How to Win at YouTube as a Photographer: Advice from the Pros

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So you’ve just finished school and now you have a diploma to certify and declare that you’re a bona fide photographer/filmmaker. Or you could be an experienced professional who is just about to wrap your latest gig and now it’s time to reach out to your network in search of the next job.

Maybe you have just spent the last six months shopping your dream project around without any luck or you’re just trying to fill up some photography workshops so you don’t have to get a soul-crushing day job? Now what?

Start a YouTube Channel. Now. Yes, You!

But YouTube is for vloggers and online narcissists. But YouTube is for amateurs who couldn’t make it work in the big leagues. But YouTube… we’ve heard it all before: YouTube isn’t serious filmmaking. This is both true and false.

While there are certainly untold billions of videos that are no more than a waste of time, there are countless others that both educate and inspire a dedicated audience! The best part? It’s still growing which means it’s big enough for you to enjoy some success by contributing your content and carving out your niche.

This is not a guide to becoming the type of viral phenom that gets you subscribers into the millions and prestigious brand deals, but it is full of inspiring advice from five working professionals whose own success on the platform shows why every photographer and filmmaker should start their own YouTube channel to showcase their work, keep their skills sharp, build an audience and market their business.

Show ‘Em What You’ve Got!

While some would say that YouTube is not cinema and therefore they see no reason to bother with it, sadly, they are missing the point. YouTube represents a huge opportunity you may have not considered to get your work in front of a huge audience.

Not only is the way we consume content changing, but so is the industry. Think again if your plan is to take your film to a festival, be showered with awards and praise, then try to decide which major brand you want to make commercials for after becoming an industry darling. It’s not likely to happen.

Even online opportunities have shifted greatly since you enrolled in art school, but it’s where a lot of interesting creators have emerged lately who started with less than you, yet now have the freedom to make whatever they want. Still think YouTube is beneath you?

Making short Internet videos should be easy with the skills acquired in film school, in the field, or on set. But there’s a lot more to overcome than the simple mechanics of uploading a video and waiting for lightning to strike.

And don’t forget, there’s a horde of aspiring creators who were there before you who busted their asses perfecting their YouTube content and marketing. Their stuff may not always be much to look at, but they’re masters of the enigmatic YouTube algorithm that sorts through endless videos and brings them viewers.

You have an ace up your sleeve though. With your training and ability to bring image and story together, you’re uniquely positioned to stand out above much of the YouTube crowd in terms of superior production value. But first, show off what you’ve already been up to and generate some interest in the projects you worked so hard on.

“If You Build It, They Will Come”

A lot of creators say that YouTube is a “long game.” With more videos being uploaded in a day than anyone could ever hope to watch in a lifetime, you’re going to need to start dropping quality stuff right away to get eyes on your content. Don’t expect overnight success, however. Remember the long game.

Admittedly things were different for video creators even a few years ago. A Vimeo Staff Pick once all but guaranteed a kick start to your career, but now the vaunted “pick” status won’t fill your inbox with clients looking to hire you right away, according to adventure documentary filmmaker Levi Allen.

YouTuber Levi Allen at work outdoors

“It’s pretty entitled to think that one project earns you a reputation, and I had hopes that it would launch me into more outdoor paid work,” Allen said of his experience after releasing his celebrated adventure film, Untethered.

But it took two to three years more for Allen to develop that reputation since the initial success of his independent documentary. YouTube gave him that opportunity to raise his profile as a filmmaker, he acknowledged.

“It builds up a rep for my company, you gotta show the kind of work that you want to get hired for,” Allen explained.

What kind of content will you produce for your channel? It’s simple. Make the kind of stuff that you want to be known for and explore that niche. If your interest is in astrophotography, show your work in that genre and talk about it in your videos. Demonstrate your expertise.

If your documentary tackles social issues and you want to make more of those, let everyone know that’s what you do and show them how to get involved themselves. Become that person that the audience, as well as potential clients, will follow because your channel shows exactly how your values align with theirs. Allen wanted to do more outdoor work, so that’s precisely the market he focused on with his channel.

But Everyone’s a Photographer Now

Your work says only so much about you, but through a channel you get to express yourself in so many other ways and offer viewers the chance to connect with you which makes them more invested in your work. This audience connection, or engagement, is deeply important and is a critical part of your success, which we’ll discuss later on.

Landscape photographers Gavin Hardcastle and Adam Gibbs both transformed their photography businesses with YouTube. They adapted their stills vision to 24 frames per second and created their own channels.

Through YouTube they discovered effective ways to find their audience, connect with them and promote their work through an avenue vastly different than books and calendars, which are some of the mainstays of a landscape photographer’s income.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future we get opportunities we never imagined, offered deals we would never believe,” Hardcastle explained.

Hardcastle started off some six years ago posting quality, but infrequent, fare for a photography channel: cinematic landscape video footage, some gear tests, and helpful tutorials. Things changed a little over a year ago when he began to post more consistently and he found his stride by adding humor to the serious world of landscape photography. His channel started to take off even further after he began collaborating with fellow landscape photographer and comedic partner in crime, Adam Gibbs.

“It’s a steady climb and it’s been steady for about a year. Things are going good, but I’m certainly no Peter McKinnon where he got a million subscribers in a week or whatever it was,” Hardcastle joked.

Again, it’s a long game, but sustainability is attainable with time and effort.

YouTube brings new subscribers every day to not only enjoy their landscape photos but to also learn more about the photographers themselves and their process. Gibbs and Hardcastle’s workshops fill up immediately as a result, and some of the participants are even loyal subscribers to their channels.

You’re Already Ahead of the Game

If you have any successes in your career and a body of work to bring to your new YouTube channel, you’re establishing your credibility right away. When you continue to share more and bring subscribers along on your journey, not only are you entertaining them, but you’re adding value by giving them an inside look at a lifestyle they may be only dreaming of. If your channel helps them realize that dream through tips, tutorials, and insights, then you’ve got all the makings of a successful channel, according to Hardcastle.

“That’s the goal with every video: to inspire, entertain, and educate a little bit. If you can get those three things in one video, then I feel like you’ve done well. That’s the kinda s**t I’d want to watch,” he explained.

Photographer Adam Gibbs has been in business for decades, before losing his steady gig after the magazine he worked for went bankrupt. He had to find a new way to get his work out there and videos seemed to be the answer. Gibbs’ story shows that it’s never too late to start a channel.

“I don’t worry about it, but there are YouTubers who started at the same time as me,” some of them with tens of thousands more subscribers than Gibbs currently, he noted. “But I have to remember that the whole purpose of my YouTube channel was to get people to sign up for my workshops, which it has done. It’s done a great job”

While there are multiple layers to becoming a YouTube success, the basis behind it all is quite simple, Allen explained.

“One aspect is it’s [YouTube] just a straight up delivery platform, so you make something that you’re proud of and want people to be able to see it, but if you want people to be there when it’s finally done, you should probably give them something to get them interested along the way,” he said.

Don’t expect success on YouTube if all you plan to do is share your finished work with a “fire and forget” mentality. Get involved, and offer those important features to your growing audience that help them feel that they are improving themselves in some way. The first will get you views, but the second part will get you more valuable engagement, which we’ll also discuss later on.

Never Stop Learning

For those of you without a lot of video production experience, let’s consider Gibbs’ situation. He was an expert in still photography but wasn’t sure where to start when it came to video. Gibbs began by taking a GoPro out with him on his photo shoots and he built up from there.

His technical quality soon caught up to his artistic vision and his videos now feature the panoramic vistas and intimate details of natural settings that he immerses himself in to capture award-winning images. He added drone footage to deliver another dimension to his work and it fits seamlessly with his stills photography and introspective voice over.

Some of us don’t own much gear at all and have learned a lot on rented equipment or whatever our employer provided. Gibbs said to just get started, don’t wait until you have the perfect gear. His audio was terrible in the beginning, he noted, but that didn’t stop him from getting his channel off the ground.

“There are a lot of would-be creators out there who have better kit to start, but even they feel limited by what they have. But if you’re motivated, you make do with what you have,” he explained.

Viewers love to see the progression and improvement of creators, it is inspiring to them and instills in them the feeling that it’s something they might also be able to do. Don’t feel inadequate if you need to improve your skills in a particular area. But you only get better by doing. In fact, you can’t help but get better by doing.

Successful creators are learning every day. There’s no end to the free educational content out there that can show you how to add to your own skillset.

The Keys to Success Are Already in Front of You

YouTubers have learned a lot about story and marketing and there is plenty to glean from these hard-working creators. Their simple approach to creating videos was born mostly of necessity, but a minimal approach can also benefit those creators with more skill and equipment. They became good for a reason, they kept at it with practice and a commitment to learning. They’re some of the most talented individuals I’ve ever met, even though most don’t possess formal backgrounds in production.

You need to practice restraint. Be brutal with your editing and shooting. Sometimes a quick clip without lighting or awesome audio is all you need to tell the story. For those moments while hiking in to the next photography site, there were many, “we should be filming this!” moments, Hardcastle explained, but their motivation to dig out cameras and tripods was non-existent.

“My Osmo Pocket is as convenient as a phone but has a gimbal,” he said, noting that its small size and ease of use has dramatically impacted his workflow. “That helps you tell that story. It doesn’t look as cinematic, but if it’s a pain in the ass [to use] it stays in the bag.”

Moral of the story, if you don’t feel like setting up a bunch of gear, you’re likely to miss a story element. Be prepared to sacrifice cinematics for story. Not everyone has the luxury of putting out eye candy with zero story and getting a million likes. Don’t expect to post overcranked footage of artfully shot coffee making on your channel unless you’re one of those viral successes that I mentioned earlier who can do whatever they want.

Don’t worry about gear, though many of us may have access to incredible kit. Learn from these other YouTubers when it’s acceptable to shoot on an action cam, and when you should break out the lighting gear. If you’re making an Oscar production out of everything, you’re going to burn out.

Keep It Simple

There are ways to condense your videos to keep it tight and to the point. Using analytics will help show you when viewers click away from your videos, or you can incorporate some techniques that might be anathema in film production, but a standard on YouTube. Kitty Peters of Atola Visuals explains how her style has changed to suit the platform.

“YouTube edits are quick, jump cuts are tolerated, rule of thirds is not always taken into account when shooting people, and overall the video has to appeal to a shorter attention span for the YouTube audience,” she explained.

Engage an Audience and Create a Community

As I mentioned earlier, the surest way to YouTube obscurity is to create videos with a “fire and forget” mindset. The platform is littered with all manner of aspiring creatives hoping to drop one hot video and become viral hits, then live out the rest of their lives maintaining a phony YouTube lifestyle doing millionaire things in boring vlogs and raking in cash from brand deals.

Actual professionals don’t include becoming a viral success in their business plans. Rather, they understand that employing skill and effort is what lays the groundwork for success. YouTubers know and excel at this.

Put simply, you can’t just publish a video and hope the algorithm gives it wings. You need to build an audience and work on engaging your viewers if you ever want to go anywhere on YouTube. If nobody knows your work exists, then what’s the point?

Worship Me! — The Algorithm

Getting views can be easy, but turning those viewers into subscribers and forming a community is key to gaining traction on the platform. It requires consistency, engagement, and patience to bring viewers in and convert them to subscribers. These things feed into the almighty algorithm, the arbiter of all YouTube success.

YouTubers have found a way to draw the algorithm’s all-knowing eye to them. It’s not easy attracting the attention of the algorithm, and even when you do it can be frustrating and unsatisfying, but if you want to play the game, you need to accept that certain types of content do better than others, at least until the fickle algorithm demands different tribute.

“It really has the potential of being a fantastic platform for creatives but I think the algorithm way is messing up the quality. Now it seems like making many ‘talking into camera’ videos will get you more reach than a well-crafted masterpiece would. That f**king sucks,” Swedish documentary filmmaker Jonny von Wallström said.

The problem with countless vlogs, featuring virtual unknowns talking to the camera, is that those creators haven’t developed enough interest in themselves yet to make anyone care about what they had for breakfast, or how they got in and out of their car to go buy a toilet brush yesterday.

Vloggers became popular because they showed aspects of life that we simple folk don’t normally get to see, flying first class in what looks like a condo rather than a plane seat for example. I vlogged before YouTube existed and nobody cared. But when I made videos that were newsy or had story, I had tons of downloads and my RSS stats were off the charts. My, how things have changed.

Vlogs become an option once you have some traction. If you want to try it and see if the algorithm takes notice, have at it, but please make them compelling. I don’t want to watch you talk about how you need to buy groceries broken up by clever transitions and ‘b-roll’ of something completely unrelated to the vlog. For now, work on developing your own style and finding your voice.

Once you’ve developed your content and found some form of creative sustainability, be consistent. That doesn’t mean do the same thing over and over again, rather, post once a week and always hit that deadline. Subscribers want to see consistency. You don’t want to gain subscribers and then drop off their radars.

But you don’t want to jam someone’s feed with your content either. As one YouTuber confided in me, there is a point where the number of videos on your channel has a psychological effect on potential subscribers and that made them unlist much of their content. If you have tons of frequent videos then people might not want to be overwhelmed with your stuff, so dial it back a little.

Big life changes for Allen has derailed his consistency a little, and his channel hasn’t been performing as well as it has in the recent past, he said. Over the last few months, he worked hard to finish a van build under a tough deadline, moved out of his apartment and into his van with his wife and took off to Alaska, all while trying to document it for his audience in an algorithm friendly way that wouldn’t piss off his core fans.

It was a lot of work and unfortunately a few deadlines were missed. The slight impact was immediate on his channel, but nothing Allen can’t recover from. He’s beyond 100,000 subscribers and his channel has enough of a dedicated audience to sustain it through many changes and disruptions.

“…now every time I hit publish I’ll lose 100 subscribers,” Allen said, and he explained that if you don’t post consistently, people forget who you are which leads them to unsubscribe. “So even as I’m thinking about what I’m making, there’s that constant nagging feeling that you have to make something that performs well on the algorithm and it’s not just the algorithm, you want people to watch it and spread it. It’s exhausting.”

“When You’re Finished Changing, You’re Finished” –Benjamin Franklin

It can be hard to post consistently when external pressures arise, and it’s also hard to maintain your creative vision when the algorithm looms over every post. But there are creators who have been around a long time who have survived and thrived, so it is possible, Allen said.

“Some of these creators that have been around for over a decade, it’s really fun to see how they’ve had to respond in change, and sometimes their audiences have gotten really mad at them for changing, but it’s fun to see these creators come out the other side,” he said.

It’s a battle each YouTuber must face as they gain popularity and sometimes the criticism can be harsh. On Allen’s Patreon page one supporter was upset with the recent focus on the van build, something that normally appeals to his regular fans.

“Some people get mad at me for not doing the stuff that I’ve already done, again. Some people just want me to do more slackline videos, and I’m happy to, but I also just want to keep messing around doing other things,” he said.

Comments like that can be disheartening at times, but they play a role in fine-tuning your content, according to Hardcastle, who loves the instant feedback nature of YouTube.

“You never had a means of interacting directly with a TV audience. Now I’ll post a video and start reading the comments immediately and interacting with them. What other medium offers that instant feedback? You can’t be too precious if the audience hates things. Take their feedback and it makes you improve immediately, unlike something on TV that is done and gone, and you find out months later that they didn’t like it. I can adjust on the fly,” he explained.

Engagement with an audience can also inspire new content, Hardcastle said. When you’re making frequent videos and sometimes struggling to come up with ideas, inspiration from a dedicated audience is most welcome.

Haters Gonna Hate

Some criticism won’t be as helpful or as nicely delivered, however. I’m talking about trolls who will hate your content no matter what you do. YouTube requires a thick skin, so does any form of creating and publishing. Don’t hide from your comments because of this – engagement with actual viewers is too important to let a few trolls ruin everything.

When you’re facing down some pure vitriol and hate, 99 percent of the time that person’s profile sadly states, “this channel has no content.” Their commentary means nothing. If it’s too unpalatable, then remove their comment. Otherwise, forget about them.

With an audience comes responsibility to them on YouTube. If you want to keep them, they need to feel important to the success of your channel. Answer their comments, draw inspiration from their ideas, be motivated by their commitment to your channel, and as Hardcastle explains, laugh with them!

“I read every single comment that I get on all my videos. What I love is, these people are witty, these are funny people who totally get my humor and they give me ideas. And you can tell that they get it because of their comments. That gives me a lot of motivation to keep creating,” he said.

All Right, Stop! Collaborate and Listen

Your audience can be a deep well for the inspiration to create, but don’t forget about drawing from other YouTubers who, through the magic of collaboration, can really help you develop your channel. Make sure that you seek out other like-minded creators with similar values, but don’t hedge your successes on meeting that one insanely popular YouTuber with tremendous reach. That’s another gateway to procrastination, Allen said.

“When you’re starting out and you’re watching a lot of these other YouTube channels, it’s easy to fall into the trap and think, ‘if only I could be friends with one of them that would change my career’,” Allen said.

Being unknown to YouTube celebrities shouldn’t stop you from creating, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for the stars. Keep at it and you will make connections. You need to put in the work first and be honest with your intentions when you’re reaching out. Sometimes you get lucky and meet a YouTube superstar like Casey Neistat, as Allen did. Most times you don’t. Keep working, but don’t kill yourself trying to meet these stars.

Though his interaction with Casey was a highlight of his YouTube career, Allen said he most appreciates his “horizontal” connections.

“It’s really helpful to start horizontally with people as close as you can that are similar in head space,” he continued. “There are four or five friendships that I can think of that we’ve all kind of leveled up together, instead of me thinking I have to do a collaboration with a big YouTuber to make my career,” he added.

Collaboration is sometimes made complicated by the numbers attached, like subscriber counts, because that sometimes creates hierarchies. To new creators that are coming up, he said that they need to realize that growing on YouTube can take years, but it’s made easier with those horizontal relationships, the people that you’ve grown with from the beginning.

Creating horizontal relationships has worked for everyone in this article. Have a look at their channels and you will see collaborations with many other creators, some you may recognize and even subscribe to. Since meeting, Gibbs and Hardcastle are more likely to be in each other’s videos than not and they’ve infiltrated at least a half-dozen more channels, drawing new creators into their hilarious antics and wild photography trips.

“I’m more creatively satisfied than ever before,” Hardcastle said about the direction his content has taken since he began seriously collaborating. “[My channel] used to be just about landscape photography, but now with the added vlogs and storylines, it couldn’t be any better. I can’t imagine having more fun than now,” Hardcastle said.

His partner in crime agreed that collaboration was key to doing well on YouTube.

“What I’ve found with YouTube is that you’re way better off to collaborate with as many people as possible… it helps me grow and it helps them grow as well. It’s pretty lonely doing these vlogs on your own, but collaborating, you come up with new ideas,” Gibbs said.

Matti Haapoja started out small and grew by showcasing his visual skills and getting involved with other creators, like von Wallström, who argued that giving creators a place to connect is one of YouTube’s greatest strengths.

“One thing that I just love about YouTube is that it’s based on people. Individual passionate creators who have their own channels where they tell stories. That’s what YouTube does best in my opinion. Then it just works as a hub to connect those people to their audience or other fellow creators,” von Wallström explained.

It’s true. Even if your connection is as simple as merely subscribing to like-minded creators or as deep as working on a collaboration, YouTube is a creative hub. And don’t worry about those creators that are working in the same space as you are, there is room for everyone on the growing platform.

Allen estimates that there are around 60 filmmaker channels similar to his that could be considered “competition” but over the course of our interview the term never came up. Instead of seeing others as competition, Allen sees everyone as a potential collaboration, or inspiration, or friend. The niche for filmmakers sharing their process through tutorials, their techniques, and their projects is ripe for growth.

Get started and make some friends.

YouTube is My Business, and Business is Good!

OK, you get it. YouTube is a great way to get your work out there, get better at filmmaking and develop an audience. But you have a business to run, so how do you make all that convert into dollars?

Forget about ad revenue and the once-reliable channel monetization. That doesn’t start to become significant until well beyond the minimum requirements for monetization of 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours watched in a year.

Some of the money lies in brand deals – you always wanted to make commercials anyway, right? There is also money to be made in ancillary projects like training and education. YouTube also features a “join” button similar to Patreon, where subscribers can offer to pay a monthly fee for a channel membership to help subsidize your crazy videos of cats making coffee, at 120fps of course. You’ll need a minimum of 30,000 subscribers, among other requirements, however. Patreon might be an easier way to get people to back your creative efforts in the beginning.

With YouTube, potential clients search you out just like they do on Google. You can learn a lot about a company through a Google search, but when a client finds you on YouTube, they get to know you and that can help more easily and reliably find someone who aligns with your values. This is key to business relationships. Customers want to feel satisfied in knowing that the money they give to a business is going to the right people, or that the creator is making projects for the right client.

Support from viewers is most important for a YouTube creator. Brands and sponsors are savvy, they’re not into simple numbers anymore. Viewers can be bought, but authentic engagement is a lot harder to fake and is more valuable to both the creator and the sponsor. It opens up a new world of opportunity for the creator and that can really help pay the bills. A sponsor not only hires you for your content but also for your genuine reach.

“All the stuff that is happening now is stuff that I didn’t even predict, and it’s not so much the subscribers, it’s more viewership. I don’t have a huge amount of subscribers, but my engagement is amazing,” Gibbs said.

He’s pushing 30,000 subscribers at the time of this writing, a decent accomplishment for a landscape photographer who says the competition is saturated with fellow, “middle-aged English guys”. YouTube has filled his workshops and is helping him achieve goals. He has connected with brands that now sponsor him.

His pal, Hardcastle is developing all manner of paid learning for the wishful photographer in collaboration with other photographers. Not only does this increase the value for the customer, but it also increases the reach for Hardcastle and his collaborators.

And if filmmaking education is in your wheelhouse, there’s a huge market for that on YouTube as well. Creative North is von Wallström’s channel and it centers on the documentary film process, offering step-by-step filmmaking techniques.

Allen also offers educational content on his channel and adds on-location workshops similar to Gibbs’ and Hardcastle’s photography trips. Allen’s new Adventure Film Academy was developed as a means to engage more deeply with his audience and offer them a unique experience learning Allen’s technique and philosophy. It’s not a responsibility he takes lightly.

“I realized that a lot of this stuff and the themes here are hard to impart through just another ten-minute video on YouTube, people want more than just another tutorial,” Allen explained.

“It feels like a lot of pressure,” he said about being chosen to help these people level up their skills. “There’s definitely this impostor syndrome, who am I to be the person that’s trying to teach anything, but I just remind myself that I’ve finished things. For a lot of people, getting to the finishing things stage is a huge goal.”

They are fed up with procrastination, making test videos, and just want to be around other people who actually complete things, and Allen is excited to be that person in their lives.

“I think people just need to be face to face with more people like that in their day to day life,” Allen added. “It’s special that people will trust me to deliver something of value. I don’t really need more from YouTube, I just need to keep making things that I’m proud of and keep giving back because that cycle is really rewarding. I get such a kick out of that.”

So When Are YOU Going to Start a Channel

Show your stuff. Practice your skills and even learn some new ones. Find that audience, engage them, inspire them and give back to them. Create what you want to be hired to create and discover a world of new opportunities.

But remember, it’s a long game and there are real people on the other end consuming your content. You’re responsible to them in some way and if you don’t shirk that duty they’ll be there with you to motivate and inspire you back. But the hardest part is just getting going. I’ll leave it to Allen to hammer this last point home.

“If someone is thinking that they want to start, then they just have to start. There’s no easy way to get that ball rolling, I think people would be surprised if they don’t think they can fit a video a week into their life. I found that it was entirely untrue,” he said.

A few hundred videos later, Allen has over 100,000 subscribers and at least five streams of income to bankroll his dream of taking enough time off each year to make the stuff he loves. What’s stopping you?


Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of an article that was originally published at Digital Filmmaker.


About the author: Chris Koehn is a former newspaper journalist turned videographer. With independent documentary and corporate video production experience, Chris helped newsrooms adopt video content strategies as media convergence and DSLR film making transformed the online news landscape. His video work earned nominations and national news awards in Canada for elections coverage. Chris is now working in independent journalism and documentary while freelancing for Canadian news outlets. You can connect with him on Twitter and Instagram.

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