11 Myths About Professional Nature Photographers

I’m not a fan of the “professional” designation when referring to photographers. I know so many terrific photographers who don’t try to earn money from their work and some of them are much better than those whose income comes only from photography. So for the purpose of this discussion, I’m using professional to define those who don’t have a “day job” and are working full-time as photographers. Oh, and I’m talking about nature photographers here. Advertising, wedding, and other photographers need not apply.

In no particular order, and with grin on face and tongue in cheek:

11  Pros make the BIG bucks.

If I had a dollar for every time I had to dispel this myth, I’d be making the big bucks. The only full-time nature photographers I know who are very well off are those who had money to begin with or those who have another source of income to supplement their photography. The fact that I am a full-time photographer doesn’t make me rich. In fact, that’s what makes me poor. But it’s a hard fact to make people understand.

I gave a program recently for a group whose organizer felt that I should not be charging them, that the promotional exposure I would receive should be compensation enough. There was even insinuation that I should be paying them for the opportunity to speak! I understand that this comes more from ignorance of the business side of photography than from insolence, but I did feel that it was disrespectful. I get the same thing from publishers who want a freebie image. “We’ll give you credit as the photographer,” is something I hear all the time.

I’ve been a photographer for nearly 30 years. I don’t need to see my name on a byline. I need to see it on a check.

10 A pro always gets the good shots.

Pros are just as reliant on uncontrollable conditions as are amateurs. Weather, travel issues, access, health, and many other factors play a role in whether or not we are successful. A professional stacks the odds in his or her favor by making sure that everything they can control is taken care of, but in the end they are at the mercy of the photo angels just like everyone else. The real difference between the pro and the amateur in this context is that the pro knows the difference between a good opportunity and a poor one and will walk away if the conditions are not good.

9 Pros have the best and most gear.

Granted, some do, but most don’t. Many of the photographers who come on my photo tours have more cameras and lenses than I do. Pros have what they need to do their jobs, but they don’t obsess about having the latest and the greatest. They just want what they need to do their thing. And it’s a good thing, too. (Read #11) That said, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few things on my lust list.

8 Pros have throngs of fans hanging out with them everywhere they go.

Seriously? You believe that? Man, this is worse than I thought. Rock stars have groupies. I get ticks.

7 Pros know everything about every camera that was ever made.

Back in the days of mechanical film cameras, a good professional photographer could pick up any camera and become competent with it in a few minutes. It was kind of like riding a bike. Not so today. Heck, I don’t even know everything about my camera.

6 Pros want to spend their spare time photographing with people they don’t know.

I get regular messages from people I don’t know who say they are going to be in my neck of the woods on a photo trip and want me to go out and shoot with them. And they’re not offering to pay for private instruction. They just want me to go with them. First, I don’t have any spare time. It’s an alien concept to me. Second—and I’ll try my best to word this with diplomatic care—I don’t want to go out and shoot with you!

Here’s the thing, and I know it’s a conundrum most pros share. I struggle to find time to do my own shooting. The business end of photography, along with the responsibilities of being a husband and small farm owner, seem to always take precedent over getting out with my cameras. When I’m able to do so, I cherish that time and I want to make it as productive as possible. Having another person along, especially a stranger, is just not conducive to a rewarding photography outing.

Now, if only they’d suggest getting together for a tall foamy dark beer or a glass of red wine.

5 Pros hang out in internet forums.

With all those online forums and all those photographers making posts all the time, you have to think that many of the people on those forums are professional photographers. Think again. Pros don’t have the time to engage in discussion about whether Nikon is better than Canon. They are too busy being photographers. Yes, pros do occasionally join in forum discussions. I’ve even made two or three posts in my lifetime. But we don’t hang out there. We like to hang out in bars drinking tall foamy dark beers or glasses of red wine.

4 Pros don’t want anyone else to make photos as goods as theirs.

I’m going to have to be careful here, because I know some pros who would do almost anything to prevent someone else from getting “their” shot. I know of flowers being ripped up after shooting, inaccurate directions given to locations, and mislabeling photos, all to prevent someone else from getting the shot. Years ago, one photographer even tried to copyright his tripod vantage points so no one else could shoot from that location.

Thankfully, I think these scenarios are the exception, rather than the rule. Most of the pros I know genuinely want others to succeed. If I didn’t want to see other people make great photos, I wouldn’t be a teacher. Sure, I can get a little edgy sometimes when I see a photo that is an exact copy of mine without the photographer employing any of their own vision to it—and when they don’t share from where they got their inspiration—but overall I tend to take it more as a compliment. And after I start seeing my images being copied regularly, I take that as a cue to find new subjects and employ different and more creative techniques. So, in effect, having others copy my work makes me a better photographer. Thank you!

3 Pros hate _ _ _ _ _ (Nikon shooters should insert “Canon.” Canon shooters should insert “Nikon.”)

News Flash: We don’t care! I don’t care about what camera you use any more than I care about what kind of car you drove to the photo shoot. Every pro I know chooses their gear based on what they think will do the best job for them, and every one of them could do their job with any camera system. They could care less what brand it is. It’s true that once you become invested in a system with cameras and lenses, you’re better off staying with that brand, but that is a decision based more on finance than on brand loyalty.

This is not to say that pros aren’t passionate and opinionated about their gear. But when you hear a pro bashing a camera brand, it’s more likely than not the brand they shoot with that they are grumbling about.

2 Pros get special access to all the great shooting locations.

We don’t get any special treatment because we’re professional nature photographers. If anything, that only makes it more difficult. When officials find out we are pros, we usually get slapped with more restrictions, not fewer.  I’ve heard it all from the various park personnel. “You can’t use a tripod.” “You can’t publish your photos.” “You have to have a permit.” And on and on. In some cases, they are correct, but usually they are just ignorant about the law.

Special access comes from making friends with park personnel and from working on projects that will benefit them as well. This works for amateurs just as much as for professionals. Park officials could care less whether you make money from your photography when they are determining whether or not to give you special access. As I said, all else being equal, being a pro is more likely to close those doors.

1 Being a professional photographer lets you work when you want to.

Nope. Being an amateur does. Being a pro means you don’t have a choice if you want to put food on the table. Or, more important, tall foamy dark beers and glasses of red wine.

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