not be publishable, and I might even delete the whole damn lot, but I know that going out and creating something works more times than it does not. Some times going out isn’t possible, but that doesn’t matter either.

I would say, because of the audience this site has, that I have never let a client down, and I never will. Not if it’s in my control, even when my depression isn’t. I have never not turned up on a job and I have no intention of starting now, no matter how hard it is sometimes to get out of my pit and actually do it, but I do it, always.

When I am shooting for myself, or just shooting as a prelude or prospect, then some days the creative juices flow, and some days they don’t. Some days I can write from 4am until 4am the next day and other days the words won’t come out at all. But it doesn’t really matter, they’re only words and photographs anyway. They aren’t going to determine the future of anyones life but mine. And some days that doesn’t seem to mean much either.

Thank you for listening.

Blythe