Do you photograph what you love or what will sell?

A fairly simple question, but for those of us hoping of one day living the dream and becoming full time professional photographers, it’s a question that might not be so easy to answer.

From the moment I sold my first print a thought occurred to me: would the desire to sell more photos affect the way I photograph?

I’d like to think the answer is no.

But, I wonder…

Those of you who’ve been following me for any length of time know I’ve got a thing for waterfalls. Yet I barely sell or license any waterfall photographs. Yet I continue to photograph waterfalls year round, whenever I get a chance.

So it’s passion, right?

whaleback light at dusk with large rocks in the foreground

Then there are lighthouses, a subject I know has a much broader appeal with the public. While I’m not head-over-heals in love with them, there are several iconic lighthouses along the New Hampshire and southern Maine seacoast that regularly make an appearance in my seascapes.

Am I photographing lighthouses because I think the photos will sell?

So, is it profit?

It’s not that cut and dry.

I LOVE selling my photos!* I hope to never lose the feeling I get each and every time someone decides to spend their hard earned money on one of my photos. Is that feeling, coupled with the desire to make photography more than just a nice source of additional income, changing what I photograph?

I firmly believe that photographing what you love leads to better images, but is that enough to make it as a full time professional photographer? Do you have to make compromises in order to make it?

Does the desire to increase sales change the way you photograph? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

*Starting with this post all photos will be clickable links making it even easier for you to purchase prints and products with my images on them.

26 thoughts on “Passion or Profit?

  1. Hey Jeff, this is a fellow follower Devansh. As you asked, what I feel is, when you become a commercial photographer, you automatically start loving what sells. If I’d been capturing lighthouses (which is in my 2019 dream) to sell them, I’d been thinking of angles loved by the people, and my own favourite would fade.

    1. I’m not so sure that love of subject becomes automatic just because one becomes a commercial photographer. All things being equal, I also think that having a true passion for the subject results in better photographs. Put two equally talented photographers in front of that lighthouse and the one who truly loves photographing lighthouses will in all likelihood make better photographs than the one who’s there just because he/she knows lighthouse images sell.

  2. Love this so thought provoking. I think for most sales has a bigger impact on how you photograph. Gotta make money you know but it does pose the question of where we draw that line between giving up what we love for necessity.

    1. I think that a lot depends on what your main line of photography is. If you’re a wedding or portrait photographer, what you photograph is indeed motivated by earning a living. That’s not to say that all portrait and wedding photographers don’t love what they do, I just think it’s more obvious that there’s at least some monetary motivation. With someone like myself, who primarily photographs landscapes, a change in what I photograph and why isn’t as obvious. Am I photographing that waterfall or those mountains because I think the images might sell, or because I have a passion for the subject matter? To the casual observer the distinction is far from obvious.

        1. Thank you. To be honest I just, mostly, photograph what I love. One thing I’ve found is that people don’t really want to buy my photographs as much as they want to learn to take my photographs themselves. Waterfalls are a prime example of this. As I mentioned I rarely sell any photos of waterfalls, yet my spring waterfall workshops fill up almost every time.

          1. Thats interesting. I guess with the easy access to cameras today it makes sense. Really sad. Hope photography as art never goes away. I love seeing printed photos especially landscapes. I would never consider myself a landscape photographer which is probably why I have respect for those that are and love seeing what photographers like you are capable of capturing.

            1. The funny thing about people “wanting to take my pictures,” is when the realization hits that it’s a lot more than just showing up with an expensive camera. The effort put into being there when Mother Nature is showing off(a phrase you’ll see me repeat over and over), is 75%, or more, of what it takes to make good landscape photos.

              1. I can see that. Photography is a very challenging craft. Theres so much to learn and understand that you do have to love it to stay with it. Those who have been doing it for many years and produce amazing photos make it look so simple. It’s unfortunately easy to miss the years of hard work and passion that really went into each shot.

                1. Honestly, I think the technical side of it is the easiest to learn. There’s so much information available online that it really isn’t that hard. Where the real “work” comes into play, at least from a landscape photographer’s perspective, is the willingness to put in the effort to be there with spectacular scenery in front of you when the light is just as spectacular. Are you willing to get up at 4 a.m. in order to capture that amazing sunrise? Then do it over and over again until the conditions are perfect and you get the photo you’re after. How about hiking 5-6 miles into the mountains to be able to capture a gorgeous mountain sunset, followed by the return hike in the dark, many times alone?

                  About 6 years ago I decided I was going to stop lusting after the types of images I wanted to make and instead get off my ass and do whatever it took to make them. In the time since I can count only a handful of times I’ve started and ended a hike in daylight. Even then, half of those were probably me hiking in while it was still light, spending the night, then hiking back out the next day. It’s that kind of work that I think is the most beneficial to a landscape photographer. Every genre of photography requires a similar work ethic for sure. Most don’t require giving up so much sleep, LOL!

    1. I wish that were the case. If it were my waterfall images would be selling like crazy. Unfortunately better photos don’t always lead to better sales. Subject matter and an emotional connection is what will inspire someone to purchase a photo. I have a lot of photos in my portfolio that will likely never sell due to the fact that very few people will have any type of connection to the scene depicted in the image. Mountains in the middle of the wilderness come to mind.

      Making money as a landscape photographer can be tough. What you love to photograph may not be what many people want to buy. Yes, I do photograph things that people do like to buy, but if I wasn’t interested in photographing them I probably wouldn’t just because they might sell. Lighthouses are a prime example. There are quite a few lighthouses within a relatively short drive from where I live. Even though I know there are people out there who absolutely LOVE lighthouses, they are not even close to my favorite subject to photograph. When I do decide to photograph them the conditions, light, weather, rough seas, etc, have to be just right for me to want to do so. Even then, potential sales of the photos are the furthest thing from my mind when photographing them. First and foremost is the desire to create a dramatic image.

  3. Jeff, I ask myself this Q often. First, I have to love or at least have some “connection” with what I’m photographing. If you don’t, I doubt that the pictures will turn out good enough to sell. Then a lot depends on your intended venue. A fine art photo to sell as a print is one thing and has to be the highest quality; then photos that you might include in a book; then photos you might submit for inclusion in, say, a regional guide. One thing that’s certain, though, is uncertainty, i.e., you can never predict what sells — even gallery owners can’t do that when they curate submissions for a show — so I tend to think that people who go out shooting what they think will sell are missing the mark. Here I’m not counting people who shoot for stock, which to me — and this is purely personal, not a value judgment — is something approaching soul-destroying.

    1. I think this sums it up about as good as anything I could say. Some sort of connection to a subject is almost always going to result in better photos. Will those photos be the ones that buyers want, who knows? I’ve had pictures that I love that fall flat when I post them here or on my Facebook page. And I’ve had photos blow up on social media that I was seriously considering deleting because I didn’t think quite made the cut. In the end it all comes down to the emotional connection that one person has for the image when they see it.

  4. Yes, you have to make compromises to be in business. Start with why? Why do you make pictures? Why do you want to sell them, instead of it being your hobby? The purpose of business is services that people can put to good use. If you make pictures that appeals to the masses, you also must price them as such. Then find the audience to serve.
    For example, there are many car brands, yet they all seem to sell cars, and know their audiences.

    1. Excellent points all, Frank. My biggest concern when deciding to take photography to the next level was whether or not the need to produce new content would in some way take away from the enjoyment I felt when photography was just a hobby for me. In actuality I’ve taken it as a challenge to continue improving my craft.

  5. I am not a professional photographer, so can’t answer your question with any authority. Nor have I yet purchased a photograph larger than art-card size — although if I could find the right photo (probably involving a light-filled forest path), I’d love to get a wall-mural sized one. I know that doesn’t help you, and may perhaps discourage you, but I hope you make enough money at what you do to allow you (encourage you) to keep on doing it. Your photos are really noteworthy.

    My favourite things to photograph are people, and serendipitous vignettes I happen across that involve texture or light — or both — and sometimes water and birds. If I had a steady hand and a good macro lens I’d probably chase after bugs, and other small things, too. Lighthouses have never appealed to me, and I’m surprised that these are more popular than your straight nature shots. No one has ever suggested I sell my photos either, although a few have asked for occasional copies.

    I am really glad that professional photographers like you do teach workshops, so that people like me can learn to feel somewhat confident in taking photos that appeal to them. It’s hard for one person’s “vision” to be captured by someone else. But sometimes, the viewer is surprised by a photograph that draws them in and reveals a vision that they didn’t even know they had.

    My advice is for photographers to continue to do what they love. Take photos that speak to their own spirits and sense of beauty or art or quirkiness. Every photo will resonate with someone, and bring joy, even if not the desired payback. And, if you can’t photograph what you love, may what you do photograph become what you love.

    1. The path I’ve chosen is to continue to photograph what I love and see where that leads me. Strangely enough that seems to work for me. But not in the way you might think. Not so much in print sales, but in image licensing for books, and I have landed several photography jobs as a result of my landscape photos. It has even lead to several event jobs, holiday parties, company photos, etc, that are well outside the realm of what I love to photograph, yet make it possible to continue to photograph without compromise what I love.

      1. Sounds like you are doing a whole lot of things with your photography, which is great — especially if it allows you to continue to photograph what you love. Quite an adventure you are on.

  6. Hi Jeff ~ I just found your site and love your photography! You capture NH very well – I lived up there between ’86 and ’87 for school and didn’t explore nearly enough of the landscape. I was searching for photography sites to follow and gain insight, as I’m considering selling my work. I don’t have a vast collection, but am trying to weigh the passion -vs- profit scale. I just found your FB and website as well. I’ll be following and hopefully picking up some ideas from you. Your pictures are really stunning.

    1. It was about the same time you were up here that I was still in the Air Force, stationed at Pease. I too did little to explore this amazing state. It wasn’t until the spring of 2008, when I got my first camera that I put any time into exploring what NH had to offer.

      When it came to the business side of things I was torn. First, was I really good enough? For that I sought out people outside of my immediate circle of family and friends(you know the ones, the people who are going to tell you that you’re the next Ansel Adams just because you made a picture that’s a little bit better than the snapshots they were used to seeing). I actively looked for, and found someone with a knowledge of photography and the arts who wouldn’t spare my feelings. If my images were crap I wanted to know that.

      Then, once I was at a point where I was confident in the quality of my work, there was the lingering thought, “will the need to keep making new content take the joy out of photography?” So far it hasn’t, but that may be that first and foremost I really only photograph what I love, not what I think will sell.

      The only time my photography has suffered as a result of pursuing it more professionally is during the autumn. Foliage season is so short that ever since I started offering workshops I’ve been too busy taking people to some of my favorite White Mountains locations and teaching them, or at least offering some tips to the more experienced, I have missed out on being able to photograph in some of the places I’d like(high up in the mountains). BUT, I truly love the teaching aspect of it, so it’s small price to pay.

      Feel free to reach out any time. I’m far from an expert on what it takes to make it as a professional, or in my case part-time professional photographer, but I’ll gladly share what I know.

Comments and thoughtful critiques are always welcome.

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