on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Moving On

Building a life as a full-time nature photographer

Chris Murray

Chris Murray is a full-time photographer, instructor, and writer from New York State. His photographs are not meant to be a literal document of the woods, mountains, and rivers of his home state, but rather a creative expression of his relationship with the places that ceaselessly inspire him.


Becoming an artist means creating your own path and in all likelihood going it alone. It means relying almost entirely on yourself in a world that's more or less indifferent to all that you do. The sad truth is that while art may be recognized as a noble profession, it rarely gets mistaken for a useful occupation. ~ Ted Orland

On March 1 of this year, I officially became a full-time artist. As usually happens in life the reality of the moment didn’t quite meet expectations. I had envisioned it for years, an occasion marked by joy and celebration, a long-time goal finally realized. Instead, the day came and went with scant recognition on my part. The reasons were varied and obvious to me, and while the day itself seemed no different than the days previous, the months since have gradually revealed my new life and with it the ensuing rewards and struggles.

In many ways, my story is no different from so many other nature photographers who, tired of the stress and strain of the corporate world longed to live a life of greater meaning. In my former career, I was a geologist. It wasn’t until the final year of my PhD program that I discovered my true passion was nature photography. Leading up to that I knew I didn’t love geology, but I liked it well enough and not having an idea of what else to do it seemed like a decent way to make a living. By the time I discovered my true passion in life the career train was already well down the tracks.

I don’t come from a particularly artistic family. Living the life of an artist was something that, well, artists do. And certainly I was no artist, or so I believed. Truthfully, at that stage, I wasn’t. I completed my studies and spent the next nine years living a false existence in the corporate world of the energy industry, practising my art all too infrequently when time and circumstance allowed. Eventually, I decided I had no choice but to pursue my dream of becoming a professional nature photographer, realizing the regret that would surely come later in life if I didn’t try. Fourteen years later the dream came to fruition.

Much of the joy and excitement I expected to feel was tempered by a fear of the unknown and a firm hold on the reality facing me in the months and years ahead. What if I don't make enough money? As Robert Adams states, “Money is important. It allows you the power over yourself - your time, your energy, the place you love, the tools you have - to be yourself, to get the job done.”

Much of the joy and excitement I expected to feel was tempered by a fear of the unknown and a firm hold on the reality facing me in the months and years ahead.
Ideally, I would have set a date in the future and built a sizeable nest egg before quitting my day job. However, the “going pro” date, in the end, wasn’t my decision, and it came sooner than expected. For the past ten years, I had been working part-time as a consultant from home, the idea being that it would provide me with the freedom to pursue photography on my own schedule while providing a reasonably steady income. For a period of time, that model worked relatively well. However, due to a downturn in the energy industry, the work became increasingly scarce during the past few years. It came time to stop waiting and take action if I was going to make it as a full-time artist it was now or never. At the end rather than jumping off the cliff, it was more than I was pushed, forced off by circumstances before we were financially ready. Looking back I realise that it had to be that way. I was too comfortable before and not hungry enough. It had to become a sink or swim situation.

The life of an artist is filled with uncertainty. Freedom comes at the cost of security. My wife and I are still adjusting to the new realities, and it will be some time before we are out of what I call “the wilderness”. Until then neither of us is certain where and how we will be living a year from now. The house in which we currently reside no longer suits our needs and is beyond our means. Still, we’re certain we won’t be on the street. It is an adventure, and like any adventure has its terrifying moments as well as moments of pure joy. What is life without the quality of the unknown? In the meantime, I augment my photography income with commercial work, specifically real estate photography. It’s not a fact I care to advertise because it is not what I want to be known as, though I am in no way ashamed of it for it allows me the opportunity to advance my creative work. If it was good enough for Ansel Adams then it’s good enough for me. I fully expect the day will come when the commercial work will no longer be necessary. Until then I strive to maintain a working balance between the creative work and commercial.

I am often asked how I make a living as a professional nature photographer. It’s a fair question with no obvious answer. In the past, I would say half jokingly “when I find out I’ll let you know!”. With time and necessity, however, I have begun to figure it out. I now answer that one must cast a wide net. Sitting passively waiting for the public to purchase your work from your website is a delusion many aspiring photographers share early on. Relying on print sales alone is the single biggest mistake an aspiring photographer can make. You can’t be passive, you must get your work and your expertise in front of the right people. And who are the right people? They can be editors and buyers of nature related images or other photographers. As to the latter, it’s of the utmost importance to build an audience of other photographers; amateurs, enthusiasts, fellow professionals, it doesn’t matter. Share what you have learned. If you enjoy writing then create a blog or write articles for magazines. If you enjoy teaching then follow that route. These days I teach classes at a local arts centre as well as a community college, in addition to leading workshops. At times I feel like a huckster, pedalling my talents and expertise to those who would listen and may have a use for it. Such is the life of the creative person.

For the last several months I’ve been wooed by a company that offers a website template designed to maximize sales, essentially an online art gallery. In addition to the website, they offer tutorials on engaging your online audience and offering specials, giveaways, and so on. Their ads are replete with almost impossible to believe testimonials from clients praising how much this company has helped their online art business. Based on experience I’m sceptical of such claims, though I admit to being tempted. However, the main reason I haven’t pulled the trigger is more personal. 

I want my audience to feel inspired to do so and not do it because I ask. I prefer my website resemble an online portfolio rather than a “storefront”.

Early on I decided I would take a low-key approach to marketing. I don’t list my website on each social media post. I no longer ask people to like, share, or comment. I want my audience to feel inspired to do so and not do it because I ask. I prefer my website resemble an online portfolio rather than a “storefront”. It might be stubbornness bordering on foolishness (neither is foreign to me), but I am not comfortable treating my art as a commodity. It’s not why I have chosen to live a creative life. If money was paramount I would still be working as a geologist. It’s not that I’m against making money as an artist, far from it. I simply prefer for it to happen in a more natural and less obvious way. Much of the rampant self-promotion I see almost borders on the narcissistic. Yes, my work is available for purchase through my website, but a price tag next to each image is not the first thing you see. I want people to purchase my work because it moves them, not because I have pleaded with them to do so. I want people to sign up for my classes and workshops because they feel I have something to offer them based on what they see in my images.

I often hear aspiring photographers say that they fear becoming a professional because the responsibilities and struggles would ruin their love for photography. Hogwash. Certainly, there are many valid reasons for not going pro, but this sounds like an excuse pure and simple. Artistically I’m as passionate about my photography as ever. Yes, there are added pressures, but I decided at the outset I wouldn’t let them direct or shape my artistic expression. Granted, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, I am fortunate that I have a wife with a steady income and benefits (and the decision to not have children has also helped immensely). Ultimately it’s about a way of life, not simply making photos, and for me, that way of life is worth the sacrifices. So deep is my passion that I feel I have no choice. To have continued to live my previous life would have been a betrayal of my true self.

I am not sharing my story in search of sympathy. I chose this artistic life, or more to the point it chose me. I feel fortunate to have been claimed by a passion so intense that it dominates almost every facet of my life. Most people will never know that feeling. But, as great as the rewards are so are the difficulties. Making a meaningful image is easy, making a living at it is infinitely harder. If you are an artist take solace in the fact that yours is a struggle shared by every other artist throughout time. If you are not an artist then consider supporting one on their journey to better themselves and perhaps even the world.

I recently reconfigured my home office now that I no longer need a dedicated space for my geology work. As I was dismantling my computer set up the realisation that I would never be doing that type of work again finally hit me. Feeling a little wistful I turned on my geology laptop and looked at the the last project I had worked several months ago, knowing that after twenty years I would never be doing that work again. After some time I closed the laptop and in doing so closed that chapter of my life forever. Time to be moving on...

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