Seattle-based advertising photographer Earl Harper has built his business as a product photographer working for clients such as Outdoor Research, Cascade Designs, Microsoft, Eddie Bauer and Bank of America. If you check out Harper’s Instagram feed, however, you’ll see a lot of photos of fishing guides, pristine waters, exotic locales and quite a few big fish. A lifelong fisherman, Harper has built a niche as a fly-fishing photographer. PDN sat down with him in his studio to learn about the market for fly-fishing photos, and how he turned a passion into a rewarding side-hustle.
PDN: How did you get into photographing fly-fishing?
Earl Harper: I grew up as a military brat in Zaragoza, Spain. Near the air base was a lake, and that was where I learned to fish. I didn’t get introduced to fly-fishing until I moved to Missoula to attend the University of Montana. Afterwards I moved to Seattle to study photography. I met [fly-fishing expert and guide] Leland Miyawaki shortly after I started my photography business because he was in the advertising industry. He was spending his free time fishing for Sea-run Cuts [cutthroat trout] off the beaches of Puget Sound and we began fishing together. Leland was doing work for some local fly shops and through him I met and started doing some trade for photography. With that experience I was able to promote myself to some of the local [fly-fishing gear] manufacturers like Sage and Redington and work with them on their advertising. I would [also] take various [fishing] trips when time and money allowed. I began to meet editors for different fly-fishing magazines, which eventually grew into taking some trips with them to different lodges to help photograph stories for them.
PDN: When you were going on trips you were paying for yourself, you went on them specifically to make photographs?
EH: Not specifically. I don’t want to go [on a trip] and not fish and I wouldn’t want to go [on a trip] and not take photos either, so I try to make sure I have enough time to spend on both. Now, if a client is paying me a day rate to shoot for them, then I wouldn’t even touch a rod. As tough as that could be!
PDN: Who are the clients for fly-fishing photographs?
EH: First of all, it is tough out there. I work with various magazines, but it would be difficult to make a living by doing only editorial fly-fishing photography full-time. Mixing editorial with some advertising product photography gives me the opportunity to pay my bills.
PDN: What percentage of your work is fishing work?
EH: Of income or of time? It’s a big chunk [of time], but I would spend my time doing it even if I wasn’t working. If it’s income, well that’s a different story. I’m going to guess maybe 5-10 percent of my income comes from the fishing market. In the end, the fly-fishing market is small compared to other outdoor [pursuits]. Sometimes though, passion has to override your bean-counter side and you work on what you love.
PDN: Are there opportunities beyond the editorial and advertising markets?
EH: Some photographers—I’m guessing especially ones with strong social media followings—can host trips to different lodges around the planet.
PDN: What does hosting fishing trips entail?
EH: I am hosting my first photo/fishing trip to the Patagonia region in Chile [this Spring]. You work with a lodge, or one of their [travel] agents, and choose dates that you want to try and fill with folks that might want to fish and learn some photo tips in the process. Usually a deal is worked out so that the host gets a percentage of the fee from the guests that come during those hosted days.
PDN: How does the relationship with the fishing lodges work? Do you license images to them?
EH: Each trip is unique and there are no rules as long as both you and the client are happy. Sometimes images [are] used for web and [a lodge] must pay extra for print ad usage. The one thing to remember is: If you are doing a trade of photos in exchange for accommodations, you still need to tip your guide. Those guys work their butts off and need to be compensated.
PDN: It sounds like going on trips is also a good way to network.
EH: Absolutely! Just about anything you do can bring the chance to network, but I have met and made many connections on some of my fishing trips that have led to other projects. You really get to know somebody when there are 8 to 12 of you from different parts of the world spending a week together in some remote lodge.
PDN: Sitting around the fire, drinking whisky, that kind of thing?
EH: My best marketing is exactly that. Even at home in our studio we like to take a break at the end of the day with our client and relax with something cold to drink. Most of our clients have become our good friends and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
PDN: Is there any market for print sales from fly-fishing?
EH: I hope so. We are starting to build up a collection of limited edition prints that we will be selling. At least one from each edition will also be donated to an organization of our choice for [their] fundraising purposes.
PDN: I would imagine some of the lodges might need prints for their walls.
EH: We have had requests for prints to hang up on walls inside of some lodges. I’m guilty of not really pursuing that side of the business even though I think I am missing out on a great opportunity.
PDN: Do the people you are with on trips ever ask to buy prints from you?
EH: Honestly, if it’s a photo of them [for personal use], I will just email it to them after I have exhausted any opportunity of the images being used in a magazine or advertising for a manufacturer.
PDN: What advice would you give someone who wants to shoot fishing?
EH: Be involved. Visit your local fly shops, attend fishing film festivals, donate images to conservation-based fundraising events. Meet people, introduce yourself, build a network. Take a trip, even if it’s a trip down a local river, with some friends and shoot it as if you were working on a story for a client. Practice you’re cast—the more you know about casting, the better you will be at capturing a cast at it’s peak moment. Maybe most important of all, you need to be passionate about the sport.
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