Most of my adult life has been spent around photographers. They are my friends, my associates and my customers. Whenever photographers gather together, it’s inevitable that the subject of how to make a living at it comes up. I think many of us have had (and continue to have!) the dream that, if we could just find the right way to make a living in photography, we could quit our day job and just make photographs full time. I mean, who doesn’t want to photograph all of the time? I know I do. Making photographs in the field, and making fine prints of those photographs gives me an immense joy like few other pursuits can. The idea of being able to do it full time is a powerful attraction.
In the course of my career as a Fine Art Printmaker, I’ve gained an inside look at the business of hundreds of “successful” full time photographers. As a result of that I can tell you absolutely nothing about how to make a living at photography. I can tell you what they do: teach workshops; sell prints; shoot assignments; etc. Unfortunately, I can’t give you any formula that puts it all together into a guaranteed career like I could for a pharmacist, or a nurse, or an engineer.
The truth is that every successful photographer I know has put together some completely individualized package of their skills, passion, dedication, worth ethic, connections, and circumstances to make it work. I also know a lot of photographers who are incredibly talented image makers who have great skills, yet have struggled to make a living from photography.
I can’t tell you, in fact no one can tell you, how to make a living from photography. But I can give you something better. That better thing is that you don’t need to make a living from photography to have a deeply satisfying lifelong relationship with it. Why do you find photography so interesting in the first place? Seek those things; how it feeds you, grows you, challenges you, motivates you, and enriches you. Enjoy the fact that photography allows you to tell a story that is beyond words, share part of your soul with another, and define grand truths and great tragedies. That is why we photograph.
I’ve seen so many photographers burn out and leave the art because they were chasing making a living at it. I’ve seen others who take photography on its own terms, in balance with the other needs in their life. They are able to make incredible work that brings them immense satisfaction.
Becoming successful in photography is not a goal; it’s a lifelong pursuit. If you only want to do it to be the rock star, be ready to join the heap of other failed rock stars. But if you can learn to pursue photography for the joy of it; the joy of finding a subject, of clicking the shutter, of seeing a print come out, of communicating the deep things that are beyond words...then you can continue to grow, learn, and have a lifelong engagement with this incredible medium. Finding success in photography is not about reaching some elusive final destination. It’s about embracing the journey. It’s time to look up from the map, so you can fully enjoy the ride.
There is a big difference between good color and accurate color. Good color can be simply color that you like. If you like the prints coming off your printer, you can deem them “good” using just your opinion. There are definitely some circumstances where that is enough for a photographer...but the problem comes when you want to print the same file on a different paper, or a different printer. If you want prints to look the same when changing printers and papers, you need to have accurate color.
I define accurate color as being able to reproduce colors to a known standard. Accurate color requires testing; comparing prints from the device and/or paper you want to use, to a known, quality reference print.
My known reference prints are a pair of test sheets with several of my photographs on them that I know extremely well, from printing over many years on many devices and papers. The test sheets also include some color and gray charts, which are used as diagnostic tools, and for comparing one profile to another.
When I want to print on a new paper, I print my test sheets so I can visually compare them to known and approved reference prints I’ve made in the past. With an accurate ICC profile, it is possible to produce prints that are extremely accurate, and for all intents and purposes, the same as prints made on other devices and papers.
This precision in color is what I require before I approve a profile for production. The value of using this approval process has been proven to me, again and again over the years in my work as fine art printmaker. I’ve applied this process to approving dozens and dozens of profiles for different papers on fine art printing devices including inkjet printers, Chromiras, Lightjets, and even metal prints.
Creating my reference chart the first time was the hardest part. It required knowing what the photos should look like to a very high degree of precision, as well as being able to print it on several different papers and devices to validate that the master reference print was indeed accurate.
Time and time again in my teaching and workshops, I run into photographers who haven’t measured their prints against a known reference print, and don’t even have a known reference print. The easiest way for me to solve that is to offer approved and validated prints of my test sheet, and allowing photographers to print the same file on their printers, with their profiles, so they can compare their prints against my known and approved reference print.
I use two reference prints, one for color, and one for black-and-white. I’m offering copies of my reference prints for $30 for one, or $50 for both the color and black-and-white when ordered as a package. Each print has been printed on my Canon PRO-1000 printer, has been carefully checked against my master reference print, and signed by me as a mark that I’ve approved the color accuracy.
These prints are a valuable tool that will help you save time and frustration, as well as valuable paper and ink. They will help you gain confidence in your printing process, while showing you areas that need a little more work. And the prints themselves are pretty nice to look at, too!
Rich Seiling is a pioneer of Fine Art Printmaking, having worked on thousands of prints for leading photographers.