How to Be a Professional Photographer

Professional outdoor photographer Ben Herndon shares his hard-won tips on building a career as an adventure photographer. Plus: His biggest mistakes, favorite gear, and more.
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Professional outdoor photographer Ben Herndon shares his hard-won tips on building a career as an adventure photographer. Plus: His biggest mistakes, favorite gear, and more.

This post brought to you in partnership with Tandem Stills + Motion, an outdoor photo agency and community for adventurous souls.

Think you want to be an outdoor photographer? For money? The bad news: As with every artistic pursuit, there is probably an 8-year-old kid somewhere in the world that can do it better than you ever will. The good news: demand for imagery is higher now than ever, and in the outdoor industry, the need for strong images continues to grow.

The real question is whether you’re willing to put in the work. If you're the type of person that gets an Epipen dose of euphoria whenever you “get the shot,” and you happen have the work ethic of a determined, optimistic mule, then here are some tips to get you on your way.

Gear

1. Use a real camera

Yup, it’s expensive. Save up, buddy. Yes, I know it’s heavy, but so is that fifth of pear-infused vodka you packed into camp. Some things are worth their weight. Quality high-resolution images are essential for publication and commercial use and you need a nice heavy camera to do it.

2. Learn to love long lenses

The bulk of all photos out there are wide-angle smartphone images. It’s easy to differentiate yours by using long lenses, specifically telephoto (zoom) lenses. I like the Canon 70-200 USM II 2.8 as my go-to. I took a loan out for it from my then-girlfriend, now-wife Bekah about six years ago. (see tip #13).

3. Carry a tripod

Those pretty star images aren’t shot from the hip. A sturdy tripod is required for landscape and starscapes alike. Save weight by purchasing a carbon fiber or GorillaPod option.

Mindset

4. Focus on craft, not conformity

It’s great to get inspired by other people’s work. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. But crappy imitation is just straight up offensive. Even well-emulated imagery can glaze the eyes after a while. Use other people's ideas, perspectives, and techniques, but adapt them to your own life and geography to create something unique.

5. Be humble, but positive.

Owning a guitar doesn’t make you Jimmy Page. Owning a Pop Tart-size iPhone 6+ doesn’t make you a photographic virtuoso. Focus on improving your technical game and presenting work that you’re proud of. Good mantra: your best image will always be the one you haven’t taken yet.

6. Be discerning.

Good photographers also tend to be selective photographers. Be your own photo editor and flush out the best frames or moments to share instead of shock-and-aweing your friends with a spammy barrage of near-duplicate images. Less is more.

7. Be prolific.

Shoot often. Sadly the days of snapping a few masterpieces and coasting into a Mai Tai-filled early retirement are long gone. Well, they actually never existed. Most well-established photographers you’ve heard of put an absurd amount of unpaid legwork into getting a career rolling over the course of anywhere from 5 to 10 years.

Clients

8. Use social media.

Building an online presence can expand your reach, help build relationships, and potentially generate more work. Don't sell your soul for a few hundred followers, though. And for God’s sake don’t follow people only because they follow you—it’s just silly. #instafollow #pleasefollowme #ifollow #likeback #followbackalways #alwaysfollowback #like2like #love4love #likesplease #likesforlikes Sadly, I didn’t make any of those hashtags up. It might just be a pet peeve of mine, but if people don’t like your work enough to follow you for it then they can #screwoff.

9. Reach for magazines and beyond.

Once you’ve built a strong portfolio of a few hundred images, start reaching out to magazines and potential clients. Don’t be annoyed or get discouraged if you don’t hear back right away (or sometimes ever). Editors, art directors, and marketing professionals are very busy people and they get tons of submissions every day. Some magazines like Backpacker have mailing lists that you can request to join so you know their upcoming needs.

10. Don’t forget stock imagery.

Contrary to popular belief, not all photo agencies are rights-hungry troglodytes. I work with Tandem Stills + Motion, for example, and it's been a great way to dramatically expand my reach beyond my immediate circle of contacts and generate some income. It’s not a gimme though. Content has to be not only technically strong but relevant to the ever-changing needs of the industry. You also have to be a little bit of a journalist, providing detailed captions and keywords while keeping open lines of communication with sales staff.

11. Don’t expect to earn a lot of money.

As neat as it is to get published, you won’t be throwing dance parties on your yacht with Benny Benassi from the income derived from irregular print placement and occasional stock sales, especially in the outdoor imagery. Though your friends will think you’re a rockstar.

The Lifestyle

12. Keep your day job.

As a general rule, don’t quit your job until you have too much work to handle (which may be many years down the road). Blue collar your way to long-term success like a champ by working two jobs: the one you have but don’t want, and the one you want but are working towards. Stay positive and keep on and you’ll come out right side up, albeit perhaps with bad eating habits and an intermittent inclination towards alcohol abuse.

13. Use your loved ones.

Feel free to manipulate your loved ones to help you pursue your dream. Just make sure you don’t abuse their generosity (pay them back within 6-12 months like a good borrower). Long ago I took out a loan from my girlfriend to buy important equipment. We married 2 years later. There’s nothing like a hefty interest-free loan to bring a couple together.

14. Focus on long-term business relationships.

The key to “making it” financially is by building long-term relationships with clients. These “goldilocks” relationships involve a client that has a continued respect for a photographer’s work and a willingness to provide fair financial compensation. You don’t acquire those rare relationships by sending a smattering of images via e-mail every few months. It takes years of working together and probably some face time, so be patient and undemanding. Even with a patient, cheerful disposition, killer imagery, regular professional communication, and a strong work ethic, those ideal relationships are hard to find. Think long-term and treat each potential client with equal respect.

15. Stay balanced.

Balance is perhaps the most important aspect of any lifelong pursuit. A lot of people are really good at what they do, and also assholes. The good news is that you can still be a good photographer without completely burning the bridge regarding personal relationships and physical health. It will take compromise though, especially among those closest to you. It’s not uncommon for the well-established professional outdoor photographers to be away from home anywhere from 6 to 8 months a year. Will that work for you?

16. Define what “success” means to you.

There are tons of amazing photographers that continue to work side jobs much of their careers and live very fulfilling lives all the while producing amazing imagery. Does a person’s professional sidestory lessen the quality or impact of their images? I say no. But we’re at a strange time with social media where the celebritization of a photographer's perceived lifestyle seemingly influences the overall career of the photographer. Bottom line, there will always be a need for timeless, strong imagery. Don’t get too stressed out about it all. You can always just go take some photos.

Read more about Ben Herndon’s best tips and biggest mistakes >>>

About Adventure Photographer Ben Herndon

Ben, based in Moscow, Idaho, has been a photographer since 2009. He worked part time until jumping into it fully in 2014.

What’s the best photo you’ve ever taken?

There's really not a good way to answer this. I’m of the persuasion that the best shot is always the one you haven’t taken yet. But I like this one of my wife, Bekah, among many others.

PhotoMonth15_BenHerdon_vert

Tell us about your biggest mistake.

On a three-day trip with my wife and a couple friends to the Wallowas in 2009, we decided to test out an old can of bear spray so that we would have an idea of the real effect for possible future encounters with a bear or creepy mountain man. It did what is says it should do, producing a spurting cloud about 15 feet long and lasting 5 seconds. I will say it was less impressive than I’d envisioned in my mind, even without a cranky 800-pound bear or bearded trapper wildly charging at me. The finish was a bit anticlimactic, making a gurgling sound and oozing a small amount of pepper juice. I made a quick mental note to require every hiker to carry a bazooka instead of bear spray on future hikes. I ended the experiment, washed my hands and we continued our descent. We arrived back at the trailhead a few hours later and I took a quick jaunt to the Honeybucket. Not a good idea. It was about 20 minutes down the road when I came to the unpleasant conclusion that a quick rinsing of the hands with water was perhaps not the most effective way to be rid of the powerful oil-based capsaicins in my Bear-B-Gone.

What is your “never leave home without it” item (besides the camera itself)?

B&B: Bekah (my wife) and bourbon, when possible. Bekah is a great athlete, model, and company, and she happens to be a nurse for when I get owwies. Bourbon doesn’t need a further explanation. As far as gear, I still really enjoy using the Canon 16-35 2.8 lens. Wide-angles are great for backpacking imagery, where it helps to incorporate a tiny person amidst big-ass mountains for scale. Plus it performs well for the ever-popular night shots, too.

What are you working on next? What is your dream?

I continue to enjoy shooting intrepid people in all forms in any beautiful outdoor location near or far. My dream would be to keep having that mantra match up with friends, athletes, and clients, and put more time into collaborating on projects. If the feds decide to start charging an arm and a leg to shoot in our protected areas, I’ll volunteer for that one-way trip to Mars because shooting in the wild is about all I like to do. A friend once asked why I don’t just shoot weddings. We’re no longer friends.

Where can we find you online?

Website: www.benherndon.com
Instagram: instagram.com/donofhern
Facebook: facebook.com/benjamin.herndon>
Twitter: twitter.com/ben_herndon

What do you shoot with?

Here’s my setup for backpacking.

Camera: Canon 5d mkIII

Lenses: Wideangle- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM | Telephoto- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Lights: LumoPro LP180 Quad-Sync Manual Flash plus PocketWizard Plus III Transceivers (Black) for off camera lighting. A little bit of soft, tasteful lighting can add a lot to an outdoor image.The strobist blog has great, free tutorials on lighting basics and beyond.

Tripod: Gitzo GT2541EX Series 2 Explorer 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod

Other: Luci Light- This inflatable solar-powered led lantern is a great tool for lighting tents for long night exposures. There are lots of lightweight lights now so get creative!