In Discussion with Robin Whalley
Describe your landscape photography background.
I was interested in photography from a very early age but I can’t explain why. I bought my first camera (a Kodak Instamatic 33 which I still have to this day) when I was only 7 using pocket money that I had saved. But it wasn’t until 2000 that I bought my first SLR camera because everyone I knew advised me they were difficult to use. What convinced me to try was visiting a photographic exhibition in Billericay library, near to where I was living at the time.
After buying my first SLR from someone I was working with, I quickly became interested in photographing the landscape. I’ve always loved the outdoors and appreciated a good sunset well before becoming a photographer. I quickly became hooked on photography and spent increasing amounts of money buying camera equipment and reading everything I could lay my hands on.
My first published image in January 2003. Jokulsarlon, Iceland. Pentax 67 MkII with 105mm lens using Fuji Velvia slide film.
Then in 2003, shortly after having my first photo published in a magazine, I thought wouldn’t it be great if I could earn my living as a landscape photographer. That’s what first got me interested in submitting my work to stock libraries. At the time my photography was technically sound but boring. Also, my idea of how professional photographers worked was completely wrong. Fortunately, I stuck with my day job and pursued the commercial side of photography in my spare time. Eventually, I began to make sales through the stock libraries, but that quickly dried up once Microstock burst onto the scene.
What sparked your decision to build a landscape photography education business?
I set up Lenscraft.co.uk in 2004, initially to showcase my photography. Looking back, I was very naïve and had no one in the industry to guide me. I filled the website with lots of my landscape photography, thinking that the image sales would come rolling in. As I’m sure you can guess, they didn’t. In fact, nothing happened, and the website had virtually no traffic. That’s when I began writing tutorials in the hope, they would attract visitors who might buy my work.
The tutorials did generate website traffic, but I still wasn’t selling my photography. My mistake was that the tutorials were attracting photographers to my site who weren’t interested in buying my prints. Despite this, I continued to publish more tutorials and read everything I could about photography and photo editing. I also had some success in the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition where I had images included in the exhibition a couple of times.
The Lowry Theatre, Salford. The Landscape Photographer of the Year competition exhibition 2008.
The turning point came around 2010 when I read “On Being a Photographer” by Bill Jay and David Hurn. In the book, Bill Jay describes his first meeting with David Hurn (an excellent Magnum photographer) where he dismissed Bill’s work in seconds. That’s when I realised that there wasn’t anything special about my photography. But I did take an important lesson from the book and that was you didn’t have to be a photographer to have a career in photography. That was the lightbulb moment when I realised, I should help others and began to move in that direction.
My breakthrough came in 2013 when I downloaded the Amazon Kindle reader app on my phone and found a free book about publishing on the Kindle. I read the book and thought I can do that. At the time I was running a few large projects for a well-known bank and made a habit of getting away from my desk for lunch to take a break. It was during these lunch breaks that I used to write my first book “Mastering Nik Viveza”.
The first edition of the book was quite short, but it was very concise and structured to help readers quickly improve their skills using Viveza. Initially, I didn’t make any sales but, after a few weeks, the book began to sell. The following month the sales increased and then in the third month I sold enough to convince myself to write another book. Since then I’ve gone on to publish a further 21 books as well as republish many of the earlier books to update them.
Assynt area, Scotland. Three image stitch with Fuji X-T3 and Samyang 12mm lens. Post-processing with Nik Color Efex Pro and Nik Viveza.
The other area where I now invest a lot of time is my Youtube channel. Initially, this was another example of me getting things completely wrong. I started the channel in 2008, using it to post video slide shows of my photography then quickly forgot about it. At the time I was also experimenting with screencasting software to record my computer screen for tutorials. I should have been publishing these videos to my Youtube channel but instead, I just had them on my website.
It was only when a good friend, Steve O’Nions, said let’s video our photography trips that I started looking at Youtube again. Initially, we filmed and published videos from our photography trips and we started to build a following. Steve’s gone on to build a fantastic channel doing this, but I changed track and used Youtube to publish “how-to” tutorials. I think Youtube has given me a lot of exposure, bringing new traffic to my website and helping to maintain my book sales.
What are the realities of maintaining an educational website, Youtube channel and newsletter?
It’s very rewarding but also very frustrating. I have so many ideas that I would like to develop but there’s never enough time and there’s only me in the business. As a one-man band, you also need to be a bit of an all-rounder and quite disciplined. For example, I built the Lenscraft.co.uk website myself and migrated it to WordPress a few years ago. Maintaining the site and fixing problems is a daily task as is responding to comments and emails.
Producing quality screen recording with good sound for Youtube takes a lot of preparation as does the video editing. Around a day each week now goes into producing Youtube content. After that, there’s the monthly newsletter as well as writing regular tutorials and articles for the website. These are all the regular tasks that I need to keep on top of to maintain my business. Then I must find time to write new books and develop new video training courses.
As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s not much time after all of this to do landscape photography, but I still need to try.
Loch Assynt, Scotland, April 2019. Fuji X-T3 with Fuji 10-24 lens at 14mm and Kase 0.9 Soft ND Graduated filter. 1/6” at f/14.0 and ISO80. RAW conversion using Iridient XTransformer in Lightroom. Black and white conversion using Nik Silver Efex Pro.
How has founding Lenscraft changed your life?
The greatest thing about building Lenscraft is that it allowed me to follow my passion and create a career in photography. Previously I was a freelance Programme Manager, typically running large multi-million-pound programmes for international companies. I enjoyed the work, but it was stressful and very demanding. Whilst Lenscraft isn’t as financially rewarding, it’s allowed me to bring my life back into balance. I no longer need to be at someone else’s office at 07:30 each morning which is very liberating and allows me to pick the best days for photography.
Doing what I do is incredibly rewarding. I receive a lot of email and feedback from people who have read my books and watched my videos. It’s wonderful to hear when someone who struggled for years to learn Photoshop is now able to use it after following one of my books or courses. People are genuinely grateful that I’ve been able to help them and it’s wonderful to know.
What advice would you give to anybody looking to start their own photo education business?
Initially focus on building your own web presence and don’t build your business around someone else’s platform like Youtube or Instagram. If you build your business on someone else’s platform they can easily make a change that could put you out of business. Instead, use the popular platforms for visibility and to drive customers back to your website.
Get very clear about who your customers are and why they should buy your products. Once you’re clear about your customer’s needs, you can develop products to help them. Focus on delivering quality and exceptional value. I like to put myself in the customer's position and think about how I would feel if I purchased this product. I’ve personally bought many overpriced books and courses that didn’t deliver on the marketing promise. Try to avoid falling into this trap and listen carefully to your customers. You mustn’t do anything to damage the customer's trust in you.
Search for multiple ways to monetise what you do. For example, a lot of people I speak to think you can generate a good income on Youtube from the advertising alone. Unless you have a huge audience with lots of views each day you won’t even cover your costs. But if you can use Youtube to raise people’s awareness of your other products, it can be a great source of new customers. This can make the time invested in Youtube worth it.
Be ready for hard work and to invest lots of time in building your business. Until 2017 I was running Lenscraft part-time alongside my Programme Management work. There was never enough time and it was consuming every free moment of my evenings and weekends. Looking back at the effort required I find it quite staggering that I maintained it for as long as I did. I don’t think that would have been possible without a genuine love for helping others with their photography.
Be sure you have an interest in something outside of photography or you could ruin a great hobby by trying to turn it into a business.
Spectacular light on Derwentwater at sunset, The Lake District. Fuji X-T2, Fuji 10-24 lens at 10mm, 2.1”, f/14.0, ISO200. Three stop (0.9) Soft ND Graduated filter.
What is your future vision for Lenscraft?
There’s a lot that I want to do to make my business easier to run and free my time to develop new books and courses. I’m also currently revising my older book titles to publish them in print (on Amazon) and make them available on my Lenscraft website. Going forwards I want all my books to be available on Lenscraft as well as Amazon, Goole and Apple rather than just the titles I have now. As well as Lenscraft, I have a separate website called Lenscraft Training, designed to deliver quality online video training. I want to develop my range of courses and improve the integration of the site with Lenscraft.
Ultimately, I want Lenscraft to become known for providing the highest quality instruction for photographers. When someone buys something from me, I want them to feel that it is of excellent value and for them to recommend me to others. But I also don’t want to grow too large. It’s important to me that I can maintain close links with my Lenscraft members and remain accessible when they need help.
Hailing from Saddleworth Moor in the UK’s Peak District National Park, you must be spoilt for landscape photography opportunities?
You’re right I am, but for a long time, I didn’t recognise it. In the past I’ve often travelled slightly further afield, preferring to shoot areas like the Lake District. Despite having the Peak District on my doorstep, I didn’t find the landscape appealing. Part of my problem was that I didn’t really appreciate the role of light in capturing great landscape images. Today I understand the need to match the light conditions to the subject and the landscape. You can shoot the most amazing landscape in the world, but if you try to shoot it in the wrong light, you’re going to create poor photography.
Sunrise near Surprise View, The Peak District. Fuji X-T2, Fuji 10-24mm lens at 10mm, 10”, f/11.0, ISO200, 6 Stop Neutral Density filter and tripod.
The other aspect of this is that you often don’t appreciate what’s around you. Saddleworth is a beautiful area but, for me, it’s very challenging to photograph because everything is familiar. What often helps is to venture out in conditions most people find poor for photography. I much prefer to shoot when it’s raining, foggy or snowing rather than when it’s sunny with a blue sky. I also find it helps to look for the details in the landscape rather than always trying to shoot the big scene. Big scenes need amazing light and that’s difficult to find.
Landscape photographer Robin Whalley runs Lenscraft Photography, a website that shares insights and inspiration into creating engaging and beautiful photographs. He has a passion for photo editing, software and sharing his knowledge. He has honed his photography since 2000, first using filming later embracing digital. His work has sold around the world, appeared in popular photographic magazines and has also appeared in several exhibitions, including The Landscape Photographer of the Year.