Why You are Better Off Being a Local Hero Than an International Nobody


Why You are Better Off Being a Local Hero Than an International Nobody

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 waterfalls than 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.

10 thoughts on “Why You are Better Off Being a Local Hero Than an International Nobody”

  1. It depends on your visibility. With the internet, you can sometimes be more visible than a local. Last week I shipped a print of Brisbane, Australia to a buyer in Brisbane. I also almost licensed that same Brisbane image to an Autralian company.

  2. Great thoughts Charlie. I think you are right on about the advantages of having extensive local coverage. You are also right about a photographer having a home field advantage when it comes to marketing those images. However, I would like to add a wrinkle to your overview. My experience suggests that with photo buyers and art directors increasingly squeezed for time and resources, they tend to stick to their current or favorite short list of photo suppliers. That tends to be photographers with good coverage who can deliver the right images quickly with minimum hassle. I think service to the client is of paramount importance. Other photographers/agencies might have deeper coverage but a buyer will take the shortest, easiest path to getting that photo delivered. If you cultivate those relationships you can trump the “local hero” advantage. Sometimes.

  3. Great points Charlie and exactly how I have structured my photo business. MUCH better to be a big fish in a little pond. Getting deep files of local subjects that are draws for either tourists or locals and then getting creative on how to market them is the secret to making it in this new photography world we find ourselves in, I believe.

  4. I am pleased to see you or anyone for that matter writing in regards to the benefits using “local” photographers. Over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that it is way more important to be a local hero than to even spend time trying to meet the needs of national/international buyers. When a photographer produces good work and becomes known regionally it will spill over without the need to purposely market to larger audiences at a much lower initial cost of marketing. Sure it may take a little longer but during that time you will be becoming even more of a local hero that will produce benefits in the long run.

    I can respect what Terry points out, buyers and art directors do want to quickly find what they are looking for and will always try their “goto” list of photographers first but, (because there is always a but) when they can not find that special shot of the South Carolina Waterfall the local hero will be there with a vast many more options to chose from and that alone may very well land them on the “goto” list next time and they will probably be the first on the buyers list when looking for those types of images instead of the world traveler who they know will only have a few.

    I would also like to note, I have personally been told by the art buyer of a national calendar publisher that they prefer to work with the smaller local photographers, as this person told me, they are just more pleasant to deal with.

  5. Thanks for all the comments you guys. This is very interesting combination of photographers. QT, you represent the successful International SOMEBODY whose business obviously reaches the world and as far as I can see from a distance, your business model is not to be a Local Hero. While Les, you are a perfect example of the Local Hero specializing in a region that has large tourist visitors and the success of your business reflects that. Terry: your points are something I did not address and are quite valid as well. So the point I guess is if you have the means (money?) to travel far and wide and the time to build the collection, then it is certainly would work. The difference probably boils down to how long you been in the business and my opinion is that the longer you have been shooting (when times were better) the easier it is to afford to build that collection. And Brad, y9u are right. To me, If you are just starting out then it seems being a local hero is a better option for the average photographer. Realistically, for the average shooter building a big enough collection to be the go-to guy with massively in-depth files is getting substantially more difficult for those who need to make a living off those images. Thanks to all of you for the great comments. Charlie

  6. Good points made by you, Charlie, and all the others. I have waivered between ‘local hero’ and ‘int’l nobody’ for years – because my wanderlust runs deep. I may have forfeited some local business because of it. But each person finds the way that hopefully works for them. In the end, I have sold work internationally and locally and while stock and print sales are certainly ‘down’ from what they used to be, my formula seems to have worked well enough and hopefully will continue! Thanks for taking the time to broach the subject.

  7. Yeah, we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.

    The photography industry has changed forever. Not only are there more photographers than you can count, but with so many places using images from nonprofessionals, viewers are now happy with photographs that are just okay.

    At a recent art walk, where I was showing 8.5×11 and 13×19 Fine Art prints, I had a man spend 15 minutes scrolling through his cell phone, showing me the wonderful images that he had taken with it. And he was happy as could be looking at them on the 3″ screen. And he kept telling me that his little images were as good as my prints.

    When the general public has this type of opinion of photographs, the chance of making a living as a photographer gets more difficult every day. Specializing in a topic (i.e. landscapes) and a specific area or state will give you a body of work that will increase your changes of success.

    Here’s good luck to us all.

    Have Fun,

  8. The Internet has made the “pond” smaller and smaller – and it’s not just for photographers of nature but for all photographers. The “Jack of All Trades” is fast disappearing. Photo editors depend on a photographer’s knowledge and suggestions to help make the project as clear and accurate as can be – not to mention the possible embarrassment when a caption proves faulty. As a photographer, if you are an expert in something, –somewhere in the world a photobuyer would like to know about you. You can be part of their success equation. By the way, lack of knowledge about a photo is usually the reason most major photobuyers shy away from microstock. It’s undependable. The beauty is there –but as the saying goes, “Beauty is only skin deep.” -RE

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