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Photography

How to Build a Sustainable Career in Photography

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This post is part of a series called Freelance Photography.
Making the Jump: Is Freelance Professional Photography Right for You?

How do I become a professional photographer? It's a question I hear often as the editor of this section.

Working in photography is not like it used to be. There are more challenges, margins are slim, and competition is fierce. Making a living with photography is still possible, but the pathways to a sustainable career are not as direct as they once were.

In this tutorial we'll debunk some lingering assumptions about working in photography, we'll take a look at how the photography industry has changed, and you'll learn how to plan a career that is actually doable in today's economy.

I want you to have a photography career that is sustainable. Every career has stresses and anxieties, but working as a photographer should, fundamentally, bring you pleasure and reward. Otherwise, why do it? So we'll cover three keys to a sustainable photography practice: how to reduce costs, how to build resources, and how to build revenue. You'll also get some high-level instruction about how to make sustainable choices for your future.

Illustration of a cedar tree

The Old Photography is Dead, Long Live The New Photography!

Once upon a time, there were significant technical and capital barriers to becoming a photographer. Nearly all those barriers have fallen.

For many years, a relatively small number of photographers were able to charge a healthy premium for their work because they had good skills, expensive cameras, or both. And then professional DSLR cameras arrived, sending a massive wave of change through the photography industry.

The Endless Line Problem

When good DSLRs hit the market all kinds of new people, including me, started offering photography services at cut rates. Clients caught on quick. With all these new photographers around, potential clients could use the "endless line" argument very effectively. The argument goes like this:

"If you, Joe Photographer, won't shoot it for $xxxx.xx, we have an endless line of people who will. Their work may not quite measure up to yours, but it will be good enough. Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Clients have tried make that argument forever, of course, but the problem was that the line of photographers was, for the first time, actually endless. Yes, the first generation of born-digital photographers might not have had the same level of experience, and they might not have had the same level of skill, but for many clients they were, increasingly, good enough, and cheap.

Globalization

At around the same time, stock photography companies moved online (starting in the late 90s and really picking up speed in early 2000s). This created a global market for digital images, which opened some new opportunities in the short term but ultimately reduced the value of established photographers' once-lucrative archives.

And then, in the developed economies of the world, a new era of stagnation and purse-tightening took hold. Bespoke photography is expensive, and almost always a discretionary cost. People with pinched budgets began to look for substitutes: they did the photography themselves, or simply ripped photos off the Internet.

Photography as Commodity

And here we are. Photographers today work in a highly competitive global commodity market.

Though digitization and globalization greatly increased choice for consumers, they actually significantly reduced diversity of opportunity for photographers. With a few exceptions, there is now no real economic advantage to being a better photographer than your competition. Producing for commodity markets is not about quality, it's about volume. Clients now have many, many photographers with more-or-less identical offerings to choose from. Making money is about producing work as efficiently you can.

The exceptions to this rule are parts of the photography industry that still have a high barrier to entry, like elite fashion and advertising photography (concentrated in a few specific cities), high-end wedding photography (a very high level of customer service), or certain kinds of art, editorial, and documentary photography (strong gatekeepers in professional curators and picture editors). Another exception is being famous, though that is not actually a realistic business plan for most people.

Photography is a Vocation, Not a Profession

Photographers gnashed their teeth and beat their chests as staff positions at the newspapers disappeared and independent studios relocated into basements and garages. It's a frustrating lot, trying to make a good life in photography today, especially if you have tens of thousands of dollars worth of film gear wasting away in your attic.

I think it's important to look forward, though, to focus on what is real. The heady days of film are gone—it's time to move on. The thing is, photography never was a real profession, and it was never going to be. We don't actually need professional photographers, at least not in the way we need professional doctors, lawyers, and plumbers.

Photography Eats the World

Anyway, these changes were, if not inevitable, at least very likely. The trajectory of our young and developing medium is toward openness, and the history of photography includes many examples of technological change that took cameras out of the control of a select few and put them into the hands of many. In the long run, that trajectory is good for photography, art, and the world. I think digital photography has brought us closer to realizing the true potential of photography as an accessible, democratic medium.

And have you noticed how often photography is a desired skill for many other jobs now? Photography is no longer the protected domain of technicians and artists: it's everywhere! Many more people now use photography to make their living than there ever were professional photographers in the past.

Alright, but what does it all mean? What if you're a young person/snake person curious about making money with a camera? While some professional staff, studio, and freelance photography work does still exist, the real opportunities lie elsewhere. Making a living in photography today increasingly means thinking about photography as a portable skill: it is something you do, not someone you are. Getting started takes a solid plan, control over your expenses, and diverse sources of revenue.

Before You Start, Make a Self Inventory

Before diving in, ask yourself why you want this life. What motivates you?

Why do you want to do photography for money? As a business opportunity it's a risky proposition at best. Think about what your core goals are. Pursuing photography for money should be a sustainable business, undertaken with clear objectives, not a passion project.

Do you love working with people to solve visual challenges? How about going on adventures? Or connecting with the world in a special way? Does seeing your work on billboards, in magazines, or on gallery walls give you a sense of accomplishment? You don't need to be a professional to do any of these things. If photography is a passion project for you, let it be that. You can take your art and yourself seriously but skip the immense headache of chasing after clients. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur.

If the answers to your self inventory still lead you toward photography for money, the next question is if this path is actually navigable. What capital or existing assets do you have? Are you able to afford the equipment for the type of work you want to do? Can you set aside the time needed to find and service a clientele? Will you need training to get your skills up? And, crucially, how long can you support yourself in this before you run out of money?

So, before you start, ask yourself honestly what it's all for and whether this is a real possibility.

Prepare for a Decade of Picture Making

I didn't do any of this, I just fell into photography backward. I worked in a photo lab and loved it, and I thought it would be great to do jobs with a camera. On balance things worked out, and I still love working in photography, but my path was a lot less straight forward than it could have been. I have certainly had my fair share of cruddy moments along the way, episodes that I probably could have avoided if I had gone into business with my eyes open.

I did, however, get one essential piece of wisdom early on, wisdom for which I am forever grateful: it takes ten years to build a photography business capable of sustaining itself.

So, the last question of the self-inventory is the most important: are you truly interested and ready to work on this project for the next ten years?

The next section of this tutorial is about how to keep your photography practice going while you slowly nurture it into self-sufficiency.

Illustration of a chestnut tree

Reduce Your Expenses: Live Within Your Means

A sustainable career in photography starts with the most affordable housing you can find. I can't stress this one enough. Photography work is notoriously fickle; don't get stuck with a place you have to tie up a lot of your hard-earned cash to keep. Don't force yourself to choose between your rent and your camera.

A good rule of thumb is to spend about 30 percent of your income on housing. Unfortunately, many cities are in the middle of a ridiculous housing bubble. Let's consider this fact for a second:

There is not a single state [in the United States] where a full-time worker earning the minimum wage can rent a market-rate one-bedroom apartment for 30 percent or less of their income, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.—The New York Times

Now consider that there is no guarantee that you will make more than minimum wage as a freelance photographer, especially not when you're starting out. In fact, there is a strong possibility that, during some periods, you will work more than full-time but earn less than a minimum wage worker.

Don't move to San Francisco, New York, London, Vancouver, Melbourne, or any other place where rent-to-income ratios are criminally out of whack. These cities have a powerful siren song to creative people but they can quickly become a spiral of debt and dependency. If you live in one of these places already, think about moving to a less cool and more financially reasonable neighborhood.

Adjust Your Expectations

You aren't going to make a fortune. Bridging income gaps usually means sacrificing other things, like leisure time, nights out, or that sweet new camera. Cut out beer and cigarettes, take the bus, and get a roommate. Spend your money on lenses instead, and save up a cash buffer to keep yourself afloat while the work isn't coming in.

Also realize that working in photography isn't the never-ending adventure Instagram makes it out to be, either. Most of the work of photography is profoundly unglamorous: freelance photographers spend about half their time looking for new clients and maintaining the ones they have. In reality, basically all working photographers have to do a lot of paperwork.

Be a Cheapskate

This one is simple: don't let your ego touch your wallet.

Photographers like to compare cameras, which is fine, but don't get sucked into phony one-upmanship. The camera doesn't take the picture, you do.

Rent what you can, and, if you have to buy, always buy the most reliable and affordable gear you can find. When you need to buy specialized equipment, try not to buy the latest and greatest. Look instead at the previous generation. Updates these days are incremental, not fundamental. There's every chance that older equipment is good enough for your work. Manual focus lenses are cheap and excellent, you can get a full-frame camera for way less than you might think, good technique will let you avoid many problems, and software can fix the rest.

How to Make Money With Photography

Alright, money time! Bring on the big bucks! These are the three ways you can earn money as a photographer:

  1. Earn a wage
  2. Leverage your capital
  3. Collect handouts

Earn a Wage: Use Your Skills to Get a Job

Remember how I said that new people flooded the photography market? They came from other jobs before they picked up photography. You can apply the same strategy in reverse. As the saying goes: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Nobody wants to pay for photography, but everyone still wants it. If anything, photography is more in demand than ever. This mismatch has caused employers to tack photography onto the bottom of all kinds of job descriptions: communications and media jobs, of course, but also things like light manufacturing, retail, food, hospitality, science and engineering, and travel and tourism. Who's producing pictures for Facebook, Instagram, and the rest? Who's recording customer testimonials for the website? Who's documenting the construction process? Your visual communication skills can make you a valuable part of just about any organization.

So the first tactic I recommend is to use photography to help you stand out in a crowded market and land a good job. Photographers have heard the studio-staff-freelance story for so long that many of us don't recognize that this is even a possibility, but it's a hugely important one. Taking advantage of this opportunity means continually building skills that are in demand and being prepared to jump on chances to exercise your photo and video skills in your work life whenever you can.

Speaking of skills in demand, I strongly encourage you to embrace video, too. Video is the most natural way to diversify what you can offer.

Build Your Capital: Side Gigs

The goal with a side gig is to, over time, build up your physical, social, technical, and artistic resources. Keep building up your practice and one day you might have a stable enough clientele to make the transition from photography as side gig to photography as main gig. Or you might not, in which case you still have a healthy little business that you enjoy, which brings in a bit extra money, and makes for an interesting life.

Before you start a side gig, get yourself into a safe position. Not every day job will give you the chance to flex your photography muscles, but having a stable, flexible non-photography income is so important. You want your main job, whatever it is, whether it's full or part-time, to provide enough money to meet your basic needs. This will let you weather dry spells in your photography business and negotiate new work from a position of strength. Tuts+ instructors have all kinds of jobs, including making websites, writing and editing, graphic design, managing the local coffee shop, teaching, administration, and cutting hair.

While photography as a side gig probably won't make you much money, it is still worthwhile for the other benefits and opportunities it provides. Doing photography on the side forces you to grow, and not just about photography. You'll learn things like how to build a website for your portfolio, how to put on an exhibition, or how to communicate with strangers. Doing gigs will keep your creativity alive, help you learn new skills, and let you participate in your community. At the very least, doing gigs gets you off your butt and out of the house!

A positive feedback loop is a powerful dynamic. Invest as much of the profits from your side gig as you can back into your photography. Skills training, business development, or better equipment: use the work you do to build yourself up so you can get more and better work. Concentrate on finding the photography gigs that excite you and try to make a name for yourself doing that type of work.

Rent-Seeking: Grants and Bursaries

This source of income is often overlooked and misunderstood, but it can be very powerful. In the language of economics, rent-seeking is the pursuit of "economic gain from others without reciprocating any benefits to society through wealth creation." In other words, rent is getting paid without actually producing anything or risking anything because of who you are.

If you can get money from your government to build a photography business it's a totally rational strategy. Use every rent-seeking opportunity you can. Grants, bursaries, tax incentives: they're all an essential part of the mix.

The opportunities can come from all levels of government. For new photographers, local money is usually the easiest to get first. Research local business development and arts organizations; they often have programs to help arts-based business and projects get started. Once you've had a few grants and awards it becomes easier to get support from larger regional and national programs. These larger programs usually look for a track record before they will support your practice or project.

Note that contests with cash prizes are different from rent-seeking, and I suggest you stay away from most of them. Many operate like a Ponzi scheme, and aren't worth your time or the entry fees. Contests and competitions that are about career advancement, not money, (like Photo Lucida's Critical Mass) are more worthwhile.

Illustration of a maple tree
Did you like the tree illustrations in this tutorial? They're by the talented subtropica on Graphic River.

A Sustainable Career

Find Your Unfair Advantage

If you were looking for investors in your photography business, what is the thing that could tip the balance and convince them to invest? What's the thing that makes your photography business a sure bet? The thing that you can do that others can't? That's your unfair advantage.

If you don't know what your unfair advantage is, that's OK! It takes time to find your specialty, to find the right mix of supports and skills that will produce a self-sustaining photography business. If there's one thing I want you to take away from this tutorial, it is this: give yourself the time it takes to build the photography business that works for you. Keep going. Keep learning, keep experimenting, find the people and work that bring you joy, and steadily build your way toward a stable income. Don't be afraid to look outside traditional support strategies and business plans to make it work.

Go For the Long Haul

Lastly, remember that it takes ten years to build a self-sustaining career in photography. Go easy on yourself along the way. Honestly, very few people can make a ten-year plan for themselves that is actually possible to stick to. Instead, you can adopt a stance, or approach to decision making, that will let you make consistent choices for your long-term interests. Make decisions that allow you to sustain your photography practice, that let you grow as an artist, that keep your business healthy, and focus on what you care about. Remember: you are in it for the long haul.

Good luck!

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