Can You Still Make a Living in Photography in 2018?

Can You Still Make a Living in Photography in 2018?

Last week, I had a photographer friend (hobbyist, but very talented) ask me if it was still possible to make a living in photography.
This coincided with a Facebook rant from a local pro about a small restaurant asking for free food photography in exchange for the dreaded “exposure.” There are really two questions here, but I think they tie in together nicely. The question, I feel, is this: if people are asking for free/cheap work and photographers are willing to work for free/cheap, is photography still a viable business?

This is an issue that’s discussed a lot online: complaints of a price race to the bottom, photographers with poor gear, photographers lacking skill, photographers working for free or charging expenses. In the UK, you can find event photographers working for as little as £50 a night, weddings being shot for £300, and portrait sittings for £30. At the same time, in my local area (Leicester, UK), there are wedding photographers booked out all year at £10,000 a day, event photographers who charge a day rate of £1200, and portrait sittings going for £800.

I feel that the common misconception in the debate is that photography has a set value for everyone. I always try to see it in the same way as food shopping. Some of us love to eat, we love to cook, we love to discover new restaurants. We spend a disproportionate amount of our income at local farmers markets, high-end supermarkets, and new openings. It matters to us and it’s something we want to invest in. Others want to spend their money on cars or clothes. That’s fine: they won’t be spending £200 on dinner, because they see no value in it. Photography is very much the same. If a client perceives the value of the event photography to be £50, then they are going to spend £50; a client looking for a £1200 photography delivery is not going to book a £50 photographer.

Photographers working for free or in exchange for exposure seem to provoke a disproportionate amount of rage from the community. The local restaurant who was asking for food photography in exchange for exposure, in my opinion, is perfectly fine to do so. They have no interest (or frankly, no available budget) in high-end photographs, and the photographer who chooses to take the job has no interest in high-end exposure. They will both give and receive proportionately. You get what you pay for. I am sure the owners of Harrods don’t start ranting and raving at the price-cutting that Pound Land do. They offer different services for different customers.

Would I work for exposure? Absolutely. If I felt the exposure was of the same value as my day rate and it was in my best interest. It isn’t something I have done for the last few years, but that’s not to say that I won’t do it in the future.

Back to the original question: if people are asking for free work and photographers are willing to work for free, is photography still a viable business? Of course it is. There will always be someone cheaper or more expensive than you. The important thing is not to compete against others in different price brackets. Rather, make sure that what you offer is competitive and of a high standard for clients looking to spend the amount you charge.

What are your views on this?

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28 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

Interesting take. The one thing I disagree with is the idea that businesses asking for free photography have no interest in or budget for higher quality work. I think it's important to remember that the vast majority of businesses are trying to minimize their expenses while still obtaining what they need. And by conditioning businesses to believe good photography can be done cheaply or even for free, photographers are writing themselves out of the equation. That's not to say as you said that there aren't occasional opportunities where a trade for services or exposure that was are worthwhile may arise, but I think businesses are always looking to cut costs, and part of the industry's job is to continually assert that image and video services are not the place to do that, at least not that drastically.

I don't know about "conditioning". I agree businesses will always work hard to diminish the value of what they need to invest in and inflate that of what they sell. That is also called making a profit. We as photographers aren't any different!!!

Have you ever worked with volunteer models or assistants, artits etc while doing a paid gig? It's easy for me to say because photography is kinda just a lucrative hobby... But all the more I respect people like you that make a living out of it!! :D When I do a paid wedding and the celebrant complains to me after hearing my prices that he is doing his job for free I don't feel sorry for him. We each have to individually fight for the respect we believe we each deserve.

Last summer I charged full price for a cousin of mine only to hear his father i.e. my uncle complain about how expensive it was and that he could instead use his cellphone. I told him he was welcome to use his cellphone if he wished to but he ended up hiring me and has been praising me for the results on many occasions since. Granted I got lucky but nevertheless we are our own worst enemies no need to blame the media, culture or anyone else for that matter.

Cheers :)

Joshua Tousey's picture

Alex, not necessarily disagreeing. I'm actually agreeing with you to a point. on the devils advocate side though, if we take that same analogy for "Small Business" I would be able to say "feed, cloth me and i will show me eating and wearing it your product and writing a review for free" Nice trade right?!?!?

In the same line, these companies should look be looking at high school and college students needing such work experience. not aspecting the professionals that have spent their career honing their craft to give a two minutes even to talk with them. I constantly call the university asking for interns. I even pay them a small fee and lunch to come "play" with me. these companies must have friends or a cousin that has a camera too. do what you must.

Unless we as an group start standing up for ourselves, these won't change. It's like the old sayings, "Dress for success." "Look the part, be the part." so on and so on.

I think the same about videography, photography and sounds, as one. I am trained as a photographer but works a digital imaging technician on film set. I think companies are trying to cut costs to much. they need to hire one for each position. Photographer, videographer, sound, lighting and editor. We all know enough to get by in each position. but what are we really saying about ourselves, and the value of ourselves and our work when, "we do it all"?? Would we go to a starbucks where they serve coffee and expect them to be able to serve me a 3in 16oz ny strip. with garlic aioli. blanched potatoes with rosemary and white wine cream sauce. NO? but they're a food and beverage right. i'm a photographer, so i must be able to do video and sound and editing right?? I have a friend now that is battling very situation. he works tons and tons. busy busy busy. but he makes the same as i do and i work about ⅓ amount of time, less stress, more sleep, and able to spend it with my family. Whats your standard, when do you say what your worth??

John Dawson's picture

In addition to avoiding the expense of better photography, I think that use of the image makes a huge difference. It seems that for social media purposes many business actually prefer lower-quality, "grittier" and, dare I say, more pedestrian shots. I think that they think it's more "real" and therefore more appropriate for social. Then again, I may be full of it.

John MacLean's picture

Much like the porn industry. It went from "stars" being filmed in Chatsworth, CA to everyone's got a cell phone with video recording capabilities. An awkward analogy, but not too far off the mark. ;)

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

street cred. but of course, it depends on the brand. aspirational brands like Hermes don't want "gritty," they want polished and in the best light to maintain their aspirational image.

but when it comes to pedestrian brands, especially new ones, i completely agree. they want what looks like "grassroots" production... it's why they gift to "influencers," hoping people will want to buy what some kardashian is wearing or taking smartphone pics of.

trickle-down marketing.

I've met a couple people who got paid contracts from their instagram following meanwhile they never owned anything but a cellphone. One of them had to buy a nikon D3200 in a hurry just for the job lol!

John Dawson's picture

Yup, Kartrashian marketing.

thomas Palmer's picture

A job that could really solve a problem is agent for beginner photographers, I'd be really glad to give 30 % of each contract, even in the range of 500-1500 €

Tony Clark's picture

The race to the bottom has been going on for +25 years. I’ve been fighting it, have refused to participate and I hope that everyone realizes that no one benefits but the client. It never leads to actual paid work and what are the odds that you will be able to use it to promote yourself? If they’re too cheap on photography what do you think they’ll do with Hair and Makeup or Styling? In the beginning of my career, I chose to wait tables and tend bar instead of letting these type benefit from my work.

...and once you go cheap it may be very hard to climb back out of that hole again!

John Dawson's picture

And there are two races the bottom, the low (Kartrashian) road, and seemingly higher road that is CGI. The first is currently cheap and easy (like the namesake), and the second will get there soon enough.

Photography as we know it today is on the fast track to being tomorrow's vinyl records -- cool in a nostalgically romantic way, but functionally pointless.

"there are two races the bottom, the low road, and seemingly higher road that is CGI"

Yes and no. Right now Instagram is a good marketing resource for brands so they will use it as such. You can't blame them, they have a business to run and it's not part of their mission statement(or responsibility) to support your photography studio. That doesn't mean the need for high quality images disappears. Cell phone photos pulled from social media can't be reproduced large enough for traditional advertising, which those brands DO still employ.

On the subject of CGI- There are many avenues of photography that it can not replace. Ikea using CGI to create images of it's products is only financially viable because they already have digital "blueprints" of them since the parts are all designed/manufactured using CAD/CAM. A high end furniture manufacturer, making hand crafted goods, will still opt for photography. Paying someone to "digitally map" a one-off piece is simply less efficient than photographing it.

CGI will also never replace event/portrait/wedding/sports photography. What I think you WILL see more of(at least for sports/wedding/events) are images being pulled from video. Wedding/sports/event photographers will need to adapt their skills(learn hybrid video/photography) to suit the situation.

karl johnston's picture

All industries in practically every field have free workers within them. There are mechanics like this, lawyers, consultants, writers, painters.. and yet they exist. I think this is a non issue. The bigger issue is what kind of cash flow to support a photographer as the cost of living creeps up. The expensive variable costs like rent and electricity, food and family. The fact that i cannot buy a 2 bedroom house for less than 600k anymore.. so i think your question is not so much whether there is viability in the industry but if a person can adjust to the inconsistency and turbulence within said industry.

When i was 20, yes. Easily. But in my 30s ? Affording a house and wedding (to the model) and retirement ? I think therein is the problem..it is a living that is based around the lifestyle of the photographer. If you can, then cool! But if not then..cool. Does not mean much at the end of the day. As long as you and the (mostly) the (model) wife are happy then all is well.

Matthew Saville's picture

After paying my bills with a camera for over a decade, I must say,

NOT ADVISABLE.

Ross Jukes's picture

Scott - Great article and I completely agree with the points you raised. I think in addition, there is now a trend towards Photographers thinking there is more value in building large social media followings rather than earning a decent living. It's almost like they put an extra step in the way of making money, like 'if I work for free, I will get exposure and lot's of followers and then people will want to pay me because I am successful' - Rather than just producing good work that people want to pay for!

P.s. - I am fairly local to you (in internet terms!) I'm based in Birmingham - www.rossjukesphoto.co.uk - nice to see local people popping up on here ;) Good luck!

providing service of high class improve your rate.

Can you earn a living in photography in 2018? Can you earn a living as an actor, musician or painter in 2018? You can, but few do.

I will limit my remarks to the commercial world since that is the arena that I play in. My observation is that the commercial world has been buffeted by many forces in the last thirty years.

1. A lot of advertising dollars have moved online. In the online world, a brand does not need the quality, creative and inventive images that it needed when those images where printed in glossy magazines. Let’s face it, a two-inch picture on Facebook will not be scrutinized the same way a double page magazine spread will be.
2. The internet has moved from a still photography platform to a video platform which further reduces the need for high quality branded images.
3. With the easy availability of good quality stock photography, why would an art director or brand manager spend the time, money and political capitol needed to justify spending thousands of dollars on a photoshoot when good stock is available for a few bucks?
4. Why would mid to lower range businesses spend money on photography when they can get something somewhat usable by just using their camera phone? This eliminates some of the lower steps on the ladder of success for young photographers to climb making the climb very, very hard.

Some specialties are affected by this more than others. Lifestyle photography has taken a large hit from stock. Since product photography, executive portraiture and architecture shots cannot be bought on Getty Images, they are currently fairing a bit better. But with the overall market for quality still photography shrinking and with the cost of entrance also in decline, there has been a lot of downward price pressure for commercial photography.

These are but a few of the forces that are making it hard for young photographers to get started and for mid-range photographers to earn a decent living. But, earning one's keep in any creative field has always been hard. Michelangelo often complained that the Pope did not understand what he was trying to achieve, did not respect his art, always thought the Michelangelo was charging too much and was always late in his payments. Has anything changed much in 450 plus years?

There is also the problem of longevity. Often times photographers can be “hot” for a couple of years but then they get stale, or fall out of fashion, or their base clients close shop and suddenly five, ten or fifteen years into the game they can no longer make a go of it. I have seen this happen far too often.

Like acting, playing music or writing, earning a keep in a creative field like photography has always been hard and it does not get any easier. But for the few who have the talent, discipline, ambition, ​and luck, it can be lead to a very rewarding life.

Sincerely,
Zave Smith
www.zavesmith.com

Peter House's picture

Yes its possible. There is a lot of money out there. You just have to know how to tap into it. Stop focusing on how money was made 20 years ago and complain about how you can't do that anymore. There is still a lot of value in media and providing a professional grade production on time and without hiccups. Clients WILL pay for that.

But if it weren't for Henry Ford and his cheap Model A I wouldn't of had to close my buggy whip factory...

great article...i m big fan of urs

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Scott Weaver's picture

The big issue is simply that of commercial photographers too often not being adequately compensated. The equipment is expensive, insurance is expensive, etc... but the value of the imagery is considerable. If photographers do not ask enough for their services it will become even more difficult to make a living at it. The business has been a challenge for at least 20 years with little reason to expect improvement anytime soon.

Nicks Fort's picture

Good read and good conversation starter! A little side note; I have found that when I stick to my pricing and explain that we can adjust things to meet the budget often times clients will do just that IF they don't actually have the budget. For example let's say the total budget is 5 gold stars but the client only has 3 gold stars and each final video delivered ends up costing 1 gold star then we'd just make 3 videos. Basically often times you can get the same rate for your work but the client might not be able to afford all the content they originally wanted. Obviously this doesn't always work. And sometimes you can make cuts on other pieces to make things work. For example I would love to have a DP and a gaffer on every shoot but sometimes you can't afford it so you cut a crew member. A little off the topic but hopefully still helpful to some!

Good common sense in this article, and I think that the photographers of the old school who complain about price-bargaining are simply refusing to acknowledge that the entire model has changed irrevocably. Also, news flash, this was not yesterday. No one owes anyone a living; and no one owes anything to an old-guard "profession" whose business model is still based on photography being a complex, esoteric and highly technical trade involving cumbersome cameras, chemicals and darkrooms i.e. a distinctly manly pursuit.

Digital photography has removed 99% of the technical difficulties for anyone who has the ambition to learn how to turn off their automatic flash (and I wish they would), having had the realization that this is possible and often desirable. From that point on, can professional status be far behind?

It's like talent. You can't do much without it, but it's not enough on its own; same with photographic skills. As the article makes very clear, you also have to "market yourself". Just "being a photographer" is not marketing.

It's absolutely true that accepting lower prices "trains" customers in that expectation;but whether I accept them or not is no one's business but mine. Please do not put the responsibility for justifying your pricing model on my or anyone else's shoulders. You, not the rest of the "profession", need to educate your target customer in your chosen niche about what you can do that no one else can do, hopefully backed up by your stunning portfolio and customers who can't stop raving about you. YOU need to adjust to the look, the trends, what's hot, not the other way round - or make your own trend. EVERYONE is a photographer, guys, and if you're accepting fees you don't want to accept, maybe put down your camera and study the market. I guarantee that no one will pay for something they believe they can do just as well themselves - and, frankly, maybe sometimes can.

Very balanced article, thanks. By the way, love your work.