Making a living as a photographer

(Last Updated On: January 16, 2010)

One of my photojournalism students is in the business school program.  She is thinking about pursuing photography and is very enthusiastic about learning more about the craft.

She asked for my advice. I told her to stay in the business program.  I was not suggesting she ditch her photography dreams.  In the competitive environment of photography, she will need business skills to be successful.

Photography businesses are opening and closing every month.  There are a lot of well-intentioned people who are passionate about photography and decide to pursue their dream.

Many amateurs have spent months or years dabbling and creating beautiful images.  Eventually opportunities arise for their images to be published online or in print.  They don’t care much about the money; they’re excited about the opportunity to be published.

Soon, friends will ask to have a family portrait taken or even a wedding shot.  Often this is done as a favor or for just enough money to cover expenses.  The opportunity for experience and portfolio material can’t be passed up. Some budding photographers discover micro-stock and start to earn a little extra cash.  Eventually, it is time to strike out on their own.

The first step often is setting up an Internet site to display their favorite images to the world.  Do they hire a Web designer, a marketing consultant, a high-end hosting service, employ the most expensive photography lab, and print their cards and brochure at the custom local print shop? Most beginning photographers do not.

The idea behind it is why pay for these services when there are cheap or free alternatives.  Yet, when it comes to their photography services, these good-hearted people wonder why clients are not willing to pay extra for their work.

I asked my student to tell me the foundation of business.  She answered, supply and demand. Although demand has increased for good imagery, the photography community has increased supply at a much faster pace.

Does this mean that my student and the future hobbyist-turned- pro will not be able to make a living?  Of course they can.

Sadly, many will not because they don’t understand business.

Don’t blame the amateurs and hobbyists. They are presented with what seems like a great opportunity. Technology is to blame. You’d do the same thing. It just means more to you when it’s your livelihood flooded with competition and cheap alternatives.

I always laugh when I hear the words “people should” coming from young artists’ mouths.  They say, people should appreciate … people should want … people should look … people should care.

When it comes to running a business, it’s all about what consumers actually value and desire.  A photographer must create images that are in demand. The key is to go above and beyond  what anyone can do with basic equipment.  The distinction comes from unique lighting and post-production skills.

The photographer must also charge enough so she will be able to pay bills and live comfortably until the next assignment.  Unfortunately, most photographers don’t see the value of their work and under charge.

A good, full-time wedding photographer should book 40 weddings a year.  At 10 hours a wedding (on site) that is 400 hours a year.  If a photographer wishes to make $50,000 a year, she should be making at least $125 per hour, plus expenses.

When figuring expenses, a business person must consider everything.  How much does he wish to live on? How much is home, car and medical insurances? What do you need for food, gas and equipment?

On a basic level, business will always be about supply and demand.  If you are creating what is in demand the next question is are you charging enough? All expenses must be less than the income received for products and services produced. Lastly, is there enough money left over to promote, invest and keep creating?

Listed below are some cost-of-doing-business calculators that will help you determine what you should charge to make a living.

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