Building Wealth as a Photographer

Building Wealth as a Photographer

By far one of the most influential and yet devastating things I ever realized in my career was that Photography alone is not a viable path to become wealthy or even truly financially independent. In fact a few days ago released a list of 200 jobs, ranked from best to worst, and photographer came in at #172, beaten soundly by garbage collectors.

We’re going to start with the question that was posed to me by a business professor a few years ago: Can you think of a business with no leverage, no barriers to entry, no ability to build equity, no benefit programs and no ability to scale? Go ahead, give it a shot. I’m sure you can assume the answer here. Let’s talk about why I’ve come to believe photography is a terrible business to build wealth, based on each of those qualifiers.


Leverage – This is the use of a small initial investment, credit or borrowed funds to gain a very high return in relation to one's investment, to control a much larger investment or to reduce one's own liability for any loss. In our case this could be something like stock photography where you can sell the same image several times over. Well, it could have been before micro-stock all but killed that income stream. Now we would look at this in the realm of commercial licensing and image royalties.

Scalability - The ability of something to adapt to increased demands is certainly capped for the individual photographer. There are a finite number of hours in the day and only so much work that can be accomplished in that time. Photography is a service where you are trading time for money. Unless you are building a franchised chain of studios there is a limit to your growth.

Equity – Is the monetary value of a property or business beyond any amounts owed on it in mortgages, claims, liens, etc. Accepting this, we have to ask ourselves if we could sell our photography business without continuing to take photos for the business. Would someone buy your business if you didn’t come with it? We as photographers don’t run an operation that holds value without us being involved in it. This means that when we try to sell our businesses the only real value lies in the equipment and building (if we haven’t been renting).

Benefits – Here we are talking about insurance, retirement plans, wellness programs, etc. As you well know, when you work for yourself…you pay for these things yourself.

Barriers to Entry – Is defined by George Stigler as “a cost of producing which must be borne by a firm which seeks to enter an industry but is not borne by firms already in the industry.” So what does that mean? It means anything that would prevent you from taking part in an industry that you aren’t already a part of. This could be lack of capital, resources, predatory pricing, or customer loyalty to name a few. The photographic market has nearly zero barriers to entry, making it come very close to what economic theory calls “perfect competition.” Since the intricacies of economic theory are well beyond the scope of this article let’s just say it like this. Most people already own a camera and the jump from hobbyist to revenue-producing amateur is fairly easy to make. You don’t need a degree or certification. You can spend an hour with Google and learn whatever you need to know. After that, you spend less than $100 on getting a website going and you’re all set. Why do you think so many people attempt to become professional photographers? On paper it’s easy money, so it’s no real mystery why there is a steady stream of competition.

Now that you’re thoroughly depressed let’s talk about what to do about this predicament because this career path does have some truly wonderful benefits. Freedom is the first that comes to mind followed immediately by the creative outlet.

There are those who will continue to whine and moan about the over-saturation of the market and newbies undercutting them left and right. That’s not you though so let’s talk about what to do to become financially independent and free.


1.) Stop spending so much money!

This will be the thing that keeps most far away from their goals. Here’s a news flash for you. You don’t need the latest greatest gear to be good at what you do! The exception to this is of course the sports photographer that needs the fastest frame rate. For the rest of us, a 24mp camera won’t make you any more money than a 21mp camera. Stop being a gear junkie and save your money.

The same goes for software. I’ve been an adobe user since Photoshop 1.0 when I was 7 years old and although I’m a diehard fan of the software I know that’s it’s not always necessary to upgrade to the latest version. Believe me, it pains me to say that and even as I write it my mind is reeling with all of the reasons it could makes sense to upgrade. Fact is though that more often than not you can skip a version and make due if you must.

2.) Invest your profits

Along side with spending less money you’ll need to invest the most that you are able to. Learn everything you can about investing. Take a class, read books, find friends that are savvy investors, do whatever you can to learn this skill. Spending time educating yourself here is far more valuable to your future than browsing Pinterest looking for inspiration or whatever you do to waste time. It doesn’t matter much what you decide to invest in either. It could be stocks, mutual funds, real estate or even other businesses. Pick something, educate yourself about it and start putting money towards it. I am not recommending a specific method, nor am I saying where to put your money. Just that it is an extremely important tool in your financial arsenal.

Gear is not an investment; your incredible lenses will depreciate and are not always the best choices to purchase anyway. Doesn’t make sense? I’ll explain…

Several years ago I purchased a Canon 70-200 f/2.8L (non-IS), which retails for $1,300. I basically never use it, and haven’t after the first year I owned it. So let’s do some math here on what that lens really cost me.

Even if that money were sitting in a plain savings account at a credit union earning 5% (government bonds average nearly the same) it would grow to $5,619 after 30 years. If you spend some time and find develop a portfolio that yields even 8% that number grows to $11,781. Now if we consider the 5% calculation and add back in what we would have spent on the lens we come to the conclusion that buying it actually cost me nearly $7,000.

What if we use this same concept when it comes to upgrading from something like the Canon 5d Mark II, to the Mark III? Both cameras’ original retail price is the same at $3,600. When you chose to upgrade maybe you go to sell the older model and get something like $1,500 for it. This means your upgrade cost you $2,100.

We’re going to use 8% as the primary this time because that is a below average yield for long-term stocks (at nearly 10% since 1926).

2,100 over 30 years at 8% comes out to $21,132.

I don’t know about you, but skipping one essentially frivolous upgrade to gain over $20,000 seems like a pretty solid decision to me. Most people don’t look at things this way though and that is why I say that many people (even outside of photographers) will never see the kind of financial freedom they want.

3.) Advertise via networking instead of print media

In the years I spent working as an advertising creative I learned one major lesson. Word of mouth is the absolute king of advertising. No magazine ad can compete with it, period. Stop spending your money on full page ads at thousands of dollars an issue and spend some time building a solid referral system. For two years I wrote a column in a local magazine and every article was accompanied by a full ad on the opposite page. Basically this was a free two-page spread for me and even then I can’t tell you that it was worth the time spent. In those two years I maybe booked 3 jobs where I could identify the publication as the source of the lead. If I have to I will, but I think after my last point you can see what a $2,000 ad could gain you if used elsewhere. Spend your time and effort on networking; it’s basically free.

4.) Maximize Profits

To start, there is no way to cover this point in one article. It’s far too broad a topic. In summation, you have a finite amount of time and your market can only bear so much when it comes to your rates so you need to make the most that you can with the time you have. If you’re not shooting, make sales calls. Take a hard look at your pricing structure. Are you leaving money on the table or are you selling everything you possibly can at the best margins?

If you’re a wedding photographer, are you attaching an album to each gig? Senior photographers, are you selling standard prints or offering a signature-framed piece at a premium? Commercial photographers, how are you handling markups on your bids?

This is where the business of photography is extremely important for your future. There is no better way to put it. You have to make sure each sale is as profitable as it can possibly be. Do I mean you should nickel and dime your clients? Absolutely not! You don’t need to be a jerk either. It’s ok to give out images sized for things like Facebook. Your wedding clients aren’t out there reselling the images you took of them; give them something to share with their friends and family. Properly web-sized images print like garbage anyway. What’s the harm? Sales is easily my least favorite part of photography but it’s an absolute necessity. If you’re weak in this area invest in some sales courses and study them until it’s second nature.

5.) Stop Operating on Credit

Get your business fully capitalized. That means that you have enough in your business account to operate for at least 2 months on cash, with nothing on a line of credit. If you’re just starting out and think you need to spend $10,000 on gear to get going…think again. You may not want to but you can do just fine as a professional photographer with inexpensive base-model gear, even used gear. Buy everything that you can in cash. If you can’t afford it yet, save for it. Buying on credit is a losing game. The interest will cost you a ton and in the event you miss a payment, penalties and increased APRs will just compound the problem.

6.) Find a spouse with a good job.

If all else fails, find a sugar-daddy/mama! Ok obviously I'm not serious abut that, but having a spouse with a steady job and insurance can make life as a photographer loads easier. Think about it, if your family can live off of your spouses income then whatever you bring in from photography can be invested wholly.


Is it possible to have real wealth as a photographer or artist? Of course, and it’s actually pretty simple. You just need to dedicate yourself to investing intelligently and spending only when it’s wise to do so. Does that mean you can’t go out and take a vacation or buy new clothes? No, but you work it into your budget and keep the ultimate goal in mind. I took a break from writing this piece to go buy a pair of shoes I didn’t really need. I’m able to do so because I’ve worked a random “fun” account into my monthly budget and I don’t spend outside of that. You can still have a life and enjoy it while you work towards wealth.

We just have to realize and accept that as artists we are at the bottom of the financial food chain and it takes a hefty dose of dedication to build wealth from the bottom rung of the ladder.

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I am sure glad to see more and more blog posts saying the same thing: YOU CAN"T BE A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER. IT JUST WON'T HAPPEN.

It makes for a nice, honest change to the years of expensive seminars and training courses that assured everyone that not only was it possible, it was easy.

best way to make money, is sell people a way to make money.

That's exactly right. You don't sell people a tangible product you sell them a dream. =)

Nice write up DB.

Mike Kelley's picture

Good post. But you can make as much money in photography as you want. It's a multi-billion dollar industry. Hire others, expand, onward and upward, try different genres, etc. Tons and tons of business opportunity in image making.

Wayne Jung's picture

I don't think that is what he is saying, he is merely outlining a lot of the pitfalls and mis conception that are associated with becoming a everyone is going to become a Professional Photographer and make tons of money. I used to work for the Art Institute and that is the message that they are sending to these uneducated people that in 2/4 years you will have a degree and open up a studio and start making enough money to support your household. This is the hard truth and people need to hear before trying to make the jump from photography hobbyist to professional, you can make money (a lot) but you need to really become business savy because being a successful photographer entails more than just understanding aperture, shutter speed and iso.

Yeah, you can make money in photography, but it is very hard as a photographer. Selling album design and manufacture, photographic accessories, photo software (including presets and actions), and teaching courses is not part of being a photographer. At least to me. I am not knocking anyone for doing it— it is both entrepreneurial and often profitable— but that is running a business that caters to and is related to photography, it is not being a photographer. And that is what I think this article is about.

Brett Casadonte's picture

A couple of flaws in your financial logic in item 2. First off, that lens purchase is a tax deduction since it can be expensed. If you didn't purchase the lens and declared it as income, then 33% of the cost of the lens would go to the government in taxes, so you are really only saving about $900, not $1300. Second thing that you have not taken into consideration is the time value of money. With the current rate of inflation, what will $20,000 be worth in todays money 30 years from now? At a 5% annual rate of inflation, $20,000 in 30 years will be worth about the equivalent of $4000 today. So, when you factor those two things in, your $20k in future savings really isn't $20k, it's probably more like $2700 in today's money.

You are absolutely right about neglecting to mention taxes. I did so because of the wide range of applicable tax brackets. The current brackets if I'm not mistaken range from 15-39%, I just didn't want to do all the math.

As for inflation, again you are absolutely right. My hope is that through self-education in investment strategies people will come to realize that much higher yields are possible through aggressive (albeit risky) strategies.

Thank you for addressing these issues!

with yield of 8% result is 13081.45 dollars ;)

And regarding whole investment thing I do not agree with everything.
Yes you can invest in stocks, but that is a risky market, very risky and you can potentially lose all your money if you are not educated enough or out of luck. And no, you can't just go to some workshop to educate yourself about stocks market. It is much more complicated than that :)

Bonds do have lower yield but bonds provide more security. For normal people funds are way to go. Funds provide yield between 9 - 14% yield rate + they are managed by professionals who (I suppose) know their job.

Michael Comeau's picture

Where did you get the data for this article? Can you please post your data sources?

Government bonds don't yield anything near 5%. The 30-year US Treasury yields less than 3%, and most credit unions give 2.5% or less on savings and checking accounts. There are higher-yield options in other countries but with significantly more risk.

Absolutely, though most of my sources are associates with tremendous financial successes of their own, with a little googling you can see plenty of sources like this for yourself:

"When looking at funds’ performance results, it’s important to keep
the historical context in mind. In January 2013, an investor who looked
at Morningstar’s bond fund categories would have seen these average
annual returns for the three maturity categories over the previous ten

Short-term bond funds: 3.03%
Intermediate-term bond funds: 5.65%
Long-term bond funds: 8.53%"

-Thomas Kenny, Guide

I would look up "average yield of government bonds" to find out more about this.

Anthony Chopin's picture

The point of this article wasn't to discuss the semantics of investing or specific interest rates etc. nor was it designed to be your sole source of financial advice. It was clear that he was using hypothetical theory to communicate his point with regards to investing.

The major point which appears to be getting overlooked here is that you should seek to invest money in different things wisely. Should you go and invest in bonds or stocks just because you read this article? No, absolutely not and i think that's besides the point of this article. There is no cookie cutter answer to investing as its all very much dependent on each individuals financial situation and expectations. What you should really take from this article is that investing is indeed a smart idea, and you should seek professional advice that will work for you and your business at this point in time.

Perhaps instead of arguing about the accuracy of interest rates, maybe some of you might like to share some insight on what you've invested in or what has worked for you? I for one would be interested, because it appears we have financial aficionados in our midst and i'd also love to learn more about what has worked for people in our industry as opposed to what "research" tells us these days.

Regardless, a very interesting read!

Michael Comeau's picture

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Basic fact checking is part of being a writer, ESPECIALLY when you are talking about people's personal finances. And in this case, the writer makes it seem pretty darn easy to invest successfully by quoting interest rates that were outrageously off the mark and indicative of his lack of knowledge of the subject at hand.

Anthony Chopin's picture

Well he did provide a reference upon your request as to where he got those figures, so maybe your apparent rage is better directed at the source of the information. You're yet to even acknowledge his response so all i can interpret is mere Internet rage.

For someone like myself, who lives in Canada and for a lot of people i'm sure who also reside outside the US, the value in this information lies in being aware that investing money wisely is important and ultimately fundamental to living a successful life as a photographer.

He's not even saying yes you should invest in such and such because it yields XYZ. He's saying for example, with quantified figures that a particular outcome is possible and there are better things to do with your money than run out and buy the shiniest newest version of everything. He even said he has people that provided him with an avenue to pursue such interest rates which further reiterates my previous comment about seeking professional financial advice.

That is also why i asked what advice you had to offer on the subject as you seem to be proficient in the ways of investing. Im still curious..

Zack Williamson's picture

This might be obvious, but there's a big difference between buying on credit and treating a credit card the same way as an ATM card. There are so many credit cards out there that offer good rewards programs or additional buyer protection measures. Credit card rewards can be a quick win when you do need to acquire more gear, sometimes equaling the amount saved by purchasing used.

Agreed, not borrowing to fund your business is a huge deal. Word of mouth is free and has given me some excellent clients. As for investing, I still do some in the stock market but I find it so easy to get burned. I've been investing for the last 3 years with LendingClub. I started out small, but now I have a Roth IRA with them and it's one of my major investments. Don't put all your eggs in one basket but it should really be considered as part of a long-term savings plan.

Bottom line: Be a FAIR photographer and an excellent marketing person. In the real world away from the internet, the average annual income for a freelance photographer (sans studio) is $28,000. But hey, it's fun :)

Was this article written in 2008, or in Neverland? With these 5% credit union savings accounts and magical savings accounts that offer 8% if "we look around"? :)

The key to becoming a rich photographer is actually very simple, and it follows the main points of the article. Instead of grinding out individual jobs, professional photographers are relying on selling ebooks, videos, web sites, affiliate marketing, training seminars, photography trips, and selling "lightspheres" and other widgets.

What it comes down to is that photography is a very low value service for vast majority of people. For vast majority of people, a photographer is there to take pics because the father of the bride is busy. Most people can't tell that an image is ruined by moire or high iso noise.

Sure, there are some exceptions - but even the exceptions looking for quality have no way of judging if some local pro is any good because we all can put up a handful great photographs to show off. This is an industry where cream DOESN'T necessarily rise to the top. Good marketers and self-promoters rise to the top. Actual skill as a photographer is only a small part of what it takes to be a professional photographer. Many people seem to forget that.

There are no savings accounts at 8%, if you read it again you'll see that the 8% refers to a return on stocks. As for the 5% I used that example because that is what I personally get from my local credit union. To be sure of accuracy these returns were verified with several financial professionals before publishing.

George Socka's picture

Annie Leibovitz comes to mind to refute all of this. although we can't, and certainly I am not, all be Annie Leibovitz

Somewhere in the world there is a janitor making 7 figures a year too.

yeah and Annie Leibovitz, that talented but mean bitch, I worked for her once, declared bankruptcy in 2012 !

About a year ago I found an article about the top earners in fashion photography and their income was NUTS. Mert & Marcus clocked in at around $35 million collectively, Inez & Vinoodh pulled in $29 million or so and Mario Testino brought in I think around $15 million. These are of course exceptions but we must look at what they do and how they do it. Most of Mert & Marcus's work is from Conde Nast contracts, and all the major advertising shoots for clients like Gucci, and Versace. If you really want to start pulling high high figures, you probably need a super strong agency like Art Partner or someone else very credible in the type of photography you shoot.

I was floored by how little editorial photographers made without contracts.

Yes you can make a living shooting here and there projects and a few small ad campaigns but I think for huge amounts of revenue you probably would want to partner with a GOOD agency to pull in those larger commercial projects. I wonder how much Michael Muller makes for all his insane Marvel contracts?

Speaking honestly, I am not trying to become "wealthy" through photography. If I can make close to what I am making right now at my day job (not anywhere close to 6 figures), and do what I absolutely LOVE doing (photography of course), I would be the happiest guy you'd ever meet. For me, there's more to life than trying to be wealthy, and I know what makes me happy and content in my life.

Pixyst's picture

I agree you need to add value-added services to your portfolio to boost income. This does not really work though, until you have built some sort of reputation. Who is going to pay you for a seminar or attend your course or buy your tutorial package if they don't already recognize you as an authority on the subject?

The only people that agree with this post are the people who don't know how to hustle and make money at all. Photography isn't what's going to make you wealthy, your financial IQ on how to make money and be creative is what's going to make you wealthy. When you have a high financial IQ, you can apply it to anything. Tell Peter Lik that you can't get wealthy in Photography when he owns 14 galleries in the world. Tell Nick Saglimbeni you can't get wealthy with Photography when he gets 40k per shoot.

This post isn't aimed at the top 10% of career photograhers, or the people who already have high "financial IQs."

My understanding is that you can no longer "skip" a Photoshop version... you can only upgrade if you have THE previous version, not A previous version. I know you had to have CS5 to get CS6.

Aside from that, I've had a pretty good run in this industry (30 years) and while I never got rich, I sure felt like I was for much of my career ($250k - $300k gross sales per year up until the 2007/08 economic meltdown). Gross sales today are about half that, as well as the "take home" pay, but I'm still doing okay. The title wave of newcomers has subsided as the market became oversaturated, but that bubble has now burst as a majority of folks who entered the market five years ago have already left for greener pastures. (I suppose even "passion" has a price).

Good photographers, and even smarter business-minded photographers will/can still make a good living at it, but the "Golden Age of Photography" has now passed. IMHO.

I agree with you in this as in most things, Kevin. I don't think that the "Golden Age" is gone but it is certainly gone for the average wedding and portrait photographer. Volume and commercial photographers can still make great money in this business, but the model is quite a bit different.