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June 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 41, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Starving Underwater Photographers: Part I

pity the pro, or pat the amateur on the back?

from the June, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Here's a funny-but-somewhat-depressing episode that can summarize the state of commercial underwater photography today for those who work very hard at their craft. The Lundy Island Splash-In is an annual underwater photography competition held at Lundy Island, a marine reserve off England's Devon Coast. It's a prestigious contest, with prizes provided by dive gear companies like Mares, Suunto, and Sea & Sea. The winner last year was a diver who had just learned the basics of photography the day before. Jo Crewsdon, 42, told the Western Morning News, "Once I was underwater, I was playing about with the camera's settings when a seal came along and began swimming around my buddy and me. We had some great interaction and I just kept shooting away and got the right shot." Her close-up of a gray seal placed first in two of four categories.

Serious photographers losing out to a novice such as Crewsdon is now commonplace. They're routinely being beat by amateurs in getting photos printed in magazines and ad campaigns. And while professional photographers may have once been able to earn a living and sell photos regularly for big money because there were few quality photos (the cost of film priced ordinary folks out), along came their two worst enemies: the Internet and the digital camera. Film went out of style, camera prices dropped and well-heeled divers spent more time traveling and photographing. The price paid for photos dropped, and today almost anyone can get one great shot on a trip, and if they post it online, it can be located and purchased for pittance -- or as a freebie.

Many divers developed skills with the idea of becoming a professional photographer, working freelance or hoping to be on staff, like David Doubilet for National Geographic. That career path has changed as drastically as the market for their work has. So, pity the pro, or pat the amateur on the back? We contacted some top professional photographers to see how they're doing these days, and how they're changing with the times.

Were Those Really the Days?

British photographer Martin Edge ( ) remembers his first commission 30 years ago, a simple close-up of a diver facing the camera at 25 feet off the coast of Portland, England. "It was an urgent request for the first cover of a new outdoors magazine. I was astonished when a check for £500 (about US$650) came through the mailbox. A lot of money back then. As my skills and confidence developed, I frequently did underwater articles, images and other front cover photos for which, in my opinion, I was paid well." In 1988, Edge started teaching underwater photography to beginners and two years later was running workshops on liveaboards. In 1995, he published The Underwater Photographer, which is now in its fourth edition ( we offer it for sale on our website -- scroll down the page at ). Now Edge adds to his income with speakers' fees, a monthly column in the British magazine Sport Diver, and as a change of pace, baby photography shoots. "I earn more now than 25 years ago, but I do have more outlets in teaching and editorial. I think it's fair to say that magazines do not pay as much as they did in the '80s and '90s."

John Bantin, a regular writer for Undercurrent, started as a photographer in general advertising first and was one of Britain's highest paid, making more than $3 million in fees between 1970 and 1990. The most he earned for a photo was $55,000 (a herd of horses in a Scottish glen for White Horse Whiskey). Then he specialized in underwater photography after joining the British magazine Diver in 1992. "I got the job because in those days, there were few who could reliably take pictures that were s correctly exposed, in focus and nicely lit underwater. Computerized retouching made people like me redundant the first time. Digital photography made me redundant the second time -- it's simply too easy now."

Bret Gilliam ( ), another frequent Undercurrent contributor, made his name in photography first as a magazine publisher (Scuba Times and Fathoms were just a couple). "But I also sold my work outside of my own publications, and there were years from the 1980s to the late 1990s when I easily grossed between $75,000 and $100,000 from both stock agency sales and assignments. Now I don't bother. Today's stock agencies practically give away photo images and make their money on other things like software sales for website development. The imagery is a loss leader to get the other sales. Although I still contribute to some print and online media, my compensation is really for my skills as a writer -- they haven't found a way to digitize professional writing yet."

But other photographers say there has never been a huge market for underwater photographs, much less full-time or well-paying jobs. "There were a few who had full-time jobs working for magazines, even fewer who were doing commercial work for advertising, and the rest probably worked in the diving industry in some way and also took pictures as dive instructors and tour operators," says Adam Hanlon, a U.K.-based photographer who supplements that income as editor of the photography blog Wetpixel ( ). "The full-timers and commercial photographers were often able to make a good living, but no one got rich. In fact, some had independent incomes that supported them. For those who did not, nearly all experienced long periods of financial hardship before they became successful.

Even 25 years ago, the famous Stan Waterman, while giving advice on underwater photography careers in Ocean Realm magazine had to admit the situation was close to someone wanting to become a tennis or golf pro. "Sure, a few will go on to fortune and fame, but the vast majority will end up teaching tennis or golf at the local course," says a renowned American underwater photographer who prefers to stay anonymous. "That was true for underwater photographers then and even more true now."

What They're Paying Now

Here's the ideal underwater photography assignment: A two-year project to create a coffee-table book about the history of diving and getting a massive paycheck, first-class travel and even an expensive watch. That's what Gilliam finished last year -- production of the book Fifty Fathoms, financed by the Swiss watchmaker Blancpain. "They seemed to have a bottomless wallet," he says. "They recruited top professional writers and photographers like Ernie Brooks and Stephen Frink and generously compensated us, including first-class travel to places like French Polynesia for a film session lasting nearly two weeks at Fakarava Atoll, and to the French Riviera for the grand-release event last October. Blancpain knows how to take care of their VIPs -- they even gave me a $25,000 watch. But those opportunities are few and far between."

A more typical opportunity: $300 for a fantastic photo. That's what San Francisco-based Amos Nachoum ( ) was offered for a rare picture of whales feeding on a penguin. However, Nachoum is determined to stand firm and state his own terms. "I tell them the smallest print size is a minimum of $500, and that price goes up depending on the size." What makes sellers agree to Nachoum's terms is that he specializes in photographing big animal behavior. "I don't make many images, but they are rare and you can't find them anywhere else." His main clients, especially magazines, are overseas, Austrasia and Europe. "I hardly work with anyone here because they just don't pay. I can get $5,000 stories in France; it's only $500 in America."

The anonymous American photographer who compared his counterparts to tennis and golf pros says dive magazines have never paid well, and they've always offered horrible contracts. "They'll always have dozens, if not hundreds, of photographers asking for assignments, so the most experienced and skilled photographers will get the same ridiculous, predatory contracts that the magazines foist on eager, young up-and-comers.

David Haas, an Ohio-based photographer ( ), who shot the cover of our book There's a Cockroach in My Regulator (full disclosure: he was paid with a long-term subscription, extra books and a photo credit) has accepted the fact that the contract he'll get will be a "work for hire," which essentially gives away all rights for a set fee. "This used to be suicide in the image licensing world, and maybe for some shooters it still is. But I'm realistic that the chance of me licensing an image, due to not wanting to market as hard, is offset by getting paid right away.

Chris Huss, a Seattle-based photographer ( ), says the "work for hire" angle is the biggest change in the photography markets -- it's not actually the price being paid, it's in the amount of image- use rights being demanded. "When you license an image to be published, the fee you should be paid should be based on the actual use. So an image used in advertising for a national corporation might be worth many thousands, where the same image used on a fish ID website might be worth $50. The problem now is photo buyers want to pay one price and have the rights to use that image for anything related to the original use, in perpetuity."

Once, while negotiating photos for a textbook, Huss thought he was signing a contract that had an "all versions" photo clause, meaning his photos would be in hardcover, softcover, condensed, and other formats of that particular book edition. Instead, the contract had an "all editions" clause, meaning the fee was for use of his photo in all future book editions, all versions in web and print, and all promotions for the book. "I got $200 for the photo, but that book has gone through five editions, so I was paid one-fifth of what I could have been paid. On the other hand, I signed an "all versions" contract for another book, I get $200 for every edition printed, and there's no end in sight."

Huss estimates that fees paid by periodical publications have dropped by 20 percent, but when you add up all the additional-use rights now included, photographers are effectively being paid a quarter of what they used to get. For the stock photo market, it is much worse. Fees have dropped 50 percent or more for the initial use rights, but contracts now include far more rights, so effectively, income from stock sales is about 25 percent from before. None of them pays enough to cover the cost of doing business, he says. "If you are lucky to land a cover shot for one of the larger dive publications, that might pay $1,000 -- which might cover the cost if you were shooting it at on your local shore dive, but that would be an exception. Generally, getting a cover shot requires a number of days in the field, at a minimum cost of several hundred dollars a day. You could get lucky, of course, but you can't run a business that way."

- - Vanessa Richardson

Next month in Part II: Some magazine publishers explain why they pay (or don't pay) for submissions, photographers explain how they're making money in other ways besides taking photos, and we explain what amateur snappers need to know about photo contests and contracts.

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