How This Artist Makes Money Off YouTube Without Brand Sponsorships
Landscape photographer Thomas Heaton says he's successful because of this decision, not in spite of it.
In this series, YouTube Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular YouTube channels to find out the secrets of their success.
Thomas Heaton used to spend his days shooting product photography out of his own studio, grinding away from 9 to 5 for various clients. But in his spare time, he would practice his true passion: photographing landscapes.
One day, he realized he couldn’t find any YouTube channels that featured photographers behind the scenes, just for the sake of showcasing how they made their art. He wanted less product placement and more passion. So he started his own channel in November 2014, uploading videos of his landscape photography process.
He kept to it for a few years, all the while feeling like he “couldn’t escape from” his studio gig. Finally, in April 2017, he took the leap, closed the studio and went full-time as a landscape, travel and outdoor photographer. He’s built a name for himself through YouTube, and he spends the bulk of his time producing two videos per week.
Today, Heaton’s channel has just under a quarter-million subscribers and more than 16 million views. But unlike many people who make a living off media platforms, Heaton says he's not trying to build an empire or become a multimillionaire. Because he’s seen his audience balk at brand sponsorships, he now turns down every one that comes his way.
“I’ve seen the damage that having brand deals can do to a channel,” Heaton says. “I don’t mean to come across like I hate corporations, I really don’t. If the right one did come along, I would work with them. But on the whole, it’s better to respect your audience.”
For now, he says he’s looking forward to future opportunities to travel and to collaborate with other creators, but he will always maintain a balance between work and free time.
“I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing," Heaton says. "I get to do what I love and make a living from it.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with YouTube?
I wondered if there were many people doing landscape photography videos where they’d take you out on an adventure with them. And I was quite disappointed, because what actually I found was a lot of advertisements disguised as photography videos. You think that you’re watching this great inspirational film about somebody taking a photograph of the beautiful sunset by a lake, and actually, they’re advertising a camera, or some clothing or a tripod. I thought, I can’t find what I’m looking for, so I’m going to create what I’m looking for.
I also thought it might be a good way of showcasing my work. Rather than just uploading my images to Flickr or 500Px or something like that, I would make a YouTube video where you see the entire story around how the photograph was taken, and you’d finish the video by showing the photograph.
This format just took off. I made another one and another one, and slowly, things grew. It was a long time before I realized that you could make money from YouTube, or that there was a monetization button that you could press. Certainly, motivation from me never has been and never is money. As soon as I start shooting content I think will sell, I’ve pretty much failed in what I do. One of my key messages is, you should always photograph for yourself and not worry too much about what other people think.
2. How much of your time do you spend on a video, and what does that entail?
I can be out in the field for anything from one hour to four or five hours, depending on if I’m doing a huge hike or if I’m just shooting down at my local beach. My filming process now is very efficient. Most of the stuff I shoot, I edit into my video. I usually try to keep things on a linear timeline. If I have a really productive day, that will usually result in a sunrise video and a sunset video, because all my shoots are usually around start of day and end of day.
I probably average three hours shooting, and that would be the same even if I wasn’t making a video. That’s how long I’m always out with my camera. The editing process usually takes me about three hours.
3. What's your content strategy? How do you decide what and when to post?
I upload two videos a week, every Wednesday and every Sunday, at 6 p.m. London time. That works well, because that means I get the American audience. I get the U.K. and European audience as they’re finishing work and having their dinner. And I can possibly get further East as well for those people who stay up late.
There’s no business plan, there’s no growth strategy. Because I think then it becomes too much about trying to turn it into a business, and I think that will show through in the content of the video. If I have a bad day, I have a bad day, and people appreciate that. I find that the more I don’t worry about other people and just do what makes me happy, the more opportunities open up and come my way.
4. So, paradoxically, the less you focus on making it a business, the more it becomes a business?
I wouldn’t be able to make this a business if I didn’t have loyal fans, and you lose those fans so quickly as soon as you start bringing in brand deals and sponsorships. So, it’s counterintuitive. If I do a branded video, that is very damaging to my channel.
Straightaway, you lose 50 percent of views by having the word “ad” in the title, which you have to do by law. People get angry. People get disappointed. And I’m sure it’s a small vocal minority, but there are better ways to make money than brand sponsorship and more sustainable ways as well. I actually think for creative, for an artist, it’s so much more beneficial to distance yourself from any kind of outside influence.
5. So how do you leverage your YouTube channels, and to what extent do you monetize them?
I enable ads [to play] on my videos. People mind it if I promote a product, but they don’t mind it if there’s an advert on the video, which is bizarre. I also have affiliate links. I use a lot of equipment, gear and all kinds of specialized clothing. People always ask me, What is that watch you’re wearing? What GPS unit is that? What tripod is that? When people ask about what gear I’m using, I direct them to a blog post that lists all the gear I use, and all those links are affiliate links. People are more than happy to buy my stuff through an affiliate link, because they know it supports my channel.
My golden rule is to only use affiliate links with items I’ve purchased and use myself on an everyday basis, rather than just reviewing something for the sake of directing people to an affiliate link. There aren’t many good, innovative products out there. And if they are out there, I probably already have them.
6. What other types of gigs has your YouTube success led to?
If YouTube died tomorrow, I think that I would be fine, because landscape photography is an industry in and of itself. I get gigs such as speaking events, conferences, workshops where I take groups of people out to beautiful locations and show them how to photograph it -- we have like a mini adventure.
Every year I release a calendar that’s a collection of my year’s work. I sell prints. Occasionally, I will work with tourism boards, which I don’t see as a brand deal, because I’m not selling a physical product, I’m just promoting a certain region of a country.
7. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
I was listening to a podcast. It was supposed to specialize in photography, and they had a sponsorship from a mattress company. It seemed to taint the whole creative element of that podcast. There’s nothing wrong with doing brand deals, but make sure that you add value to the people watching the videos. Make sure you’re honest about the products you’re talking about. Make sure it’s relevant to the field you’re in as well.
8. What's a misconception many people have about YouTube?
That you can only make a living out of it if you’re a rich kid. People assume if you make a living on YouTube, that you’ve got mommy and daddy to pay for everything. Not only is that not the case for so many creatives, it doesn’t have to be the case. When I started my YouTube channel, I had a full-time job. I made my YouTube videos on evenings and weekends, and I did it with a mobile phone. I had no money, I was just passionate about what I did.
See below for Heaton’s picks of his five favorite videos.
“This video is titled ‘Landscape Photography: Best-Laid Plans.’ That’s based on the quote ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’ The weather forecast was excellent, and I had a full plan for a huge hike. I was going to photograph the mountains and highlands of Scotland. I traveled a long way to get there, and the weather -- it just didn’t happen. It was raining, it was windy, it was horrible. It just wasn’t going well, and it often felt like a waste of time.
"But I persevered, I adapted and I started looking for other ways to take advantage of the weather. So, although I had this perfect plan, which went completely wrong, I was still able to come away with a good piece of work at the end of it. The video shows that if you keep trying, you can still capture some amazing photographs.”
“I went on a photo shoot to a beach I’d never been to before. Usually you get rocks, tide pools or big waves. This beach was just a vast expanse of nothingness. But I was still able to work with the elements -- sand, water and sky -- to create a very abstract piece of work. It’s all about working with what you have, thinking outside the box and not always photographing the obvious landscapes.”
“I don’t do tutorials, really. It’s more just following me along on a photo shoot. But one thing led to another, and I was getting into a lot of detail about how to use this specific lens on location. That video has had the second-highest view count of all of my videos. I think it resonated well with people. It was a refreshing way to give somebody tuition without patronizing them or doing it from an armchair.”
“This video was filmed in Namibia. I was in the middle of this desert, and the wind was just blowing something crazy. It was almost like a sandstorm. And if you take the lens off the camera, it leaves the camera very exposed to the elements. If you get any rain, dust or dirt inside of the camera, it can destroy the camera. But that video is great, because it’s adventurous travel, and one of my favorite photographs of all time was captured on that trip and is in that video.”
“I’m a big advocate of mindfulness, not rushing and really appreciating the outdoors and the peace and quiet. I try to encourage people not to run around taking hundreds of photographs, which is what so many people tend to do. They tend to get excited, and they’ll start firing off pictures everywhere, trying to capture everything. What you need to do is put your camera away and just be in the moment, even if for a few minutes. Then, try and take one really good photograph.”