Adventure photographer Tom Kahler on how to thrive during a global lockdown

On a quiet Sunday morning, a faint hum echoes through the fog hanging low in the air just outside Sheffield, UK. The ground begins to tremble as it swells into a roar.

A split-second later, a bright yellow Porsche 981S rips around the corner, kicking up a flurry of dust in its wake.

Tom Kahler might love being behind the wheel as much as behind the lens.

Tom Kahler

.  Zero to sixty…

As a freelance photographer based in the UK, Tom specializes in outdoor and automotive photography. He works with some of the world’s leading brands, including Mercedes Benz, the North Face, BMW, Red Bull, and Aston Martin.

Tom’s passion for adventure has taken him all over the world – last year he traveled to 7 different countries and spent 119 nights away. In his spare time, you can find him out in the driveway building a fully-customized Volkswagen T6 – named Wolf – from the ground up (@wolfthevan).

.  …back to zero

But as a creator that relies on travel for a significant part of his work, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged him to adapt – fast.

Enter Tom…

Tom Kahler

 adapt & evolve

Two ways to work the 'new normal' to your advantage

My goal for 2020 was to spend 182 nights away (50% of the year), but unfortunately due to the pandemic, I have only spent 7 nights away this year. It’s bizarre for me to not be travelling.

But in a way, it’s also refreshing not having to navigate busy airports and living out of a suitcase. That said, I would jump at the chance to get away right now. 

My business relies a lot on travelling – both for commercial shoots and creating content for my social media. With travel being impossible right now, it’s making things very difficult. But we must adapt and keep going.

For photographers, I think it’s inevitable that our businesses are going to take a pretty big hit during these circumstances. But there are two things that you can do right now:

  1. Attempt to make money through digital sales and home shoots.
  2. Prepare your business for when the world opens back up at full capacity.
Tom Kahler

. Finding ways to make money from your desk

Stock Images: I’m sure many of you have piles of hard drives with epic images going to waste. Get them online for sale on stock websites. It’s a tedious job that we never usually have time for during our hectic life travelling around with rubbish WiFi. Stock photo sales may also continue to bring in some additional income once things return to normal, leaving you in a stronger position than before. 

Presets / Prints: Everyone loves to know how you edit your images, so why not cash in and sell your Lightroom presets? If you already sell presets, maybe launch a new version, or work on some better marketing examples to promote them on your social media. 

Product Photography: You don’t need a lot of space or equipment to be creative and shoot lifestyle or studio images from home. Reach out to brands to have products sent to your door. I’ve been working for a watch brand on some lifestyle images that I shot here in the office.

Tom Kahler

. Getting your business set up for post-COVID-19

Update Your Website: This is the #1 thing that you should have already done by now, but it’s not too late. Re-edit old images, find new ones, refresh your profile photo, look into SEO – get your website as strong as possible.

Don’t Neglect Social Media: The same idea can be applied to your social profiles. Refresh your story highlights, write a new bio. Use this time wisely to make your entire online presence as strong as possible. Once your business is back to full speed, your clients will be sold on working with you from the get-go. 

Stay Creative: It’s OK to take days off and binge your favourite Netflix series, but don’t waste your time completely. The last thing we want to do is take a step backwards by being lazy and leaving the camera in the back of the cupboard. Push your creative limitations, and shoot something you are stoked on at home. 

.  Your Playbook: Start building momentum, now.

There will come a day when things get back to normal. Take advantage of your time at home to do the little things you normally neglect, so that you can hit the ground running.

 behind the lens

What it's really like to build a full-time career in photography

I have had the pleasure of working with many leading brands, and I’m very grateful.

To be honest, there wasn’t a sudden breakthrough where my career went from small, low-key jobs, to bigger ones with more well-known clients.

It has been a very gradual transition over the years, and it is still growing now.

Tom Kahler

. No such thing as an overnight success

Over the years, I have phased out working on projects that I’m not as interested in; however, there’s always the odd few I take here and there to fill the gaps between the more exciting ones.
I think when you become a freelance photographer, you have to accept compromise in the early stages of your career to go to where you want to go. This won’t happen overnight. I would say I’m only 65% – 70% towards my end goal. 
Something that I learned with the first few bigger jobs is not to undervalue yourself. If these multi-million-pound companies are wanting you to shoot for them, then don’t sell yourself short with your rates or usage fees. 

.  Your Playbook: Keep topping your last project.

World-class clients don’t come overnight. The path to big gigs is paved by steadily building your portfolio with larger clients. Each project will propel you to the next. 

Tom Kahler

 winning the game

The one skill that will give you an advantage over other photographers

As a photographer, I would say only 15-20% of my job is taking photos.
One day you are building yourself a website, the next you’re pitching a brand, followed by filing your tax returns and organizing the logistics of an overseas shoot with models.

. There’s a lot more to it than just taking photos

I’m a firm believer that you have to be good at your trade to be successful. But with that said, someone with your same skills – but that’s better at business and selling themselves to clients – will go a lot further.
Over the years, I’ve watched various friends go about their photography careers. The people with prior experience in business or sales seem to have an advantage.

.  Your Playbook: Build a business, not a hobby.
Focus on your creative passion as a business, and not just a hobby that makes you money. But be careful not to lose why you became a creative in the first place.

It’s all about balance at the end of the day, and that’s not always so easy to achieve.

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