On My Hobby Horse

When a professional musician isn’t gigging or recording, they’ll be practicing; running up and down the scales, trying new techniques, working on pieces they may have to (or would like to) perform some time. When they do this, we don’t consider them to be indulging in a hobby, it’s just part of being a professional.

Professional photographers also need to practice between gigs. Of course we can’t sit in a room or studio and just run up and down the shutter speeds on the camera for an hour or two. We have to find pictures to take, pictures which stretch our abilities and keep our brains photographically sharp. That’s where the personal project comes in, at least for me.

I’m not very good at just going out with a camera and taking random photos. In particular I’m not very good at photographing pretty scenes just for the pleasure of it. I have to find a theme and work to that, but sometimes when I’m doing this I’m told “It’s nice you still have photography as a hobby.”

Ok, I’m not massively irked by this kind of reaction. It’s understandable when photography is such a hugely popular hobby. I’m even aware of people who think that being a professional photographer is simply a case of translating one’s hobby into paid work. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy meeting people and taking pictures for businesses, but I’m not sure I’d spend a day taking head shots against a white backdrop just for the giggles.

However, this mode of thinking ignores the possibility that a personal project has the potential to turn into something with a value beyond just being practice between gigs. Currently I have a number of projects on the go which pay nothing up-front, but about which I’m hugely excited and I hope will excite other people too, once they come to fruition.

The problem could be in the term “personal work” or “personal project” which implies I’m only taking the pictures for my personal photo album, but it’s the term most widely recognised by photographers and publishers to mean a project which is exploring an idea without having a defined end point or deadline, or a pre-determined place for publication.

For now at least we have to stick with the term, so perhaps I should just get off my hobby horse and await the day when the terms are more widely understood and photography between gigs is recognised as having a value.

It’s fair to say that over the last year or two, my actual hobbies (cycling, playing guitar) have been rather squeezed out of my life by my personal photo essay work. It’s up to me to re-adjust that balance, but photography is definitely not my hobby.

A long-winded way of saying I haven’t lost my hobby

Looking down Great Pulteney Street in Bath

Who can resist a pretty sunset?

When I was a wee lad, photography was one of my hobbies. I also played guitar (badly). I still play guitar (badly), but until I was given a prompt to think about it, I thought I’d lost the other hobby because it became my career.

It’s true though that ever since I took up photography professionally, I’ve always enjoyed having a hobby camera to swing about and use for off-the-cuff shots. I still own a Yashica T3 Super, an excellent compact film camera with a Zeiss T* f2.8 lens, though I never use it.

Before people started paying me to take photos for them, I was always interested in using recent photographic experiences to inform my next outing with the camera. Looking through the prints from my first 35mm film camera, a Voigtländer, I would work out what I’d done right and wrong (and why I needed a better camera), and use that knowledge next time I went out.

A view of a grassy field rising up to a line of tall, straight, leafless trees in winter. There are vehicle tracks in the grass

Sometimes I’ll catch a good view while out cycling

These days for “fun” photography I generally carry my Fuji X20. I know it’s not going to give me the quality of my big camera, but it does give me a quality which looks great on a screen (and sometimes an old timey print!) and still lets me twiddle the dials I get to twiddle on my big camera, so I can have some creative control too.

A white bracket fungus growing on tree bark

I love shooting close-ups of fungi, even if I can’t name them

My iPhone is also handy, but apart from picking a subject and an angle, the only creativity I can have with that is with in-built filters, and I prefer my photos to be seen as close to their original state as possible (ie, little or no filtering). It’s also not so great in tricky lighting. The iPhone doesn’t allow me to skew the exposure much or play with depth of field either, so although I’ve taken some pictures with that of which I’m quite fond, it’s the X20 which I routinely use out and about.

The X20 has limitations as does any camera, but it’s particular mix of them forces you to see and record things differently than you would with an SLR. Sometimes I find the experience frustrating, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes it’ll feed back into what I do for my professional work.

When a client recently asked me if photography was still a hobby I struggled to answer, but now that I’ve thought about it a little more I can see that it is still a hobby, but one that informs my professional work. It ties in nicely with my cycling hobby sometimes, but I can’t say it’s improving my guitar playing.

Click! And your money is gone.


man's hands holding camera

Beware the promise that selling stock photos is easy.

It sounds so simple. All you need is the right camera and pretty soon you’ll be rolling around in piles of cash. You won’t know where to put it all. Stuff it under the mattress, and you may find yourself sleeping with your nose to the ceiling.

That is if the BBC technology show Click is to be believed. $480* for a harshly-flashed shot of a boy with his fishing catch. $600 for a photo of a cat and a dog looking at each other. I know photographs can command such fees, even selling for many thousands of Dollars for top-end advertising uses, but I’m dubious as to whether the photos shown in the BBC piece genuinely achieved these figures, or whether they were just plucked from the internet for illustrative purposes. They all looked more like royalty free (RF) microstock pictures to me, whereas the figures quoted reflect rights-managed fees. Hopefully someone at Click can let me know because the stress of not knowing for sure is an anguish to me. No really it is.

The fact is, for the majority of people hoping to turn their hobby into some kind of cash cow, RF microstock is generally their entry into the market. And within this market it is fair to say that while you can be paid money for your pictures, it is but a rare (and fast-diminishing) number of photographers who ever make any kind of income this way. All but those at the very top of their game will receive anything more than a few dollars a year from microstock sales. And I mean literally, a few Dollars.

Seeing articles like Click’s, the temptation is to start taking pictures in order to build up a stock library. You might go out and buy a new camera on the basis of all the untold riches the programme suggests are there for the taking, but exactly as the show says it’s getting harder for professionals to make money from stock, so it’s getting harder for amateurs too as the market becomes flooded with ever more contributors generating hundreds of thousands of images the market simply doesn’t need.

My advice to those who are tempted to take stock images would be to take pictures first and foremost for pleasure. Don’t turn your hobby into a monster that requires constant feeding, constant monetary resources with only the promise of a bigger hole in your finances at the end of it because microstock agencies do not exist to make money for amateur photographers. They exist to make money for microstock agency owners. Contributors to iStockphoto can expect to get a 15% cut from each image they sell. With prices often as low as $1 per image, that’s a lot of sales required to even pay back the shoe leather used to get you to where you wanted to take pictures.

Forget about fuel, the camera, lenses, flash, memory cards, computers, software and snazzy photographer’s vest that makes you look like a professional (idiot). Or the time spent getting your pictures ready for stock, captioned, keyworded and uploaded. Whatever anyone says, when you see an article telling you it’s easy to “make money” from your camera or “get paid” for your pictures, treat it like snake oil. Take pictures for fun; don’t lose the fun of your hobby.

*I don’t know why a BBC show insists on showing the stock sales in USD, but for the purposes of this article I’ve stuck with that. Maybe it’s because the BBC prefers viewers to send in their photos for free, so GBPs aren’t relevant.