Life as Semi-Pro Photographers and Our Road to Getting Published

Photographer Profiles

April 12, 2018 ·

Lee Mandrell
Anderson Falls
Anderson Falls

It’s been a long road, a few years and a lot of hard work and effort to break into the publishing world. I was originally turned down twice a few years earlier by the very same press that I have now published seven books with, six of which are co-authored with my wife DeeDee. I took that as a motivator rather than rejection because I believe that rejections are nothing more than honest feedback and should not be taken personally. I took a step back and asked myself, “Okay, what do I need to do to make my images better?” I decided to make some serious changes in my photography techniques, skills, website, etc. I honed my Photoshop skills even further, refining my processing. I kept improving the overall quality in every area that I possibly could, even if the improvements were only small ones. My main focus eventually became my processing skills. I felt my composition and camera knowledge were up to par, but my processing was badly lacking. More than anything, I really needed to slow down in this area and make the quality my priority. Once my processing visibly improved, doors started slowly opening for me and then for us as a husband and wife photography team.

Atterbury
Atterbury

Even after getting to this point, there was still no magic bullet. We both made the decision to stick with it no matter what, no matter how hard it got, or what we had to do to get there. We had to work hard and stay committed, and we did, and we still do. We crafted an introductory letter to editors and print buyers. It went through many revisions based on the feedback we were getting until we finally felt the letter contained the right amount and kind of information. We have been told no, more than we have ever been given a yes, but we kept at it. This is still true even today. It was very slow going at first, so slow in fact we didn’t think anything was ever going to happen, but eventually, we were able to get picked up by a greeting card company. From there, one door lead to another, then another. After a couple of years and a few small successes, I decided to approach IU Press again. This time, they were very welcoming and receptive. Now seven books later, and likely an eighth, we have built a very strong working relationship and mutual respect on both sides. Having been in the digital game since it’s inception, I personally have a strong skill set in design knowledge and have always preferred to handle my own design work. So when the first book came my way, I knew I would have to focus on the role of “photographer only” and leave the design work to the professionals. It was a difficult step for me, and difficult to let go of, but one I have zero regrets in making. “The Great Smoky Mountains – A Visual Journey”, (co-authored with my wife) won a 2017 gold medal Independent Publishers award, showing me that the decision to focus only on the quality of the photography, locations, and processing was the right decision to make.

Bean Blossom Bridge
Bean Blossom Bridge

There is a different set of pressures and stress when taking on a book or photo project, at least from a photographers point of view, and when shooting for a publisher. It is not an option for us to come away with zero shots, regardless of the location, weather, season, lack of features or even our own personal feelings about a given area. We have a deadline to meet no matter the conditions. Waiting for what is believed to be the ideal lighting conditions is also not generally an option when you are staring at a deadline. Being semi-pros, we both also work at full-time jobs, so we have to make the most of our time and make it all work no matter what is in front of us. Each location has its own unique set of features, challenges, and even rewards. The shots are there and we as photographers have to find them, even if we have to dig deep for those shots. Some areas are flat and might appear dull and boring at first glance. Some areas may only have one key feature if you’re lucky. Some areas might not be as well kept up and groomed as other areas and look very unappealing. But no matter how any given location might first appear, you can always find something to take a photo of if you look for it, or rather I should say when you look for it. When we run into a situation where at first glance we feel like there might not be any decent photos to be taken, we get the camera out and start clicking anyway, even though we know we won’t use some of the shots. It’s just important that we start taking pictures. This puts us in the photographer’s mindset and creative mode right away. I notice that very quickly things start to look a little different through the viewfinder. It usually doesn’t take too long to get in the groove and come up with something likable. Before we know it, we have more shots than we thought, even if not exactly what we had in mind when we arrived. I have actually come away from these exact situations with shots that have surprised me and honestly turned out to be some of my best work. I simply wasn’t expecting the results I got. Experience has taught me to never judge a place based on what I think it should look like or my own personal preferences, but rather to get my camera out and start capturing photos. It works every time without fail.

Giant City
Giant City
Trillium - Roaring Fork
Trillium – Roaring Fork

Weather is another huge factor. It is painfully true that landscape photographers are at the mercy of Mother Nature, good or bad. Many photographers that shoot for magazines, travel, books, lifestyle, etc, are on a deadline of some sort and there simply is no control over the weather even if the deadline is looming near. When we aren’t able to get a scene or season we want we simply have to find the next best solution or a workaround for it. This might mean really stretching ourselves to get an image that will at least convey to the viewer what season it is, even if it’s not the exact weather conditions we had in mind or wanted. We do the best we can with what we are given, we take our best shot, and we move on. It happens. We also find that days of inclement weather, cloudy days, slightly rainy, fog, heavy clouds and so forth can make for better, more interesting photos than what is commonly viewed as ideal the photo conditions. Many people believe you should stay in on these types of days and not go out and take pictures. It comes down to being open minded enough to shooting under any conditions and shooting anything, even if it’s not what we originally wanted to shoot. We have to be adaptable to be successful with our photography. This goes for adapting to the weather and various photo situations we encounter.

Roaring Fork Motor Trail
Roaring Fork Motor Trail
Tremont
Tremont

Planning each trip is also key in making the most out of our travels. Google is definitely our best friend here and almost always our first stop. We research each location we want to visit thoroughly. We always visit more than one website and then average the combined information. We find most websites are a bit inconsistent from one another, so we like to visit several. We always like to know when and where the sun and the moon will rise and set. This is particularly helpful for magic and blue hour photos. Next, we look to see if there are there any good features available to place against a galaxy shot. We look for any waterfalls, historical landmarks, or anything unusual that might be of interest. Sometimes talking to locals gets us to a place that the world at large is unaware of outside of a small, confined area. These hidden gems usually don’t disappoint. We also look to see what others have done and decide if we should visit a place or pass on it. We find that simple tourist shots and videos that have been posted to the web are the most helpful in our general understanding of what really is in a given area that we are unfamiliar with. Many of them give you an overall view and idea of what’s there and what you will be faced with. This will also allow us to formulate a strategy for taking the best photos we can take before we even get there. If there are lots of photos of the same thing, we know it’s a popular location and decide if we want to try for it, or avoid it altogether.

Squire Boone Caverns
Squire Boone Caverns

It is vital to remember in all of this that editors, art directors, and print buyers are very, very busy people. Rejection is part of the process here and should never be taken personally. If you are the type of person that gets hung up on rejection or being told no, you aren’t going to get very far in published photography at all. When this happens just say “next” and move on. It’s not personal on their part, it’s only that they don’t see you as a fit for their needs right now and nothing more, so don’t read into it what isn’t there. Another thing to remember here is that we live in a fast paced high turn over world these days. People change jobs with frequency. If you are told no, try them again next quarter. Don’t toss out an outlet just because they said no this time. That person could have been having a rough day and was simply in an off mood. It happens to us all. It is also worth remembering that it is extremely rare to ever get a reply on the first, second, third and even fourth attempts, and often times even more. Research tells us that it takes as many as eighteen attempts to actually get someone’s attention or to get your foot in the door. That’s a lot! You also don’t want to email repeatedly, enough that you get permanently spammed by this person. Spread out your efforts. We like to make email blasts every quarter, and we try to personalize every single one and address the recipient by name if at all possible so it doesn’t come off as a generic pitch. You just have to keep trying, even when you aren’t sure of what’s happening on the other end because one day, the door opens and you finally get a reply. It really is a numbers game.

Stone Arch Lake
Stone Arch Lake

We would like to close with a few tips that we feel have worked for us when dealing with publishers or print buyers or anyone in general for that matter. Be helpful. Go out of your way to show people how you can help them and be of service to them. Be easy to work with. I can’t stress this one enough. People don’t have time for difficult or arrogant photographers, artists or difficult people in general. The easier you are to work with, the further you will go. It’s true. Set your ego aside, there is no place for it here. We all feel we have the best there is to offer, but the reality is, there is always someone better. Having an ego only gets in the way and ultimately loses us that publisher or print buyer we tried so hard to get. Be honest. If you are asked to do something that you don’t feel comfortable doing, let them know. Again, set the ego aside. It’s better to be up front than completely ruin a deadline or an editors expectation because once you have done this, you get black listed, and none of us want that. It’s not worth the money or your reputation to be dishonest or unethical because it will catch up to you in the long run. The last thing to say here is, most people don’t succeed because they give up too soon. Nothing happens overnight, and certainly not in this area of photography. There is no magic bullet. Success usually comes in small increments and it also leaves us clues. It takes hard work, patience and time, lots and lots of time, so use the in between time to keep taking and making better images.

Fall Leaves
Fall Leaves

Lee and DeeDee Niederhouse-Mandrell
April 2018

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Lee Mandrell

Lee and DeeDee Niederhouse-Mandrell are the authors of 7 books published with IU Press / Quarry Books. Those titles include: “Indianapolis - The Circle City”, “The Great Smoky Mountains - A Visual Journey - (A 2017 Gold Medal Independent Publisher award winner)”, “Indiana Across The Land”, “Illinois Across The Land”, “Illinois State Parks”, “Kentucky Across The Land” and “Starved Rock State Park”. They also have work published with Brown Trout Publishers, Tide Mark Press, Sun Day Greetings, Shutterbug, Photoshop User, Digital Photo Magazine, Indiana Dept of Environmental Management, Smoky Mountain Living, The Smoky Mountains Journal of Photography, vacation and destination guides, nature centers, state parks, and more. You can find more in-depth bios and information on each of their websites.

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