HOW I BECAME A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER

By Zack Schnepf

When I was starting out in photography, I loved hearing  how professional photographers got their start, so I thought I would share my own story. I did not set out to become a professional photographer, I picked it up as a hobby, got some lucky breaks, and then worked extremely hard to adapt to the changing face of photography.  This is the story of that journey.

The Early Years

Sometime in 2002 while finishing my degree in multimedia, I decided to get my first digital point and shoot camera.  The little Olympus was around 3 mega pixels, and was a lot of fun to play with.  I was using it mainly for some of my school projects, but started experimenting with long exposures and some other more advanced techniques.  I was already teaching Photoshop, which at the time was primarily a graphic design tool.  I was excited to be working digitally from capture to print, and was already experimenting with blending exposures and compositing.

I quickly reached the limit of this camera’s capability.  I started researching my options for a more professional camera and saw that Canon was releasing the 10D, it was everything I wanted at the time and it could shoot in Raw format, which was very new at the time.  As soon as I got my hands on the 10D I went off the deep end.  I had just graduated from college and was working as a videographer/video editor and thought photography would just be a fun hobby.  It soon took over my life, I picked up a whole studio setup, and started to experiment with landscape photography.

At this point I was experimenting with every type of photography that caught my interest, but I found landscape photography to be the most challenging and rewarding.  I have always been into the outdoors, and was frustrated that I did not have the skills to capture some of the amazing natural wonders I was seeing.  I did a lot of research on landscape specific techniques, and started planning lots of trips to national parks and other wilderness areas.  I learned very quickly, and had tons of fun in the process.  It was one of the most amazing times in my life.

During this first year with my 10D I started experimenting with the idea of making some money with photography.  I had a full studio setup in my house, and a very competent camera as well as skills in Photoshop.  I was able to start landing jobs right away through various contacts.  I was doing product photography for Savoy Glass Studio, and some local artists.  I was also lucky enough to meet with an artist rep, she loved my work and asked to represent me.  This was at a time when stock photography was more viable, and over the next few years she was able to land a couple of big clients for me including Nike, and HP.  This early success convinced me it was possible to make a living doing photography.

I did pretty well over the next few years, but I was still doing freelance videography, graphic design, and web design as well.  In 2004 I decided to try to focus on nothing but photography, I made the mistake of doing wedding photography to make ends meet and long story short, it burned me out over the course of one season.  I didn’t even want to pick up my camera for 6 months after that.  I didn’t enjoy wedding photography the way I enjoyed landscape photography.  I know some photographers who love shooting weddings, but it was not for me.  I learned a good lesson, if I couldn’t make a living doing the kind of photography I enjoyed then I was better off doing something else.

The Transitional Years

Over the next few years I decided to focus on landscape photography, I worked very hard to develop my skills in the field and in Photoshop.  I just had to figure out how to make money at it.  Stock photography was drying up as well, the pressure was on to find different ways of making a living in photography.   Marketing myself is not one of my strengths, but I did what gorilla marketing I could.  I entered contests, sent images to magazines, and developed a strong web presence.  These efforts started to bare fruit, I won some big contests, and was published in some of the biggest photography magazines from 2006-2009.  Stock photography continued it’s rapid decline, and all but died for me.  I had to find new income streams.

Developing multiple income streams was the only strategy that I could see that would be viable in the future.  I worked hard over the next few years to develop these different income streams.  In 2008, With the help of Mike Moats I started applying to juried fine art fairs.  This was a daunting task, and involved some serious investment in equipment, printers and materials.  I was pretty successful my first year and continue to do a select number of shows each year.  I also transitioned away from traditional stock photography and started working with a few micro stock agencies.  In the first year I made more with micro stock than traditional stock.  That being said, I still wasn’t making much with stock.  In 2008 I also started to teach workshops.  I started slow, only offering one on one and small group workshops in the field and in Photoshop.  As I gained experience and confidence I started offering more workshops and continue to do so each year.  In the past few years I’ve also teamed up with my Photo Cascadia team mates.  We offer combined workshops and also collaborate on a number of other projects as well.

Currently

I have developed other small income streams as well over the years, and continue to try to think up ways to adapt to the ever changing world of nature photography.  I still do shows each summer, teach field workshops on my own and with my fellow Photo Cascadia members, teach online Photoshop workshops year round, submit stock photography, make magazine submissions, and occasionally get lucky breaks like people contacting me with unsolicited gigs.  It all adds up, and has to be run like any other business, but one that I enjoy very much.  It’s a good fit for me, because I like a lot of variety.  I wouldn’t enjoy any aspect of what I do if I had to do it all the time, but since my responsibilities vary I never get burned out on any one thing.  Most of the successful landscape photographers I know these have adopted similar models.  Each of us has our niche, but we all have pretty diverse business models.  If one segment starts to fail, we focus on other areas.  It will be interesting to see how photography changes over the next 10 years, but the photographers who are successful will be the ones who can adapt to the ever changing market.


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~ by photocascadia on August 31, 2011.

9 Responses to “HOW I BECAME A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER”

  1. Gives a person like me hope. Thanks

  2. One day I will be like you Zack 🙂

  3. Congrats to you Z.

    However, I don’t think you can say that you’re a professional photographer.

    The way I read it, you’re doing other things photographically related to be able to shoot your landscapes.

    Professional workshop teacher? That seems to be the trend with people who want to be photographers and can’t generate enough income to live comfortably from it. No shame there.

    Only a few of the very best shooters/marketers who photograph non-traditional landscapes are able to do that.

    The days of making a living like David Muench are in the past. Too many talented amateurs contributing to stock to make pretty images of the American west something you can live from.

    All the best in your endeavors.

    • Thank you for your feedback. Unfortunately, I must respectfully disagree with you. Mainly, I disagree with your definition of “professional photographer” and “professional” in general. I think your definition is far too narrow. By your definition the majority of the photographers I would consider professionals like: Marc Adamus, Guy Tal, and my fellow Photo Cascadia team mates would not be professionals in the field of landscape photography. By your definition 95% of all the professional artists I know could not refer to themselves as professional. The dictionary I have in front of me defines professional as “Engaged in a specific activity as a source of livelihood”. The definition you seem to hold is at odds with what I think most people consider professional.

      My father is a professional painter, and I’ve grown up with professional artists my entire life. My father is a well know poster artist and has made his living as an artist his entire career. He has multiple pieces of his artwork in the permanent collection in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. He also teaches workshops, and has taught air brush at local colleges from time to time. Yo-Yo Ma, and many of the great concert masters also teach as part of their profession. I consider these artists professionals in their respective fields even though they do other work that is only related to their art.

      -Zack

  4. Nice article Zack; yes, it is encouraging to hear how others made their way. You didn’t mention, or I mis-read, what percentage of your Fine Art Prints sold to individuals (web vs. other venues would help too) you depend on.
    Thanks again for the inspiriation.

  5. Zack, great story of determination and passion for what you do.

  6. Thanks for being so open and honest about your journey, Zack. Great post.

    P.S. See you very soon! I’m an unsolicited gig. lol

  7. Zack,

    I’ve always found your landscape work to be some of the best I’ve seen. I enjoy checking out the images on your website and hope to see some new ones soon. This article was informative and insightful. Have a great Labor Day weekend.

  8. I’ve always enjoyed your articles on this subject, Zack. I’m hoping to get into this field myself. I’ll be trying my first sale in about a month. It’s not a juried art fair, but a craft fair. However, I’ve seen photography sold there and I believe mine will definitely impress in comparison to what was there last year.

    My question for you… if I were to accept fairly reduced living standards (like a 1-room apartment with a bathroom, maybe a rental storage for art fair materials), would it be practical to consider art fairs as my only source of income, and would I be able to spend much of the rest of my time backpacking in the wilderness? Your work is definitely on a level above mine, so assume that I would make less from art fairs than what you make. The reason I ask this is that, having not done any sales yet, it’s very hard for me to estimate what my income would be if I tried to go this route. Thanks for any advice.

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