The Winners and Losers of Photography in 2021

The Winners and Losers of Photography in 2021

Do you think you have your finger on the pulse of the photography industry? Who still holds the title for most used cameras: Canon, Nikon, or Sony? What lenses are the top 3 most used lenses? Which specialty of photographers make the most money and which make the least? What genre of photography took the biggest losses during the pandemic?

Being a former (art) teacher I made a pop quiz for you. Jot down your answers, then enjoy these insightful findings from the 2022 State of the Photography Industry report by Zenfolio and Format and see how you did.

In this study, 3,398 photographers were surveyed, across 97 different countries.  71% of respondents were full-time or part-time self-employed photographers, with the remainder made up of hobbyists, students, and full-time employees. 

2022 state of the industry photography by Michelle VanTine Photography

2022 State of the Industry pop quiz


Now let's see if you were right: here are some of the fascinating findings from this year's expansive report. 

The endless Canon versus Nikon rivalry was prominent for years, but there has been a new cool kid on the block: Sony. Photographers of every level, from beginner to pro, still gravitate primarily to the top two giants: Canon and Nikon being the choice by over 70% of the respondents. Sony and Fujifilm represented 15% and 7%, respectively. Canon [does happy dance] took the overall lead.

Canon is still taking the lead with Nikon not too far behind

As far as bodies go, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Nikon D850, Canon EOS R5, and the Sony a7R IV are the top 4 camera models used by photographers surveyed.

This next one was a surprising stat to me: right around 50% of respondents have made the switch to mirrorless. Most photographers who made the switch were in specialties where a lighter, less obtrusive camera makes sense: documentary, lifestyle, and travel.

Looking at all photography specialties, zoom lenses came in over prime lens. What lens did you guess what the most used lens? The answer surprised me. It's what I referred to in a previous article as the "jack of all trades, master of none": the 24-70mm. Behind that came the 70-200mm in second, and the "nifty fifty" 50mm in third. 


Commercial and food photographers are the specialties that have the most people that make over $100,000. The specialties that had the least amount of people who reported making $100k+ were lifestyle, still life, family, documentary, landscape, and fashion.

US 2021 reported earnings shown by specialty

Whether a photographer is part-time or full-time, and whether they work for themselves or an employer, the greatest earning potential resides firmly in the “commercial” genres. Those focusing on “art” have the lowest earning potential. What might not be expected is that online sales of prints and digital downloads beat out in-person sales in 2021. This is likely due to COVID restrictions and the growing acceptance of online sales in general.

Despite most respondents naming Instagram as their primary way to showcase their work, word-of-mouth still takes the lead for how most respondents generate new clientele.

Statistics on how new clients were aquired in 2021

Impact of COVID

It's been 2 years now since the pandemic made its way through our lives and one of the focuses of the study was to find out the state of photographers now. The study found that 43% of full-time self-employed photographers lost over 40% of revenue in 2021. Respondents who identified as part-time self-employed were the most negatively impacted during COVID. Nearly half reported losing more than 40% of normal revenue. Boudoir and event reported the biggest decline in income due to COVID. Despite these bleak reportings, optimism remains as over 50% of photographers expect 2022 to get busier. 

Did you do well on your pop quiz? As a summary here are the answers to your questions which were woven in above.

1: Canon was the most used, followed by Nikon then notable far behind Sony and Fuji.
2: Word-of-mouth generated the most new clientele.
3: Commercial photographers make the most money.
4: Fine art photographers make the least amount of money, followed by travel photographers and still life.
5: The most used lens is the 24-70mm.
6: Right around 50% of responders have made the switch to mirrorless cameras.
7: Boudoir took the biggest loss of income in 2021.

Thanks to Zenfolio and Format for their extensive work on this study and I look forward to reporting back on next year's findings. You can click here to read the full 68-page report. 

Did any of the stats surprise you? Leave a comment below

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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Good old word-of-mouth advertising. Still the most reliable source of clients. Plus, anyone referring you filters out people that they think won't suit your style.

100% agreed!

I know architecture and interior design photography is definitely niche, but I wonder if it falls under commercial or real estate here? I certainly make more than I ever did in RE, but I would say the majority of my clients I wouldn't consider commercial.

That said, a fair amount of my income came from working in the commercial space vs the independent interior designer. Almost like a 4 to 1 difference in come, for likely the inverse in commercial to independent client ratio.

I would think that commercial real estate would fall under that banner. The idea, to my understanding, is photographing for bigger corporations vs. portraits or small businesses.

I was really surprised how big Instagram was as an advertising for commercial photographers. Almost 50%

Also 50% moved to mirrorless was a surprise, but I guess that might include photographers that have bought a mirrorless as a second body.

If the worst hit genre was ony hit by a 40% income loss, i guess wedding photography wasn't the dead cow many expected.

Very interesting study.

I shot a family wedding during the restrictions (was a kind of cheat way of having more people there) and it was incredibly difficult, my photos were ‘ok’ but it proves how much skill is required to do the job properly, not that I needed to be shown that of course.

I was EXTREMELY surprised by the mirrorless stat also. It doesn't seem to represent the population that I come in contact with. I was thinking about that and it was 50% of the people polled by Zenfolio. So it made me wonder if they are polling people that use Zenfolio which sort of cuts out a lot of the general population. That was a thought I had but I didn't know the answer

A very interesting read. Thank you!

It's odd that most of my clients come via Facebook, followed by Google, followed by word of mouth, follwed by my website. I wonder though whether that is where I put my marketing efforts.

Oh that's interesting. I imagine that you're right about that. For example, I about 50/50 from word of mouth and Instagram. I'm VERY active on Instagram (@michellevantinephotography ) putting BTS of splashing kombucha, exploding tomatoes into a salsa jar, bringing followers along on beauty shoots etc. I get LOADS of bookings from Instagram. I think we attract clients where we engage

You mean free pictures for "photo credit" is not number one? LOLOLOL

#triggered !!!!!!