Capturing the feeling of nature
Photography communities are an integral part to the craft – when a budding photographer wants to make a living out of their passion, it’s often the advice of others that helps them carve out their space in a competitive and often cut-throat business.
Annie Spratt has had a huge hand in these communities and their evolution in the 21st century, as the internet became part of our everyday lives and careers.
Her work with Unsplash has grown from an idea that photographers might share their work for free, into one of the world’s most popular photo sharing websites. Through Unsplash, she was also able to take the step into professional photography herself.
Annie has seen both the power of photography communities and the downsides of online opinions throughout her career. She shares her tips for dealing with the negative comments, how she balances work and family life (with 8 children), and how she made her photography into a profitable business.
Creating nature photos with feeling
Annie is particularly drawn to nature photography, and many of her photos are available on the Unsplash website for free usage. They have been viewed over 9 billion times and stand at a current total of around 50 million downloads. When describing her style, she uses the words spontaneous and emotive. “I rarely plan anything that I’ve going to capture, preferring to be led by my own mood and the atmosphere around me at the time.
“Because I don’t work to other people’s briefs, I’ve complete freedom in my process - something that I find immensely satisfying.”
Currently based in New Forest National Park, Annie is in the perfect place for photogenic, untouched nature. “Living in the beautiful New Forest here in the South of England it’s nearly impossible not to draw inspiration from nature and the changing of the seasons.
“I find spending time in the countryside to be really grounding. Being outside is the perfect remedy for those times when inspiration-overload or imposter syndrome strikes.”
Her photos have an almost whimsical theme running through them, and she explains that from her perspective, a good nature photograph should have a feeling within it, whatever feeling that might be. “This might sound a bit nondescript, but personally capturing a feeling, is what makes a great nature photograph (indeed a great photograph in general!).
Of course ‘a feeling’ can be created by manipulating the atmosphere, but it can also happen naturally - which involves a big element of luck, but when the stars collide and the perfect conditions come along it’s such a special moment. “
Building communities to share photos, and advice
Annie didn’t start out wanting to be a photographer – it began with her simply sharing her photos on Unsplash for people to enjoy.
Even now, she doesn’t see herself becoming a full-time photographer in the traditional sense, even though she receives a full-time income from print royalty sales. Her work with Unsplash is also something she’s really passionate about, and while it might be a free sharing site, she is living proof that it can lead to something more if you work is good enough.
“I’ve been sharing my photos, for free, via Unsplash since 2015. The chances are that you’ve seen my photography somewhere. Of course, you probably wouldn’t know it’s my photography, but I’m fine with that, just knowing that I’ve managed to reach so many people with my work is reward enough for me.”
Her work eventually became a paid gig due to the right people coming across it: “After a couple of years of sharing my photos for free, a few Print Stores reached out and asked if I would be interested in setting up royalty agreements.
“To be frank, I was a little skeptical, but I thought I’d give it a whirl - it really paid off. Now I work with a small number of companies like this, submitting images for consideration once a year, and receiving passive income each quarter which over the course of a year equates to a full time wage.”
She attempted to sell prints herself, but found the resources of print stores made them the better option. “The main benefits I’ve seen from the print stores I’ve worked with is that they market out to larger department stores, and global chains, attending art shows and promoting their artists work on a large scale - with energy and resources that I could never give as an individual.”
Overcoming challenges and people who don’t like change
While Unsplash provides a lot of benefits for photographers, some haven’t been so supportive of the platform. Photography forums are rife with negative opinions and feedback of successful work, and it’s sometimes enough to get even the most thick-skinned photographer down.
Annie sites one example of online opinions making her doubt herself at the very beginning. “When I first started to think that maybe photography was ‘the thing for me’ I asked some advice on different forums. The advice at the time from these forums was really discouraging, an example of feedback I received is: ‘You aren’t a proper photographer if you don’t start out learning the basics of photography on film.’
“Once I started sharing my photos for free and gaining more visibility, some professional older male photographers (including a couple with a very large following) were very vocal about their thoughts. They very publicly said that by sharing my images for free, I was somehow putting professionals out of business. I saw their opinions change how younger male photographers began to interact with me and I found that really hard.
“I suspect this type of behaviour stems from when people see an industry evolve and fear change. I recall how ironic it felt that for such a creative industry, that there were a section of people who were so adverse to trying different creative approaches.”
Putting photography on public forums at the beginning of your career can feel incredibly scary – and doing it on the internet where people can anonymously give their opinions only adds to the challenge.
But Annie found going back to the source got her through the knocks to her confidence – and she was able to process her feelings with a camera in her hand. “I had a period of around six months where it really got me down and I struggled between if what I was doing was morally right or not. I had been made to feel like a bad person for doing the thing I loved and my self esteem and confidence took a knock.
“But I kept on walking about the local forest, enjoying the process of photography and before long I processed the feelings from those negative experiences. Photography was a valuable and cathartic process for me at that time.”
Unsplash is now an incredibly successful platform and a chance for photographers to get their work in front of paying eyes in a whole new way. The website was bought out by Getty Images in 2021 and has continued to thrive; it would seem, with some hindsight, that this new creative approach was a positive one for the entire industry.
Women in photography
Despite her challenges with some photography forums and communities, Annie sees a lot of positive things happening with women getting into photography. “I’ve certainly noticed a rise in women getting into the industry over the past decade,“ she said.
“From my own experiences with female photographers, they often lean towards a more collaborative, community-based approach to honing their skills, sharing knowledge and networking. Social media has definitely played a part in enabling these types of connections.”
She believes that now is the best time to get involved in photography, even if the route isn’t as simple as knowing from a young age that it’s what you want to do. “Photography has never been more accessible and I believe there’s never been a better time to promote the representation of women in the industry,” she gushed.
“Highlighting some of the less traditional routes into professional photography in particular, will encourage women of all backgrounds to consider photography, both as a career and a hobby.
“I just sort of stumbled into [photography] after falling in love with photography as a hobby. I see thousands of photos every week through my role at Unsplash, and the quality work that hobbyist photographers are producing never ceases to blow me away.”
Balancing family life
Annie has carved out a career in photography on the back of having taken time out to look after her eight children. “Having eight children, I chose to be a full-time mother for many years. As my youngest children started school I stumbled into blogging as a means to connect with other people in a similar situation.
“I began to take photos for my blog and something just clicked, it was that feeling you get when you first realise that you’ve found something you really enjoy. Over the course of three years I became more and more involved in the blogging community and before I knew it I’d amassed a whole new set of skills based around communication, community building and understanding.
“It was this self-learnt skillset that I used to pitch myself when applying for a job at Unsplash at the end of 2015. Starting my career just before my 40th birthday was an empowering experience.”
With 8 children, balancing work and family life will be a challenge for any parent, male or female. And Annie believes the key is being open with your expectations in both realms of your life.
“When it comes to my work at Unsplash, I’ve always worked from home and the hours, although full-time, have always been flexible, it really is the perfect career for family life.
“Working from home has meant my family feels pretty connected to my career, because they are aware of what I do, projects I’m working on and what’s expected of me. In turn this has lead to an in-depth understanding of my career and minimises any friction with work/family balance.”
A lover of Hasselblad’s film and digital cameras
Annie is both a digital and film photographer, and so naturally she has the Hasselblad 907X 50C. “Spending so much time taking photos and assessing other people’s photos has lead to a slight obsession with image quality.
“When I started shooting film I loved the process, but the image quality never seemed anywhere near as high as a digital image. I embarked on a year long second-hand film camera buying spree, which saw me amass a collection of nearly 30 different types of different makes and models.
“Now, I use a Hasselblad 500C/M for film and the 970X with the CFV II 50C back for digital, it’s the best of both worlds and real testament to the continuous revolutionary ingenuity of Hasselblad that cameras manufactured over 40 years apart can be used together.
Switching between film and digital is so simple, I don’t need to choose one or the other, and the CFV II 50C allows me to use the 50 megapixel medium format digital sensor with my range of classic Hasselblad lenses.”
Annie says it’s difficult to choose one thing she’s most excited about with the Hasselblad Heroine program, but if it were one, it would be “…the visibility that it gives to both female photographers and the beauty and diversity of the industry, for both professionals and hobbyists as a whole.”