Photography VS The Business of Photography

Photography VS The Business of Photography

Have you ever seen a photograph taken for a large, expensive advertising campaign and thought: "I could have totally taken that picture." I see photographers charging unbelievably high prices for mediocre images all the time. It makes me wonder; what is more important, the quality of my photography or the business of selling it?

We all want to believe that as artists, if we are good at our craft, the money will follow. There is obviously some truth to that but I've found that the jump from fairly successful to ultra successful has very little to do with artistic talent. The business side of selling art is what really matters.


Most people will agree that Justin Beiber is a relatively talented singer (especially for his age) but is he so good at singing and song writing that his talent alone earned him 55 million dollars last year? Of course he isn't. He has a team of song writers, producers, marketing specialists, choreographers, and stylists who are all working together to make Beiber what he is. Photography works the exact same way.


One of the most controversial and successful photographers today is Terry Richardson. I actually like Terry's work but the majority of photographers can't get over the fact that he makes millions of dollars a year using only direct flash. Many photographers go as far as saying that Terry is terrible at photography but sources have said that Terry made 58 million dollars last year. Terry has built a brand around his "look" and because everyone now knows his name, he can charge whatever he wants. Is he really that much better at photography than we are?

The widest range in the value of photography is in the fine art world. You can go into an art gallery in almost any city in the world a buy a photograph for less than $100. Andreas Gursky currently holds the world record for the most expensive photograph ever sold. In 2011 Gurksy sold the image "Rhein II" for 4.3 million dollars. I have no doubt that there are art collectors out there that truly believe that Gursky's work is really THAT good but we know it isn't, it comes down to business. The price of his last work of art and the marketing and name recognition he possesses sells his prints, not the photograph itself.

The sad truth is that there is a good chance that none of us will ever make millions of dollars a year for our photography alone. Getting to that level is so difficult and so rare that it may not be worth worrying about but the idea of business is still massively important. In fact, it may be more important than your photography itself.

Everyone is a photographer today
Everyone wants to be a photographer today. It's fun, and honestly it's easy. You may want be a rockstar but you can't pick up a guitar and instantly start playing a song but anyone can pick up a camera and start snapping away. If someone wants to learn how to take better pictures there are endless resources available online. Fstoppers was built to help people become better photographers. There are hundreds of thousands of photographers out there who are actually better at photography than I am, and they do it as a hobby and I do it as my living. The only reason I get paid and they don't is because I am slowly learning the business side of photography.

It may be fun to learn to become a better photographer but only true professionals are interested in learning the business side of things. Photography is so enjoyable that people do it in their spare time, for free. Very few people look forward to the weekend when they get to learn about marketing strategies. If you want to be a pro, you will have to force yourself to learn this stuff. It may not be fun, but you want to do this for a living right?

As I've always said, the fastest and easiest way to become a professional photographer is to assist one. This is actually true for any field. Instead of paying to go for a school that may or may not be able teach your real life skills, you could get paid to work for someone who has already done what you want to do. The photographer you work for could potentially answer any question you could come up with and they will also answer questions that you never even thought about. By simply watching another photographer bid on a job, set up lighting, or interact with a subject you will learn an endless amount.

That being said, not everyone has the luxury of assisting. I get emails all the time from photographers who tell me there are simply no professional shooters in their town to assist. Although there are some online workshops that touch on business I only know of one that completely focuses on it.

Another option
My buddy Jason Kirby based created a 6 month online course that completely focuses on the business side of photography called the Photographer In Training Program. If you're looking to "go pro" or you simply want to take your business to the next level you should check it out. Due to a new contractual agreement Jason's class will never be discounted again in the future but this last class will be 50% off. The first class to this course is 100% free so you can decide how you like and if you decide to buy the full course and you aren't satisfied, Jason will give you a full refund.

Whether you learned the business of photography from another professional, a class or workshop, or trial and error, you simply can't ignore it. Photography is an incredible profession, but you will have to master business to become a full time pro.

But enough of my opinion, I want to hear from you. Do you believe that success is directly related to artistic talent or are all forms of art a business just like any other?

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Saying that photography is easy is like saying that everyone can take a Martin Schoeller headshot with the same lightning, so for me it's an overstatement. Snapshots are easy yes, photography ain't.

As an artist you're always developing and you'll never ever be the best in photography, because there's only more and less experienced photographers. The more you shoot, the more you understand. The more your brain comprehend, the more your eye sees and the more complex your photography gets.

Except the majority of non photographers do not see any difference between a snapshot and a PHOTOGRAPH. ;)

Partly agree, but that's another discussion ;)

Completely agree. That's the bitch of it.

I have taken some pretty amazing photos, I have studied so many techniques, I understand my gear inside and out. I have been featured in art shows, local newspapers, and I have my own web site. I have spent so much time effort and money learning to make quality photos, but I have never made any real amount of money from it. Not enough to pay for my equipment and time and effort. I love it and shoot every chance I get, but I have no idea how to run a business or market myself. I am definitely that person who looks at high dollar photos and knows how it was shot and that I could have shot it. So my answer is no, the money will not follow your talent. You have to push and push and push if you want any type of real recognition in the photography world because, as you said, there are millions of people out there pressing their shutter release.

Hi there. after reading your comment I googled you just for fun and I spotted couple of things that could definitely better your chances at getting recogniton and jobs.

1) SEO - after googling your name alone I was led to your private FB page and your wedding page (congratulations BTW). Even after adding "photography" you business website turned up on 10th position. You're potential clients definitely shouldn't spend this amount of time finding your business information

2) webapage - It definitely need a major redesign. You can find tons of photography templates for free or small price that look way more professional therefore making your clients feel safer hiring you.

3) specialized area - i would strongly suggest narrowing down your area of expertise (and therefore your portfolio) it counterintuitively gives you way bigger chances of getting hired

4) opening image - (just personal opinion) I think that you have much stronger photos in your portfolio than the one you open with. You have to remember that first photo you showcase gives first impression of your whole business and should display as much production value and technical expertise as possible. Young hokey player or strobe portrait with car in a background would be my pick.

I'm not trying to criticize you blindly, just trying to show you how I would build on what you already have. I also suggest following blogs of people who have a really strong grasp on marketing their photography brand or have good insight into "the industry".

I would start with Joey L., Chase Jarvis and The Photo Editor.

Right on I appreciate the critique! I have been feeling like I should revamp the web site and now I have a second opinion there. Any way you know to get the page higher up in the google search without spending a bunch of money?

SEO itself is pretty complex subject and outsourcing it is often a good idea but it's essential for any small business owner to get the basic rules behind it. I suggest to start from this articles/courses:

Apart from that internet is full of resources regarding SEO and SEO for photography websites exclusively. And big part of this resources are free.

If you would be interested in outside opinion on something else feel free to hit me up on FB or Twitter.

Sounds good Filip thanks!

Patryk M's picture

Not to many people like Filip out here in the world. Very nice of you!

OO oo do me next! PLEEEASE!!

but seriously... I'm a little more humble that that last guy. I'd love a good critique... any takers?

I'm actually in the middle of it. But I couldn't resist terrible The Office reference in the meantime. :P

First of all, living in Europe I never heard of Outer Banks before and seams as amazing area.

Regarding your work. Looking on your portfolio I was under the impression that your work in portraiture, environmental portraiture/lifestyle photography is superior to the rest. For me it was really immersive experience and seams like it's your real passion. While interior + wedding seams more like business decision not passion work. I might be completely of here but if thats accurate I would seriously consider dropping the rest and focusing on it. I know that there is relatively steady work in wedding and interior but I feel like focusing on what really works for you reflects quality of our work and leads to professional satisfaction and ultimately best earnings. Also focusing on environmental portraiture/lifestyle photography opens up many opportunities in commercial and editorial work.

Pursuing video along with photography is really good and "future-proof" idea in todays ever-changing industry. But I would also drop wedding part of it and focus on this general beach/sea/golden-hour sunset theme.

Three things regarding website itself.
- Splash page is really nice and photograph is stunning but when you first enter your page the image gradually loads up instead of appearing instantly. It really devaluates first impression. I would contact some web-wiz to ad a fast loading bar / loading circle before photo appears in its whole glory. It would give much bigger impact in my opinion. (little things ALWAYS matter!)
- I would hide pricing tab a little it seams a little overexposed. (no pun intended)
- After you enter main page I would choose 4-8 best photos of your to change in a background in full-screen instead of opening straight to one specific gallery. It would give fast overview of what is your work about and make you more memorable thanks to "best of" selection.

That's pretty much how I see it. Once again your portrait/environmental work feels more coherent then the rest and I personally would focus on it. I hope this outside opinion helps in some way.

wow. spot on brother. Thanks. However, I can't deny that the $$ is in wedding and commercial. Yes, I live in a beautiful area...though remote as 2hrs to the nearest Walmart remote (you have walmarts? haha)... so wedding and interior are my only money outlets, not that I sell my images to Walmart or anything... whatever you get it...

Splash page - completely agree, bugs the crap out of me too! Good call on the loading bar/circle... I'm a firm believer of first impressions in photography.
"Pricing tab" - (I always appreciate a good pun) Could it be argued that transparency is a plus? I get so tired of people calling/emailing me and going through the whole customer service song and dance just for a quote and now call back. Now that I've typed that out loud I realize it makes me sound lazy :/ but seriously, it seems publicly pricing my work helps convey my level of professionalism... I'd LOVE to hear an FSTOPPERS writer's take. <---------HINT HINT

"Splash Page" - That's a good idea. I used that format on my last website (kellerphoto v2.0) It was very useful, every now and then I'd through in an ad graphic or a coupon or something to convey "current". I found it was much more useful to focus on what makes you your money and put that up front... so my intention was streamlining... that being said, I think you might be right... it just drops your right in the mix.
Thank you VERY much for your critique... funny in my 10+ years of professional photography this is the first unbiased criticism I've received. Mom's and friends always say "great job" :) Thanks again my friend!

I'd love a critique on my site if anyone is willing! Before anyone complains about it being flash, two things: there is a mobile & an ipad version on autodetect. Second, I purchased the site as a template so I wouldn't have to worry about updates to the site and html5 was not an option at the time I purchased it. I want to upgrade to a new template at some point, but have been having a hard time finding the right clients lately, and buying a new website template is low on the priority on the purchase list. It's a work in progress. :)

I personally do not like a site that automagicly goes full screen...or plays music at all...

(not that yours is playing music)just saying

Sarah Noda's picture

Flip, I would love your insight too. thanks, Sarah

David Geffin's picture

Filip that was really nice of you to provide such detailed clear and concise constructive feedback for Jordan; i also took a lot from your post, thanks for taking the time to write that out.

Number one advice I have received from other photographers.... take business classes in school. Can you guess what major I am? It is hard to charge and the people that write my checks don't even understand how I charge several $100 to shoot an event that they people could have shoot possible just as well. It has more to do with how I present myself, willing to come in an provide additional ideas for the magazine, the images I have in stock that I provide for them when they are in a crunch in goodwill, and knowing how to deal with Dean's and Chairmen quickly and effectively that allows me charge what I do. Photography technique has very little to do with shooting events, most events are kind of boring from a creative stand point but it pays the bills so I can shoot creative stuff. The creative stuff lands me with companies I want to shoot for or have budgets so I can occasionally wow them with creativity when the publishing ideas are a little bit more flexible.

Sure, Gursky's photo might seem overpriced, but it was an auction sale, so it's a buyer who put a price on it... anyways, Gursky works really qualifies as fine art to me, and he's been around for about 30 years, so i would only say "good for him!", and ultimately, good for us photographers if photography's price tag increases...

I just want to live my life doing what I love to do for a living. The hardest part is staying inspired to go for it.

"I have no doubt that there are art collectors out there that truly believe that Gursky’s work is really THAT good but we know it isn’t"

This sentence pretty much sums up Fstoppers these days. A bunch of clueless, commercial-obsessed philistines, for whom Von Wong is an artist, while Gursky is a con-artist.

Are you suggesting that if I took that picture and uploaded it online you would tell me it looks like it's worth 4 million dollars?

No, it wouldn't. And it wouldn't supposed to look like 4 mil. In art, history behind a photograph, the artist's history, thought process and historical placement is as important as image itself. Or so am I told.

That's the point. There is so much more than goes into the value of a photograph rather than the picture itself.

"The price of his last work of art and the marketing and name recognition he possesses sells his prints, not the photograph itself."

You are not making the same point as us.

Gursky's work in the flesh is more visceral than a photo on the internet would be though. I've seen Rhein II when it was on display at The Tate Modern in London. The image is 12 foot long it dominates the space it is in and is undeniably a work of art, which is more than just the technique of photography applied to a subject.

I for one am glad that photographic art is gaining in value it has long lived in the shadow of "proper" artwork like painting and sculpture.

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