The Best Way to Strengthen the Chances of a Long Career in Photography

The Best Way to Strengthen the Chances of a Long Career in Photography

It's one thing making the leap in to a photography career, but as is the case with most startups, longevity is the greatest obstacle to overcome.

According to researchers at Stanford and Berkeley — albeit slightly dated now — the failure rate for startups is around 90%. It's a terrifying figure often wheeled out by the perpetual crusher of dreams (we all know one or two) when you float an idea. Well, as I have repeated on numerous occasions, being a full-time, self-employed photographer is running a business and I would be shocked to learn that the odds were any different. There's a general consensus that the first 3-5 years are the hardest and where most give up or "fail". My experience was roughly in line with that estimate, and one of the best ways I believe I have strengthened my career's chances at longevity is on the advice of various investment books: diversification.

Recently I mentioned in an article that diversifying my income protects me against the potential vulnerabilities of self-employed life. One of our Fstoppers members, Jeremy Center, asked me to expand on this and how I diversify my income, and so here we are. One of my chief motivations for wanting photographers to diversify more is it's security against risk, yes, but also that most information about making money in photography doesn't talk about it. In fact, upon reflection after Jeremy's enquiry, I realized I may be guilty of that too. I have written multiple times on finding and dominating a niche — which is still good advice — but you could infer from that the contrary position to diversifying income. That's certainly not the case.

Rather than offering advice on an area I have only limited experience — and there are people far more knowledgeable than I — I will do what Jeremy wanted and go through my income streams with complete transparency. Well, nearly. I'm not going to give exact figures because not only do they change month on month, but I'm British and that's just not cricket! I am also only going to discuss income from photography and photography related activities. That is, I won't discuss some of my unrelated investments and (meager) holdings.

Photography

Funnily enough, I make money from taking pictures. In fact, it's usually the bulk of my income. The type of work varies, possibly more than most, but the lion's share is commercial and portraiture. From time to time I do get jobs outside of my ordinary sphere (most commonly events) but it's not something I rely on. It's a bonus that I appreciate when it arises and I can fit it in.

Clean Bandit photographed for FAULT Magazine.

Writing

I've loved writing both fiction and non-fiction since childhood, and I knew when I finished my Masters by Research that I wanted to continue writing regularly. I primarily write for Fstoppers, but I also write for aBlogtoWatch, and several other magazines (online and print) and different websites, though these are all sporadic.

(N.B. — in a similar vein, I get paid to be an editor here at Fstoppers. It doesn't really fit in any other category, so I'll leave that here.)

Tuition and Mentoring

This is a strange area for me, as I love doing it, but it isn't the best financial use of my time. The tuition is done usually locally to me and isn't something I advertise. Here and there I will be asked if I could help someone get started with their camera or improve and I will schedule 2 hour lessons.

The mentoring is different and something I truly value. I take on a few photographers for a monthly fee, we work out goals and aspirations, and then strive to achieve them while improving technically and in the myriad other ways. I set targets, we speak regularly, and we schedule meetings for critiques and progress assessing. I don't charge enough for this, but I feel like it's giving value and in that, I find it rewarding. That said, I have to limit how many I can have going at one time to just a handful.

Consulting

This is a reasonably new area for me, and happened organically. I have worked in a niche area of photography for a while and a lot of that work is with new brands. I always aimed to not only create editorials for them, but to help them grow and succeed. I started to see what worked and what didn't, and then I applied that to companies (all free of charge; it came with hiring me as a photographer). I had some success and then as strange as these things can be, two companies in the same week approached me to consult on their projects. From that I've started consulting for brands more often but only in areas I have specific expertise.

Stock Images and Selling Prints

This will be a short one. I do make money from stock images and selling prints but I put next to no effort in to it. As a result, the money I receive is nominal and highly inconsistent. I've made a few pushes here and there but I've never found a way to make a good return on the investment of my time. The stock photos sell here and there through various websites and I get money out of them when I remember. Selling prints has made me some reasonable money, but I don't offer it through my website or on any "art" sites, so it happens perhaps a couple of times per year.

Image Editing

I'm not a retoucher, as much as I enjoy it. However, I started a project a long time ago where I would recolor old, black and white, or damaged images.

It began as a hobby, but I began getting enough requests that I offered a paid service. I tend to open this up near Christmas as they make great gifts and having customers say they gave my restored image of their deceased family member to the widow and they cried with joy warms the cockles (and my cockles are usually quite cold.) I do also take custom requests from time to time, but again, this is more a passion project than a money making machine!

Royalties

Last but not least, I have royalties I make from images sold for advertising or products. This ebbs and flows in ways I can't really decipher, with sometimes rather pleasing checks arriving at my door, and sometimes checks low enough I wonder if it's even worth going to a bank to cash it. Honestly speaking, it's an area I'd be interested in expanding as the time spent for money earned is a favorable ratio toward me, but I've not yet explored how to push it. My best earner at the moment is a greetings card of all things!

Future Plans

I'm always looking at more ways to diversify and grow revenue streams. Currently, I'm working on videography, a YouTube channel (albeit not another talking head photography vlog), and tutorials.

Conclusion

The benefits of diversifying ought to be obvious, so I won't patronize you by writing a section on it. In the interest of lucidity though, more revenue streams mean not only potentially more money, but more importantly, if one dries up or has a blip, you aren't a starving artist cliche.

I hope this is useful to some of you looking to expand your income channels. It was slightly uncomfortable being this open, but as a repressed Brit, that's par for the course. I'm happy to answer any questions in the comments below and I'd love to hear you best ways of earning money outside of the act of taking photographs!

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5 Comments

Rob Mitchell's picture

My future plans and exit plan have nothing to do with photography. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing what I do but there will become a time when I decide it will once again be a hobby, not a job.

Andy Barnham's picture

Seems like we’re on similar trajectories. I’ve started writing and looking into mentoring and consulting. However I know from last experience stock images, editing and royalties don’t work for me.

Interesting. I seem to be moving along a similar trajectory. I have started to focus on which aspects of photography I want to focus on.

Added to that, I have decided to start teaching, and mentoring.

Writing as well.

And, consulting. However, that comes from my years as a corporate jackass

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

When I was still working as a lawyer, the mature partners would alway point out that you had to take time to 'farm' new work while you were still busy with the old work. Initially this made me frustrated as I could barely stay afloat as it was, never mind adding client development.
However, I quickly learned that when the old / current work dries up, it's too late to start looking for new work if you want to avoid long dry patches.

I've also started to look for other photography-related streams of income. Having taught secondary school science for 21 years and now a pro-photographer, teaching/mentoring comes easily to mind and although I have helped some people here and there, I have yet to charge for it. Recently though a new door opened up... it was a combination of industrial photography and graphic design of some displays a company wanted to create for an Expo kiosk. I think they liked the fact that as well as giving them the images they needed I knew what I was talking about when we were brainstorming about the text to go on the displays. I'm hoping that they will help in my networking :-)