The Truth Behind Why You Can’t Make Money From Photography

The Truth Behind Why You Can’t Make Money From Photography

For a lot of us, being a professional photographer is a dream job that isn't realized. Even for those of us who do make a living from it, it probably isn’t exactly as we had planned.

Following on from Andy Days article , I thought I would add a few of my opinions to the mix. Starting with a full disclosure. I wanted to be a music photographer when I set out. My dream job was going on tour with bands and being part of that lifestyle. And I did this for a while, but I didn’t understand the commitment needed to be successful in this field. Life moved on, I grew up, and my interests changed. By the time I found my current career as a commercial food photographer, I had made a lot of the big mistakes already, so it only took a couple of years to get going. This combined with mentoring other photographers one on one and the fact I also run a lot of workshops focusing on turning professional in photography (and the ones who do not make it share a lot of the same traits and also suffer the same faults as one another) means I reckon I have a good insight into what might be going wrong for you.

You Are Not Self Aware

This is perhaps the biggest reason why you can’t make this work. Self awareness is perhaps the biggest skill that you need to hone. When I was working as a music photographer (and I use the word "working" very loosely) I thought the sun was shining out of my bottom. I was angry that I wasn’t getting booked to shoot the big magazine covers and that I was stuck shooting little regional magazines. Looking back at that time now, I can see how my work was the wrong style and generally just not good enough, but at the time I didn’t have the self awareness to realize this.

You Want the World to Change for You

This kind of drags on from my previous point. I wanted musicians to have more money and to spend it with me. Unsigned bands were never going to have $1000 for a photoshoot, wanting them to change to suit my narrative was complete madness. The bands in my area had about $200 to spare perhaps twice a year for photographs and the bands who did have a budget also had the sense to get a good photographer. That photographer wasn’t me.

You Think Photography Is About Technique and Gear

If you are sat around reading gear reviews and looking for cool techniques, you have already lost the battle. I spent years trying to work out what the best lighting technique was and how to best spend my money in order to get the best optical performance for my few dollars. That is not to say that this is not important, it is, but it comes way down the line. You firstly need to fully understand your niche and subject matter. I teach a lot of want-to-be fashion photographers who do not know the first thing about fashion. If you truly want to be a fashion photographer, you need to know fashion inside out. Not want to photographer pretty girls in nice clothes. For me, I didn’t know music inside out, I knew how to recreate other successful photographers work. It wasn’t until I found food photographer which can be technically straight forward for 90% of the work, that I managed to really get to know my subject and truly respect what I was trying to portray in my images, rather than trying to show off my latest lighting skills and monster cameras.

People Don’t Like You

I say this to people all the time, if you are not likeable, people will not book you. People buy people. No one wants to work with a photographer that they do not trust or one who is a nightmare on set. None of us are perfect and I am certainly a stress head when jobs are headed south and I lose control of the shoot, but I was far worse when I started out. I failed to set client expectations, I was always changing quotes and generally being a nightmare to work with. You need to work on yourself to make sure that you are fun to be around and that the client has a good experience on set. This is as important as your photography skills. Once you get to a certain level, the only thing separating you from the competition is if people enjoy being around you.

Your Work Is Not Commercially Viable

You work might be amazing, beautiful and get 10,000 likes each time you post it on instagram, but if there isn't a commercial application to it (excluding genres like family portraits and weddings etc) then no one is going to commission you. I see this time and time again where photographers painstakingly produce beautiful images and wonder why no one is paying them. Your work has got to be commercially viable in order to get paid. If the work you love producing isn’t, then you have two options. One is to change what you do to get paid and the other is to stick with it, but find another way to make money on the side to help fund it. The world isn't going to change and if your work doesn't sell, it’s down to you to do something to change that.

You Think Cheap Photographers Are Undercutting You

Cheap photographers are not stealing your work. The more energy you waste on this fallacy the longer it will take you to turn pro. I recently attended a dinner where all of the photographers were paranoid about people price cutting them. This is obscenely incorrect. If you want to be a professional and last the distance then the price of your work is pretty much set by the industry that you are in. Anyone too cheap won’t get booked as the perception is that they are too much of a risk for the project, anyone too expensive won’t fit within the budget. When quoting on jobs that you fail to get, ask for feedback so you can work out if you are too high or low price wise and adjust accordingly.

You Are Trying to be an "Everything" Photographer

Being a photographer is a very broad term. Unless you have a niche, it is hard to make it. These cheap and price cutting photographers are usually people who are a jack of all trades. In order to make any real traction in the industry you need to have a specialty. For me, that is food photography and even within food photography I have a small niche that I work in. The more specialist you are the better. When someone phones to book me, there isn't a sales pitch or any long discussions as the client has a set requirement and my portfolio answers that exactly. This adds value to my work and value to my clients, as they know they’re getting the best person for the job. I have no qualms in saying no to work I feel isn’t right for me, and indeed recommending another photographer who is right. If you have 3-4 things that you do, you need to narrow it down to 1 or 2. It is impossible to be good at multiple things. That is not to say that I can’t take a nice portrait or a good photograph of a watch, I am just a lot better at food photography so that is what I sell myself as.

What would you add to the list?

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peter rath's picture

All of your points make a lot of sense however I think you missed a really important one: "You are not good at self-promotion/networking."

Successful photographers (true for any service professional) have a clear sales pitch selling their services and they keep adding to their in-person connections.

The more people know you and understand what you're selling the more work you're going to get.

John Martin's picture

That's part of the " people liking you" issue.
You can be the best salesman but if people dont like you it wont matter how good you are.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah who you know is very important, as long as they also like you.

Tony Valdivia's picture

Thanks Scott! I'm not a professional in any sense, but your writing is inspirational for me because I love photography and a niche area of work will help me to a more satisfying place. I'm a generalist by nature.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks Tony, I am glad you enjoyed it. Happy niche hunting.

Scott Choucino's picture

I can't open that link in Europe.

Jorge Cevallos's picture

This article reflects some of the things happening to me right now. Thanks for sharing.

Scott Choucino's picture

Hope it is of some help.

John Martin's picture

I went through your entire list. I was a hobbyist/semi pro/studio owner former photographer. "Oh your work is great, you should charge for it".
The moment i went pro and worrying about making a living from it is the time photography stopped being fun and became merely an ends to a means.
I saw many less talented photographers who had great connections being referred by busy venues. Even though I tried I lacked their likeability.
Getting clients comes from so many different networks.
Network network network.
I was shooting weddings for a larger studio. They averaged well over a hundred weddings a year. The owner was an elderly lady whos work was so stale it was pathetic. Yet she was the queen of networking. She sat on so many boards, colleges, city and county associations, groups, airports etc. And thats what beought clients ro her.
I eventually bought her studio expecting the same. Boy was I so wrong. I did none of her networking. I wasnt as personable or liked as her. Bookings started to drop until 10 years later I closed the studio.
And the recession of 2008 also had a huge impact on business along with the digital age. That really changed the entire scene. No longer was medium format the king. Giving away discs of files became the norm instead of holding onto negs and making sure clients had to come to you for reorders which were a big part of the businesses income.
Today, ive sold all of my gear and photography is just a memory.

Scott Choucino's picture

making money from photography can destroy the fun in it for many people. Most of the happiest photographers are hobbyists.

Deleted Account's picture

Read 'Oversubscribed' It was recommended by Robert in an article not so long ago. You'll avoid most of these pitfalls.

Scott Choucino's picture

I will have a search for this. Thanks

Igor Warzocha's picture

100% me. Bullet point by bullet point. I was different in a sense that I had been self-aware all of that time, but I had to keep doing some stuff and just go with the flow of the mindset or I'd go crazy.

TLDR for your post? "It's your attitude towards the stuff you're doing."

I grew out of most of the stuff when I moved away from the place where I had a lot of bookings (but I knew I wasn't really getting anywhere). Distance & time do give you perspective.

Being the sociopath that I am, I'll probably struggle to get back into music photography, but for an entirely different reason: I know the music industry. I'm still working in it. And I hate it. And I still want to do it. I just can't be asked to deal with all of the problems that go along with this 'genre' at this point in my life.

Scott Choucino's picture

The music industry is a vile place for photographers in the UK. I am too soft to work in it.

Igor Warzocha's picture

You probably know a lot better than me. I'll honestly admit I'm dealing mostly with tribute bands promoters at work and the quality of their promo materials makes me cry on a daily basis. When you realise the bottom tier doesn't care, the upper tier treats photogs as nuisance, the middle is oversaturated and it's a rat-race (effectively there's so much ppl that there's always somebody who'll shoot for free or with a stupid release)... Makes you realise that, on average, nobody cares about photography in this industry. Dunno, I admire people who are willing to do this. But it's mostly networking, nothing else...

Meh it's still that part of me that prevents me from actually trying that's speaking thorough me on the interwebz. I'm not doing it in real life nowadays.

I'm lucky to love stage-photography more than music photography itself, if it makes sense. Just need to move my butt and reach out to some theatrical groups eh. A lot better of an avenue to develop a career as a photog if you're into entertainment-industry.

Anyway once again props for the feature. Every photographer should read such a summary once a year to look at the direction s/he's heading to.

Deniz Karagulle's picture

i am a photographer working in the music industry in the UK - is it any better anywhere else? the music industry seems generally vile in all regards, unless you're at the very top of the tree. Ed Sheeran and Annie Liebowitz are doing okay!

Larry Clay's picture

"Your Work Is Not Commercially Viable"

You got me on that one. I spent a year doing art shows trying to sell my cityscape and landscape photos. I would see someone come from a block away doing a beeline to my booth and exclaim "that is awesome how much is it?". I didn't think $680 for a 20x40 pano on metal was excessive but I was wrong. I only made expenses at one show the entire year. To say that I am discouraged is putting it lightly.

Scott Choucino's picture

It’s a tough one doing art. You almost need to charge obscene money to even be looked at. Good representation helps to.

EL PIC's picture

You can if you get a technical degree in Photo .. I did !
Photographic Science will put you in over 6 figure jobs.
Shit Can Artistic Careers .. That’s for Hobbies

Ivan Lantsov's picture

Photo is trade not profession

Scott Choucino's picture

I feel like a technician most days

regan albertson's picture

Scott; great article! You've provided great advice to anyone, in any craft. Thanks for giving clarity by sharing your experience.

Daris Fox's picture

You ignored a major point, and one that can make or break a business... Your geographic area. Realistically you need to be in a area that can sustain your business and referrals (with addition to networking).

Cheap photographers do kill your business, I had a successful business. New photographer opened a new studio several streets away, I had been established years with a trusted client base. Within a year of that studio opening I lost 90% of business due to their absurdly low costs and, not to sound bitter, their work was rubbish. Eventually I closed my studio and a year later the new studio went bankrupt because of the unsustainable rates they charged. I could have kept my studio open, I had the finances to do so but there's only so much marketing, product changes and networking you can do before you call quits. However. was fighting a losing battle. It wasn't as if there was a lot of photographers in the area at the time either. There was only 3 studios at the time. You're basing your assumption, going by the phrasing, mostly corporate or similar clients. If you're a business is dependant on mom and pop then you will be at their mercy. That's business.

One valuable lesson I learned you need a supplemental income, all successful businesses have secondary, tertiary or more income.

Scott Choucino's picture

A good location certainly helps, but if you offer something unique, people will travel. I think the same applies for the price cutting. If you offer something unique, people will pay if they value it. Although it’s obviously at more complex than my short comment

Daris Fox's picture

Again, people do travel in America but in other countries and certainly more so with the devaluation of photographic skills, people don't. Not a question of uniqueness, and people just want snapshots or expect the photographer to travel to them.

This is based observations over the last 5 years with various photographic communities and lurking in client groups such as bridal/make up and other similar areas. In fact many brides will say can you 'copy' this photographers style as part of their search as much as budget. It's surprisingly common seeing this on groups. It's more depressing to see photographers fighting over who gets the client. So at the end not only does the photographer who promoted that style gets shafted, but in the majority of cases the bride does as well. It's not a lack of education either as most groups are awash in good advice or White Knights.

This isn't just photography, it's a wide spectrum of creative industries (and even other industries such as camera tech that gets copied before it's even launched sometimes) with many artists staring at the same wall. Many young clients want a shot to show off with and then move on to something else to feed their ego/self-esteem. Call me cynical though, I've spent 20 years in the industry and to be frank unless you're in the 10% and/or shilling for brands you're in a mugs game. There's a reason most of the 10% moved into tutorials/presets and 'advice' videos there bottom line is getting eroded but can't admit to that as it'll kill the market for their products. Is there a future for a photographer? Sure, but it won't be what most people expect it to be and the industry is evolving faster than it ever has, driving by the tech industries voracious appetite for you to buy the latest boondoggle camera/gadget that waves a magic wand further eroding the technical knowledge required and to keep them in business.

Don Risi's picture

Cheap photographers DO steal your business. I have had several potential clients call, always starting out with, "We love your work and really want to work with you." Then they hear my prices. There is one photographer who has signed a couple of those clients. During a discussion with him, he said, "Wow!! You charge more for one photo than I do for an entire job!!" And I'm not expensive. I just value myself more than he values himself.

Scott Choucino's picture

I’d say for every 20 calls I get 15 saying I’m too expensive or laughing down the phone at my fee. Which is fine, that job wasn’t meant for me, in the same way that the $250 job was meant for someone else offering something else l.

Indy Thomas's picture

Price is an issue for some clients. We all get inquiries like that. The truth is that even if you quoted half your price some would still squeal.
I learned a long time ago that if I didn't just forge ahead with my rates no one was ever going to pay me what I needed.
One needs to be assertive about their worth. But at the same time not be a jerk.
The real truth of this world is most people are afraid to ask for money. This is a huge handicap if you wish to have a business.
In the early days I did struggle with asking for money. My anger at myself for being a coward pushed me to be a lot more confident in my pricing.
What I found was that my fears were unfounded. When I asked, I received. Not every time but enough times to seriously raise my income and convince me that the greatest obstacle was my fear of speaking up for myself.

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