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June 18th, 2009

Alternative income streams — always a safe bet

Posted by Arthur Morris

Arthur Morris (Artie to friends) is well known as one of the top bird photographers in the country with a very popular website at BIRDS AS ART. But he’ll be the first to admit that his success is due only in part to the quality of his images — the rest has come from very hard work and smart business practices, like diversifying his business from the very beginning, which he explains here. Don’t miss his earlier post about the importance of persistence and ingenuity when dealing with editors.
Northern Gannet male bringing nesting material to mate. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Northern Gannet male bringing nesting material to mate. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

In his  RESOLVE video, Art Wolfe mentioned that the percentage of his income derived from the big stock agencies is a fraction of what  it was a few years ago. Before 9/11, BIRDS AS ART w as making  about 50% of our annual income from leasing the rights to photographs  for publication; that now  generates less than 10%. Lot s of people complain, “I don’t get assignments anymore; no one wants to buy our pictures; there’s a million hobbyists selling their pictures for next-to-nothing; how can we compete?”  Realizing that things had changed, we looked elsewhere and came up with several new ways to generate income.

©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Two burrowing owls. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

The first was the sale of educational material, usually in digital form.  That  has  been tremendously lucrative for us and very helpful for the people who are just starting in bird photography. In 1985 when I bought my first lens, the first and only class that I ever took ran two hours for each of eight Tuesday nights. I remember begging the  instructor to explain exposure to me. He was a studio photographer and he knew how to get the right exposure but he could not explain what it was or how he did it. He was and is a great instructor and became a long time friend, but boy, was I confused back then. One big thing that has helped us contribute to the wealth of information that now exists about all kinds of photography was to get away from traditional publishing. We now self-publishing, often selling stuff online as PDFs or formally manufactured CDs. Doing so has swung the profit margin from the publisher to us.

Another important piece of our income pie is selling equipment and accessories online. George Lepp’s son Tory was marketing a flash projector for telephoto lenses years ago and Walt Anderson, who is from Chicago, came up with something much more compact that was easy to travel with, folded flat, fit in your pocket, and gave you the same three-stop gain in flash output. We sent a sample to a guy in the industry named Brian  Geyer.  He said, “Hell,  that ain’t no Flash X-tender, it’s a  Better  Beamer.” And thus the Better Beamer became the  very first BIRDS AS ART mail-order item. Now 15 years later, we’re doing five-to-six hundred thousand dollars annually with our mail-order business. The secret to our success there has been answering thousands of equipment and accessory questions each year via e-mail and phone, providing honest and accurate answers, and actually teaching folks how to use the stuff that we offer.

Atlantic Puffin in flowers. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Atlantic Puffin in flowers. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Aside from the sale of products, I’ve made a tremendous amount of money teaching others to photograph nature, especially birds. My formula is a simple one: Pick a place where the weather is going to be good most of the time and the birds are going to be  both numerous and relatively tame. When I started as a birder and I went out every morning for seven years before school. I changed my prep period to coincide with my lunch so I could go watch birds  in Forest Park. Being a birder for seven years and being a good teacher was a great combination. I’ve often said, “If I can teach 4th graders who can’t read how to do long division, teaching  photography to adult is is child’s play.”  I’ve put a lot of energy into helping other photographers and sometimes it’s a little draining, but the rewards are great.

Then, more than a year ago, a couple friends asked me to get involved with a new educational site, There are a bunch of different sites where you post images for folks to comment on —  and pretty much it’s all  “great shot,” and pats on the back. So I said, I’ll get involved with on one condition: that everybody agrees to do honest critiques, gently. We’ve got to stay away from “great shot” and really teach these people. It’s been a tremendous success and now gets about five million page views per month.

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