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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. His success has come from hard work and giving back, but also from making connections wherever and whenever possible — he’s been a social networker since long before Facebook.
A bald eagle over the mountains in Homer, Alaska. ©Art Morris/BIRDS AS ART

A bald eagle over the mountains in Homer, Alaska. ©Art Morris/BIRDS AS ART

I was to a friend recently why I am writing these posts for RESOLVE. She said, “You’re doing this for free?”  I replied that she was missing the point of social networking. Every bit of exposure has value. Every email, every crosslink, every mention of your name. In that vein, I recently started a blog to complement our hugely popular (and free) BIRDS AS ART Bulletins, which are emailed to more than 10,500 folks several times a month.

Several times while leading a tour at a popular spot like the Venice Rookery in Florida I’ve had a member of my group ask me at lunch, “Artie, that guy asked you a question about exposure. Why did you answer him? He didn’t pay for the tour.” I usually answer by saying, “I’m a nice guy” (and that is true). But folks need to understand that every tiny encounter like that counts.

When I think back to the first slideshow that I ever did (I got paid a whole $10), somebody who saw it said, “Hey, my nephew works for Natural History magazine, why don’t you send him some pictures?” Add up two decades of things like that, all those folks you’re nice to at a workshop, all of those e-mails, and the result is success.

Long-billed Curlews squabbling in Morro Bay, California. ©Art Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Long-billed Curlews squabbling in Morro Bay, California. ©Art Morris/BIRDS AS ART

When I was doing lots of articles for Bird Watcher’s Digest, I took a rare assignment to do an interview with John Kenneth Terres, the editor of the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. He told a story about how it was raining in New York and he had an umbrella and went out in front of this building to get a cab. A guy without an umbrella came running towards the cab, and John said, “Go ahead, you take it.” And the guy said, “Oh thanks,” and got in the cab.

A week later, John went in for an interview; he was hoping to get hired as editor of Audubon magazine. Who was sitting behind the desk? The guy that he gave the cab to. John Kenneth Terres was a very literary person and he eventually found an anonymous quote in Barlett’s Book of Quotations: “Be kind to strangers, you may be entertaining an angel unawares.” That quote has pretty much dictated one of them major philosophies my adult life: Why not be nice? The more love you put out, the more love is going to come back at you. One of the most rewarding things for me is that every day I get emails saying, “Oh, Artie, thanks; you helped me so much.” And e-mails like that are quite rejuvenating — they keep me going.

“If you’re open to chance encounters, they can turn out to be life changing.”

If you’re open to chance encounters, encounters that seem innocuous at best, they can turn out to be life changing. My friend John Shaw had done a great book for Amphoto, The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques. For years I dreamed of doing a similar book for Amphoto on bird photography. I called Robin Simmen and left a phone message: “I’d really love to do a bird photography book for you.” I never heard from her.

Then about six week later, at a North American Nature Photography Association summit, I was standing in line to make a phone call. I turned around and there’s a short woman standing there. Her name tag says “Robin Simmen, Amphoto.” I said, “Hi Robin, I left you a phone message in December and never heard from you.”  She came to my booth, looked at my work, and said, “OK, we’re going to do this.”

That led to the original publication of The Art of Bird Photography. It wound up selling more than 30,000 for Amphoto and becoming the linchpin of my career. When the book went out of print, it was still in huge demand, selling for as much as $500 on e-Bay, so we recently bought the rights from Amphoto and reprinted 5,000 copies in Hong Kong.

Roseate Spoonbill in Alafia Banks, Tampa Bay, Florida ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Roseate Spoonbill in Alafia Banks, Tampa Bay, Florida ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

I often give people who are interested in the business of photography a quiz: “Say I print 10,000 copies of a little booklet on bird photography that costs me $20,000. Does it make any sense for me to sell them for $2?” Everybody says, “No, you just broke even.” I respond, “Not exactly.”

If you sell all 10,000, that’s 10,000 people out there who think you know what you’re doing when it comes to bird photography. We actually went that route (although we sold the booklets for $10 not $2 — *smile*). That little book became a calling card and the pedestal of what’s turned out for me to be an amazing career. I could never have dreamed of the huge success that I’ve had, could never have envisioned being where I am today.  As I say often, “You gotta love it.”

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: When has a serendipitous connection or bit of kindness paid off for you?

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. For many years he has added to his success by sharing what he’s learned in hundreds of photo workshops. He explains a few keys to good photography teaching here; don’t miss his earlier posts about the diversifying your business and getting your work published.
Loggerhead Shrike with Texas Horned Lizard Toad. ©Arthur Morris

Loggerhead Shrike with Texas Horned Lizard Toad. ©Arthur Morris

Over the years there’s been more than a few bird photographers who have said, “Look at Artie, he’s getting 15 people on a tour at $999 a person — do the math. And he does three tours a row in New Mexico. I can do that too.” But with the exception of people who really enjoy being around people, they pretty much all failed. It comes back to the principle of hard work. I think the most important thing to make a successful workshop is to put your heart and soul into it and to give a damn.

Ask yourself, “Am I a people person?” “Do I want to work 17 hours a day?” “Do I want to put every ounce of effort I have into finding a good situation for these people?” I’ve seen other instructors who will go to a spot that’s traditionally good, and if it’s terrible, they stay in the same spot and waste the folks’ time. On a typical morning at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, I often move the group up to five times in the first one-and-a-half hours. If you’re lazy, workshops are not for you. Likewise, if you don’t like people, you’re not all of a sudden going to become a people-person because you’re running a workshop.

American Alligator eating a Brown Pelican. ©Arthur Morris

American Alligator eating a Brown Pelican. ©Arthur Morris

I don’t know how the template for BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tours (IPTs) came to be, but they’re not much different now than when I ran the first workshop with one person. The formula came to me naturally: tell people what they will be doing, get up early and go photograph, help them in the field, and then review the images.

We still do an introduction on the first night. We show the students what we’re going to be photographing and talk about the various techniques that we will be using. The second evening we do critiques, and the third night we take a close look at composition. Each year we put more emphasis on the photography itself. We always find time for some Photoshop lessons. Many good photographers make their images look worse in Photoshop rather than better. That’s why we came up with the Digital Basics File, a PDF that we send by e-mail.

Originally we took as many as 15 people out, but now we’ve reduced the group size to 6-10 and raised the prices. It took me a long time to realize that if I take two groups for three days I have to do all the ground work twice. Now that I’ve started doing these longer trips there’s much less pressure with regards to the weather and the really great photo ops; I feel much more relaxed throughout the trip.

People always comment that I’m one of the few leaders who eats almost every meal with the students. Most of the big-name tour companies have professional leaders whose primary job is to open the door of the van. I have my laptop on and I’m teaching pretty much all the time except when we’re chewing. An IPT is pretty much total immersion.

Brown bear eating salmon. ©Arthur Morris

Brown bear eating salmon in Katmai National Park. ©Arthur Morris

My mother will ask me, “Are you going to retire?” And I say, “Ma, I love what I do, I love every second of it.”  Even when I’m working 16-hours-a-day, I love it.  People often ask if I take a vacation without a camera and a big lens, and I just laugh. Why would anyone do that if they’re doing what they love?

I think that most folks who are starting out in photography, whether they come from another career or not, their goal is to not have to go back to their first career. There was one guy who worked for me early on, he was working for IBM and they were offering him a buyout. And I said, “I’d take it in a heartbeat. If you can make it on your own, even for a year, that’s one year you didn’t have to wear a tie and sit in a cubicle. And now, 15 years later, he’s taking people all over the world teaching photography.

You gotta be yourself. You can fool people for a little bit, but not for long. I’m opinionated, and I’m not humble. Some folks are going to be rubbed the wrong way by that. (My people skills have improved dramatically over the past decade and I try never to be arrogant.) I like to say that 80% of the people love me and 20% hate me — nobody is neutral about me. And many of the 20% have never even met me. You gotta love that. It’s commonplace for people to say, “Oh my god, you went on a tour with Artie Morris? He is arrogant and he will push you out of the way to get a picture, he doesn’t care if you learn anything.”  When someone asks, “Have you ever been on one of his trips?” the person always responds, “No, but that’s what I heard.”  I never take it personally.

Call me nuts: I am one of those rare folks who would rather be out photographing with a group than be out by myself.  I just love leading IPTs. (P.S. Most of my seven BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year-honored images were created while teaching.)

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.

Arthur Morris (Artie to friends) is well known as one of the top bird photographers in the country. But even though his photos are beautiful, he insists that’s not the main component that has lead him to more success than he ever dreamed of. Hard work, giving back to his students, and taking every opportunity to connect with new people and diversify his reach — those are what have truly made him a success. In this and upcoming posts, he shares some of the key components of a successful photo career.
Geese at sunrise at Bosque, New Mexico. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Geese at sunrise at Bosque, New Mexico. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Going back into the mid ’80s when I first started to sell photographs, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. No one was calling me up.  One of the big misconceptions now is that people are calling us up all the time to buy photographs. That’s not how it works in general. And one thing I wrote in my first book, The Art of Bird Photography, is that if you made a list of important things for selling photographs, the quality of your images might be about seventh or eighth. And I can prove it. Go to the newsstand and pick up a magazine that has your subject matter in it and every person is going to say, “I have better pictures than that.” But I’m the only person who would say that, and then follow it up with, “Yeah, and that guy must be working a thousand times harder than me because his pictures are in the magazine and mine are not.”

A Chestnut-breasted Coronet. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

A Chestnut-breasted Coronet. ©Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

I’ve seen dozens of great photographers who could not sell a picture. And some folks with mediocre work are famous. The hard-work aspect is super important, as is determination. One of the things that happened early on was when my wife and I were considering leaving teaching and selling bird photographs, people said, you’ll never make enough money, how can you think of that, you have such a great health plan with both of you teaching. Being told that I couldn’t do it, that was one of the best things that ever that happened to me. I am a very determined person; when you tell me that I cannot do something, I am gonna bust a gut to do just that.

I mentioned Bird Watcher’s Digest — I’ll be forever indebted to Mary Beacom Bauers, she was the editor there. I sent her an article and she wrote back saying that the article had been accepted for publication.  The magazine came out six times a year and for two years I would get it and look at the table of contents and my article was not in there. So I wrote a second article and sent that to her. That was accepted for publication and came out in the next issue. And then the original article came out in the issue after that. The first time I met Mary at Cape May, New Jersey, a big birding hotspot, she said “Boy Artie, after I held your article for two years and you sent me a second article, I knew that you were really determined.”

A Great Blue Heron silhouetted against the sun. ©Arthur Morris

A Great Blue Heron silhouetted against the sun. ©Arthur Morris

One of the things that helped me establish myself was realizing that it’s a lot more efficient to write an article, get paid for the article, and get paid for five or six photographs than it is to beat your head against a wall trying to sell one photograph that might get in someone else’s article. Early on I did a lot of writing for Birder’s World and especially Bird Watcher’s Digest. There was probably a five year period where I only missed one or two issues of BWD. That helped me get my name known.

When I first started, I didn’t know what I was doing. But after a couple years my goal became simply to make pictures that pleased me. I never shot for the market, to give advertisers room to put type in the frame, I just wanted the picture to be pretty and people to go, “Ooh ,that’s pretty good.” When I first started, my only goal was to get the cover of one national magazine. And then I thought I’d go on to another hobby, as I’d done before.  Somehow, within three years, while I was still a fledgling bird photographer, I had the cover of what used to be called The Living Bird Quarterly (now Living Bird).  Instead of that quenching my desire, I said, “That’s pretty cool, let’s do it again.”


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