What Is Your Purpose?

Why are you a photographer?

What do you want from photography?

Does your photography have a purpose?

When I get in the photography frame of mind and stuff my camera pack with gear, I find myself asking, “what do I need to get out of this.”

For me, to answer my constant internal questions, I think I have to go back to my childhood to understand how I arrived at where I am today.

When I first picked up a camera, I didn’t know what I liked about it, but I knew that I liked it. Perhaps it was the technical aspect of taking a small machine and creating something with my eyes and hands, with no concept of how to do it, other than knowing that I needed to do it. My mind would not let me continue until I understood every technical aspect of how a camera and film worked.

I moved around though. At one point in high school I was really getting into making motion pictures using a Super 8 film movie camera. I found a group of friends who had the same interest and together we made movies. Silent movies that we’d show in class. We’d select our favorite music and play tape recordings while the film rolled on the projector screen. Everybody involved loved it. Teenage creativity run wild.

I think my first thoughts were based on my attraction to solving an engineering problem. I can confirm this by following my own footsteps into the future from my youth. There was always a camera available, I was always taking photographs. I played with the mechanical toys and developed the film and explored ways to take photographs that were more interesting to me than the previous photographs I had made. I remember the excitement and anticipation that came with every roll of film and canister of movies I waited on impatiently to be developed and ready for retrieval at the local drug store. I’d save my pennies to pay for the processing of the negatives and prints. Each package far more important to see than the previous. It was always about the next photo or movie.

I also discovered at an early age that I like to blog. Back then blogs on the Internet didn’t exist. Blogging was done via diary. I kept a diary, not knowing why, but trying my best to document the things in my life that felt important to document at the time.

Photography and writing took over an area in my head as a teenager.

I never asked and never knew why I was doing it. It just felt natural to me.

As I grew older, I maintained my interest in photography. I recall during my time in the Navy, the first introduction of microprocessors and electronics in cameras. The Canon AE-1 was the talk of the town. I was still hung up on the vintage 35mm camera technology though. My father picked up a stereoscopic 35mm rangefinder at a yard sale and gave it to me. It had a 3D viewer made from Bakelite. The color slides were like other slide transparencies only two wide with enough change in perspective between the images to give that three dimensional view when inserted into the viewer. I was the only person to ever look at the photos I took. It was all about me and my need to take those photos and the need to learn more.

Raising a growing family while in the military required that I put my photographic desires on a back burner though. The cameras were relegated to family photographs and documenting our family adventures.

It was 1981 when I found my first real purpose to photography. I went to work at The Wall Street Journal as a Satellite Communications Engineer in the Production side of the newspaper. By this time, I was trained and skilled in radio electronics and that is where I anticipated I’d further my career. But, that job at one of the largest newspapers in the world was about far more than being a radio engineer. Newspapers are in the business of printing photographs and stories and all the equipment and technology used to accomplish that was now my responsibility and at my disposal. Photography, digital imaging and printing on an industrial scale became my soul purpose in life. I was so devoted to it I allowed it to consume me and it was a double-edged sword. I went into middle-age in a state of internal conflict and my single minded obsession destroyed my personal life. I hadn’t found a balance between work life and a personal life and it was unsustainable. I paid a heavy price for my obsessions and it cost me 10 years of happiness.

But through it all, there was still the fact that I enjoyed photography and wanted to keep my nose to the back of a camera. I had to find a way to make that work within the framework of my personal life.

In the early 2000’s, digital cameras were coming on to the market and I decided to get in on the action. By 2005, I knew that my time with The Wall Street Journal was coming to an end. I revisited my thoughts on what my purpose in life should be and I moved on from the reality that I was going to have to solve my own issues in my own way. Being a Satellite Communications Engineer wasn’t going to be my future. I did it, I was good at it but that’s not what I wanted for a future. It was photography that took the helm and I turned the rudder of my little ship of dreams towards the light, founded a photography business and retired from the corporate newspaper world. It was the best decision I ever made in my life.

As a kid, one would often be asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I always struggled with that answer, as I don’t know that I was ever certain what I wanted to be. I followed a career path and learned a lot of things over time, but it was that sense of purpose that eluded me.

I now know that being a photographer became my purpose in 2006. I met a lady whose sensibilities aligned with my own, I had found the complete meaning of my life and a person to share it with.

Today, I can answer all the unanswered questions of my past. Why am I a photographer, what I want from photography, what is the purpose of my photography?

It’s simple. I want to be happy.

Now that I’m in my retirement years, I have found my happiness in life and I get to share it with a person who has found her happiness in life. Everything in my life has led me to this point.

I don’t know a photographer who isn’t trying to be happy about what they do. I’ve never heard a photographer complain that they had to go take photographs. We all do it for different reasons, with different viewpoints and subjects, but I do think the bottom line is that we all just want to be happy.

Photos That Don’t Earn Money Are Worthless

Scarlet Macaw (One of my top sellers on Micro-stock)

I was talking to a gentleman the other day while on one of my photography outings. He had a nice camera kit and appeared to be working the same subject I was with the same enthusiasm. We got to talking, as all photographers will do when they are gathered in one spot for any length of time. He began showing me some of the photos he had taken over the years. Just about every photographer I meet wants to show you their images on their mobile phone. It’s a ritual. His photos were quite good, at least as good as mine. I asked him if he was making any money from those photos, to which he replied, “No” He went on to explain that all he does is take photos and then he never does anything with them except maybe put them in a photo contest here and there. He said he had won a few contests but for the most part, nobody ever sees his photos.

So, I asked him “why”, and then went into my little spiel about “if your images aren’t making money, they are worthless.” I pointed out to him that from what I was seeing in his portfolio, he has some very nice photographs and those photos could be money makers. He just sorta looked at me with a blank stare. I asked him how many photos he keeps in his “really good photo catalog” and he said “about 3,000 images.”

So here was a fellow who had 3,000 really good photos sitting on his phone and none of them were working for him and he spends almost all his free time getting these photos.

I responded to him that he should be earning money, because all that work and time he’s spent getting those images is pointless if nobody is ever going to see them or if he never tries to sell them. When we finished up our day’s work, he told me that what I was saying made sense and that he would have to look into this further. Who knows what he ends up doing, but I was dead on with my analysis of his situation. Here’s a guy who is a pretty good photographer and has a butt-load of nice images he’s accumulated over the years and he’s just staring at his own belly button admiring the lint he can pull out. Not the best use of one’s time and effort in my opinion.

I know many photographers. Some professional, some amateur, some better than others, some more financially secure than others. I can generally break them down into two categories. People who make money with their photos and people who don’t. It usually has nothing to do with how good they are. It’s more of an emotional choice than a business choice.

When I founded my photography business, I formulated a business plan and I’ve stuck to it. The primary purpose of any business should be to make a profit. I’ve done a lot of different types of photography over the years. Weddings, events, product, marketing, landscape, wildlife, fine art, workshops, tutoring, etc… You name it, I’ve probably done it and made a profit. But I retired from my pursuit of clients in 2017. Since I’ve retired I’ve dedicated my efforts to earning a photography pension. My pension plan doesn’t involve any company or beneficiary program other than the one I created from scratch in 2006. My stock photography catalog is my photography pension and I own all the rights to everything. I simply sell the rights to use my images to help fund my retirement.

With the profit motive in mind, I have a general mindset that I only produce photographs that can potentially earn me money. I don’t collect anything just to feel warm and fuzzy. I shoot the subjects that I know have a potential to generate income. If I do a road trip, the idea is for the images I bring home to ultimately pay for the cost of that trip and then earn a profit. It’s that simple, to me.

I know professionals who are so cut-throat with their business practices as to actually get belligerent about what and how they do things. Others may be more insightful and helpful with sharing their knowledge. I don’t begrudge that pro who protects their knowledge and who looks at everything as if it were a competition. That’s their thing, they can do as they please. Myself, I don’t look at photography as a competitive sport. I protect my business with as much enthusiasm as anyone else, but I don’t look at friends and acquaintances as “the competition”, and I have no problems sharing what I can about what I do. The result is of course, I have no problem writing about these things, to a certain degree. I know many of you are in similar situations, getting older, looking at retirement, wondering where and how you’ll keep the income coming in. So ask yourself a question. How many photographs have you taken over the past 15 years and what are you doing with those photographs?

There’s an old saying in business.

There are only two rules you never break when running a business.

Rule #1. Never give away all your business secrets.

In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit, I’ll share a few (not all) quick facts concerning my experience with Micro-stock sales on the Internet.

Firstly, I’m selling images on more than 10 websites. As for stock photography, I have 9 current micro-stock sites that carry my images.

Secondly, I sell a lot of images, but I’m not getting wealthy from it. I look at it as more of a photography retirement pension, so the amount I’m making is comparable to a typical pension for somebody who worked at a well paying job with a pension plan for 10 years or so. (I’m basing this on my wife’s pension.)

My current stock photograph catalog is roughly 3,800 images. With very few exceptions, I sell the entire catalog on all my micro-stock agencies. Not every agency has the exact photos online, as some agencies reject different photos than others and some photos sell better on one agency than another.

My acceptance ratio is on average better than 96% for all agencies (except for one that I don’t fully understand their logic.)

The beauty of the stock portfolio is that the work has already been done, all I have to do is upload the files and collect the money. That money will continue to come in as long as the micro-stock agency continues selling my files into the future. Theoretically, this will earn me money until I’m dead at which time I’ll leave my portfolio & royalties to my beneficiaries, and they too can continue to enjoy the regular income those photos will continue to produce.

My photographs aren’t exactly the common images one would expect to find on micro-stock. My work is mostly landscape and wildlife photography and I estimate that I’m in a smaller than average niche when it comes to available stock imagery. I could probably increase my sales and presence if I were to delve into subjects that are more popular in stock, but I do this for me and I am trying to make income doing what I love. I don’t particularly care about photos of people standing or jumping around with smiles on their face and happy environments. Just not my thing. I also don’t do any type of work that requires a property or model release. Too much overhead for my liking.

Different micro-stock sites have different ways of doing things. Image critiquing by one agency may be more or less vigorous than another agency, and the things they are looking for will vary. Still, I don’t let the fear of having a photo rejected keep me from doing anything. The basic idea I follow is that everyone gets my full portfolio, they can decide what to sell and the customers can decide what they want to buy.

That’s how I look at it. Your mileage may vary.

Of all my points of micro-stock sales, 78% of my income comes from three micro-stock agencies. Adobe Stock, Shutterstock and Getty/iStock.

These top three points of sale don’t perform in the same exact way either.

For total earnings, the best point of sale I have is Shutterstock. I’ve made more money on Shutterstock selling my images than any other single point of sale, accounting for about 29% of all my stock photography earnings.

For shear image sales count, Getty/iStock sells the most of my photographs, by almost 2:1 over any other stock agency. But, the average price per sale is lower than the other top sites. More of a bulk situation, still my earnings from Gerry/iStock sales are a close #2 for me, accounting for about 47% of my total images sold and about 25% of my profit.

As far as getting the most bang for the buck, Adobe Stock is earning me the highest average return per image sold and accounts for about 24% of my total stock photo earnings with only 14% of the actual images sold.

So, that’s today’s insight. I don’t mind sharing my knowledge on this subject, because I have an honest desire to see other photographers be successful in their endeavors. I’m not too worried about helping “the competition” because, really, there are 300 million photographs out there and a few thousand images competing for that big a pie isn’t going to impact what my results are going to be.

I was reading up on the micro-stock industry the other day and one of the things I read was a market projection that micro-stock sales were expected to increase about 5% per year over the next five years. Contrary to the inaccurate thinking of many who can’t be bothered to consider selling stock photos, micro-stock is a viable and upward trending business. If you have photos sitting on your computer and you aren’t selling them now, you are losing money. Free money. You’ve already done the work and you’ve already invested in getting those photographs. To let them sit there doing nothing other than for your own personal entertainment isn’t really going to get you anywhere. When you die, all your images will go with you. They’ll give your computer and camera gear to your favorite relative and you will have nothing to show for it as a legacy.

Me, When I’m dead and gone, I’m going to leave something of value behind to someone I care about. It’s the least I can do. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor and enjoying the labor even more. I have learned to do exactly what I like and how to make money doing it. For me, it’s a way of life.

Photos that don’t earn money are worthless.

The First Time

I made my first trip out with the new Nikon D500. Well, new to me. The camera model is about 4 years old now, which is one of the reasons I waited to get this camera. I never buy a camera when it’s first released. I always buy the new model at the tail end of its life cycle. Just a habit I have of saving a little money.

The first foray was to the “tree in the lake”, which I wrongfully assumed would have either great blue heron or double-crested cormorants in the process of populating the trees on the island. It turns out there were hardly any birds there this morning. The long used dead trees are starting to fall and there are fewer than half the number standing there 2 springs ago. I’m sensing that the herons have figured the problem out and moved on up to the east side, to a delux apartment in the sky. What-ever is happening, I ended up playing around with totally pointless shots of a few ring-billed gulls and assorted duck.

I managed this gull in flight shot, using a tripod, from about 75 yards away and looking kinda toward the sun. Note, none of these circumstances are conducive to getting a good photo, but when one is out to push the shutter button, one pushes the shutter button. In this case to the nice song of a shutter firing 10 times every second. It sounds like a sewing machine. The result is a flurry of photographs, electro-changing tiny particles on memory chips at a rate I’ve never had available to me before. It does make you smile when you hear it. The camera equivalent of hearing a large racing engine run in a 1969 Camaro. Probably a guy thing.

I’m reserving judgment at the moment. I took a shot of a bufflehead duck, swimming from quite a ways off, and what I looked at was of excellent quality. The flying seagull here isn’t tack sharp, but I’m trying to push the extreme outer limits of this shot. The end result is a 4.2 megapixel crop of a 20.7 megapixel original. Not really in “nice photo” territory, but at least it tells me something. After-all, it is the first time.

Feathers Friday

Great Blue Heron in Flight
(Nikon D7200-Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR @500mm, f/7.1, 1/2500 sec, ISO 640)

It’s Feathers Friday and as good a day as any to talk about bird photography.

I’ll admit, I’m not a “birder” by definition. Oh, I have thousands of bird photos, most of which are junk but I keep plugging at it. I think good bird photographs are one of the more difficult objectives in photography. At least if one wants to become effective and efficient in generating the kind of images that sell. Most of my best selling bird photos are birds in flight.

It has only been in the last few years, since I switched to Nikon, that I’ve improved my results to any meaningful degree. There are a number of reasons for stumbling on the subject, most of them being my techniques and perseverance to pursuing the subject, but camera equipment does play in to the equation and in no small way.

For starters, birds are seldom where you want them to be. They are generally skittish creatures and can’t be approached. They are also small subjects, which makes getting close all the more important.

Skies and environment matter a lot too. Cloudy days with boring grey sky are not the best time to get good birds in flight photos. The bright back light kills the foreground detail of the birds feathers, generally resulting in silhouette photos that are of little interest. It’s those white, puffy cloud days that I like best.

Sometimes, I use a tripod with a gimble head, particularly effective with nesting birds, flying to and from the nest. The trick is to anticipate what they will be doing and get the shot when it does. That’s a waiting game. It’s hard to keep ones attention focused though. When working around other photographers, we, as a group tend to get a little bit chatty and often times are flapping our lips when we should be hitting the shutter button. Reaction time is critical. That extra second or two it takes you to move from a conversation to finding, tracking and then capturing the bird doing something can be make or break in most situations.

To me though, my best bird in flight shots come when I’m hand-holding my camera. Shooting hand-held, it’s easier to get an out of focus image, so one must learn the best way to hold the camera and how to pre-focus the lens and how to accurately track a flying bird. It takes lots of practice.

Canada Goose In Flight With Reflection

My biggest mistake as a beginner was to zoom the lens all the way out to get a full frame of the bird. What I discovered is that’s a terrible way to do it. I came to the realization that by zooming all the way out, I was far more likely to chop off part of a bird’s body in the frame or completely lose track of the animal before I could establish a good tracking solution. These days, I try to keep the lens set at about 1/2 of it’s focal length. I normally use the 200-500mm zoom lens, so that means I have to pay attention and keep the lens set for about 275mm – 350mm when I’m sitting idle and then work the zoom to get the bird filling more of the frame as I track it with the camera. The first instinct is to start shooting as soon as you lift the camera, but getting the bird in the frame and in focus is far more important. I figure it’s better to have a smaller subject in the frame and work my way in than it is to have the top of the birds flapping wings cut off in the frame, thus wasting the image.

Double-crested Cormorant

Another thing I try to avoid is jumping on photos of birds that land in nearby trees. I’ve had limited success doing this, as once again, the first instinct is to get photos. The problem is, there are very few good bird photos with a bird sitting on a tree branch with a bright background a lot of tree branches in the scene and the bird just sitting there looking around. Maybe, if one is exceptionally close and can really get in on the detail of the bird, those images are worth the effort. Most of the time, they are not.

No, it’s the bird in flight shots I like to go after more than anything.

I’ve found that my best bird in flight photos are shots I’ve taken from at or above the same height as the bird is flying. There’s better light and less foreground shadow when you are looking directly at or down on a flying bird.

How does one get above a flying bird? Well, that’s a question you should be asking yourself when you are trying to situate yourself to get birds in flight shots. Look for raised platforms to shoot from, or hills to shoot from, or from the top of buildings. What ever it takes. Find a vantage point that may result in a level or downward looking perspective. Keep the sun lit side of the bird facing the camera and avoid those environmental distractions.

Today’s photo was taken from a raised viewing platform and the heron was flying by me with good light on his face and back. I wouldn’t have seen this type of shot if I were looking up into the sky. You won’t either.

In photography, subject lighting is the make or break issue almost all the time. One must learn to understand where the light will be and how to make use of it. Anything else is just a snapshot.