I remember when I made a decision about two and a half years ago that making money from photography was for me. I had a full-time job running another business, but photography was my passion. It still is my passion, but I shutter now at my train of thought only a short 24 months ago. I meet a lot of photographers, some in it longer than me (but surprisingly few) and some just getting started. It seems like every month I meet someone who took a workshop, bought a shiny new D300s and has decided to hang a shingle. I used to accept their business card and pop by their website to look at their images. Occasionally I would see good stuff, but usually it was really bad. And I mean that, really bad. But I thought that the 'established' photographers were just a bunch of old fuddy duddy dudes (some of them were and still are) still trying to keep things as they were and I identified with the new guys because the shine hadn't worn off my penny yet.
Now I'm older in the profession. Not wiser, but older. I've done some time in the trenches. I've made good money and bad money as a photographer. I've messed up some jobs and done some work I'm really proud of. I've lost clients and gained new ones and weirdly enough I'm starting to get known as one of the established photographers in my area. Then again, most of those new young photographers I've met over the past couple of years are no longer around. Their first camera broke, they had unhappy customers or they just got a 'real job.' A lot of my peers on the surface appear to be doing well. I sometimes wonder if they are doing better than me and sometimes I know they are not. Most of them are juggling families, a full-time or part-time job that pays the bills and a photography business. I consider it rude to ask people how much they make. Money has always been a very private thing for me, but a quick Google search and a look at a survey I got my hands on reveals some pretty interesting things about photographers incomes.
I think when I first started I had this perception that photography was one of those professions where you did your time at the start, but then started to get known, get kinda famous and get to make the big money (then again I used to think that the forum trolls on popular photography sites were actual photographers). I thought that if my work was good and I photographed lots of people, eventually Vogue, National Geographic and Digital Photo Pro magazines would all be calling me with assignments and for interviews. Yervant and Chase Jarvis would be personal friends and I'd do lunch with Dane Sanders. Truth is that the average photographer makes somewhere around $21,000 to $34,000 per year. About half of all photographers work freelance or as an independent business. The lowest paid, and I'm assuming part-time, photographers are only bringing in less than $15,000 a year. That is a McDonald's wage. The most successful photographers are averaging about $55,000 to $67,000 a year. Different surveys on the subject vary slightly but for the most part they are in the same ballpark. They newest data I could find was from 2008. What those numbers say to me is that even if I get to be one of the most successful photographers in my market I won't be rich by anyone's definition.
Of course there are a few photographers out there that are certainly making a fortune. We all know them because we subscribe to their online tutorials, go to their workshops and buy their books. We see their names in the news after they photograph celebrities in a controversial way or if they run into financial trouble with their millions. They endorse products we drool over, from studio strobes to camera brands to light modifiers. Some even make their own products. Upon reflection what I realized was that to attain that level of income I had to forget about being a photographer. These people are really the best at marketing themselves and being part of the machine that sells crap to us, the photographers masses. Really looking at them, I don't even like some of their photography. Of course some of them make stuff that blows my mind with how amazing it is, but a good portion of those people have a team of help around them. Personal Photoshop techs, lighting dudes, marketing people,etc.. A very few of these ultra-rich, ultra-famous photographers do their own work, and produce jaw dropping images. And yes, I admire them the most.
But what to do as a new photographer? The truth is that being paid for your work has nothing to do with how great of a photographer you are. The word professional doesn't mean good, it just means 'paid.' One quick look around Flickr or any other image sharing site and you'll see some work that is better than the best work by the ultra-famous photographers in the world. And it is work shot with an Olympus E1 and kit lens, off-brand flash and a bed sheet and moose head as a prop. The image is processed in Photoshop Elements and spat out in a day by one young woman living in her parents basement. Her salary for such amazing work? $0.00.
Hanging your shingle as a photographer is exciting. It is fun at first to tell people, "I'm a photographer." Of course they must think you hang out with Annie Leibovitz and were schooled by Richard Avedon. The truth is most new photographers won't make enough to pay for their camera equipment. While I used to think that 'old' photographers were just grumpies on the subject matter, I now empathize with their frustration that most of the weekend warriors are really doing their clients and other photographers a real disservice. They show up to weddings uninsured, with one camera (no backup) and deliver an inferior product all for the privilege of earning beer money. The Bride usually gets some poor work (but hey, not always) and photographers that are trying to feed their families with the job lose out on the work entirely. The weekend warrior and the serious pro are not on the same level playing field. The pro has to pay insurance, have pro gear and backup gear and relies on the money to pay the mortgage. The weekend warrior just wants extra cash and doesn't worry about things like that.
Now sure, the $500 wedding photography client isn't going to pay $2000 for wedding photography. They would have just had their uncle Joe take the photos for free. But the very easy availability of $500 wedding photographers devalues the craft. What the working pro charging a living wage has to do is offer reliability (backup equipment, insurance, consistently strong images) and a product that can't be purchased from weekend warriors (better quality prints, better books, better images, better service, better everything). The Craigslist photographer isn't going away. It is a reality so for me, I think about how I need to differentiate myself from them, I don't spend time worrying about them. Some of them will join me at some point trying to push their business and craft to the next level, most will disappear.
None of this is meant to be a complaint because this 'concern' has been covered on the internet before. It is more of a personal reflection. The landscape for photography has changed, probably forever as has my viewpoint of where I want to go in the profession. I suppose all of us change our goals at some point.
If you aspire to make about $60,000 a year it will take skill, the ability to produce great images on demand time and time again and great marketing. If you aspire to be one of the very elite few you can either be as good as Annie Leibovitz or you are left with selling products, selling tutorials or workshops or getting sponsored by a brand. You need to be a marketing wizard. You can fake the rest if you need too.
Thanks for dropping by the blog, comments are always welcome and whichever type of photographer you are, working pro, amateur, weekend warrior or famous person that secretly loves my blog I wish you a successful and happy 2011.