I thought of a good riddle.
Question: How Does A Professional Photographer Pay His Bills?
Answer: With money he makes from his day job.
Now of course, this may not be the only answer. Maybe he has a trust fund like Paris Hilton or perhaps he is retired from a large corporation that pays him a pension for his years of service. It could also be from a spouse’s income. Or maybe he is on welfare.
But one thing I can almost guarantee you, it is not from taking pictures.
A Full-Time Pro Must Bill $100,000 Per Year
In 2007, the median household income in America was $50,233. To take home $50K per year, you need to bill $99,850 per year (1920.19 per week or $998 per day.) This assumes no studio overhead, just an office in your home, and 100 billable days per year. This is a bare bones operation. If you had a studio and employees, the number would be a lot higher. This is from NPPA Cost of Doing Business Calculator. I encourage you to use this calculation for your own situation and come up with your required day rate.
In 2010, it is nearly impossible for a photographer to have one hundred $1000 days per year. That would be about two $1000 days per week. Sorry, not gonna happen. Maybe Annie Liebowitz or Terry Richardson, but not anyone who isn’t a big name photographer shooting Vogue covers and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
So in 2010, photography is not a viable business, it is really just a hobby, one practiced by the one billion consumers who purchased digital cameras in the past few years. It is also a hobby for thousands of former professional photographers who shut down their studios and went out of business. And it will be a hobby for thousands of students in photography schools across America who are expecting a career but will be disappointed.
So like almost everyone, you won’t make a living as a pro photography. But you love photography. Is there any way to work in photography field and still make money? The good news is the answer is a resounding YES!
How To Make Money In Photography
Photography has been over run with hobbiests. The are millions of people who would like to work as a photographer, so they are willing to work very cheaply or for free for the opportunity. So how to make money? The answer is to either go up or down the food chain.
Down The Food Chain
Going down the food chain means providing the resources needed by photographers. This includes equipment, expendibles, services and training. Instead of competing with all the new photographers who are giving away the store, make them your customers.
Photography equipment includes cameras, lenses, lights, computers, software and an endless list of gadgets and gizmos. If you have an aptitude for electronics and mechanics, you may find work in equipment manufacturing suitable. If you have the know-how to repair cameras or lenses, that would be a way to use your unique skill. Or if you have a really creative mind, you can invent a new product that solves some common photography problem.
Working in a photography retail sales business is another possibility. This can be as simple as taking a job as a salesman in a photography store or even opening your own retail store. However, in recent years many photography stores have gone out of business. Even big chains like Ritz camera have closed their doors. Most photography gear is now sold by huge retailers like Walmart or Best Buy and big photography suppliers like Calumet or B&H Photo Video. You can’t compete with them, so you would have to sell special items that they don’t carry. For example, in Hollywood you can specialize in dollies and cranes, or 16mm or Super-8 film cameras. You need a niche to be successful.
Expendibles are things that get used up like film, photographic paper, chemicals, color gels, gaffers tape and 1001 other items. Most of this stuff is made by big companies like Kodak or 3M, but you can also work in a wholesale or retail sales, which are smaller companies. There are stores in Hollywood that sell nothing but expendibles.
Photography Services are the support and ancillary services needed by photography, film and television production. This includes rental studios, camera rental, lighting and grip rental, talent and talent agencies, makeup artists, hair stylists, wardrobe specialists, gaffers, grips, crane operator, drivers, craft services, accounting and many other crafts and professions.
Post-production services include film processing labs, retouching, 3-D modeling for CGI, compositing and editing. Most of these require excellent computer skills and the desire to sit in front of a computer screen for 12-hours per day. Many photographers are swamped with post-production work. So if you are a Photoshop wizard, try offering your services to photographers. Don’t charge too much per picture, because you are competing against low-waged retouchers from India.
(My own experience is providing production services to the film industry. Until a few years ago, we had a grip truck and a rental stage in Hollywood. We rented the stage and lighting equipment and provided other services to help producers get their show made. What I can say about this is be prepared for hard, physical work and long hours. The average work day is about 16 hours long and imagine moving your house three times each day.)
Training is really another kind of service. Under training I would include classes, seminars and workshops. Most local community colleges now offer photography programs. So there is a place for teachers. And if you look around, you will see many expert photographers who are offering seminars and workshops on diverse subjects like nature, wildlife, lighting and glamour photography. Photo enthusiasts will gladly pay for any expert to teach them how to do it.
I would also include writing How-To books about photography under training. Or maybe that would be under Publishing. Even Ansel Adams wrote a few How-To books.
To summarize, by going down the food chain, those billion new photo enthusiasts and wannabe pros, who became your competition as a pro photographer, can be your potential customers. Sell them your services as a supplier.
Up The Food Chain
Going up the food chain means becoming the person that hires photographers. Most commercial photography is used by the advertising, publishing or entertainment industries, so that is who hires commercial photographers.
Advertising Agencies create advertising campaigns for commercial firms. Agencies come up with an ad concept. develop it, produce the print and television ads. Then they buy space media and time on television to display the ads. But starting an advertising agency is not realistic unless you already know a lot about the business and have contacts and connections. You probably will not be able to get any major clients.
Instead go one step further up the food chain. Become a retailer selling physical goods. Then create your own marketing plan and your own advertising campaign. For instance, how about selling vintage clothing, shoes or swimwear? You can start small by selling online through eBay. Later, open up a brick and mortar store. You can do much of the creative work, like photography, yourself,
Publishers publish publications, meaning newspapers, magazines, books, calendars, posters and greeting cards. An example would be to start a magazine. You create editorial content for the magazine and revenue comes from selling advertising space.
In the past, getting a magazine published, printed and distributed meant having to pay a lot of money to printers and jobbers. But the internet has lowered the barrier for entry into publishing. All you have to do now is create the editorial content. There is no printing and distribution is world-wide over the internet. The cost for web-hosting can be almost nothing.
The only drawback to online publishing is that the barrier for entry has been lowered for everyone, so there are a hundred million competitors. Good luck selling advertising space, unless you have many, many visitors each day to your online magazine. Of course, any website can host Google Adwords, but 99.9% of the websites will make only a few pennies per day. Again, you need a lot of visitors to make money with click-through ads.
The Entertainment Industry means film and television. Producers are behind all the entertainment that we watch on TV and in the movies. To start producing television shows or independent movies, begin with a concept and then write a script. Somehow you getting funding to shoot and finish the show and it gets distributed. Easier said than done.
Distribution is through movie theaters, cable television and DVD sales. Increasingly, distribution means the world-wide web. Youtube will host your show for free, but there is no revenue stream so it is not clear how you could actually make money by producing a show and distributing it on youtube. You would have to sell some physical goods to consumers to have revenue. Actually getting people to pay you for something on the internet is not so easy. Maybe becoming a producer is not such a hot idea if you are actually looking to make money rather than burn it.
Find a Need and Fill It
To summarize, by going either up or down the food chain you are more likely to find a viable business opportunity. Look for some need that you can fill. Something that not everyone can do or that nobody wants to do will mean less competition. Find a niche that is too small to be of interest to the big guys, but big enough so that you will have customers.
In future articles I’ll write more about making money in photography. I’ll think about which pursuits would be a waste of time and which would be the most realistic ways of making money.