On Episode 76 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with world-renowned nature photographer Arthur Morris, about the business side of photography and how to make money as a bird photographer!

Show Notes

Arthur Morris’ Website: Birds As Art
Arthur Morris’ Blog
Find Arthur Morris on Facebook
Find Arthur Morris on Twitter
Information for the Birds As Art Instructional Photo Tours
About Arthur Morris & Birds As Art
The Birds As Art Online Photography Store
Buy Arthur Morris’ book, The Art of Bird Photography, online here:
Arthur Morris’ Book, Shorebirds: Beautiful Beachcombers
Cannon 1D – The first professional digital camera body
How to Read and Use Histograms
Digital Basics from Arthur Morris
Available to Buy: Books, Videos and Training Instruction by Arthur Morris, as well as books by his friends and colleagues
Fort Desoto Site Guide
Birds: Hudsonian Godwit
Heckscher State Park
The Work of Byron Katie
100-400mm Camera Lens

Link to SaviorLabs Assessment

Sections

Photography’s Decline as a Lucrative Business
Switching From Film To Digital
Selling Photography Guides: Digital Basics
Birds as Art: E-Guides
Birding Guides For Specific Areas
Are you Having Fun?
Advice From Arthur Morris For Young Photographers
Do What You Love
Don’t Just Take Pictures, Write Too!
Blogs Generate Income
Conclusion
More Episodes

The Business of Birding: How to Make Money as a Bird Photographer

Photography’s Decline as a Lucrative Business

Paul: Now let’s move a little bit more towards photography. So, you’ve sort of outlined at a high level, that it’s really a huge decline from it being a lucrative business in 2001, very lucrative, to almost non-existent in 2016. I don’t think there’s anybody out there that could live on $2000 a year, and they’re not going to be all as good a photographer as you. So, what’s your prognosis for the world of photography?

Arthur: Like I say, there are folks making a living. Here’s a good example for nature. My friend Darrell Gulin, who is nowhere near as famous as me, he’s a great photographer. And he has concentrated on stock photography. And he was the one who taught me, hey stock photography is not about how many good pictures you have, it’s learning to photograph to a concept. So, you might photograph a mother and baby bird together. And there is this tenderness concept and caring and caregiving. And photographing to different concepts like power and strength and creativity. And he was great at doing that. And boy, if you go back to 2001 when he was making six, seven figures from a bunch of stock agencies… And the last time I talked to him, he was down about 60% to 70%, and he’s on my list of people to call when I had this latest revelation of down 99% for us. You know, I’m sure he’s still making money, but the trick for me was to realize that if I didn’t come up with some new ideas, I was going to be working in Walmart or working in Burger King.

So, one of the breakthrough things, you mentioned the original, The Art of Bird Photography, that sold 15,000 copies in hardcover and then another 30,000 copies, I believe, in softcover. And one year, when I called Amphoto, and I said I want to order another 20 cases, they said, “We’re sorry. We’re letting that book go out of print.”

Paul: Wow.

Arthur: I said, “You said what?”

They said, “Yeah.”

So, then I came up with this idea of self-publishing the book. To do that, amazingly, I needed to buy the rights to my own book. That cost me a little under $2,000. And I wound up going back to the original printer in Hong Kong, and I remastered the cover and changed one or two pages to update them a bit. And we republished the book, and I printed 10,000 books. And 10,000 books may not seem like a lot of books until a yellow freight truck backs just your driveway and unloads four pallets of books, each one bigger than a Volkswagen. And you have to figure out what to do with them. And now it’s six, seven, eight years later, and we’ve sold about seven of the 10,000. So, who knows? If I live long enough, maybe we’ll have to reprint the reprint.

Paul: Wow. I just, anybody listening, it is one of the best books. Again, I’ve said that. I don’t think I could overstate it. It is a phenomenal book.

Arthur: Well, we’re pretty much the only ones who sell them through the website and the blog.

Switching From Film To Digital

Arthur: But on to more important things… 2002′ or ’04, I come up. I’ve now switched from film to digital, and I love digital so much that I wish I had never heard the word “film.”

Paul: Really? Okay. So, when did you first? You said you first switched to digital when?

Arthur: 2001.

Paul: 2001. So, what was that first camera?

Arthur: Well I was not going to switch to digital. I was going to be shooting film in 2020. Funny, Darrell Gulin said the same thing.

Paul: A lot of people have said that.

Paul: And so in 2001, I bought a Cannon 1D, the first professional digital camera body — I don’t know — something like three or four megapixels. I wasn’t going to switch to digital. I was just going to learn to teach people about histograms. That’s the only reason I got it. I don’t know, but I think it was 2001 or 2002. I went to New Mexico for my usual three or four weeks, and I had seven film camera bodies with me and my one digital body. And I was trying digital just a little bit. And then as fate would have it, near the end of the trip, we had a spectacular morning. The light in the predawn was amazing. And the birds were blasting off, and the colors were purple and red. And then it got to be more red and orange, as it got closer to sunrise. And then, the light changed every 10 minutes for an hour. Spectacular opportunities. And I had decided that morning I was going to do all digital. And when I got the pictures, number one, I didn’t have to wait a month to get them back from the lab. The pictures were right there. Every picture had the shutter speed and the aperture and the ISO. And I remember looking that morning at the pictures and saying, “I never learned so much in such a short time.” And I’d be glad to sell you one of those seven film camera bodies. They each have a partially exposed roll of film in them, and they’ve been sitting on the shelf since that morning. I never took another frame of film.

Arthur: Wow.

Selling Photography Guides: Digital Basics

Paul: Now we go ahead, and I’m seeing digital pictures online. We’re seeing lots of digital photographs being posted to different websites and critiquing sites. And I’m seeing how beautiful the digital reproduces for electronic use. And I’m seeing that a lot of people are ruining their pictures in Photoshop by over-sharpening them and over-saturating them. So, I decide I’m going to do a second Art of Bird Photography book, which went on to be called The Art of Bird Photography II. I started writing it, and I worked on the digital chapter first — just basic instructions of cameras and lenses and how to convert your raw files and why to use raw files and what to do with them in Photoshop.

So, I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And then after a while, I started writing different chapters. And after four years of writing, I had a 900-page book which no one would have been able to lift. And I didn’t have the money to print it or store the books. So once I got up to 900 pages and more than 900 photographs, I realized that it was not feasible to make this a printed book, and I decided to do it on CD. And that’s what I did. And, boy, the economics were amazing. When the original, The Art of Bird Photography came out in hardcover and Amphoto sold a copy, I made about $1.75. By the time it went to softcover and they were selling it to a bookseller, I’d make like $0.95. Near the end of the run, when they were selling it to Amazon, I’d make $0.45. So, with traditional publishing, the photographer was not doing very well…or the writer.

Paul: Right. Right.

Arthur: So, I decided to publish the CD, but before I got to the publication year — it took four years to write the whole thing — I said, “Wait a second. I have good solid information here in the form of this digital information. And I’m watching all these people ruin their pictures in Photoshop.” So, I grabbed the chapter of digital photography, and I made it into a PDF, and I sold it as Digital Basics. We sold that for years as a standalone offering, Digital Basics, and I updated it — oh! — too many times. And I found that people were willing to pay good money — I think we sold it for $15.00, and then we raised it to $20.00 or maybe $25.00 — that people were willing to pay good money for solid information about photography that would help them become better photographers. So, the end result of the original Digital Basics file was that about six or seven years ago, I built myself a beautiful swimming pool, a lap pool in my backyard for $68,000. When I did the math at the time, it turned out that Digital Basics had paid for it in its entirety.

Paul: Wow.

Birds as Art: E-Guides

Arthur: And then recently we just introduced the Birds as Art current workflow e-guide, which I lovingly call Digital Basics II. So, a few years ago, I switched to Mac from PC, and I went from BreezeBrowser to Photo Mechanic, and I convert all my raw files in Cannon Digital Photo Professional 4, which is DPP4. So of course, I have guides on all of those things, and the new guide is selling fabulously well, and I just introduced another guide, really high-level, high-end stuff on doing micro adjustments, learning to adjust the focus on your expensive cameras and lenses to make most of the pictures as sharp as possible.

Birding Guides For Specific Areas

And then in the same vein, once I got this idea that… Actually, the way it happened is a funny story. A guy in England wrote me, and he said, “Hey, Art. I’m coming over to visit Fort Desoto. I know you’ve been there a lot. Would you please tell me what birds I could expect to photograph there and what’s the best places to go in the park? And what’s the best wind to go to each place, and what’s the best season for each bird? And while you’re at it, tell me a few good places to eat and where to stay in a good motel.”

Paul: Basically gave you a new business idea.

Arthur: Gave me a new business. So, I wrote the guy, and I said, “Hey, it’s going to take me a couple of days to write that up. Would you pay $50?”

He said, “Sure.”

So, I sent him just 10 pages with some pictures. He sent me $50. And then the next day, right after I sent it to him, I get another email, and it says, “Hey, I’m going to Fort Desoto.” And then, that’s how site guides were born. So now you can go to the Birds as Art online store and click on publications by Artie or on site guides. I’m not sure of all the designations. So now we have guides to Bosque in San Diego and Fort Desoto in Southwestern Florida. Came up with a new business plan from that. Hey, I’m getting tired of writing, but I’m a good editor. So, had some friends write different guides. Some of them are site guides. Some of whom are how-to photograph, and they write the guide. Unfortunately, most of them are not very good writers, so I get to edit the work, and then we sell it and split the money because I have the big online presence through the blog, and they have ideas. And basically, it’s worked out to be a great system.

So, yeah, selling information in digital form as PDFs or on CD — we’re actually getting away from CDs and the people overseas love that because they can do it just as a simple download.

So today, I make money by selling information in digital form, selling books and e-guides in digital form, a lesser amount of teaching every year after the insanity of last year where I had my gallbladder taken out on October 6, got on a plane, traveled around South America photographing and teaching for 11 weeks.

Paul: Wow. Yeah, I saw the notes on that, and it was like, wow, that’s a lot of work.

Arthur: That was insanity. So, I’m slowing down a bit, doing less teaching, just taking time to count my blessings.

Are you Having Fun?

Paul: Are you still having fun?

Arthur: Oh, every minute, every day. When this interview is over, I’m going to throw on my lined pants because I’m up on Long Island. It’s cold. And I’ve been trying to find this Hudsonian Godwit that’s been visiting Heckscher State Park, and I’ve been five times and not even gotten to see him.

Paul: Oh boy.

Arthur: Maybe today will be the magic.

Advice From Arthur Morris For Young Photographers

Paul: Well, we’ve been talking with Arthur Morris, world-class bird photographer, just a great inspiration in photography and in birdwatching and just some incredible work. As part of this podcast, we’ll have shownotes, which will have links to all of Arthur’s websites and all of his information as well as the books we’ve mentioned and some of the names and people we’ve mentioned.

So, Arthur, is there anything you’d like to, as we sort of wind up, leave the audience with, sort of as a parting anecdote?

Do What You Love

Arthur: Yes, Paul. Thank you. And thanks for all of your kind words. And the two things are, you asked me before, young photographers today, what are they going to do? So, I know a lot of professionals who will tell a young photographer, “You should be a school teacher or a seamstress or go into some other business. Photography is dying.” And I would never do that. I say to folks, to young kids, “Listen. Do what you love. Learn about your subjects as best you can. Make the best pictures that you can. Learn to think creatively about developing markets for your work or your ideas or teaching. And if you really love it, you’ll find a way to manage.” So, I would never want to discourage anybody by telling them they can’t do it.

Don’t Just Take Pictures, Write Too!

And then the, the last thing I wanted to mention, and I think it’s a great way to end because it sort of ties everything together, the writing and the photography and the teaching and how to generate income. Right now, I have a streak of blog posts. I think today is 94 days in a row with the new education blog posts. And most of them take me between one and three hours to prepare, and I do one every day now for 93 days. At one point, I was up to 480 days in a row with a new blog post, thinking I was going to do one for the rest of my life. And I went to this school for the Work — I mentioned Byron Katie. It’s a self-help, self-realization program. And when I got there, Katie said, “We ask that you turn off your computers for nine days.” So, I did. My original plan was to get up early and do a blog post, but I turned the computer off. That was the end of that streak, and then I’ve started a new one now, and I’m hoping to keep it going. Good health and good internet connections, going it.

So, it’s an educational blog. You go there every day. You’re going to learn something about photographing nature. And if you don’t photograph about birds or photographing in nature or photographing your grandchildren or doing travel photography…the principles are all the same. So, I strive to teach folks about digital photography every day. And people are going like, “Listen. Take a break once in a while. Take a day off. You don’t have to do it. Why are you so obsessed with it.” Yes, women that I date have strong feelings in that area.

Paul: But you enjoy it.

Arthur: But I love it. And a lot of that goes back to stuff with my dad. He was a demanding man. He was a World War II veteran, severely wounded in Okinawa. And I jokingly say the nicest thing my dad ever said to me was, “Take out the damn garbage.” So, I spend a lot of time wanting to get people to say the nice things he never did. I know he loved me in his way.

Blogs Generate Income

But the fact is that the blog generates income in getting people for tours, and the two huge things that are recent changes over the last four or five years, and that is I have a used gear page. You want to buy a camera, you want to buy a used lens, you go to the Birds as Art used gear page through the blog, and there is dozens of folks who have come to trust me for my pricing advice and acumen and just a wonderful community where people are buying and selling lenses, as much as 8—, $10,000, almost on a daily basis, all on trust. You send me the check, and when it clears, I’ll ship you the lens. And we’ve had, out of probably a thousand sales in the last four or five years, we’ve had maybe one and a half unhappy customers. That’s quite remarkable.

Paul: That’s a pretty good percentage.

Arthur: Yeah. And then the second thing that’s been amazing for me is I get a new lens. I get my hands on a new lens like the 100-400 II, my beloved lens, focuses so close. It’s lightweight. We didn’t even get into the fact that all of these birders now want to become photographers with the camera. So now, I advertise this lens, and if I can get you, Paul Parisi, to believe me, that this 100-400 II Canon lens is the greatest thing since baked break, you click on my link, all these active links that take hours to integrate into the blog post, you click on my link, I get 3.5% back from B&H. And I’m upfront about that. We ask people to write for advice, and then we have the Birds as Art store that sells you the tripods and the tripod heads as well as all our books and educational materials. And the two things combined — the used gear sales and the B&H affiliate sales, they combine annually now, the last couple of years, for well more than what I ever made as a teacher.

Paul: Wow.

Arthur: So, you know, I love the blog. I love being the center of attention. I love sharing my work. So even though my pictures don’t have value today as stock, they have tremendous value in education.

Paul: Oh, excellent. I think the value too is in helping, when you’re talking about equipment especially, is helping somebody choose. It’s so hard to know what’s going to work well. And that experience of you and having been on one of your photo tours, I learned so much about what you should do and shouldn’t do and what you said buy and shouldn‘t buy. And it was really helpful for me. So, I’d encourage people to look at the links in the show notes and visit Arthur’s blog as well as his stores.

Conclusion

Arthur: Me too. So, I’ll just close by saying that having lost Elaine to death was, at the time, a brutal blow, and I did find peace through the Work and that lady Byron Katie. But looking back on the last 20, 30 years, it’ll be… I think it will be 34 years this August. I can say that I’ve been just truly blessed to make a living doing what I love to do — teaching others, sharing my stuff. I mean I’ve got plenty of students who have won BBC awards and honored images in the biggest contests. And that’s very gratifying. And I’ve just made so many wonderful friends. It is my life. It is my passion, and I’m very thankful and appreciative and, as I am appreciative to you for asking me on the show.

Paul: Well thank you. And again, we’ve been talking with Arthur Morris. I encourage you to get a hold of his book, The Art of Bird Photography. Phenomenal book. But, Arthur, thank you for your time, and we’ll be talking soon.

Arthur: Cheers, Paul. You have a great one.

More Episodes:

You’ve been listening to Part 3 of our interview with Arthur Morris. If you missed Part 1, you can listen to it here and if you missed part 2, you can find it here!