Five Reasons Why You’ll Never Earn Good Money as a Photographer

Five Reasons Why You’ll Never Earn Good Money as a Photographer

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.

Momtographers are ruining our profession.

Pesky mothers, ruining our profession with their small, leaky humans and affordable technology. They should be banned.

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.

Neoliberalism, precarity, creative industries

The search for something more stable.

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.

Why photographers don't earn much money

Photographing people in strange places doing weird things. Great fun, but far from profitable.

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.

Your Thoughts

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.

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16 Comments

Get a real job and be done with it. Let the mothers make some money on the side:)

JetCity Ninja's picture

#2 is an interesting way to look at things. it's not wrong by any means, but it's a very "british" outlook.

because, really, if you're "established" yet are fighting for the same piece of the pie as an entry-level, part-time photographer shooting with a kit lens and body set to Programmed Awesome, you're not as established as you think. you haven't grown, either personally or in your business. competition is always good: it allows you to adapt to survive, or die and find a new profession. resorting to personally attacking your competition is always a sign of fear and insecurity, and rightfully so.

besides, if those "momtographers" are so abundant in your locale and suck so much, why not start a business teaching them if you're not willing or able to put in the effort to grow your own business. or sublet studio and creative space, sell your availability to assist in lighting and setup, or provide photo processing and editing. it's called pivoting.

i've been shooting off and on as a hobby for 15 years now, altogether. despite this, i've personally witnessed people i know pick up a camera for the first time and shoot amazing shots, demonstrating a talent for seeing things creatively in a way i never could. it's not every "house-spouse" who's ever bought a Canon Rebel, but some people are just great at seeing things differently... so why not nurture them and make a business of it? in other industries, they're called agents, consultants, or teachers.

good post. looking inward will always produce the solution if you truly have what it takes to survive in... anything.

David B's picture

Another factor that plays a big role into this topic is how the customers view photography. In my area, I know of some new photographers who are actually kind of bad, and people still hire them. A lot of people just hire someone just because they have a fancy looking camera (even if it's an entry level camera - they don't know that, of course). Also, if you are good photographer and take your time taking and retouching your photos, that means your prices should be higher. But the issue with this is that any highschooler with $30 dollars or less can go and buy some famous YouTuber's washed out, yellow/orange skin, grainy presets, and apply it to all the photos and make them look "professional." A lot of customers are okay with this trendy look, and if the highschooler chargers 4 times less than the pro, who do you think will get the job?

Ryan Luna's picture

You forgot one of the most important, #6, stop marketing and trying to impress other photographers. They don't give a damn about you...for the most part. Put your time and energy into marketing a buying audience. Other Photogs will most likely never buy your work. Fstoppers, message forums, FB photog groups, IG photography hubs, etc...almost all of it a waste of time if you're looking to make money on your work, (sorry Fstoppers). Put that time and effort instead into meeting people face to face at business networking luncheons/happy hour gatherings. Make connections with potential buyers. Hell, i should follow my own advice. lol.

Ryan Luna's picture

I should modify and say that putting work into marketing to other photogs is good if you can sell workshops, tutorials, or other goods and services photogs will buy.

JetCity Ninja's picture

well, when you're just getting started and looking for promotion, wouldn't getting an established photographer to notice your work and reposting it to their followers be helpful? possibly have your work seen by their own potential clients?

didn't an Fstoppers video discussion with Josh Rossi recently reveal that at the beginning, he got his first big job by getting his work seen by another photographer who then reposted it? i think he used this as an example of where promoting to photographers and working for free can help market your business and get real clients.

i sorta get the sentiment you're trying to convey, especially for those who try to use it as their sole marketing model and their model is confined to social media. but for every comment i've ever seen along this line, i read about a pro who debunks it with a personal anecdote. maybe there should be a stipulation, like, "dont market at photographers if your shit sucks," or "dont market your shit at pricks in the business who feel threatened by talent," or something else along those lines.

in a way though, aren't we all just working to seek validation, be it with positive comments, likes, hearts, stars or straight up cash (the OG "like" icon)? most new photographers definitely seek it as a way to steer them in knowing what works, what doesn't and to satisfy their audience, do they not? which is more valuable: validation from a parent or a peer?

the Fstoppers video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5SVIsKloTs

EL PIC's picture

Smart People are in Technical Photography and not Artistic. You can always have an artistic hobby but you will be better with a six figure income. Think Photo Engineering or Science.
Be like Smart People !!

Michael Jin's picture

6. You suck at photography.

JetCity Ninja's picture

7. Nothing you do is original.

Michael Jin's picture

8. Just being around you makes people uncomfortable.

Jeff McCollough's picture

9. Fstoppers is too political.

Next we're going to see a "Five Reasons Why You Can Make Good Money as a Photographer" article... probably from the same author too. Clickbait...

Rk K's picture

Truth is that photography is a hobby. Quite a fun one, so a lot of people will do it for free or on the cheap. There's nothing wrong with this, quite the contrary. It doesn't even mean that hobbyists are any worse than the average professional either. You either have to provide very high end service that few others are capable of or look for a job.

This article is hilarious.

Patrick Wong's picture

Five Reasons Why You Will Always Earn Good Money As A Photographer: 1) Your Experience & Expertise Provide Peace of Mind, 2) You know how to listen and exceed the Client's expectations, 3) You Stand out by Being Outstanding, 4) You Know How To Show Your Value and 5) You are a Resourceful Problem Solver and Think Creatively about getting ahead in the Business of Photography.

Anita Zvonar's picture

The issue is not black and white. It partly depends on which photo industry you are targeting, your experience, your marketing and who your contacts are (and who you can keep with great work). Advertising agencies who hire commercial shooters will still pay, as will companies who need good event photographers . After shooting professionally for over 15 years .... there's no doubt the industry has drastically changed and it's smart for even great photographers to branch out creatively into other avenues (films, art director, digital specialist, video etc). . All I know is that photographers need to stop low balling their prices or shooting for free because they're bringing down the entire industry for everyone else and only hurting themselves in the long term from any real career. As for photographers connecting with other photographers...it is always great to keep learning and getting advice ...which is why I think most read fstoppers and enjoy the articles. And yes, photographers do refer others if they cant take a gig.