When Paula Stanton began a career as a professional photographer, she believed that if she wanted to make a living, she’d need to photograph weddings, portraits, and corporate projects. Stanton had previously worked as a recreation director for a therapeutic center in South Florida, where she routinely incorporated photography into her job with portraits, event photography, and generally serving as a de facto in-house photographer for the organization. For years, she honed her photographic craft without even realizing that she was steadily moving toward a new career in photography.
When she left the therapeutic center to hang her shingle as a pro photographer, she naturally slid into the same kind of work. It was great at first. She enjoyed herself and was enhancing her skills. But her true passion was somewhere else.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, drying up wedding and event photography bookings and business for the year. Even when restrictions started to ease, trends toward smaller backyard weddings meant that budgets for photographers were getting squeezed. Stanton started to struggle to justify the rates necessary to compete for the smaller bookings.
That’s when she made her second big pivot, this time within photography to a specialty that truly inspired her: wildlife. “I wanted to do what I love,” she recalls. “And I announced the change publicly. That was a big step. When you say something out loud, it suddenly becomes real. It gives you the wherewithal to say to potential clients, ‘No, I’m sorry. I don’t shoot weddings anymore.’”
It was a scary step, and turning down paying clients is hard, but Stanton found that taking those definitive steps helped define her and her work. “It takes a lot of courage, or maybe crazy—or both,” she says. “But I made the change, and there was no looking back.”
While still figuring out the lay of the land in wildlife photography, one of Stanton’s PPA colleagues suggested she enter some images into PPA’s International Photographic Competition (since renamed Merit Image Review). Entering her images for merit evaluation would become a game changer for Stanton’s business.
“In this business, it’s important to understand that not everyone is your customer. Your work isn’t going to attract everyone, but to attract the people you want to attract, you need to know what appeals to them.”Paula Stanton
“That process, learning how to take my imagery to another level, has been key,” she says. “You need to be able to look at your raw images, an unedited natural scene, and see the end game. [Merit review] taught me how to do that more effectively—and quickly. These judges don’t play. They tell it like it is. If your work doesn’t cut the mustard, you learn about it right away.” Being able to create art from nature has made Stanton’s images more attractive to buyers and has helped her build a growing following. It’s also helped her understand what appeals to her customers.
“In this business, it’s important to understand that not everyone is your customer,” she says. “Your work isn’t going to attract everyone, but to attract the people you want to attract, you need to know what appeals to them.” The process of earning merits taught her how to edit and make changes to her images on a level that would appeal to her target market, she says.
Most successful wildlife photographers earn a living through a multi-pronged revenue stream, and Stanton is no exception. Fine art prints, workshops, classes, publishing, photo expeditions, and stock sales are all common revenue generators for wildlife photographers. But it all starts with images. “The imagery is what validates you as a photographer,” she explains. “It draws people in. From there you work on building other income streams.”
It also helps when you can demonstrate a passion for what you do. People are intrigued by artists who follow their dreams. They want to know about them, they’re interested in their stories, and they can sense the passion in their work.
“When you do something that you enjoy doing, things start to happen,” says Stanton. “As a wedding photographer, I never got asked to speak anywhere. Now, I’m getting invitations to speak, magazines are interested in running articles. People want to know what I’m doing to pursue my passion. There are opportunities to build name recognition by sharing your story.”
Stanton has also learned the value of surrounding herself with people who believe in her mission and her talent. A strong support network is vital, but she also stresses that you need to be the ultimate judge of what is right or wrong for your business. Learning how to navigate the advice is a skill that requires inner strength. Appreciate the advice, but reserve the right to disagree, she says.
“You can’t get through any business with everyone agreeing with you. But it’s important to consider the feedback, know what applies to you, and filter out the rest. Ultimately, you have to remain focused on your true purpose.”
Stanton has advice for photographers who are thinking of switching genres:
1. Do the research. Learn about the new specialty before diving in. Discover how it’s different from what you’re doing now. Figure out who your target customers will be. Determine what appeals to those customers. Map out what you need to get started.
2. Find support. Surround yourself with people who support you and want you to succeed. It’s much easier to go far with friends at your side, just be sure you’re strong enough to filter their advice while staying true to your vision.
3. Be realistic. Manage your own expectations. Overnight successes are rare, so set reasonable timelines and measurable goals. Do your best to figure out how the market works today and where it might go in the future. Plot your course accordingly.
“Finding the balance between doing what you love and doing what you have to do to make a living is a balancing act,” says Stanton. “Personal happiness is very important. You only have one life, and you deserve to do something that makes you happy. Whether you choose to make a full-time business out of your passion or do it on the side, it’s important to find what makes you happy. And if you work at it, you can make it work. It all depends on how far you want to take it.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.