Professional photographers overcome obstacles every day in order to get the shots we need. Whether it’s negotiating access to a difficult location, or managing to pull off a technical feat of lighting magic, confronting challenges is a par for the course.
Yet there’s one obstacle in particular, according to photographer, educator and Sony Artisan Caroline Jensen, that becomes a real sticking point for many photographers, and that’s the geographic limitations they perceive to be holding them back, based solely on where they choose to live and work.
Read any photo magazine and you’ll see plenty of stories about photographers working in New York and L.A., or other big cities such as Chicago, Miami and Seattle. It’s easy to get the feeling that one might not make it as a pro if they don’t move to one of these major markets. But Jensen says, in fact, that not only can professional photographers earn a living far beyond the biggest cities in the country, they can choose to live practically anywhere they like, no matter how remote, and thrive. It’s actually something Jensen has done in her own career.
“Geography is something I hear a lot about,” Jensen says, “and having lived on a farm where the nearest town was around 500 people and the biggest city was two-and-a-half hours away, I know this is something photographers really struggle with. But the first thing I say is try not to focus too much on regional limitations. You can find that people anywhere are willing to come to you. No matter how rural or how small you are, positioning yourself in a way where people want to come to you is very advantageous.”
Jensen lives and works on the prairie in southern Minnesota. She’s built a thriving career as a photographer and photographic educator, and she’s done it on her own terms, living where and how she wants—with the nearest big city more than two hours away. Success was not accidental, however. She worked hard to build a beautiful place for her clients to visit, and she was deliberate in choosing a location that is inherently photogenic. Part of what makes her work special is the unique ability to be photographed by her, specifically, in this particular place. And so she strives to make it as easy as possible for people willing to make the trip.
Dedicated Studio Space
“One of the things I would focus on if you are in a challenging geographic location would be to focus on having space to work in,” she explains. “Having a studio, a spot… It doesn’t have to be expensive, it can be something on your property, it can be something where you have someplace you can borrow if you have people coming in. If you do photography sessions with families and children, have locations set aside that have things like bathrooms and amenities so that somebody who comes for a portrait session can have a place to change clothing. It can even be a state park, a national park, something like that.”
“If you’re in a rural area that has beautiful scenery,” she says, “another thing is a camping area, where people can come in and camp overnight and see you. And if you don’t mind the travel—I personally don’t like to travel too much because it’s a lot of busywork and I like my evenings at home—but if you do like that, planning to stay with families is another option. A lot of people like to do sunrise portrait sessions, it’s a gorgeous time for portraits, so if you stay with your host family and then get up super early and go to your location for photography, traveling to someone overnight is not always such a bad thing. I know several photographers who do that.”
Give Clients A Reason To Make The Trip
One way to help draw clientele to an out-of-the-way place is by providing something they can’t get just anywhere else, and this all begins with being unique. By focusing on what it is that you can provide—even if it’s not for everyone—for the people who do respond to it, you’re the ideal option. And that’s a great place to start.
“You have to have that unique thing,” Jensen says. “You have to have some unique reason for people to find you. Capitalize on what you have. It’s all about finding out who you finds your work to be especially unique and working with them. You may not connect with a ton of people, but the core clientele that you do attract are going to be super passionate about it. And by sharing that and honing in on that you can definitely bring more people into your circle and that will open up opportunities for you.”
“I like to do digital painting,” she explains. “It’s connected me with a lot of interesting people. Also, I live in the middle of nowhere but I live on the prairie—and I get connected to people who have read the Little House on the Prairie stories as children, or they watched the TV show, and they’re connected to that and so now I’m beginning to market to people who want to come shoot wildflowers on my property.”
“The prairie where I live is extremely fascinating to people who live in a giant city,” Jensen says. “We have a lot of people who come from Tokyo—who come from really, really big cities—who want to get away and breathe fresh air and see the wide open spaces, so my intent is to market more to people who want a retreat, away from the noise of the city.”
“Leverage the things that are unique to you,” she continues. “You may not be in an area that has great snorkeling, but you might be in a wonderful area where people love to climb mountains. Take advantage of whatever is available to you, because chances are it’s going to be really interesting and inspiring to someone. Don’t underestimate what might be interesting to other people and think outside the box.”
Another way Jensen works to ensure her remote location doesn’t hinder her career is to implement multiple streams of income. It’s not that she couldn’t just do photography, but her interests also go to helping others learn to take better pictures. That’s a real passion—something that also helps to make her unique—and so she has turned it into another viable stream of revenue. Plus, it’s yet another way to create the connections that ultimately lead to assignments; work begets work. This diversification is increasingly common for professional photographers, and particularly helpful for those working in out-of-the-way places.
“Don’t feel like it’s going to be impossible where you are,” Jensen says. “You just might have to get creative and really analyze what you’re interested in doing. I personally like the satisfaction of helping people take better photographs. I love photographing things, I like doing sessions, but I really like helping people—kind of the ‘teach a man to fish’ scenario. I really enjoy the process of helping somebody go from no camera experience to being very qualified. That process of being with somebody over a longer time is very satisfying to me, so I focus on that a lot.”
“I also work online,” she continues, “and I chose that because I’m kind of an introvert and I like to work solo. Also, I can reach people all over the world. It doesn’t matter that I live in a tiny town because I have students from literally every corner of the globe, and that’s doable from anywhere. Working remotely is great. You can always diversify yourself with things like one on one mentoring and tutoring. You can definitely add to your income base by working with people through Skype or via email or video conferencing.”
Add Value By Adding To The Clients’ Experience
When it comes to the core of the photography business, convincing clients to travel beyond their immediate vicinity for something fairly small, like a headshot for instance, presents a much more daunting task than finding clients who are looking to make an investment in photography. Because the process is necessarily more involved, it’s by definition going to attract those who are serious about their investment—both in terms of money and of time. That said, Jensen believes this kind of business plan can work for all kinds of photography.
“I think it’s applicable for just about anything,” she says. “It also depends on the area you’re living in. I live in a rural area in Minnesota, and in this area of the country, people expect to travel. And if you have a product that they want, they’ll often combine it with things. So for instance, we live by Walnut Grove of Little House on the Prairie fame, and they have a big summer festival. So it would be natural to combine asking somebody to come do something with me during a local event that may bring people out, taking advantage of things that your clients may also be doing. If they like to camp, if you live near a national park, selling it in such a way where they’re getting more than just coming out to the prairie.”
“For me,” Jensen continues, “right now what I’m working on is renovating my farmhouse. It has 200 acres around it, 80 acres of which are wildflowers and native animals—pheasants, a million songbirds, lots of flowers, that sort of thing. So the location is huge. Somebody coming from the city who wants to have pictures out in the country with lots of space around them is going to have to travel a little bit out of the city anyway. I also have a place where they can stay. We are renovating our farmhouse, making it a place where people can come and stay as a bed and breakfast. With that, I can provide a package. I’m creating more little bit more of an incentive. Having some kind of added value, like a beautiful place where they can stay, out in the country away from the city, all of that is value added. Give clients reasons to want to come out to you by adding to their experience.”
It all comes back to being unique and offering something customers simply can’t get elsewhere. If you build something truly one of a kind, the customers will come. And they’ll be happy to pay for your particular brand of photography.
“People already have an idea of what they want when they’re talking to me,” Jensen says. “They don’t want just a family portrait, they want a Caroline family portrait.’ They want my area of the world. They want that wide open prairie, and the dramatic skies. Those are the selling points; things they can’t get in the city.”
“So don’t worry about geographic limitations,” she says. “There are times when it’s been frustrating, but that’s a self-limiting thought. There’s always a creative way to do it.”
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.