Get a Job! Here's Why Full-Time Photography Employment Is Underrated

Get a Job! Here's Why Full-Time Photography Employment Is Underrated

Have you been told to stop messing around shooting models and get a job?  Do your loved ones wish you'd do something more stable instead of wondering when the next job will drop into your email?  Well, I believe they're on to something. 

Ever since I was in college, the photographers around me have been expressing avoidance or even disdain for the idea of getting a job. Self-help gurus and photography whizzes sell courses on how to make six figures escaping the daily grind and working for yourself. A job is what you do when everything else falls apart and you just have to make rent. Right? Maybe for some people. For me, full-time work has been a great boon. It has enabled me to stay in the game, travel, learn business, build long-term friendships, and raise my four children, all while building an opportunity-making portfolio.  

Here are all the things about being employed full-time as a photographer I feel are underappreciated by many photographers considering going pro:


While putting all your eggs into one basket can be risky, the upside is always knowing when the next paycheck will come and exactly how many dollars you can expect to receive. Nothing is risk-free, and getting laid off or fired can certainly turn your world upside-down, but this can be insured by keeping your portfolio up by doing personal work and occasional freelance jobs on the side. It's also wise to stay abreast of jobs available in your area, companies who hire, and keeping communications alive with old friends and colleagues in the event that you need help finding a new job.


Working for a good company will give you access to all the best gear available. Need a new drone for a certain video you're shooting this week? Buy it. Need to shoot in 8K to nail a cinemagraph for an ad?  Buy a new camera. Need lights that won't fail on you? Buy the latest and greatest. Not all companies are willing to do this; however, I've found that after showing them what you can do with good gear, they're more than happy to make the investment.


Companies with outdoors-related products, even if they don't always plan far enough ahead, need images year-round that show their items in use where trees are green and snow is absent. This, and other considerations, result in opportunities for frequent travel. Here in Utah, trees are leafless and snow is deep half of the year, so flying to Washington State, California, or Florida is important.  Having a wide variety of locations in your portfolio is a great way to separate yourself from the other locals.


It may seem like working full-time shooting product is not only boring, but financially unimpressive. While it's true that jobs start around $30,000, there are also jobs that pay $70,000+. That's not on par with an IT director or dentist, but where the average photographer's income is less than $25k/year, I'd say it's pretty good. If you do well and stay with it, you can move into more advanced positions like photography manager, art director of photo/video, or director of photography, all of which can pay much more.

Business Acumen

As a freelancer, you're often left out of the details of a project unless you truly insert yourself by insisting on more information. A company will hire you, give you a brief, and hope to not talk to you again until absolutely necessary. It can be difficult to understand the motivations behind good or bad behavior, changes in schedules, creative direction, etc. Working full-time for several years gives you a window of insight into what's happening behind the scenes. My experiences as an employee and as an art director have made me a better freelancer. I understand what needs and pressures exist for my clients, as well as where I can create boundaries and insist on certain things. I have had lengthy one-on-one conversations with CEOs and marketing directors about their hopes, fears, and concerns for my projects, their roles, and more, because I've worked long enough in similar organizations to understand them.

Family Life

This one is a bit of a double-edged sword, but hear me out. Working freelance gives you more time during the day when your kids are around. Theoretically, this means more time with them. I've been a freelancer before, and while I was at home more, I was also constantly invested in marketing myself, shooting personal work, shooting high-pressure client work, and making sure ends meet. So, I was home, but it didn't mean a utopia of never-ending child-parent bliss. Since my work was self-directed, it was more difficult to justify to my wife why I couldn't do this or that during my work hours, even if I really was doing something important. I wasn't efficient. Now, I am a remote worker. I'm home all day every day. I have clearly defined expectations, schedules, and meetings, so it's easy for me to take time to talk to my boys about their LEGOs, jump on the trampoline, or read a book. I can adjust my schedule to get the work done where needed. And when work is over, it's over. As a business-owner, it can be more difficult to shut it off at the end of the workday.


I have many good friends and contacts from my freelance work. But the fact is I only see or hear from those people a few times each year. We have a great rapport, but it's not the same as working face to face and traveling with a team over several years. I talk with my co-workers about my fears and concerns, about my family and aspirations. I have them over for dinner. I go out of my way to save their bacon in tricky circumstances and vice versa. These are much stronger bonds and shared experiences that last longer and mean more. CEOs and other team members you'd never hear from as a freelancer frequently have projects for you as a full-timer, and it gives you a chance to catch up with them and learn how things go at the top level. This year, I went up in the corporate jet with a CEO to get some aerial photos of the company's new airport hangar. It meant a lot to him (I was sick for about six hours), and I got to know him a bit. That project wouldn't have justified hiring a freelancer.


As a full-time photographer employed at a company, I regularly shot up to four days/week on-location. Shooting that often week after week is a terrific way to sharpen your skills. If the subject matter is boring, I spice things up by trying new lighting techniques, shooting new angles, or finding interesting locations. Doing anything that often, especially with ambition, will inevitably result in irreplaceable growth. As a freelancer, I shot much less often, with more effort spent on blog writing, SEO, emails, networking, etc.


In the end, freelancing is definitely a great fit for some people. If you're having a blast and making a killing, by all means, keep it up. For others, the stress, instability, boredom, and fear associated with freelance work isn't worth the payoff. I'm a believer in playing for the long game, and to me, being employed and building a resume and portfolio together is a strong way to make it for the long haul. I can still do fun freelance projects on the side, but my growth is steady, as is my pay schedule, and the friends and experiences I'm getting out of it are invaluable.  

Do you think full-time employment is for sell-outs? The last resort? Or something to aspire to?

Braxton Wilhelmsen's picture

Braxton is an art director and commercial photographer in Salt Lake City, Utah. He shoots product, lifestyle, automotive and sports images for companies like SyberJet, Lifetime Products, PhoneSoap, Icon Fitness and Rapid Reboot. Braxton also teaches photography at Brigham Young University.

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I think get a job. Independent working are for business minded people. Most of them will target something more profitable. A reasonable payed steady job is much better for most. I would expect a job in photography is hard to get, but to me it sounds like a great option.

These days many of the few companies that hire staff photogs are looking for a photographer/video producers, and social media experts for $30-50k.
Government jobs are still out there but I know big govt entity had a photo dept for a long time (30 years) then a photographer for the last 15 years. Now 85% is done on iphones by non photogs and the important stuff is jobbed out.

Dedication and skills, both professionally and business-wise. Of course, not everything can be covered in the article, but all of us who have been out there in the workforce have come face-to-face with the financial realities of being a professional: cost of dental plans for the entire family, health insurance, retirement investments, savings for emergencies, cost of college for kids, insurance, costly medications not covered by medical plans, mortgage, vehicle maintenance, etc., etc. It is a lot for freelancers who are planning to have a family and who are the primary providers for that family. And then there's the photography aspect with its eternal challenge of balancing craft with the daily grind of keeping a business afloat in these times. Not impossible, but photographers need to get great advice, training, and go at it with very open eyes. The payoff, while satisfying, may be a bunch of years away, so best be organized and ready.

The main problem with being a freelancer is that most people have no business skills.
A salaried person has scant idea what they cost to their employers and as a consequence have zero concept of the revenue needed to stay solvent.
The fact that so many hobbyists try to make a go of it in fields like fashion and sports is a testament to their ignorance of the field.
A successful business needs clients with wallets. Producing work that a client will pay for regularly is key. Competent skills is a baseline but reliability and the ability to adapt and price your work properly is fundamental.
A job can be a transition to a successful photography career as building a business takes time. It is during that time one discovers whether or not they love ALL aspects of photography enough to make it their life.

Totally agree with Lee's sentiments.
I would add that digital has altered the landscape considerably. Film (I'm 61 and self-employed for 35 years) was bloody hard work and all but eliminated interlopers. Also, everything was passed up the line once you produced the transparencies. So, the workflow emphasized getting the shot. After that you could forget it, which had its attractions. Now, the photographer does pretty much everything and clients frequently forget this when they see a quote. Also, the gear costs multiples of what film gear costs. And you could keep a film camera for years. (I still have my 4x5 Sinar.)
In media, portfolio careers are the order of the day now. I do a little third-level teaching and I love it. Compared with photography, it is virtually pro bono. Academia simply doesn't pay unless you're a salaried insider. But,the payback in terms of feedback from the students is unbeatable. (Photography can be a lonely profession!) I also try to shoot for myself as much as possible, but getting an audience is tough.
I had a great run; more than half of it shooting on film. But, I don't think I'd like to be thirty and working freelance with a mortgage and a couple of kids. That said, if that's what your dream is, give it a go!
I hope I'm sounding realistic more than negative.

This is misleading. Been a photographer for 35+ years. As a photographer, less than 5% of professional photographers make a sustainable career in photography; I'm not talking about teaching, too, just photography. Second, the cost of living in most of the metro areas that have potential clients far exceeds $70k/year net. (It's not what you make, but what you keep).
Sure, some multi-media houses are doing work and getting paid; however, they are minimal. The low barrier of entry of digital has created over-supply values in work that is not even good enough to pay for good equipment.
The industry is filled with small photographers willing to little to nothing for their work. Many do it long enough to realize they can't make a living doing it and move on, hurting all those who want to make a go of it but can't get higher pricing.
So, many great photographers I know who were making a nice living in the 80's and 90's are actually now doing something other than photography. Some went into video, some went to editing, some went to marketing and still most left it for other industries.
Most today, who try to make a living in photography will fail. Fail. Until the industry finds a way to increase pricing and get buyers to pay that pricing level it will continue down this path.

Things certainly are more competitive and challenging than they've ever been.

I've been on both sides of the coin. Freelancing sure has its perks, but there is some serious frustration with getting payments on time and managing the business side of things. Being an employee, you have stability, often get benefits & 401k match, plus you are working with high end equipment. If you do great work and the company sees growth and value with your skills, you're likely due for incremental raises. Oh, and paid vacation and sicks days - as a freelancer, you usually don't get paid if you're not working!

I am fortunate to have found a great situation and I get to use a Phase One IQ3 which I wouldn't have access to without this opportunity. I'll also still take on freelance projects on the weekend which is icing on the cake. Some of the daily tasks can be remedial and tedious, so I need to keep the creativity alive and fresh!