Will Photographers Survive the Next Recession?

Will Photographers Survive the Next Recession?

During the past decade, the world economy has experienced steady, gradual expansion. But what goes up must come down, and the question photographers are wise to consider is: "how will the next recession affect me?"

This focuses on economic recession impacting the freelance or small business photographer: the challenges involved and how to best prepare for them.

For obvious reasons, those who are employed full-time in photography (which seems less commonplace today) might experience a recession differently. But employed photographers and photo editors also need to prepare for the possibility of being laid off in a general economic downturn. Suddenly switching to freelance isn’t easy. Even in a strong economy, decent photography employment is somewhat scarce.

The last thing we want is for a client’s photography budget to be cut. But when a recession hits, one of the first things to be cut from a company’s budget is a service deemed a “luxury." Depending on the severity of the recession, both individuals and businesses will cut corners and forego discretionary spending in order to survive. Such “survival cuts” can deliver bad news to a photographer.

Commonly undervalued professional photography includes wedding photography and much small business photography. But, sadly, that low valuation doesn’t stop there.

stock prices on a computer screen

When the economy heads south, don’t waste time on pricing wars, which usually just digs the hole deeper. In a recession, you need to think on your feet and be flexible, perhaps even venturing into new photographic markets. With the right adjustments, you might even thrive in a recession.

Target the Right Fields

Some areas of the marketplace assign a high value to photography; some don’t see the big picture. And of the ones that do value photography, not all clients in those fields have budgets that can justify professional photography pricing. It's your job as a freelancer to figure out who can and will value your work.

Perceived value and spending power aside, only the most recession-proof businesses will maintain a steady photography budget when the economy takes a downturn. Some companies will downsize or eliminate their photography budgets or departments in response to a recession. That means less gigs and more layoffs for photographers. Some businesses might even turn to stock photography. To get an idea of the small pool of businesses not affected by recessions, check out this list here.

graffiti in an abandoned factory

Think of other industries or genres you have yet to break into and make an actionable plan to start working in those sectors. For example: are you a portrait photographer interested in medical photography? Offer promotional (limited time) discounted shoots to local medical institutions to build your new portfolio. There will always be a need for certain types of photography, so focus your efforts in the right places.

Not only would it be wise to begin targeting more recession-proof markets now, we also always need to be perfecting our skills and updating our portfolios in order to attract high-end clients.

If you're a wedding photographer who caters to brides with a max budget of $500, there might be bad news in your future: those gigs disappearing when the economy tanks. Don't twiddle your thumbs on Thumbtack waiting for "bridezillas" to respond to your quotes. Step it up and re-think your marketing today, instead of scrambling to position yourself later.

If you've been putting off the dive into videography, now is the time to learn. Offering videography or drone work as add-on services will position your business as a "one-stop shop" for those seeking a more complete solution to their marketing needs. What better way to beat the competition than to make choosing you an easy decision for your clients who have multiple needs?

If you specialize in non-commercial photography like private events or weddings, it would be wise to formulate a marketing plan to break into higher-income markets or social circles. Proper use of keywords like "luxury" in your website or ad copy could help appeal to upper-end clientele.

Flexibility in your marketing strategy is the key for surviving challenges. An important component of that strategy is making sure that your sales language (admit it, you sell) and website convey value.

a car being crushed under a fallen tree

Think of your new marketing strategy as insurance. When disaster strikes, it will keep you afloat.

Establish and Affirm Your Value

Besides knowing, liking, and trusting us, the main reason clients hire us is because they see the value in our product and service. And the higher that value, the more you can command in your pricing. This remains true even when pennies and budgets are being stretched during hard economic times. Instead of positioning yourself as an expense to commercial clients, use language like "equity" and "investment" to remind clients that what they spend will help them produce more business. And why would someone turn down a productive investment when the economy is struggling?

What else can you do to establish value and stand out from your peers when competition is high and work is scarce? Always provide high-quality customer service. Being timely and clear in your communication is essential to ensure clients will want to continue your working relationship.

Your overall professionalism and agreeable personality is important, helping you stand out in the large sea of photographers in which we must all constantly swim. Turning a new client into a steady client by “exceeding expectations” is an old cliche, but there’s a reason such sloganeering becomes cliche. When it’s true, it typically works.

While pleasing your clients should be your number one business goal, don't forget to stay motivated and passionate with the occasional personal photography project. A “passion project” is especially useful for keeping your spirits high during tough times and can impress or even attract new clients.


Be proactive and flexible. Photographers face enough challenges regardless of the state of the economy. The key to stability in a challenging economy is solid planning and flexible adaptation. For all of us, marketing, sales, and pricing strategies can usually benefit from analysis and reconsideration.The best time to make that analysis and reconsideration is today.

Has your photography business lived through past recessions? How did you survive them? Please share your experiences in the comments section below. 

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Previous comments
Deleted Account's picture

I left because it was time to give new priorities to my life.

40 years in the world of advertising and publishing, as a photographer, then artistic director and creative director have been more than satisfying and rewarding for me.

The work of a photographer had become more and more tiring for me because of minor health problems.

Now I help my wife who is the artistic director of a children's magazine, I take some pictures for my own pleasure, and I take care of my grandchildren :)

Dan Howell's picture

Wait, you think that commercial in general is 'not really affected'. There has been a general devaluation of still photography over the past 15+ yrs. The shift from print to electronic media favors video, not still. Add to that a general consolidation of retail and the virtual elimination of quality catalogs, I'm seriously wondering how you can say commercial photography has not really been effected.

Mike Ditz's picture

Since the last recession, in my corner of the photoworld the bottom and the top are still there. There has been a big hit to the middle part of the business. But to be honest in the 2008 recession I was busier than usual for a couple years. A few friends have closed up shop but I still keep on.

Dan Howell's picture

Thanks, I'll focus on what I choose to focus on. However, I question if you are actually in the business at all. Every sentence above illustrates how the business is declining as opposed to your first statement that commercial photography is not really effected. It is uninformed to suggest that the business is what it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc. True that more people are making pennies at it, but fewer are making dollars. A recession will hit the industry and train the market to live with less and cheaper. These cycles will grind the industry into the ground like printing, like typography, like chemical photo finishing. I'm happy that it has hung around as long as it has. I count myself as lucky to have been a part of it for 30 years.

Mike Ditz's picture

Not to be nosey but what does your studio specialize in...? I see you mention wedding and advertising. High end society weddings, or lower less $$ events? High end national international advertising or local businesses?

robertc's picture

The last recession brought the gig economy into the driver seat, and with it came every mom and uncle with an old DSLR starting a photo page on Facebook to fight over prom photo gigs. People will scramble to make extra income and many see photography as a delusional "easy path" to it. If / when another recession hits, I would expect the flood of new photography business to come with it. Everyone can claim that they aren't competition, but if you are in the business of senior portraits, weddings, etc, it's easy to lose to an uncle willing to shoot the wedding for $100 vs your $1500 package when the couple is tight on cash due to the recession.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

I survived the last one. Shooting weddings and for Biz Journals make it a little easier to survive. I wonder if this one will cull all the hobbygraphers that are constantly switching gear and shooting for free.

Scott Mason's picture

Probably a little bit of the hobbyists leaving, as you mentioned, plus some of what Robert (above) mentioned.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

There won't be a recession, Trump hires the best people and he's a stable genius.

Mike Yamin's picture

The premise of this whole article relies on the idea that an upcoming recession is a foregone conclusion, but only the Trump-hating media thinks that. Besides, photographers often have to do these things anyway... very few of us are just coasting along here.

Scott Mason's picture

The US experiences a recession roughly every seven years. There's no political statement implied here, it's just a pattern that no one can deny. And you're right, everyone has to practice the above to prosper. I was simply stating that good marketing and flexibility will help us survive the next downturn. It's coming, but anyone who claims to know when is only pontificating.

Matthew Odom's picture

Investments! I just recently starting dabbling in real estate and scooped up some cash flowing rentals for those rainy days find what works for you but be prepared!!