Remember back to a time when cameras needed film and it cost a small fortune to develop photographs? Obviously, the digital revolution has made it is easier and cheaper than ever to take photographs. That also means that earning a living as a photographer is far more competitive and difficult. In my first interview with a professional photographer, self-taught Daniel Nahabedian shares how he learned to handle a camera and the steps he took to turn his passion into a career.
Please tell us about your background?
This is not a simple question. I’m a Armenian guy, born in Lebanon, raised in the UAE with a French passport, living in Thailand and speaking almost 6 languages.
I left the UAE after school to study Law in Toulouse, France, where I stayed for 7 years before returning back to Abu Dhabi. I settled for a boring job in HR for about 5 years, longing to escape every day.
Luckily, I discovered a passion with photography that kept me curious and creative. In 2008, I had my first real taste of travel after I went backpacking in Ireland and Iceland. The following year, after walking about 2000km on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, I finally had the courage to quit my job and travel for a few months, camera in hand and become a travel photographer.
Where are you now?
After 9 months of traveling, I arrived in Bangkok, where I met my current wife. We traveled together for a few weeks and visited Chiang Mai. It was love at first sight for me. Since then, I have put down my backpack and have been living here for over 2 years.
Life in Chiang Mai is pretty laid back. It feels like a small town (although it’s the second largest city) and many travelers decide to settle in this quiet city for a few months to catch up with work and relax. The weather is great and the rainy season doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. It certainly makes for great atmospheric shots anyway!
How do you earn an income?
Earning an income wasn’t easy at all. For more than a year I lived on my savings until I had almost nothing left. Although all of my photos are available as prints, I’ve sold very few.
It took me about a year of networking, building my website, hard work and persistence to finally be recognized and start earning enough money to live comfortably (and even saving!). I tried not to put all my eggs in one basket so I have multiple sources of income, from writing on Matador Network, teaching on MatadorU, selling prints, giving workshops and getting published in various magazines.
Please tell us about the Matador Network travel photography course you teach.
I started with MatadorU as a student in the writing course they have. Working with other students and the instructors gave me the confidence to push harder.
Later they opened up the Travel Photography course, which I also joined. I worked on all my assignments seriously and learned a lot. A few months later, an editor from MatadorNetwork approached me and asked me to work as an intern, which I promptly accepted. And now I’m lead faculty of the photography course.
People have asked me if MatadorU would help them become writers/photographers. It’s a tough question. MatadorU won’t guarantee you’ll become a writer/photographer and earn an income. We’ll just give you the tools, and it’s up to you to use them. Hard working students have been published and hired by top magazines.
The course costs $350 and they also have just launched a travel video course.
Where do you sell your photographs?
Almost all of my photos are available for sale as prints or digital download on my website or portfolio on Canvas of Light. I have to admit that selling prints is a very small part of my income.
Is it possible to make much money selling to stock photo sites?
I’m not very familiar with microstock websites since I hate the idea of selling my work for a couple of dollars.
It is possible to make good money selling on stock photography websites though. you just need to be completely dedicated only to stock photography and produce hundreds of photos every month. Unfortunately, in my opinion, stock photography is about quantity, not quality.
Do you make much money off of your own website?
No. Apart from the occasional person who buys a print from my website, I don’t make money from Canvas of Light. I have started to place affiliate links to products I use and enjoy. I also will try to establish partnerships with photography related companies. My website is my work and passion, I don’t want it to become an ad-flooded useless website. I respect my visitors too much for that 🙂
How did you get started with photography?
I bought my first DSLR late 2007, just because I was envious of a friend who had one. I had no background at all in photography, although I used to draw a lot. I am completely self-taught and I’ve never taken a photography course. I just browsed the net for photography articles, browsed magazines to find a style and experimented A LOT! I even used to take
my camera and play with it in my cubicle at work.
How can novices learn to be better photographers?
Photography can be self-taught. You just need a lot of patience and determination. The most important tip in my opinion, is to put your photos out there and accept criticism. Your friends and family will always tell you that your photos are National Geographic-worthy, but posting on an online forum and asking for a professional photographer’s advice will help you improve much faster than you think. A friend who doesn’t know anything about photography can’t help correct the mistakes. A photographer will.
There are many groups you can join on Flickr to post your photos and ask for feedback. I also highly recommend 500px and 1x.com. The latter offers a forum just for photo critiques.
Are there good business and work opportunities for up-and-coming photographers?
It’s not a surprise that the market is saturated because of the availability of DSLRs to the public. Everybody with a phone and vintage filters claims to be a photographer these days.
However, the ones that are really going to succeed as professional photographers are the ones that will have the best marketing skills. Go browse 500px and you’ll see how many amateurs produce very high quality photos, but without marketing/business skills and networking, they’ll never reach a professional level.
Do you do much video work?
No I don’t do any video work and not really planning to in the near future. I don’t really think there will be a massive shifting to video. We live in a world where everything needs to be fast and time is precious. It’s easier to look at a beautiful photo for 30 seconds, than watch a video for a few minutes.
Do you have any advice for people hoping to have a photography career?
To succeed in your photography career, you need a ton of patience, determination, a thick skin, and a lot of networking and business skills. Photography is probably 10% shooting and 90% business/
Stick to what you like, don’t try to copy others, find you own style and become the best. Become so good you can’t be ignored anymore.
Daniel’s website Canvas of Light
His Photography Portfolio