Back in 2018, I wrote an article about being a professional photographer and how viable it was. I thought it was time to update this.
Photography is a strange profession, forever changing while simultaneously being stuck in its ways. The old guard still reign at the top, while the majority of the profession work in a very different way.
Over in the UK, we are bracing ourselves for Brexit. After the finial vote to state that we were going to leave the EU, I didn’t take a single paying photograph for three months, and for the three months to follow, work was very slow, low budget, and generally a bit off. With the actual mass evacuation of the EU imminent, there are going to be a lot of changes for us photographers.
While sitting in my garden, enjoying the sunshine with a slight sense of foreboding after the Brexit vote, I quickly realized that I needed to diversify my income streams. Photography alone may not be future proof for the short term in the UK. This will obviously differ around the world, but I will continue this article from the Brits' perspective, with change in the air. There is a reasonably high probability of a short-term financial crash over here, and advertising is often the first to put a short-term stop to spending.
Before I go any further, yes, you can 100 percent make a living from photography in 2019, but there are a few things to consider. The industry is booming, and thanks to platforms like Instagram, there is an entirely new form of photography that is commonly being commissioned. Social media campaigns are big news and big money for the required work.
For me, my day rate wont be changing in 2019; I can’t increase it for a few years because of where I sit in the pecking order, and I don’t feel the need to reduce it. However, I have found some alternative revenues that will keep me safe should Britain go belly up in the next few weeks.
I have run workshops for years; before photography, I taught in schools and I was a sports coach, so it is something that I enjoy doing, and I think the enjoyment is key. I don’t really buy into “to be a professional photographer, you have to only make money from photography.” Times have changed. I now classify myself as someone who doesn’t have to go into the office 9-5 as well as being a photographer. I facilitate that through a selection of revenue streams. Teaching for me looks like this: once a month or 12 times a year (I never manage to get it in every month), I run a small, affordable, and hopefully fun workshop from my photography studio in Leicester. It isn’t a big production, but I try to keep it to information that you can't find free of charge online. I also offer 1-2-1 mentoring to photographers who are looking to make a living from photography. Again, I keep this all very affordable. I am not in the market to make teaching my main income. It is a small chunk of change each month that perhaps covers a few bills and eases the stress of the haphazard income that photography can create, and I also really enjoy doing it. I don’t think anything will work if you don’t truly love what you do.
You are not going to make a living selling for shutter stock. I see so many article going on about how you can make money selling stock, and I just don’t believe this to be true in the format that a lot of these YouTubers are prescribing. However, I have just signed over my archive to an agency who will be selling to publications and offering a 50 percent commission, which is an industry standard rate. I haven’t made a penny from this year (mostly because I have only sent one photo), but I think it may have some legs in the format in which they suggest that they will be selling my images. I am going to come back to this point and do a proper article about it once I have a bit more information.
I work predominantly as a food photographer, and we are always looking for backgrounds, props, and cool items of food. I am fortunate enough to have a pretty big studio compared to most food photographers, and with this comes a lot of warehouse storage space. So, I now rent out my props, and I have started producing backgrounds for sale. As before, I love painting, crafting, and building backgrounds, and one of my favorite pastimes is to scour charity shops for cool props. So, with a quick website build, I was up and running. Again, I don’t expect to make big bucks from this, but it is a great way to offset a few more bills during the financial uncertainty while doing something I enjoy.
This is probably what you are here for. I certainly make enough from shooting along to make a living, and I/you don’t have to do all of the other bits; I just like the added security and more recently, the variety in the work. I average about a client a week in terms of big shoots, with a few smaller jobs thrown in-between. I live a pretty basic life with very low overheads, and I enjoy pretty simple things, so this style of working affords me a great balance between commercial work and allowing me the time to continue to work on personal projects in-between the bread-winning jobs.
Since I started about 10 years ago, I haven’t really noticed a great change in the industry. Some clients are paying me more, some expect a lot of work for little money; it’s just knowing what you want to be doing and sticking with it. There is no point in doing loads of cheap work in desperation and then complaining about not having any high-paying clients. Big campaigns are never given to the cheap photographers: if you want to change, you have to start by saying no to the cheaper work and focusing your time on the bigger jobs. There has always been an abundance of people who do not appreciate photography; rather than getting down about it, try and find people who do appreciate it. There are plenty of them out there, and they need good photography to help sell their brand. I can't comment too much on the personal portrait or wedding business, as it's not something I'd profess to know much about in a business sense, but in the commercial world there is still a great path into professional photography with the option to craft a long-term career in your niche.
It is still as viable as ever to become a professional photographer; there may be more photographers out there, but the top end of the profession has also upped its game, which makes the masses at the entrance point the same as your uncle with a point and shoot and some drug store film back in the 90s. If you have the talent and the right contacts, there is no reason why you can’t have a fun and profitable business in photography. The additional revenue streams that are now open to us are great for those like me who want to Brexit-proof their business or perhaps be more fussy about the clients they say yes and no to. If you can have most of your overheads covered by passive incomes or side hustles (I hate that phrase), then you only really have to shoot the commercial jobs that really suit you. There is no shame in taking revenue from outside of photography to make your life happier and easier.
The bigger question is, "Is it worth it?"
Probably not. It's a lot easier to make more money doing other things and enjoying photography in your leisure time as a hobby than it is to try to build a photography business. It's probably only actually worth it if you are a special sort of insane as far as your attachment to the craft goes.
"Special sort of insane", I am afraid, is a prerequisite of running any business, not just photography.
There is only one person, who could answer that question...
You also have to be a special sort of insane to do certain office jobs, to make the money to pursue photography "on the side." It'll really screw up your brain if you're not careful, so choose wisely my friends.
I have been a full-time commercial photographer for 30 years. The first half of my career the bulk of my work was products, catalogs, and food. In 2000 I switched over to lifestyle and stock.
What I have witnessed is that as companies consolidated or closed, the need for still photography shrunk. As the ad platforms went from magazine to web, the need for high-level imagery also shrunk. As stock boomed and then busted and photoshop allowed art directors to create new images by combining a few stock images, my market value also declined. I have watched my gross revenue shrink by 50-60% over the last 5-10 years. The web has also pivoted from a still image platform to a video image platform. This is hurting still only shooters once again.
I think that the era of a person making a decent living doing commercial still photography is over for most of us. There are going to be exceptions and a few, very few, lucky and talented folk will thrive but for the most of us, it’s over.
Income diversity will be the key to survival. Those who can master both still and video production will have a chance. Those who can develop additional streams of income will also survive.
For myself, the answer has been to start a brand design agency and diversify into video but it has not been an easy road. I'm enjoying the challenge and work. Plus I am finding working with partners to be creatively rewarding but starting any business from scratch, is always a challenge.
In 2019 to be a photographer is a hobby. The real work is to be Instagrammer……