“Hold on!” I shouted to my kids as we took a whitecap across the broad side of our canoe. Our boat rocked hard and water splashed in, but we stayed upright as my wife and I paddled frantically to get pointed downwind. The stunning turquoise waters of the lake had been placid just an hour before and now we were paddling as hard as we could to find a sheltered place to pull ashore.
We were nearing the end of a four-night canoe trip with another family that was filled with swimming, fishing, and roasting marshmallows around the fire. This sudden squall was an unexpected jolt in an otherwise fun and relaxing trip.
Before long, we pulled into a cove and beached the boats. We strung up a tarp and dug through our waterproof dry bags to find stoves to make hot chocolate. “This is fun, right?” we jokingly asked ourselves. With a warm beverage in hand, shelter over our heads, and heart rates that were returning to normal, we began to relax and enjoy the thunder reverberating through the valley. The kids stretched their sea legs running up and down the beach, less bothered by the elements than their parents.
After an hour, the wind subsided and light began to poke through the clouds. It was time to keep going. The lake soon became flat and calm but heavy rain continued. A hole in the clouds opened up to expose the shining sun, creating a stunning contrast of darkness and light. My photography instincts kicked in and I knew I had to capture the moment.
I let the other boat pull ahead and positioned ours so they would paddle across our path. My Nikon DSLR was clipped below my seat in a waterproof sack, and in a few moments, I had it out and began adjusting the settings manually. Fast shutter speed to freeze the falling rain drops—check. Slightly under expose so I keep detail in the clouds behind—check. Choose a middle aperture to have some depth, but not blur the background too much—check.
I shouted for our friends to keep paddling and clicked a rapid series of images as they floated by. After a single pass the light was gone and we kept going. I didn’t know for sure if I got the shot, but I knew I had countless others that would be great memories—and a few I hoped would be images I could successfully market as stock photography.
You see, I started selling images as stock over a decade ago with the simple goal of making a few extra bucks doing activities I love such as backpacking, climbing, and camping. In less than year, I had a new DSLR and lens kit from the profits I made. I later covered large parts of my $40,000 graduate school bill and helped save for a down payment on our first house—all from royalties I earned from images captured on recreational trips.
This whole time, photography hasn’t felt like a job. I was simply capturing images of activities I loved doing and spending some time uploading and learning the business of stock photography.
The overall market for stock photos is massive, and there is demand for a wide array of content. I focus on outdoor recreation because that is interesting to me, but many other subjects can be profitable. The key to generating money isn’t how good of a technical photographer you are, but instead learning to recognize or create moments that are highly saleable, as I did after the storm on our canoe trip.
Summer is just around the corner and I already have a list of trips I am looking forward to. There will be moments of fun as well as those (like the nearly capsized canoe) when we briefly question why we thought an activity was a good idea! However, I know I am helping build memories that will last a lifetime. The extra money from the trips feels like a bonus.