The annual income of the typical photographer in the U.S. is 20 percent less than the national average. There are both good and bad reasons why photographers don't earn a decent wage and you might want to give these five reasons some thought if you want to survive as a creative image-maker in the modern world.
1. Short Term Commitment
Over the last fifty years, careers have changed dramatically. Globalization, technology, and the emergence of service industries have transformed how we work. No longer do you receive a fancy watch after thirty years of dedicated service to one firm. Instead, you’re much more likely to have four or five different careers over the course of your life.
Because of the transitory nature of vocation, many within the industry move on from photography before their businesses have matured to a stage where they can command more respectable fees. The same could be said for a lot of careers, but it makes more sense when you combine this with the other reasons listed below.
2. Maligning the Momtographers
If you’ve ever used the word “momtographer” to sniffily express your disgust at this new breed of photographer, you might already be in trouble. The rapid growth and democratization of technology has made photography more accessible and continues to push down the prices of certain services, from weddings to real estate. If you feel threatened by a stay-at-home mother who can buy herself an entry-level Canon and shoots engagements and newborns to earn a bit of extra money, then it’s time to question what you’re doing.
Rolling your eyes and calling them derogatory terms isn’t going to change the fact that it’s not the momtographers that are threatening to undermine your business: it’s you. Times change and you have to react. If you don’t know how to add extra value for your customers, find different markets, or establish alternative revenue streams, be prepared to struggle and be assured that name calling is the first step towards your inevitable failure. We can get misty-eyed about those golden years when photography was incredibly specialist, but the world is now a different place and getting angry at hobbyists and microstock is not going to help you. No-one is going to hire you to shoot a baby shower for the same reason that I can no longer hail a horse and cart to get me across Manhattan.
3. Death and Taxes? OK, Just Taxes
Strangely, this is one of the few positives on this list. Photographers earn less because as self-employed professionals we write-off a lot of our expenses against our earnings. For many of us, this allows us to spend money more efficiently and to the taxman, it seems that we earn very little money whereas the reality feels somewhat different. We probably would have spent that money anyway, it’s just that now it’s offset against our profits. If you’re not taking advantage of this, it’s time to get some accountancy advice as you might be missing out.
4. The Capitalist Con of the Creative Industries
The emergence of the creative industries — whether it’s graphic design, art curation, toys, software design, video games, films radio, or photography — is part of our enslavement to the neoliberal regime. If that sounds dramatic, pretend for a moment that, historically, capitalism is a ruthless regime that wants to extract as much value from you as possible.
As well as you being more likely to have multiple careers over the course of your life, as a creative, you are also more likely to be engaged in a means of earning money that feels very precarious, never quite sure how much you will pull in from month to month, and perhaps supporting yourself with low-paid, part-time work. As a society, we’ve come to fetishize this existence, admiring the artists who work long hours and struggle through poverty. We’ve now romanticized this notion so much that if you’ve spent any time in East London you’ll know that creating the appearance of being poor is now very much in vogue.
This precarious existence as a creative has been turned by society into something that you should aspire to. Unfortunately, it’s also a convenient means of paying creative people as little as possible. Last year, the creative industries in the U.S. contributed more to GDP than agriculture or transport. Despite this, surveys reveal that of those people working in the creative industries, 90% have worked for free, 18% earn less than $20,000 a year, and 25% earn less than $6,500 a year. If you’re not from a comfortable background, your chances of even getting a foot in the door are slim.
Earnings are incredibly low because we want to feel authentic and autonomous in our work, willfully blurring the boundary between work and leisure, and happily taking less money for it as a result. We take on work in exchange for exposure, put in low quotes to ensure that we get the job, and undercut ourselves because of a fear that our work might not be quite good enough. All of this ties in with point number five.
5. It’s Nice to Be Nice
This might be more of a British thing, but too many photographers are just too nice to turn something they love doing into something that is genuinely profitable. We’re often great at making people feel relaxed in front of the lens or keeping the bride’s weird aunt happy after her seventh gin and tonic, but we’re often a bit useless when it comes to negotiating good rates and being upfront about what we think we’re worth.
In addition, we frequently underestimate how much time we spend working on a job, adding to our capacity to undervalue our services. We spend much longer working on projects than we realize, immersing ourselves in edits and forgetting to log the hours when making that endless stream of changes requested by a client.
We love image-making, and we love making people happy with our work, whether it's brides or big corporations. However, this pride in our artistry can be an obstacle when it comes to charging clients a decent rate, or marketing yourself hard enough to pull in more work. If you want to make money, stop being so nice and start being a bit more commercially-minded.
If you have more ideas as to why photographers consistently fail to earn a decent living — or, even better, how to address them — be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.
To read more about how much photographers earn in the U.S., click here.