In the land of the photographer, times are harder than ever before, with companies ending their contracts at lower levels and shoots being less available, with budgets cut and a huge number of working photographers facing hard times. With all this uncertainty in the world, can we really survive doing what we love and live comfortably?
The world is on fire. Inflation is higher than ever. Fuel costs are soaring. Household bills are laughably high. Interest rates for homeowners are fluctuating enormously and the rental market is a bidding battlefield for anyone trying to live in a desirable area. How can photographers survive?
It’s no secret that photography is an expensive game. In the UK in 2023, changes in the economy have seen a profession that I know and have loved deeply for a long time, change its ways. From a personal standpoint, I’ve watched company after company close their doors, move their interests and cut ties with their freelancers after years of lucrative investment. The freelance world is one of flux and we have to be adaptable and strong in order to survive. But when the phone isn’t ringing and we’re pushing to get those valuable bookings in the diary, what else can we be doing when pulling in 5 figures simply isn’t an option?
Keep Overheads Down
So you’re scared to put the heating on and it’s more cost-effective to buy a beer than boil the kettle. The elements are out of your control, but you can take solace in the fact that you don’t need the newest, extortionate phone contract. Coffee subscription? Not particularly necessary, is it? Not having enormous overheads as a photographer can be incredibly valuable in times like these. Studio costs, finance repayments on equipment, or credit cards can be stressful to manage when agencies are dropping like flies and competition is high. I'm lucky to be an enormous foodie as well as a food photographer. It means I can enjoy my evenings cooking and shooting, rather than being overly tempted by eating out or constantly buying takeout. It doesn't necessarily stop me, but when times are tight, a wonderful evening cooking with my partner can easily turn into a fun shoot!
Don’t Be so Hasty to Raise Your Rates
Raising your rates to coincide with rising prices won’t make you more hireable. In fact, it will probably do the opposite. Client’s book photographers based on reliability and if you have a solid working relationship with your clients they won’t want to see you moving your prices just because the world is getting hotter. Stay calm and keep in mind that it’s far more important to have repeat bookings than the more sporadic ones at a higher rate.
Buy Second Hand
Second-hand gear is a given in our industry. eBay is awash with incredible deals and MPB gives you honest and specific details on things like quality, shutter count, and a rating on the overall state of the gear you may be looking to buy. Second-hand cameras will go like stink until you drop them in a fountain or get them stolen, so don’t worry about having the newest gear.
Buy, Don’t Hire
Renting is, of course, a good option for one-off shoots, but knowing you have that gear in your arsenal if the same shoot should crop up, again and again, is far more cost-effective. If it’s imperative you get new gear, try to budget for a purchase rather than what could potentially be a costly rental. Of course, parting with £10,000 for a Phase One isn’t what we’re talking about here. Stands, backdrops, lighting, clamps, grips, and odds and ends. They’ll make your house look like a lens-based bomb’s gone off, but they’re imperative bits of kit for almost every shoot.
Don’t Buy At All!
Hey! Look at me trying to talk people into buying and renting. We’re in the dark ages here! If you can afford to, don’t bother buying at all! You don’t need the newest Nikon body, that lens can wait if you have a 24-70mm that does the heavy lifting on most of your shoots. Don’t look at what others are doing and try to emulate that based solely on gear. It doesn’t work that way and it won’t make you a better photographer, just a penniless one.
I have a studio in my kitchen. The light is beautiful when I need natural light and I can mix that with DIY scrims made from tracing paper, tin foil acting as a makeshift reflector, and the odd softbox for my strobe lights. If you’re worried about lack of work, create! Test shoot, set stuff up. Make content for your Instagram and website. Produce things that make you feel good about yourself and update your portfolio with them. If you’re a landscape photographer, get out there and plan shoots just for you. Remember why you love this game. It’s never been about the money, that part just helps.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
I’m writing for Fstoppers and I love it. What a platform to put down your worries, your woes, your opinions, and your love for all things photography! It’s a source of income that I can depend on, unlike the big hitters that are far less frequent. Stock photography sites are fantastic places to see money drop in. They sit, doing their thing in the background and it’s often a total surprise when you get a decent payout. Yes, tagging images is one of the most boring things on earth, but it’s worth the reward. It may not be much but irons in the fire is the name of the game in this industry and one should never disregard the side hustle.
Let the Millennial in You Take Some Time Off
I write this section from a personal point of view. I’m a Millennial. I know that my parent’s generation bought houses for peanuts and had annual holidays in the sun (though for us it was a caravan in Wales most of the time). Things were very different back then. But if I take a long, hard look at my own lifestyle as a millennial, I can see that I don’t do myself many favors. Fancy wine bars? Mid-week takeaway food? France to escape the February blues, Greece to escape the British summertime. “Hey, I think I need that new road bike. Yes, I think I do.”
Hedonism. In every conceivable way I, like many of my friends — those that aren’t tied to childcare anyway — live very fast and free lifestyles with my money. I know that it’s about time I let that lifestyle take a bit of a back seat. It’s a constant that has been around since partying at university, and eating in hip cool restaurants in Manchester and now exists in the form of looking at London like it’s one gigantic expensive playground and I must have my way with it before it’s too late!
Some may say time to grow up and so the cycle comes back around. It’s hard to grow when we can’t own. Hard to make decisions about children when the very notion of owning a dog will push us into the red. But all of that hedonism, all of that short-lived joy, can certainly take a back seat when what we truly want, deep within us, is to be happy and prosperous in our work.
Have Faith in What it Is You provide
You’re great at what you do. And like anything, there will always be room for improvement. As photographers, we never stop learning, we never stop pushing. Resting on your laurels isn’t the smartest idea if you want to keep it up as a self-employed image-maker, but know that what you have is the skill and the experience, not to mention the foundations, on which to build and grow. We’re all hobbyists at heart, it’s just that we also know what it takes to keep our heads above water. Never let that hobby drown.