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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Previous comments
Scott Choucino's picture

I can fully relate to this Indy. There was a time when if my day rate was $1200 I would often accept $500. Now I would rather not work and charge more in general as I will end up better off in the long run. Saying no to work is one of the best ways to get better jobs. It helps to build self belief.

I also found out that if I asked out a girl, more often than not she said yes despite my certainty of a rejection.

John Walsh's picture

Really good points. I just had to navigate around my understanding of what you meant through many typos and other editing issues. How many sets of eyes actually look at this before uploading to fstoppers?

Don't get me wrong. I love and use this site more than most. Just trying to be constructive...

Scott Choucino's picture

Think they go through one editor per article. I spot the odd mistake in other articles (obv not my own, or isn’t correct them) and is day with those few mistakes, they still make sense to me. But then I’m a photographer rather than a writer.

Rock solid advice.... sadly I've been stuck in "I'll shoot whatever you want in any style you want (as best I can) if you'll pay me... and oh, btw, some of my stuff is pretty damn good." This hell for me has gone on more years than I care to say. I think I've tried it all with the exception of fashion, which of course (as you've mentioned) would be what I've always wanted to shoot. So while your words of advice and insight are great... I've checked out your website. You have top-of-the-line everything, gear, studio on down. Even your props are first class. Not taking anything away from your skill set, but you are not doing any $200 jobs to fill your schedule and follow your dream. Getting to where you are in your career requires a lot of very hard and smart work, yes agreed... but also needs a very nice big chunk of "right-place-right-time" luck to jumpstart that special niche. Somewhere along the line fate smiled on you and you became "anointed" a great food guy. By the way, I've heard they have a few restaurants and epicurean interests in and around where you live and work? London is it?

Scott Choucino's picture

It’s hard to break away from doing lots of things when you need money. But everyone including myself has made more money by doing so.

I’ve not had any particular good fortune. I don’t have money or parents backing me and I live in a very small city which isn’t known for creative industries. All my kit is paid for by my photography etc. I do work 10-14 hours a day 6-7 days a week though.

Scott... I do apologize if I sounded a bit snarky with my last post. I have nothing but respect for your work and journey to get where you are. As the field gets more crowded and muddled, it's easy to become grumpy and discouraged. Hence your very good article and advice. Please forgive any shade I may have inadvertently thrown your way. Live long and prosper.

Kevin Downey's picture

Scott, can you define "commercially viable" for me? Thanks

Scott Choucino's picture

In the broadest sense here, a reason for someone to part cash with what you create.

All good advice. At least in my field the most important thing seems to be an ability to push your work. At this start of this year I was feeling a bit burnt out and wanted to take less work. So I stopped advertising, stopped pushing my social pages, stopped doing TFP shoots with cool models so I'd have stuff to share and very quickly I went from having more work than I could handle to having basically nothing in front of me. Which I'm okay with at the moment but it was a serious eye opener for me as to what is actually important to keep work flowing in.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah it’s amazing how quickly you can fall off the radar

I follow the blog, BUT, this one is wrong. Photography has changed, it is now about photo manipulation. Who can make what look best, not perfectly captured. If your not making money, your not good at photo manipulation. Face it, we buy cameras, but a guy with an Iphone sells his snap... rule #1... change with the world.. photography is no longer Ansel Adams.. its filters and Photoshop. I have a friend makes a comfortable living with his Iphone X and Instagram... sorry.. sad but true...dont even know why I buy cameras anymore...

Scott Choucino's picture

I am not sure I can relate to this philosophy. But I can certainly agree that the camera doesn't make you a photographer and that an iPhone can certainly make you a living. But then we are photographers, not professional camera owners.

Joe Van Wyk's picture

OK. Here goes:

I'm reluctant to comment on this because I am vulnerable to negative energy about my attempt at a photography career. It's painful right now as I am in more transition.

Overall, fortunately, my antenna goes up when I read an article like this, containing "black and white thinking". Cognitive distortions. "All or nothing" thinking.

The headline and subheads are attention grabbers for sure.

For instance, stating that it is "obscenely incorrect" to believe that "Cheap Photographers Are Undercutting You" is an extreme view. Have cell phones and $500 DSLRs made it impossible for all photographers to ever have any hope of making a living at photography, any time and any place? Of course not. That said, is there truth that the photography market is being radically disrupted by new technology and the dismantling of barriers to entry? You bet.

God bless you that you are making money at food photography. You are fortunate enough to have established a niche through talent and hard work. So, can we extrapolate and say that it is possible to work hard and learn well and be personable and to have a career in food photography? Sure. That said, is the food photography biz being eroded by a radical shift in technology and the dismantling of barriers to entry? Yes, yes, yes. To claim otherwise is just plain denial.

Another point: sometimes creatives have to think outside the box about how they monetize their product. Thoughts on that:

You talked about teaching students. I think I understand from your website that you rent out your studio space and props. Also- that you are selling food-related backgrounds. Brilliant! And you are expanding your social media presence. Who knows where that could lead? All of these are smart moves, and it shows that you are expanding your offerings. Something tells me that you see the writing on the wall, inherently knowing that the old-school photography industry is history. You are looking towards other income streams to make up for the impact this technology shift will have on your cash flow.

I have a long career in graphic design, and that paid the bills for years. A number of years back I thought I might be able to turn my love of photography into a new career. Perhaps video too.

I paid for a Jason Lanier "real wedding" workshop. I paid for Sue Bryce coursework. I paid for coursework on Creative Live and other e-learning outlets. I paid for a Thorsten Overgaard workshop.

Get the pattern here?

It reminds me of back in the day when multilevel marketing was all the rage. Amway and such. You know who was making the money? Not the chumps in the pyramid but rather the "experts" selling the tapes and coursework.

Last year, after so many tries at monetizing photography and getting lame results, I knuckled down again, revamped my site, and tried to sell "profile portraits" for what I think is dirt cheap. Results? Ugh.

Some of your reasons hit home for sure. Reflectively, I know I suck at sales. I have an artist temperament and sometimes that affects social skills. I'm highly empathic and that leads to discouragement sometimes and that leads me off track. I could go on and on. I am not a victim and no-one is to "blame".

I'm an artist. Sometimes artists have a tough time finding their way in this world. For me, this has been a deeply spiritual path, and despite my plans in photography not materializing like I planned, I know this experience of trying is going to lead to great awakenings.

Now I am "putting myself out there" on social media in new and different ways. I am defining myself less as a "photographer" or "videographer" and more as a creative content producer.

This market is a game. The name of the game is Social Media. I'm hoping that, as I practice what I preach about the value of consistent, entertaining social media content, perhaps I will pick up more and more paying jobs for businesses who value their social marketing.

Who the heck knows?

Perhaps I should write an article for Fstoppers too. Mine might be entitled:
"Who the Heck Knows Why You Can’t Make Money From Photography"

Problem is, a title like that wouldn't get a single click!

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks for reading and taking the time to reply.

I think a lot of these photographers who offer workshops do not have a clue how the commercial world works.

Once a year I offer (at cost) a workshop on how to become a professional photographer, and having seen snippets of their work, it is nothing like what they suggest. I won't name names, but a lot of these people should be outted for the fraudsters that they are.

The other bits I do are all part of the service I offer (bar the workshops, but my past is as a teacher, so it seems natural to add this).

Rather than buying in backdrops and props for each shoot, I just add it to the bill and only have to deal with myself, it also eases the cash flow burden of renting its and waiting for the client to pay the bills. I certainly don't see the writing on the walls in my genre of photography. We are getting more work than ever before.

I am not sure what the technology you talk of is, but I haven't seen a change in technology that makes any real difference since 2008. The entry to the profession is very low, but the clients who are paying are not looking there for photographers. Most of the equipment I have is purchased to make life easier, image quality gains are very small for the last 10 years.

Joe Van Wyk's picture

Honestly, I sooo admire you rocking it as a professional photographer. But Scott, please help me understand how you can say "I haven't seen a change in technology that makes any real difference since 2008."

I wan't referring to incremental technology shifts. I am referring to RADICAL technology shifts. Take the food industry alone- I see top notch Austin restaurants shooting signature plates with cell phones in natural light that look very, very good.

You are a knock-out food shooter. I'm a darned good people shooter. But more and more, we aren't competing with people who can make images as good as ours. We are competing with people who can make images that are "good enough", especially in this social content world where images last about as long as toilet paper.

Scott Choucino's picture

I don't think there is an argument that phones are stealing work. If the image is good the image is good. The equipment used has no relevance to the photograph in this instance. I often use my iPhone to take images for clients social media accounts, but I also use Phase One Cameras to shoot massive ad campaigns due to the printing requirements. Both images will be as good as one another, just with different media requirements at the end. If someone can out shoot me with a phone when I have a Phase One, they are a better photographer. If they are cheaper and do a good enough job for that client, they will get the client and that is correct.

Restaurants are not really viable clients in the food world unless they are major chains. A high end restaurant that is a one off won't really have a big enough budget for high end photography. Getting angry at them using phones won't change that, instead as photographers we have to chose if we adapt to their budget, or find clients who want the product that we create. I went for the latter.

The same is true for when I shot portraits. I could try to get an individual to pay my fee, or I could ask for a higher fee and offer higher production by taking portraits with a commercial application for campaigns. Both are valid, but you can't expect the same fee or level of production in both cases.

Gil Gamesh's picture

Not sure how one earns a living as a photographer these days. It looks exhausting and relentless, YouTube and social media are givens I'd say.

Weddings, that's about the one avenue to pursue. I did, I evolved my press / PJ role and employed many photographers at the height of the business until we went digital which is about the time that a lot of have-a-go-Henrys who work for a living then joined the bandwagon in order to work weekends .. then the middle market collapsed.

Nowadays I see the same happening in the UK with landscape photography, in particular, many with mediocre abilities, selling or not selling, there's no market for Stock, so IG gets the bulk of the work. There are dozens of part-timers out in the hills of the Lake District National Park, or the Peak District as a couple of examples, a tiny fraction is new, unique work, the rest, facsimiles of facsimiles.

The local shops flog really poor quality work, often on canvass and some of the public think it's great.

It's one difference between the US and the UK, the general public in the US Will pay top dollar for a really good image where is in the UK I don't think photography has nearly the perceived value that it is in the US, especially as regards landscape images.

You'll find that the two landscape competitions which run annually, both huge moneymaking exercises for a semi retired British photographer, had unfortunately had the net effect of badly diluting new work coming through as the same photography, the same style of photography, the same sort of images, have been winning for 15yrs. It's killed all creative endeavours dead in their tracks at grass roots level. IG Lake District images to see what I mean, plus LPOTY to really break your creative heart.

There are galleries out there, check out the best by going (or check out their social media feeds) to the big art fairs perhaps? Affordable Art and Fresh Art Fair - this weekend at Cheltenham Race Course for example?

For myself: I still take images, enter competitions, I am a huge fan of LensCulture and Sony, PX3 to mention a few, but winning or being featured doesn't earn me a crust. Interestingly I too bought an art business, last year and have taken over £175K in the first year, in the UK, with a high street presence, but we do not represent any photographers.

being able to chat with people face-to-face is vital for me personally.

Daris Fox's picture

The UK, at least for most of Europe, is one of the worst markets for photography. France, Germany and much of Eastern Europe value it far more in my experience, but they also far more demanding what they get. The problem with Eastern Europe they just don't have the budget for luxuries (Slovakia for example has an average wage of €400-500pm from memory).

Dealing with British brides isn't so much planning a joyful day but more interrogation and torture, especially if you have aggressive parents/in-laws!

This is the problem I have with articles like this, without context of what country the photographer is talking about then the advice is all but useless as doing business in France is completely different to doing say to a business in Denmark or the Netherlands in both the consumer appetites but also how people get work. Nordic countries put a lot more faith in referrals and word-of-mouth over advertising.

Scott Choucino's picture

If it helps, I am UK based.

Scott Choucino's picture

Id also agree that the UK on a whole does not value photographic prints in the same way that the US does.