Making a Living at Photography: The Pictures Don’t Matter… The Personality Does!

In this post we are introducing a new series designed to generate discussion about the art and culture of photography. With so many people picking up the camera, and society accepting photography as a means to document and spread the happenings in our lives, we thought it was timely to ask some ‘big picture questions’. One of the first questions on our minds is this:

In order to make a living at photography, how necessary is it for the photographer to be a ‘personality’ to ensure success?

©Darwin Wiggett - There is no doubt that Samantha has personality!

©Darwin Wiggett – There is no doubt that Samantha has personality!

There are a lot of really talented photographers out there making stunning imagery. But many of these creative photographers are struggling to make a living while others are doing very well. We got to wondering why some photographers’ careers soar while others languish even when the quality and creativity of their images is comparable.  A common factor seems to be that successful photographers all market not only their photos but their personalities as well. In some cases they seemed to market personality first and photos second. The successful ones all seem to be social media whiz kids who talked not only about their photos but their personal lives as well. We often know more about them personally than we know about their portfolio of photographs. So we wondered: “In the world of the internet and social media, do you need to be a celebrity to be a successful photographer?”

©Darwin Wiggett - Are ready to come out of the shadows and market yourself as a personality?

©Darwin Wiggett – Are ready to come out of the shadows and market yourself as a personality?

Becoming a celebrity is a tough gig for many photographers. Let’s face it; most people who are in photography (at least nature and landscape anyway) are introverts. That’s why we are behind the camera instead of in front of it! And introverts are not that great at marketing themselves. In short, many photographers lack the confidence and skills necessary to push their wares and especially put their personalities out there! The internet and social media has made it easier for introverts to market themselves because they can do so hidden behind their laptops and smartphones. But even then it’s tough to be a personality if it’s against your nature.

Throw an extrovert into the photography/social media mix and you have the making of a celebrity. Dare we say that our culture has a tendency to be dazzled by spectacle rather than reward substance? We see some popular photographers out there gaining recognition not necessarily because they have exceptional work but because people know who they are.

©Darwin Wiggett - Sometimes its not the quality of the image that matters but rather who took the photo!

©Darwin Wiggett – Sometimes its not the quality of the image that matters but rather who took the photo!

It’s rare that photographers who are true artists, those making compelling and unique work, are also good at marketing. Most often the artist’s focus is solely on their art and the marketing of their work suffers. On the other hand, those people who are constantly pushing into the spotlight are often more interested in basking in the glory rather than making art and in this case the art suffers. In a perfect world a photographer should be able to negotiate a fine balance between the obsession of art and the need (and sometimes the obsession) of marketing. We find this balance hard to achieve ourselves. When we push marketing our creative energies get used up. When we push our art, our marketing suffers. It is a tough balance. How do you make the most of both? And do you believe marketing your personality (e.g. becoming a celebrity) is necessary to make a living at photography?

Do you have to be a personality to be a successful photographer or is buying a Nikon enough?

Do you have to be a personality to be a successful photographer or is buying a Nikon enough?

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

39 Comments

  1. Keltie
    November 2, 2013

    Interesting …. and so very true! Like any successful business it takes more than just “know how.” And the trick is finding the right people to do the things you can’t, or loath, giving you more time to do the things you love – photography!

    Reply
  2. Linda
    November 2, 2013

    Oh you are so right! I’m having my first “show” and I’m terrified! Thank Goodness the reception is only for 2 hours! I would much rather talk to the trees than people!

    Reply
  3. steeve
    November 2, 2013

    You’re right about everything, i’m currently in that boat, i’m trying to push my photography to make eventually a living out of it. I’m not good at marketing myself so i signed with a Stock agency for the moment, i know i will not be able to make a living only with Stock sales, i will need to diversify myself.

    Reply
  4. Marty Prentice
    November 2, 2013

    Maybe the key is buying a Cannon?

    Reply
    • Samantha
      November 2, 2013

      Har de har, Marty! :)

  5. Jane Chesebrough
    November 2, 2013

    Good topic and timely since I recently read Susan Cain’s book called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking.” I recommend it. There are a lot of skills one has to develop in order to get our work “out there”. I think it is true that you have to develop a persona to get your name and work known and from looking at your photos, taking your work seriously and not taking yourself too seriously is a big bonus. :) plus being good teachers, which both of you are.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 2, 2013

      Hi Jane, we are going to add that book to our library.

  6. Darcy Monchak
    November 2, 2013

    Great topic D & S, and one I’ve thought about for awhile. There are some advantages to being an introvert vis a vis the art of photography, but little on the marketing side of things. If you cherish your privacy, building up a business by marketing yourself is difficult. For those, pull marketing may be easier to do than push, but at times may not be as effective.

    The human inclination to hero worship is alive and well, and for photographers that can enable this, their business can thrive. However, the caution is not to let ego override substance – as that is where at least for me I stop being interested.
    Another aspect to this is how photographers can liaise with values such as conservation to help brand themselves. Seems to works well, as long as it comes from the heart.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 4, 2013

      For sure Human DNA seems to love celebrity!

  7. Donald Higgs
    November 2, 2013

    Boy, ain’t it the truth. I have been plodding along for over 20 years in this business and every time I get to where I become the center of attention instead of my work, I jump ship. Hell, I can’t even teach workshops because I am such an introvert, and don’t like to be the center of attention. It’s been long understood that some poor to mediocre photographers that have great people skills make a good living, and then there are those that have great skills behind the camera that cant seem to succeed because they can’t do what’s required on the marketing end of things. One has to sell themselves first and their work comes second. If the client likes “you”, chances are they will work with “you” regardless of the quality of your work, and forgo hiring the real talent. Thanks for bringing this topic up.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 4, 2013

      Its tough to see really talented and creative photographers not get recognition just because they can not or aren’t interested in tooting their own horn! And conversely it does not seem fair when mediocre photographers get more recognition than their work deserves.

  8. Florian
    November 2, 2013

    Hello,
    I also like your post and agree with you. For exactly the reasons you describe I would never want to earn my living with my photography. Many photographers have described that after turning “professional” they did not photograph more than before. I prefer to earn my living with a job that I love and that suits my character (and which is reasonably well paid). With respect to photography, I almost only do what I like and I want this to remain that way.
    I also assume that introverted and silent people appreciate photographers that are mainly good photographers and not primarily celebrities. However, the introverted, silent kind of people are a minority. The audience for celebrities is much larger and therefore they will appear more successful. I also have the impression that these photographer celebrities are a rather new kind of breed, something that did not even exist before. In my opinion, “real” photographers still exist and are still appreciated just like before, but they may be somewhat overshadowed. And just as a side note: You could start a camera and lens review blog or business and become known as a “photographer” without ever publishing a single photograph you have taken yourself (except maybe of a test chart).

    I apologize if these ideas seem unconnected and fragmentary, but maybe they serve as starting points for new thoughts to some.

    Florian.

    P. S. I can also recommend the book by Susan Cain.

    Reply
  9. Shannon Carson
    November 2, 2013

    Great article guys! I so agree with you. There are to many people out there who get the idea in their heads to become “PRO” and think, all I need to do is make great images and be famous. Well guess what, have a look on the internet there are millions of great images to be had. It takes a lot more time, energy and PERSONALITY to make a go of it these days. I am just happy to make my images and enjoy them for personal reasons not try and make a living from it. After seeing how much pressure is put on some pros to make certain shots for quotas it seems like it sucks all the fun and creativity out of it….no thanks. :) -S

    Reply
  10. Josh Cripps
    November 2, 2013

    Darwin, can I have your autograph, please!?!?!?!

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 2, 2013

      Wouldn’t you rather have my camera?

  11. David Lilly
    November 2, 2013

    Hi D &S,

    The problem is everyone calls themselves a photographer, but there are few true passionate photographers out their. There is more to photography then pointing a camera and pressing the shutter. If you don’t know what I am talking about then you are probably not a photographer.

    I think Florian above got it right, I quote, “And just as a side note: You could start a camera and lens review blog or business and become known as a “photographer” without ever publishing a single photograph you have taken yourself (except maybe of a test chart).”

    Great subject.

    David

    Reply
    • kelly
      November 9, 2013

      I agree 110 % I am new at this hobby but anyone can snap a picture. I find myself looking for a picture that has a story and a meaning. I don’t really know much about photography but I do know what people are intrigued by. Kelly

  12. Hendrik Boesch
    November 2, 2013

    “And do you believe marketing your personality (e.g. becoming a celebrity) is necessary to make a living at photography?”

    I don’t think it is necessary at all as it really depends on how you want to make a living off your images, but it can certainly help.
    You for example were one of the last pros I know that went on facebook for promotion, but I knew you and about you long before. Every bookstore in Calgary had books with your images and buying a book made me look you up on the internet.
    So the old way of hard work and great art did work and does work, but it is exactly that, hard work.

    With social media it is much easier to gain attention for your work, simply upload an image and share it with as many people and groups as possible, with a minimum amount of money invested for marketing. But in the end ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ don’t generate any income unless you have images that make people want to buy your products.

    In the end ‘success’ has a broad meaning with a lot of definitions, especially if it comes to art. When are you successful? When you have thousands of followers on twittr or facebook that like your images a lot and tell you that? When you can make a living without fearing to be able to pay the next invoice? When you can afford a big home, expensive trips and have your name plastered on magazines?

    I doubt you would be successful just for posting goofy images of yourself here or making jokes on your tours. If you don’t have anything to show or can’t help me with issues that I have when attending one of your workshops, I couldn’t care less if you were famous or not. In the end you need to live up to that status you might have created yourself, if you don’t, fame and success will be gone as fast as it was built up. Like it is the case in other forms of art like acting or music for example.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 4, 2013

      What… you don’t hang out with me for my weird sense of humour?

  13. QT Luong
    November 2, 2013

    “How do you make the most of both?”

    Sebastiao Salgado appears to do both well. He disappears for several years to pursue a long term project, then when completed, his agency engages into a marketing blitz with book releases and exhibitions.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 4, 2013

      Oh to have an agency do the marketing… now that works for us introverts.

  14. Susan T. Ranscht
    November 2, 2013

    It seems that a majority of creative people — photographers, writers, artists, performers — are also fiercely private. But in order to work with clients, it benefits everyone if that relationship is comfortable and joyous, especially for photographers who shoot people. The persona you present might be something you have to put on for a time, but if you think of it as your alter ego, you can play it and get your introverted self’s solitary recharge time while you’re processing images.

    Or maybe hire a publicist or marketing director. :)

    Reply
  15. Beate Dalbec
    November 2, 2013

    Great post! I think being a great artist and also great at marketing is very difficult. I am sure a lot of the more famous photographers do have someone who takes care of the business side and marketing, so they can concentrate on their photography. The majority of us simply cannot afford this. Personally, the thought of putting myself “out there” and marketing my work makes my stomach turn into a knot. I like to connect with people, but I’m just not a “hey, look at my wonderful pictures” kind of person. Marketing for me is just a necessary evil.

    Reply
  16. Greg Summers
    November 2, 2013

    People who make money in art, are persistent and coomunicte well. They create projects and sell themselves. Unfortunately, that became impossible for me due a hearing disorder. The disorder affects me socially ans physically. I have been invited many times to do shows. It is simply not possible. Fortunately’ sites like Facebook make it possible for me to make contact with people. I don’t sell enough to make a living.

    In our world, there’s not much I n do to control noise in public places. In fact, I took up photography because it was a solitary, quiet activity. I have been asked to do workshops. They require good listening skills.

    So, do I surrender? Our world tolerates disabilities but one like mine is rare. The internet world allows me freedom to communicate in ways not possible not that many years ago. I am grateful for that.

    The disorder I have is severe tinnitus and hyperacusis (sensitivity to sound that causes the inner noises to become louder). Technology caused the problem in the first place. Technology has made it possible for me to market. I am a social person and would love to be in galleries. What is possible is the internet. What I have to offer is my way of seeing the world and writing about it.

    Darwin, your work is beyond words. Your article here may be true, but like everyone, I have an obstacle to overcome. There has to be a way. I don’t know what it is yet.

    What I will say is the quiet world I live in is more peaceful and in those special moments of an indescribable sunset, more rewarding than the one that took to the concert that caused the injury.

    I have not shared this story publically until now. Your work has inspired me. I suppose I thought it was time.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 4, 2013

      Hi Greg,

      Thanks for sharing your story.

  17. Stephen DesRoches
    November 2, 2013

    Who you know is huge and more importantly, who knows you. People like to work with those they personally like – in every industry. That experience makes everything better. And a good relationship is equally important to the quality of the product. Maybe more. (says your web developer)

    Be honest, be helpful by solving their problems, leave a good impression and they’ll remember your name the next time they need something. Maybe even provide recommendations to all their friends and family too.

    Go to 500px, type in a subject, and be bathed in fantastic images. It’s endless. At least for me, there needs to be that story or special thing that further connects with me to become a bigger fan and ultimately a life subscriber. Otherwise, it’s just another pretty picture.

    You’ll often hear the most important think in life is family and those around you. The days of hard sell product promoting through faceless advertising is falling behind those willing to build relationships with their customers. A strong relationship is a life long client that distances you from lowest price wins.

    Reply
  18. Janice
    November 2, 2013

    someone asked me, not to long ago, how I expect to make a living at photography when everyone ownes a camera! I personally don’t think it matters what tool you use to make a living you have to be good at what you do, and you have to sell your work, or have someoene sell it for you. I used the paint brush as an example. everyone I know has a paint brush, yet home painters abound, there are dozens listed in the yellow pages and online, new ones starting everyday. And it doesn’t matter how good you are at your trade or craft, if you don’t market yourself you will never make a living. There should be now shame in self-promotion.
    Darwin and Samantha you are both great photographers and great teachers. promoters of the craft. I have followed your work, and your blog for sometime now, and want to thank you for giving us something to think about (on a regular basis I might add) for inspring me, and for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 4, 2013

      Thanks Janice for following the oop0omoo craziness.

  19. Richard Wong
    November 3, 2013

    Start with two million, pay for staff to market, smile for the camera and hope you make a million and a get big following before the money runs out. Strong portfolio optional.

    Reply
  20. Neal Pritchard
    November 3, 2013

    Timely and good article Darwin … I struggle with the marketing celeb thing and do quite poorly because of it. I see many making it work but being loud and in your face like their photography.

    Maybe it is the time in which we live, I like the call it the American Idol times and hope one day soon we mature out of this current growing pains … But it could take some time …

    Reply
  21. AJ Schroetlin
    November 3, 2013

    Two words…..Kim Kardashian

    Two more….Britney Spears

    Two more….Terry Richardson

    I’d prefer to be poor and exceptional than rich and mediocre. Unfortunately, IMHO, too many people feel the opposite way. Self promotion is one thing, pimping yourself out and selling your soul is another. Humility is a quality we SHOULD admire much more than self importance. But that’s just AJ’s opinion. AJ sometimes has a strong opinion….but he’s usually right.

    ;)

    Reply
  22. G Dan Mitchell
    November 4, 2013

    You went almost all the way with the core question in this piece… but not quite. The underlying issue is presented, essentially as “when two photographers are equally talented, the one who markets his or her personality will likely come out on top.” No surprise there – this is how it should be. And photographers clearly need to pay attention to their “branding” if the want to maximize their chances for success.

    However related the live wire issue that many are leery of dealing with directly is a bit more uncomfortable. To be frank, it is the question about the success of a few who have been described as “internet celebrity photographers.” There are lots of really talented photographers on the net, but we can each think of a few who have achieved a level of renown that is much larger than the quality of their (frequently banal and ordinary) photography would warrant, and really pretty much all about some very successful schmoozing.

    There, I said it. ;-)

    Take care,

    Dan

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 4, 2013

      I didn’t say it but I thunk it – you mind reader you!

  23. Tom
    November 4, 2013

    Great topic guys! I’m really struggling to “market” myself. I’m a very introverted person and feel more comfortable making images, processing images, etc to talking to people about photography. Its’ really a challenge for me because even being in a group of or around people I don’t know is stressful.
    I too have Susan Cain’s book but haven’t started reading it. I really want to though… Susan Cain also did a talk on TED (which actually inspired me to buy her book) that I found really resonated with me. I also found it quite humorous at times!
    Here’s a link to the video:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/null/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

    Reply
  24. Jane Chesebrough
    November 4, 2013

    I am reading these comments again. In reference to the title, if a person has a vibrant personality but does not have good work to back it, I am not going to follow their work.
    There are some people who are gifted and have a difficult personality (i.e.artistic personality)but in some cases that can endear the public to them Or not.

    If the work has that wow effect or contemplative effect on others then the viewer is going to stick around and look more deeply and want to see more. If the personality is an approachable one, (willing to share information,exchange ideas, not with overblown ego) both the photographer /viewer have the most to gain because learning is continuous and it flows back and forth and creates a relationship, which is important in the business world as well in the personal world.

    However, there has to be a balance with promoting oneself or the photographer would never get any work done.

    Reply
  25. Stephen DesRoches
    November 4, 2013

    I already made my comments but I’m still thinking about it. We are talking about the subjective opinion of art. Quality is in the eyes of the buyer and experience surely impacts that. I don’t understand food and any chef would be horrified with what I consider good food. Fantastic food in a trashy restaurant is not better than junk food in a very fancy venue. It’s the full package that becomes our opinion.

    Relationships, brand and personal reputation are very important. We never discuss price with our family photographer. There are a dozen alternative and cheaper options but our trust is at a level that we asked her to select our wedding date based on her availability. (I called her before my parents)

    It’s less about celebrity and more about providing reasons to be remembered first.

    Reply
  26. handicappers
    October 21, 2014

    You can certainly see your enthusiasm within the article you write.

    The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t
    afraid to say how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

    Reply

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