Be A Local Hero.

Eastatoe Falls by Charlie Borland.

The world of photography has gone through many changes over the past 15 years, and if you have been a photographer for long, you have witnessed many of those changes. The process of capturing an image has changed. The delivery of photography to markets has changed. The markets that license images have changed.

What has not changed for many outdoor photographers is the passion to explore new territory, find new subjects and satisfy an inner desire to travel and create. This urge drives many of us; I know it drives me. I need to explore and discover with my camera. It’s that photographic wanderlust that takes us to locations far from home to seek unfamiliar terrain and exotic species. New scenery is exciting, stimulating and inspiring, and that’s the underlying reason many photographers travel far and wide to photograph. For those in the business of licensing images, however, does this strategy of focusing on distant locations really make sense? Today’s markets are saturated with photographers. Think about it. There is an excellent photographer in nearly every location.

The days when photographers could travel the United States and the world and deliver images ready for markets hungry to see them are gone. With the explosion of digital imaging technology, the world has more photographers looking to compete in the business of outdoor and nature photography. And with the economy in the tank, unemployed, part-time or aspiring amateur photographers are trying to make a go of photography on a more professional level. To stay competitive and continue to make a living, where should your camera be pointed?

On my last photo excursion to the East Coast, I captured some spectacular waterfalls in South Carolina, the Outer Banks in North Carolina, some historic sites and a whole lot in between. As I later reviewed the work, I evaluated the images to establish in which markets they might do best. Some were suitable for national calendars while others were local attractions that would likely be more attractive to regional markets and photo buyers.

The Clients

I have the same list of calendar publishers everybody else has; publishers who seek images for a wide array of subjects along with scenics from every state. I don’t have a list of the regional photo buyers, however—like a graphic designer in Columbia, South Carolina, who might have the tourism account for a specific region of the state. Finding all the right buyers in all the niche markets I have traveled through could be likened to finding a needle in a haystack. It would be very time-consuming.

How many photographers have better coverage of South Carolina waterfallsthan I captured during my short trip passing through? Would a client buy an image from me—or even request images from me—when my selection is not as extensive as the photographers who live there and have images taken in all seasons and in various lighting conditions? Those photographers are the Local Heroes while I, with my limited coverage, am the International Nobody.

Does it make business sense to travel the country or the globe shooting the usual places and then market them to the same photo buyers that all photographers market to? Could I ever spend enough time in the Moab, Utah area to capture enough imagery to compete with Tom Till, who lives there? He’s the Local Hero! Unless you can stay and photograph in a location for extended periods, you may never top the coverage of the Local Hero.

In addition to having better access on a daily basis, consider that the Local Hero can photograph a place in all its moods, weather changes, seasons and more. The Local Hero can react at a moment’s notice to breaking events like a volcanic eruption or a fire in Yellowstone. By becoming well-known for shooting a particular area, the photographer brings attention to “home”–good for businesses, especially the travel business and he becomes a steward to changes in local wildlife and wild places.

This begs the question: are you better off as an International Nobody with a little coverage from a lot of locations or a Local Hero who specializes in the area closest to home? In other words, are you better off being a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond? The answer depends on your markets.

The Markets

Publishing markets, which have historically been one of the best places to license images, are shrinking for photographers who travel far and wide. In today’s stock photo markets, with the cost of travel climbing and fees for photos shrinking, the return on investment is not looking as good as it did 10 or 15 years ago.

If your business is primarily print sales, how do you market and sell them? It’s possible that a website selling your prints globally can be lucrative, but displaying in local galleries and art shows near your home base may be more profitable. For example, tourists often like to shop so if home base is a location popular with tourists, you have a client base looking to buy.

Imagine yourself as a photo editor at a book publishing house and your next project is a travel guide to South Carolina. You need waterfalls, so you dig through your file of photographer self promotions and find many that feature gorgeous images from across the United States. One promotion, from a resident photographer announcing his new book on South Carolina, is in the mix. Who do you think the photo editor is going to call? Probably the Local Hero with extensive coverage.

Being the Local Hero with local or regional specialization has other potential benefits as well. Editorial markets often assign a photographer with a thorough knowledge of an area and with extensive stock photo coverage. Photo buyers from the other side of the country often search for regional photographers to fulfill their stock and assignment needs for special projects to keep costs down. These buyers know that Tom Till has extensive coverage of Utah’s Canyon Country and will most likely have an image that meets their needs. Marketing and promoting yourself as a regional specialist, the Local Hero, builds name recognition and increases potential opportunities not always afforded the International Nobody.

We all have photographic wanderlust! We need and desire to explore and photograph lands unfamiliar to us. I am only fully satisfied when I visit a place I yearn to see and photograph. With a full understanding of today’s market realities, I can occasionally travel and photograph far off places to satisfy that photographic wanderlust while never forgetting the need to specialize on my home turf.

It is a lot of fun shooting like an International Nobody, but business might be better as a Local Hero.

Editor’s note: I think Charlie is right on with this article. I rarely travel more than 3 or 4 hours from home to make photos, and it seems to have been a great way for me to succeed as a photographer.

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