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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business  >  READ THIS FIRST

Photo Careers

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 7079
1 Introduction  (231)
2 Two Types of Photo Business Models  (1087)
3 Setting Expectations  (659)
       3.1 The Perils of a "Business Plan"  (480)
4 Paths to the Photo Business  (797)
       4.1 Money and Photography  (444)
5 The Serious Photographer  (676)
       5.1 "Vanity Business" vs. Career Path  (341)
6 The Insanely Serious Photographer  (155)
       6.1 Photography School  (99)
              6.1.1 The Strong Advocate of Photography School  (245)
              6.1.2 The Moderate Supporter of Photography School  (336)
              6.1.3 WhatEVER!  (124)
7 Migrating to Photography  (384)
8 Scope of Discussion  (353)
9 Ramping Up Timeframe (668)

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It's a Long Way to the Top
(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)
africa, hikers, horizontal, kilimanjaro, meru, mountains, tanzania, photograph
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 there—parties, 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.

Two Old Men Eating
(Naxos, Greece)
eating, europe, greece, horizontal, men, naxos, old, people, two, photograph
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 assignment—either as a project, a day rate, or by the hour—and 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.

Calico Money Bag
(Calico, California, USA)
bags, calico, california, money, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
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 them?

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 instantly—it'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.

Dog in Magazine Store (4)
(Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)
canada, dogs, horizontal, magazines, people, stores, vancouver, photograph
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 photo studio.

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.

Juneau (a)
(Alaska, USA)
alaska, america, juneau, north america, old, united states, vertical, photograph
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 either—they 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 anything—it'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.

Lit Stone Path to Green Lit Towers (4)
(Siem Reap, Cambodia)
angkor wat, asia, cambodia, green, horizontal, illuminated, long exposure, nite, paths, stones, towers, photograph
There are many paths that lead into the photography business, usually from one or more one of:

  1. Hobby/Enthusiast
  2. Student/Traditional Paths
  3. 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:

    "If it were easy, everyone would do it."

Beautiful? Yes.
Worth money? Well...
(Monument Valley, Arizona, USA)
america, arizona, desert southwest, horizontal, monument, monument valley, north america, united states, valley, western usa, photograph
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:

Q.gif How many photographers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A.gif 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.)

Money and Photography: No Relationship
boats, horizontal, leti, leticia, palau, tropics, photograph
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 does it.)

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.

Celebrating Photography
(Whitefish, Montana, USA)
america, fireworks, horizontal, montana, north america, united states, western united states, western usa, whitefish, photograph
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 photographer.

Postcards: Fun, but Limited Upside
(California, USA)
california, falls, horizontal, sierras, west coast, western usa, photograph
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.

de Young Flowers and Tower (1)
(San Francisco, California, USA)
buildings, california, de young, de young museum, flowers, golden gate park, horizontal, museums, san francisco, towers, west coast, western usa, photograph
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.

Q.gif What's the difference between a photographer and a large pizza?

A.gif 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.

Self-Portraits We Should Never See
(California, USA)
goatee, goutee, horizontal, personal, self-portrait, photograph
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-retirement—they 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.

Insanely Serious Photographer
(Havana, Cuba)
faces, horizontal, personal, ridiculous, self-portrait, photograph
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 two perspectives.

Buildings in Reflection
(Seillans, Provence, France)
buildings, europe, france, horizontal, provence, reflections, seillans, photograph
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:

"Let's talk about it."
(San Francisco, California, USA)
couch, models, sharon, vertical, photograph
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 your education. 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 photography school:

(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, people, petes, san francisco, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
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 then.

Migration: A Long Journey
africa, black and white, camels, desert, dunes, horizontal, morocco, sahara, sand, photograph
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 works—price points, negotiating points, and other inside business inside information—provides 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, you're set.

It's a Long Way to the Top
(Banff, Alberta, Canada)
alberta, banff, canada, canadian rockies, horizontal, mountains, walkway, photograph
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 these chapters.

Kamila 5a
(Czech Republic)
czech republic, europe, kamila, people, tour guides, vertical, photograph
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 business ventures.

Ramping Up
(Ohio, USA)
america, amusement park, cedar point, coaster, fun, games, horizontal, north america, ohio, rides, roller, sandusky, united states, photograph
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 reality—I 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 a quote:

    "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."

Keep Your Eye on Business
(San Francisco, California, USA)
andrea, eyes, fish, models, vertical, photograph
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.

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