Don't tell me, I know. You like taking pictures. A lot. Admit it.
Oh, it starts innocently enough, you say. A few snapshots here and
thereparties, social occasions and the like. A social photographer,
you claim. Right. But it's not enough. You start taking pictures
first thing in the morning, late into the night, and sometimes even at
work! The habit just has to be fed, so much that you foolishly want to
quit your job and do it all the time. Perhaps you rationalize, "maybe I
can just get a little income from it. That won't hurt, will it?"
Before you know it, you're going to photography meetings, confessing
your weakness for that great new digital camera. There you are, in
the dark, with all the others just like you, showing slides, listening
to stories on how someone took pictures on a safari or in Hawaii. And
then, <gasp!>, someone announces they just sold a picture to a
magazine. (A hush befalls the audience.)
Well, you can come out of the shadows now, and hold your head high. It's
nothing to be ashamed of anymore. Unlike everyone else, I'm not going to
talk you out of it. In fact, I'm going to spur you on. But, before flopping
open your wallet at the camera store, sit down. We have to talk.
There are two kinds of photo business models: selling photos, and
selling photography services. If you're shooting weddings, portraits,
pets, or any other type where people pay you to take pictures for
them, then you're in the photo services sector. This almost always
pays by the assignmenteither as a project, a day rate, or by the
hourand the photos are used by the client for their own purposes.
Here, there are commercial assignments, and non-commercial assignments.
Non-commercial work includes weddings, portraits, pets, events, and other
sorts of things where the buyer uses the photos for his personal use.
It also happens to be the nature of these clients that the photos you
take are not really worth anything to anyone else; that the buyer is
likely the only one who would need it.
By contrast, commercial assignments may involve additional income from
the client if their use of the pictures may have ongoing royalties, such
as for books and postcards. Most who shoot these assignments, though,
rely on the bulk of their income from the assignment itself, not the
(rarer form of) residual income, such as royalties. The nature of these
pictures may or may not be useful to buyers beyond the client itself.
But even if so, it's not necessarily the case that the client would
allow it. Some would, some might not. We'll get into that later.
The point is, service-oriented photo businesses are specifically the
kind where you take pictures at the direction of, and for the benefit of,
a paying client.
This is as opposed to a speculative business model, where you shoot
the photos first, and then you try to sell them later to prospective
clients. Here, your main objective is to anticipate (and then shoot)
photos that you think may be needed by a particular buyer or business
segment, and then sell those pictures in the open market. It's called
"speculative" because you're going to the time, cost and effort to
take the pictures without any assurance that you'll be paid. The
rationale for this approach is that you can take a lot more pictures
on your own, especially if your very well-aware of the businesses that
could use such pictures (and especially if you already have ongoing
relationships with them). Although you wouldn't be paid to shoot the
pictures, you'd more than make up for that difference by selling them
in much larger quantities to any number of buyers.
The fundamental risk/reward analysis is simple: in a service-oriented
business, you are paid for the photo to be taken, thereby removing any
risk that you wouldn't make money. But, your upside financial opportunity
is limited because the nature of these assignments are that they pay
a fixed fee. And, since you only have so many hours in a day, your upside
financial returns are capped.
By contrast, the speculative business model has the risk that you'll
shoot a lot of pictures and either never sell any, or they'll sell
too slowly (or for too little money) to earn enough to maintain the
business, let alone the necessities of life. On the other hand,
your upside potential is unlimited: if your photos are good and
relevant to enough buyers that you're selling thousands of photos
repeatedly to thousands of buyers, then you could not only earn
very good money, but your income is not restrained by the hours
you work. That is, sales can happen without your even working anymore.
It turns out that most opt for the "speculative" business model for
one reason: they've taken pictures for many years as a hobby, and now
want to sell them in the open market. That, or they travel, or they
are involved in events or activities that has them taking a lot of
pictures, and are now realizing there might be a market for selling
what they already have. For most people, selling existing inventory
of pictures is a no-lose prospect: they have the photos, why not sell
But, making money is any capacity isn't easy. If it were easy, everyone
would do it, and everyone would be rich. Making money with photos, a
commodity that is not in short supply in the world, is really hard.
Passive income like this is harder than you think, and involves building
a reasonable business foundation to support this venture.
Then there are those who wish to truly build a career in photography,
where this is their main source of income. They have additional concerns
than mere speculators, as I'll address soon. In either case, it turns out
that those who are most successful financially are those who blend the
two business types. Using myself as an example: I am sent on assignments
to photograph adventure travel trips for a company that uses these photos
in their catalogs and other promotional materials that advertise those
same trips. I am paid a fixed fee for these services, and in return, the
client has unlimited use of these photos. However, I also have use of
the same photos, which I sell in the speculative after-market, where I
find others who want to use the pictures for other purposes. (I take
care not to license the same photos to competitors of my paying client.)
Whether you want to build a career, or just casually make money in
photography, you need to begin by understanding your skills, interests
and circumstances, as these will help you determine where your focus
and attention should be directed. I've known some people who are just
born to do portraits or weddings, so there's no question where their
focus should be directed. Others, like me, choose photography more as
a byproduct of my lifestyle, not because I have a particular passion
for the art. Speaking purely in the context of business-orientation,
those who are very people-oriented in their socialization invariably opt
for the service-oriented sector. Those who like to work alone, or just
shoot what they want to shoot on their own time, at their own pace,
they are more likely to go into the speculative market.
Yet, what both kinds of photo businesses have in common is that money is
not made instantlyit's not the sort of thing just starts happening just
because you open up shop. So, the very first thing that anyone should do
before seriously considering a photo business is to set their expectations
of what is required to make money in this field.
Photography suffers from a few misconceptions that affect people's
expectations of their monetary returns. At the top of the list is the
assumption that photography skill is the the most important thing.
They were either told by others that their photos are "amazing", or they
were advised to sell their photos, or to publish a book, or to have a
This is the first bubble that needs to be burst: having good photo skills
is actually secondary to making money. Running a business requires
business skills, not photography skills. That is the most important
foundation that everyone needs to understand and commit to memory. A
great photographer with mediocre business skills will almost assuredly
fail, whereas a mediocre photographer with great business skills will
almost assuredly succeed. In fact, really bad photographers can do
quite well if they have a good intuitive understanding of marketing,
pricing, negotiations, and interpersonal relationships.
Another misconception people have about the photo business realm is
that they can just jump right in once they know the "secrets" that can
quickly advance them to the top. This is almost always coupled with
the erroneous assumption that the best way to learn such secrets (or
even the business in general) is to work as an intern or an assistant
for another working photographer. Although there are some benefits that
could be gleaned from such experiences, it is by far more the exception
than the rule. Moreover, whatever positive aspects of business that may
be learned will probably be more than offset by the what is lost in the
time required (that could have been better invested in other learning
experiences). That, and the fact that the "mentor" probably made more
mistakes himself that would have been better if left unobserved. And
because inexperienced photographers won't know that they were mistakes
for years to come, it may be too late by then, and bad habits will
have already formed. I discuss this topic in more detail
in this article.
The photo business is not paint-by-numbers game that can be learned
by having someone explain it to you, or by witnessing another pro
doing as you work alongside him. Oddly, photo schools don't teach
the business of photographer eitherthey mostly teach photo technique,
and that's it. And that's often all you need if you're just going to
work for someone else in the photo services sector, such as being a
staff photographer for magazines, newspapers, product companies, ad
agencies, or other businesses that need to have bodies that know photo
equipment and are willing to be paid fixed fees. If that's what you
want to do, photo schools are fine. If you want to build an independent
career with your own business, you have to understand business. Not just
the photo business, but the general concepts of business. And, you need to
do it on your own fuel: your wits, life wisdom, and of course, finances.
So, the first things to remember are that it's not about the
photography, and it takes considerable time to build your business
acumen to the point where you are capable of earning money in a
very competitive business environment. You don't just make money at
photography, you develop a career in photography. And, like those who
go to school, your expectations of income have to coincide with the
type of photography you do. Shooting abstract black and white photos
of obscure, out-of-focus chairs sitting in completely empty poorly-lit
rooms will find you working at the movie theater, along side a college
graduate who majored in French-American Poetry.
And this is really why most people who attempt photography aren't
successful. It's sort of a catch-22: those who are good at
self-management and have good business senses tend to go get real
jobs that pay tons more money. Photography, as a career path, tends to
attract... well, everyone else.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who know business concepts
too well: they over-analyze the industry, and go to great lengths to try
to create a business plan that doesn't actually effect the business at all.
It is easier to create a business plan for a service-oriented business
than the speculative one, but even here, the actual financial analysis is
insignificant compared to the value of the understanding of the photo
market-culture in the first place. That is, you can calculate known costs
for equipment, real-estate rental and other fixed/predictable costs, just
as you can also do an analysis of local/contained population and known
competitors to assess market rates. If your analysis is done well, these
both help paint a realistic picture of what your real-world expectations
can be. But knowing that has almost no relevance to whether you will
achieve any of these numbers if you don't know the photo world culture,
both in technique and style (which are independent of skills), and of
the local community. The financial "business plan" aspect of a photo
services model is too simplistic to really matter a whole lot. If you
do know the cultural underpinnings of the local photo market, you will
learn what you need to know to succeed, at which point, the financial aspects
of this can be pieced together with relative ease.
As for a stock-photo business (where you take pictures under the
speculation that someone will buy them), even though it is a polar
opposite from a photo services business model, the relevance of a
business plan is even less. When I got started, I had no expenses at
all other than the one-time costs of my camera equipment, which I didn't
upgrade for eight years. Income was based entirely on my ability to gather
traffic to my website, which doesn't cost anythingit's purely a matter
of knowing how to do it. And although you could invest money into
marketing and other ongoing expenses to garner traffic, there is no
buy-side economic analysis you can do to assess whether someone will buy
from you. You cannot create a business plan where there is simply no
way to come up with reliable numbers for income.
Those who succeed or fail in their attempts at any kind of photo business
usually do so because they started with the wrong set of expectations
first, whether it's the time necessary, the skills needed, or the business
understanding of the photo industry. The best results are obtained by
those who learn these things more through the blending of other life
experiences (such as other jobs/careers) and the longevity of having
photography as a hobby for a period of time. This means that those who
succeed will have done so by having already accomplished other things
first, which brings us to the next section.
There are many paths that lead into the photography business, usually from
one or more one of:
Migration from Another Career
What each of these has in common is that they take time. As I tried
to stress vigorously in the previous section, it's simplistic to think
that one can just "start" a photography business. Therefore, you are
going to spend a lot of time with photography before it earns money.
Therefore, you're going to have some other source of income while you're
at it. There are those who work at photography in their spare time
while they worked as a doctor, shoe salesman, stock broker, garbage
collector, or a retired high-tech executive who sold his company for
millions of dollars. Hard though it may be to believe, none of these
individuals has a greater advantage over the other for success because
success is not about how good you had it before you started photography,
it's about being smart. There is no way to "cheat" to get ahead in this
business. (We'll go over that more in a moment.)
Regarding the three paths to the photo business listed above, there is
no "correct" one. One person may want to just have fun and pull in
a few dollars to pay for the hobby, while someone else might want to
put his kids through college. Many drift from one goal to another,
as conditions in their lives change. (For example, I started out as a
hobbyist and ended up making a substantial career out of it.) Your goals
may vary depending on the strength of your photography ambitions, down
to the lifestyle you are (or aren't) willing to endure. Also, your own
past experiences in life and career will greatly affect your business
potential and financial needs.
But, take note: while there are often tradeoffs between many goals,
don't fall into the trap of believing there is only one path to success,
or that there are strict rules for succession. No matter who you are,
you will eventually learn the first rule of making money that applies
to any and all business models:
This is my number-one mantra, one in which I've typed till I was blue in the
fingers, and will continue to do so. You "can" make money, but it's
simplistic to think that it's just a matter of doing tasks that someone
tells you to do, or that it's just a matter of having the right forms,
or looking in a chart to find out how much to price pictures, or getting
the right portfolio in the hands of art directors. No business can be
broken down into "painting by the numbers," especially in the world of
photography. There are no secrets, whether it's becoming the celebrity
star photographer for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, or entering
the less-ambitious greeting card market. Any task can be fraught with
little gotchas that no book can prepare you for in "simple terms."
At the end of the day, if it were that easy, then... well, you know.
It's natural to think that if someone else can do it, so can you,
especially when you see the kinds of pictures that are used in magazines,
postcards, and art galleries. This reminds me of the joke:
How many photographers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Fifty. One to screw it in, and 49 to say, "I could have done that!"
As a skill, photography is not technically hard. Everyone has a degree
of creativity, but it often takes time to refine into a product that
can yield income. That's why the joke above applies: most photographers
with reasonable competency can look at "commercially successful"
pictures and say, "I could have done that." But this isn't what makes
you successful. It's having business sense. It's knowing what to bother
shooting, and how to sell it to someone. You can probably make a good
living shooting shoes for catalog companies, but is that what you really
want to do? Because of the nature of the business and of your lifestyle
goals, the first thing you need to do is envision what you want out
of photography, then what you want out of a photography business.
Here is my last quote on the subject:
"Trying to make a career out of photography is a sure way to ruin a
perfectly lovely hobby."
Photography is more of a lifestyle than it is a labor that one does to
earn an income. (One rarely goes into photography because he can't find
any other way of making money.)
A costly mistake people make about the photography business is, unlike
other capital-intensive businesses (that require cash to start), you
can't buy your way to success. There is usually one reason for this:
your value to photo buyers is not something you can purchase. They
don't care that you bought your own ticket to that African Safari and
got pictures of cute little leopard cubs. Nor does it matter that you
are willing to shoot an assignment "for free," if you don't have the
credentials to show your knowledge about the subject or to demonstrate
your skills. And it wouldn't even cross someone's mind to consider you
ahead of someone else because you had more expensive equipment.
The misperception that money buys access or success is one of the more
"senseless" ideas that permeate the industry on both ends of the
spectrum. Rich people who retire and go into photography believe that
because money isn't a barrier for them, they'll rise above others without
much effort. Likewise, professionals erroneously feel that rich people
are hurting the photo business because they don't charge much (if anything)
because all they want to do is get their images published. (The percent
of rich people who do this is tiny compared to the general public who
They're both wrong, and this misconception of money's role in photography
is responsible for the failure of both groups. The rich people will
find they spent a lot of money on an elaborate hobby, and the few chance
occurrences where their images were published, don't really amount to a
career. (Sure, it's a hobby, and there's nothing wrong with that; but it's
not a career, which is the topic under discussion.) As for the pros
whose careers are stagnating, they've got other problems that go way
beyond whatever those rich people are doing.
There are a few photo business models that do require more significant
capital, such as a studio photographer doing high end product shots
that involve substantial lighting equipment and big, roomy space.
That can be quite prohibitive, especially if you live in an expensive
city like San Francisco or New York. But, just because one can afford
it doesn't mean he's ahead of the competition. He still needs to compete
in terms of experience, portfolio, and credibility within the advertising
community. More resourceful amateurs who have a lot less money are forced
out of need to network within the community and establish relationships
with existing studios. By consequence, they learn more and gain credible
experience than their richer counterparts who try to go it alone.
Ok, let's put this into context. Regardless of what path you choose to
enter this business, when it comes to making money with photography,
there are two kinds of people: the serious photographer, and the
insanely serious photographer. The primary difference (of many)
is that of lifestyle. You may think that you're just a casual hobbyist
that wants to maybe pick up a few dollars for some pictures, but by the
time you actually get those dollars, you'll have invested considerable
time and effort. Many drop out by that time, so if you do get that
far, now you're the serious photographer.
Now, you've achieved that level of "a few dollars," you'll believe that
"just a little more effort" can yield considerably better returns. It's
sort of like buying a soft drink in a movie theater: the smallest
cup you can buy is ridiculously expensive, but for just a couple of
quarters more, you can get twice as much. That's what the photography
business feels like. But, by the time you learn "a little more work"
is really a lot, you've graduated to being the insanely serious
Where you see yourself along this spectrum is really what will determine
where you end up. Are you "the hobbyist that wants to make money," or do
you want to build a real, bona fide career? There is no right or wrong
to either choice, because the type of work (not just the amount of it)
will greatly alter your lifestyle choices.
In fact, the two tracks are so completely opposite of one another,
that you can actually do yourself more harm than good trying to make a
career using the strategies that a hobbyist might. Similarly, the
hobbyist would quickly lose interest by trying tactics that only the
professional-minded photographer should use. Put another way,
making short-term income often involves tasks that have no long-term
benefit. Likewise, there is a limit to how much you can make as a
hobbyist, simply because the tasks and methodologies are so brute-force
and simplistic, that they can't be automated cost-effectively to yield
any appreciable income.
An example of this is the postcard business: you can make some money,
but just getting to a point of generating revenue requires work and
time that, if invested in other areas, yield more profit. Is that payoff
worthwhile? For the amateur looking to tool around in a car visiting
gift shops around town or in a vacation spot, the experience alone is
often joyful enough. But, don't expect to raise a family on this strategy
without having expanded into something that's no longer considered a
"photography business." That is, people who make a living in postcards
alone are usually in the distribution business and happen to spend
little time doing photography.
What's the difference between a photographer and a large pizza?
A large pizza can feed a family of four.
The above joke notwithstanding, given the choices of how to invest
time and resources, pro photographers differ from hobbyists this way:
Hobbyists put lifestyle ahead of business; they photograph for fun, and
then figure out how to make a living at it second. Professionals also
love photography, and although it's fun, but they choose options where
there is opportunity for long-term growth, and name recognition,
which contribute to higher pay and recurring business over the long haul.
Note that these are two ends of a very wide spectrum, and not everyone is
at one end or the other. Many photographers find themselves somewhere
in the middle, and finding your place is your first objective. As you
do your soul-searching, remember this quip:
"What you do to make money as a hobbyist is not what you do
to develop a career."
This may help clarify why and how some people go about their photo
businesses. Their intents may appear very different than what you
see at first blush if you only look at it from one perspective.
One of these middle areas that hobbyists and professionals share (where
it's often hard to differentiate between the two), is
. Here, your main goal is to express yourself and your ideas using a business model in which earning an income is secondary. An example is a "vanity gallery," where the artist owns the retail space where he exhibits and sells only his own work. Other examples include selling prints at art festivals, cafes, or the
county fair. Any of these are fun, rewarding, and even profitable. I've
known many people (including myself) that have made "some" money at these
venues. But, the path to financial success here is more ambiguous. Among
certain demographics and in some geographical regions, the vanity business
can be profitable enough to support a family, but these are exceptions
to the rule. For this to work, the photographer is usually very well-known,
or the artist has a large, rotating clientele in tourist-laden cities,
such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and "art Mecca's," like
Santa Fe, New Mexico. Or, it could be that the business is an adjunct
to a much more active photo business behind the scenes, and the gallery
itself is just selling its by-products.
Not all vanity businesses are as elaborate or involved. In fact, many
don't necessarily have to be profitable. Examples include photo books
or postcards, where the primary focus is to bring attention to the
artist. (Normally, photo books are regarded more as marketing tools for
artists than income generators.) Pros who've migrated away from their
more established photography careers into vanity businesses often do so
as a form of pseudo-retirementthey can leverage their existing stock
of successful images as annuities that bring in residual income without
having to remain as active as they used to be.
In summary, the vanity business is best accomplished when you're either
laid back about your longer-term ambitions, or when you use it as an
avenue to pick up additional revenue from images already created through
other business means. Either way, this is rarely the end-objective
for the career-minded photographer (although it may certainly be an
exit strategy after loftier goals have already been accomplished).
This brings us to the next section.
There are those who are so set on becoming a photographer,
that they have considered animal sacrifice. For some, this happens
at a very early age, where they have visions of shooting supermodels
in bathing suits, or car ads for magazines, or war zones and other
news-breaking events for newspapers. (The family cat looks upon these
young people with caution.) Others get the itch at an older age, when
they've decided they've had it with their current careers and need to
change to something entirely within their control, so they can attack
it with all their (remaining) vigor.
For the younger members of this group, there is the option of going to
photography school, whereas, older adults usually consider a direct
migration path, often involving minutes of dedicated research and
seconds of getting out the credit card at the camera store. Let's
address each of these approaches.
I have two extremely strong points of view on photography school.
(Ok. Three.) It's either the perfect (if not only) option, or it's
such an incredibly bad personal decision, you might as well spend your
money on a good therapist, because that's where you're going to send your
parents when they see what's become of you. (While they're on the couch,
you'll be in coffee shops, reading the want ads and bitching to friends
about how unfair the world is to artists.)
My third perspective? Well, let's get to that after I clarify my first
For the emerging art photographer or photojournalist who wishes to follow
a more serious path in either of these markets, to make "statements," or
to have influence (or at least an effect) on the art community or in
world events, I am a strong advocate of going to art school. In fact,
you should get a Master's degree from a reputable university first, or
failing acceptance there, a specialized photography school. If that doesn't
work out, get a regular degree at a normal college and take a lot of
art classes. (If this option is undesirable, get one of those
fake-diplomas online through one of the many spams they send.)
Most successful artists and photojournalists emerge from academic circles.
Of course, there are myriads of exceptions, but statistically, they come
from fine art schools. Educational programs provide avenues to resources
and networks of people who can lead students through the labyrinth of this
quirky and often unforgiving realm. You come out with credibility that
is respected by people and venues where you'll establish your career.
It's such a tight-knit world that, if you're not in school, you may
find it hard to compete against those who have access to the movers and
shakers in the industry.
While I do believe that photography school is imperative for certain
people, I have some reservations about this avenue as well. Hence,
my second view of art school:
When it comes to younger people considering college for a commercial
photography track, I'm sort of "in the middle." You definitely get a
good education and hands-on knowledge on how to do things like configure
studio lighting, put together a portfolio, send out marketing postcards,
and various and sundry "tasks" associated with running a business, but
these are things you can learn on your own. Photography is a formidable
and honorable career, and the networking on the inside can be useful
for the top students in the class. (Thus, the benefit of school.)
Yet, competing in the outside world, where you also have to compete
against non-academic types who compete tooth and nail in ways that school
didn't teach you, that's another thing.
The photo world is very difficult, competitive, and doesn't pay well. And
that's the good news. The bad news is that it's also terribly unfair
and unforgiving. To succeed, you need to learn business skills and ideas,
that will be more responsible for your success than whether you know
how to configure studio lights to yield a 2:1 lighting ratio. Most
photo schools teach nothing about the real world of the business,
and what they do teach has been made mostly obsolete by how business
(not just technology) has changed.
I'm not talking about digital photography, using Photoshop, or anything
like that. I'm talking about how photographers can no longer build
businesses on the same foundations they used to.
If it sounds like I'm talking you out of photo school, I'm not. I'm just
concerned that you will put all your eggs in one basket in terms of
Well, unless you're really, really sure. You know, "insane." (I realize
you've probably already heard all this from your parents. But remember,
I'm not your parent.) And I'm no longer inside parentheses, so you can't
pretend you don't hear me. Which leads me to my third perspective on
As long as you're going to college, I'm happy. A well-rounded education
and rich set of life experiences makes for a better artist overall,
because you learn to see multiple perspectives on broader world issues.
And, remember: you can always do photography along with something else.
Just about any other career can also involve photography in your "spare
time." (And if you're that wild about photography, I guarantee you'll find
that time is copious.) You're also fortunate: photography isn't expensive,
and it doesn't require anyone else to participate (unlike that rock band
you had back in high school). If you develop your photography to the point
where you're making money, great! You can always quit your other job
If you're past college age, chances are that a career in photography is
a migration path from another job. The majority of the population
(and probably most readers of this book) has taken pictures, and
a huge percentage of them are very good at it, despite having had no
formal training in photography. This is partially why many people feel
that a migration to the photo business is an arm's length away. So,
for these people, it's an alluring prospect to give up the day job, or
enter into retirement, and pick up photography as a full time job. What
isn't expected, however, is that 90% of this business is not taking
pictures and living the romantic life. It's managing your business.
Because of reasons like this, the majority who try, drop back out.
I leverage my skills and interests in ways that are not only successful
for me, but it's easier to beat my competition. (This point is critical.)
Photographers who try to emulate what I do, simply because I've been
successful, may be making a big mistake unless they understand the
broader concepts of how companies use imagery to market their products
or services. Someone with a strong marketing background might do
well in this regard.
Alternatively, someone migrating to freelance photography from having
worked as a photojournalist would be well-suited to sell stock photography
into the very market segment from which he came. Having contacts is one
thing, but also knowing how the business worksprice points, negotiating
points, and other inside business inside informationprovides a great
springboard for upward mobility.
If someone is adept at managing teams of employees, who are good at
setting up assembly line processes, and can manage distribution channels,
that person would be much better suited to selling into the commodity
sector, such as gift manufacturers, and so on. The point is, we all came
from somewhere. Use that place to your advantage.
Remember, all of this applies if photography is your career. If it's
just a small money-generating hobby, the "business management" aspect
needn't be so time-consuming or troublesome. This is why the migration
path can be a more attainable and fun activity. If you have realistic
about what an "arm's length" is, and reasonable financial expectations,
Essentially, this book is about learning the basics of the photo business,
both from a functional point of a view and as a discipline, all while
maintaining the prime directive: enjoying the process. Of course,
everyone's fun-meter is different, so it's not always easy to say when
something stops being fun. But I think for the most part, the average
person who can take good pictures can accomplish quite a bit without
feeling like they're running a major corporation.
I begin by outlining basics like equipment needs (and non-needs),
managing the pictures you take after you take them, the business
issues on making and selling prints, as well as selling into different
markets. Whether you're shooting new material or managing an existing
base of images you've shot over time, it's critical to build efficiency
into your business assets, which is the main underlying theme of all
Owning your own photo business requires doing a lot of tasks that begin
to spill over into other businesses that, if you aren't careful, can
be overwhelming. Many photo businesses have collapsed under their own
weight, simply because people over-extend themselves in trying to support
a sales effort that just requires too much of their own time. Postcards
and Calendars are good examples: people often think it's a no-brainer
to take a bunch of cards to a local gift shop and wait till the sales
roll in. But it's not that simple, and this very logic is what often
causes some to end up feeling that they either have to back away from it.
Other aspects of the business are covered, such as the hard-to-nail-down
problem of pricing products and services, setting up an internet site,
and selling at art fairs and cafes. This is by no means a comprehensive
list of everything you can do to make money with your photography;
it's just the more common ones that people want to do, which, if we can
address effectively, can set you up to do many other photo-related
A fortunate artifact of photography is that it's an "evergreen" business:
it doesn't fluctuate very much based on season, economic conditions, war,
or much of anything else. (Of course, that may not be the case for you if
your specialty subject is seasonal, like Christmas-themed images.)
Depending on where you're starting from (if you have an existing base of
images, or you're just buying your first camera), a sincerely diligent
attempt at this business can usually yield some modest returns within a
couple of years. What do I mean by "modest returns?" That depends. Someone
in Montana with a very low-cost of living can be quite content with
$5,000 a year, but someone in New York City would do better off selling
fake Rolex watches to tourists on 42nd Street. If you're thinking,
"wow! $5000!" Hold it right there, Bucko. That hypothetical figure has
no basis of realityI made it up. There is no possible way to determine
what your income could be simply because it's an enormous market with
too many variables to accurately calculate possibilities.
Intellect is the wildcard variable in this equation, which can multiply
(or divide) your final return. I always seem to be amazed at who seems
to be making money in this business, which leads me to this winner of
"People far less intelligent than you are doing it, so you have no excuse."
This sort of brings the gap a little closer between the amateur and
the pro; I've seen some amateurs do much better than some pros, but it's
only because they're smarter, not necessarily "better."
It's true that one can put far less time, effort and costs into getting
a quick photo business started, but the "law of diminishing returns"
stipulates that quick and easy sales don't grow linearly; over time,
the same work yields less and less actual sales. I've known photographers
who put their name out and got some immediate assignments to shoot for
magazines or other organizations, only to find that calls would mysteriously
diminish a year later, just as mysteriously as they arrived.
Why does the law diminishing returns affect the photo business?
Complacency. If and when early sales come in, it causes people
inadvertently reduce efforts, thinking like they're now more
advanced than they are: They don't take the $100/day jobs anymore
because they feel they're worth more. They don't license photos for
$50/image anymore because they want to be represented by an agency and
take in more. The net result is that the initial burst of sales usually
plateaus sooner than expected; business can even drift backwards as
apathy sets in. So, even the casual hobbyist will eventually learn that
they have to do "real work" just to maintain their business.
To close with on a happier note: the industry today (compared to even
ten years ago) doesn't require the same kind of fulltime dedication
just to get some income. It just requires some attention. Preferably,
intelligent attention. Frankly, I think you can handle it.