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Dan Heller Photography:

General Questions

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(California, USA)
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  1. Who are you? Where are you from?
  2. How did you get started in travel photography?
  3. How do you fund your travel? How can I do that too?
  4. What equipment do you use?
  5. What do you think of digital cameras?
  6. How much digital manipulations do you do on your images?
  7. "Humorous captions": Are they offensive?
  8. How do you get people to let you photograph them?
  9. What subjects do you prefer?
  10. Which photographers have inspired you?
  11. What is the most rewarding part of photography for you?
  12. What part of photography do you dislike the most?
  13. What advice would you give a beginner?
  14. Are there any Chinese translations of your web site?

Q.gif Who are you? Where are you from?

A.gif My name is Dan Heller, and I am a freelance photographer from Santa Cruz California (recently moved from Marin County). I have been in the photo business since 1995, focusing on four business areas: I shoot assignments for clients (usually in the travel industry), I sell fine art prints, I license stock photography to the commercial and editorial trade, and I am an industry analyst for the stock photography trade. I have published considerably, including several books on the subject, I teach courses in photography technique as well as the photo business, and I also consult for those interested in getting into (or investing in) companies focused on the stock photo business.

I also write a blog on the photo industry, which you can read here.

For more detailed info about what I do and what I don't, see this page.

Q.gif How did you get started in travel photography?

A.gif I used to take vacations and take pictures, just as millions of people do everyday. What got me started in the photo business is when I decided to put those pictures on my website in the mid-1990s, at a time when most photographers didn't. Eventually, I had enough of these sales that it became my fulltime job.

Q.gif How do you fund your travel? How can I do that too?

A.gif I am paid to shoot travel tours for the companies that package and sell these trips.
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Monument Valley
(Monument Valley, Arizona, USA)
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They use my photos for their websites and catalogs, but they don't have exclusive rights. My business is selling prints and licensing these images in the aftermarket (via my website).

If you want to get into the travel business, I'd strongly recommend starting out by understanding the travel industry in the area of your interest. (There are many aspects to travel, such as cycling, hiking, cruising, mountaineering, kayaking, running, etc. One rarely covers the entire panoply of subareas within it.) I would also recommend traveling a lot on your own, building your own site of imagery, and trying to contribute to related travel publications, blogs and other websites to strengthen your network. Over time, as you get to understand the subtler and more important nuances of your area of focus, you will become more known and will have a much easier time getting assignments.

Above all else, realize that both Travel and Photography are very, very popular passive leisure activities that millions of people do, making photo imagery very easy to get. To make money at either of these, you need to be far more than just a good photographer. You need to know people and have extensive experience, both of which need to make a compelling business case for anyone to pay you real money. For more info about the photo business in general (that applies to virtually all segments of the industry, read the Photography Business.)

Q.gif What subjects do you prefer?

A.gif I try to avoid getting stuck into shooting a single style of photography, or shooting a single type of subject. I feel that the kind of pictures a person takes reflects the kind of person he or she is. One can't get that entire perspective in a single image or even a small collection. For that, you have to examine a full body of work. Some photographers focus on one subject or style, like "black-and-white-minimalist-artsy nudes of women", while others are studio photographers that just do portraits, commercial "table-top" products, or artsy pictures of old bottles sitting on a chair. There are even travel photographers who only shoot vacations for catalog companies. Yet, what one does to earn a living at photography doesn't tell the whole story. Me, I try to do as many types as I can. While I am a travel photographer by trade, I've done weddings, product shots, corporate headshots, and find art nudes. But through it all, I have developed a style, a sense of "who I am" in the pictures I take, and that perspective affects everything I do.

On the other hand, "art" and photography, while they are intertwined, don't mean the same thing to everyone. For a discussion on how I feel about my own photography within the art community, see Techniques on marketing your photography business. But for myself, the subjects I like include anything "interesting." I love Fog, and Photographing Star Trails, but I also really love funny people pictures, Dogs, and of course Random Black and White Photographs. So, you tell me, what kind of subjects do you think I prefer? I guarantee it'll be a different set of things that someone else said. And that's what I strive for.

Q.gif Which photographers have inspired you?

A.gif I am inspired more by individual photographs or collections than by specific photographers. Sure, I love Ansel Adams in nature photography, and when I go to shoot in Yosemite, it's natural to think of his work.
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Yosemite Trees
(Sequoia National Forest, Yosemite, California, USA)
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Similarly, when I see Salgado's work of labor workers sweating profusely as they operate enormous industrial machinery, I am affected profoundly. And yes, I even giggle at the fun shots that Henri Cartier-Bresson has taken of street scenes in Paris. While there may be times where I draw upon memories of some of these people's work when faced with a similar situation, these people have not been inspirations for me. Similarly, I am no big fan of Richard Misrach or others in the "abstract art photography" arena, but I certainly recognize the underlying aesthetics that motivated them. In that context, I can identify with just about any photographer, as there seems to be a kinship that develops simply because you do the same thing. As for inspiration, however, I am more motivated by my environment, not just itself, but the people and places within it. But let's not forget what Einstein said:

    "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

It's the aggregate culmination of many influences from many sources—not to mention one's own personal style—that creates the unique soup that is "creativity." Once that soup has a certain number of ingredients, it's hard to say which are the "main influences" anymore. Thus, "hiding sources" isn't really by intent; it's a by-product of simply having many.

What I am moved by are individuals that act and behave in ways that I think are exemplary. Again, Ansel Adams is an excellent example of a modest and kind man who treated his fans as well as his critics with respect. This, compared to Cartier-Bresson, whose arrogance has been off-putting to just about everyone that had to work with him. In my mind, a photographer should be an inspiration because of who he is and the type of values and thinking he holds rather than the quality of his work. For that sort of thing, I have many inspiring role models, most of whom are not photographers.
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"Your Photos SUCK!"
(Havana, Cuba)
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Q.gif What is the most rewarding part of photography?

A.gif Getting feedback from people.

Seriously, feedback is the best reward I can get. Nothing's worse than being ignored. Ok, one thing is worse: being overlooked. Fortunately, neither of those happens too often. Getting feedback of any sort is good. If it's good feedback, I'm doing something right. If it's critical, then I have an opportunity to learn. Even if I disagree with the critique, I at least have a perspective that I mentally tally up and continually evaluate over time. This forces me to constantly rethink my approach and attitudes about my own work. I realize that many artists don't like criticism and might not take it well, but that's their fault. I make it clear to people that I want their honest assessment.

Q.gif What part of photography do you dislike the most?

A.gif I struggle between two answers to this question. The first is the arbitrary and fickle perceptions of art critics. My head drops and nods in dismay when I see bad pictures make their way into museums and art galleries mostly because of who the artist is, not because of the quality of a given series. I'm frustrated when terrible photos/photographers get successful,
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"BAD Photographer!"
(San Francisco, California, USA)
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while truly talented works or artists can't make a living at it. Of course, it's not always that way, but when you see an example of each side by side, it's so disappointing.

The other aspect of photography I hate is the arrogance of photographers towards the public and even to other photographers. It is shameful how they put themselves on a pedestal, whether it's something as simple as not replying to an email message (especially when it's one of praise), or if it's the secretive attitude about their photography techniques or business practice, as if they were magicians being asked to give away their secret. (You can read my articles about photography techniques and business practices on the pages Frequently Asked Questions about Photography, technique and business and Photography Business Topics.)

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Paparazzi Wannabe
africa, cameras, morocco, ricki, vertical, photograph

Q.gif What advice would you give a beginner?

A.gif If you're a beginning photographer with technical questions, read Introduction to Photography Technique, which is the first in the series found on the Frequently Asked Questions about Photography, technique and business. No, this isn't a comprehensive primer to learning photography, it's an introduction to the learning process, a must for any photographer.

If you're talking about advice about having a career in photography, that's another story. I get this question more from students, but also from those who romanticize about being a photographer (especially a travel photographer). There's no easy answer for this, since everyone's goals seem to vary much more than I'd thought. I've written quite a bit of material on this subject, and you can get started at the top by reading Photography Business Topics. I have also written books on the subject, which you can read about in Photography Business Books.

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SEE Your future
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, fro, halloween, horizontal, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
Let me drive home at least one point: Many people make a living at photography, others would like to, and others still are simply happy to have photography as a hobby, but perhaps make a little money at it on the side. Whichever ambition you have, always remember: Photography is more of a lifestyle than it is a labor that one does to earn an income. Attempting to make it any more than that will assuredly result in disappointment. That said, one can earn a very comfortable living in photography, but you'll find that this is more of a consequence of good business skills, not photography skills. So, be a realist about business: there's nothing wrong with making money in photography (something some artists don't understand), but there's everything wrong with losing your passion just to make money. I strongly recommend keeping photography as a hobby, not as a profession, unless and until your hobby gets to the point where opportunities are undeniable. No matter what, keep an open mind, and be willing (and eager) to try anything at least once.

Q.gif Are there any Chinese translations of your web site?

A.gif Why Yes!, there actually is! You can visit it at http://www.dpnet.com.cn/yz/dh.htm

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Photography Books by
Dan Heller

Travel Photography
Travel Photography

Guide to Model Releases
Guide to Model Releases

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