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Monday, 02 June 2014


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I'm in your category 3, as a retired commercial/editorial photographer after a career of more than 30 years. I retired before the current difficulties really began (for photographers) but I hoped and intended that a significant part of my retirement income would come from photo-libraries, and I had built quite large holdings with several of the leading players.

Since 2000-2005 when I went through semi- into full retirement, my income from stock is around -4.5 on your scale.

I will define myself as a #3 – I am an accountant who operates a wedding & portrait business on the side. I make approx. 15% of my personal income from photography, and have no particular aspirations to significantly increase that percentage. If anything, as my primary career progresses and my age increases, I forsee an inevitable sunset on my career within the next 10 years, as I age out of the market for professional wedding photographers and find other, more pressing demands on my time. I have been self-defining myself as a professional photographer from the day I took my first paid wedding commission, which was in 2009, so this summer will be my 6th as a professional.

I would rate photography as a +1, personally. Business has been getting better for me as I acquire more of a reputation in my local market, and my efforts at marketing (such as they are) are generally succeeding, giving me a respectable rank on Google and reliable if slight daily web traffic on my site. I am still a basically small fish in a pretty big, diverse pond. I am generally attracting clients that fit my personality and my personal model of an ideal client, which makes me happy as a clam. I am as booked as I would like to be, approx. one per month, and my bookings aren’t overly last-minute, though they aren’t quite as in-advance as some other, more enviable/professional photographers in my area are (some of which are nearing capacity for the summer of 2015; I’ve yet to receive even an inquiry for next year). I think that speaks to the niche I’ve made myself comfortable in and marketed towards. Every year I have been busier than the season before, and every year I have been able to increase prices and not get a lot of haggling or client pushback. My photographic income is approx. 95% service-based and 5% product-based, something I have been making efforts to adjust. Selling product isn’t easy for me while some photographers I know of can make 30-50% of their income on product. Perhaps this is a client-niche issue, or maybe this is a sales issue. I’m torn as to which to ascribe it to.

I hope this is the sort of response you’re hoping for, Mike!

How are things for you? — Commercial Photography = -4 Personal Photography = +4

How's the market, = -4

how's work, = -4

how's income, = -4

how's the job, = +5 (how does one quantify a passion?)

how's job satisfaction? = + 5 (when it happens)

I started my life-long career working in photography in 1965. It was a continuum of advancement and positive development and living pretty high on the hog.

In 2005, just as I made the switch to digital and the rest of the world made a seismic shift as paradigms changed, the commercial experience here in Sydney eroded rapidly. I still shoot whatever commercial assignments come my way. Just last Tuesday I shot two more covers and feature spreads for a magazine I have shot every cover for for 35 years. But by the end of the year that may well be gone also as the publisher prepares to retire. Fortunately I can pick up about 37 hours a week working as Administrator in a church but doing a cover shoot I earn in a day what it takes me a fortnight to earn in the Admin role. I just scrape by.


Getting so much better all the time.

Thank you, John Lennon.

[That was Paul, but point taken. John wrote the so-called middle eight, starting with "I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved." --Mike]

Pretty good: +1 or +2. We mostly print here. Large format printing is up and silver-halide small format is steady. One of our competitors closed 40 miles away, so this is a local thing, maybe not an industry wide thing. We get calls from folks looking for photographers at about the customary rate / 2-4 referrals per week.

Commissioned work +3 (eg. photo assignments for magazines)

Video +5 (as part of the above)

Stock sales -3

I have had a very odd specialty for the last 30+ years, panoramic work with a #10 Cirkut camera. Not much worry about competition. A thin field and I was usually better than them, partly because I had my own lab and was a better printer.
Sales are down, because I am trying to cut back (and have been for a while). And profits from each job are up.
It's easy to replicate what I have been doing with digital formats now, but not as easy as my competition thinks. Now as then you have to know stuff, esp. what works and what does not.

OK, seriously...

+4 to +5

pax / Ctein

If you register yourself a +3 or +4, I'll assume that "writing/ talking about photography" counts as photo-related.

In that case, I'm +3 in terms of teaching and writing professionally about photo stuff, but maybe -1 in actually taking photographs for the other 50% (typical) of my income.

+2 - +3

My job in photography seems to be keeping B&H solvent.
I appear to be making a bang-up success of it.

Honestly can say +4. Not +5 because I feel I should leave head room for improvement. Have shot mainly food for 37 years, editorial and advertising.

Hi Mike, Here's how my business looks in 2014 in Austin, Texas. Everything fell off the map in 2008. Stayed bad until 2011 and then started a long, slow recovery. We're almost, but not quite, back to normal income. But the mix is different.

Some stuff, like company event photography, now gets crowdsourced by the major corporations and I'm pretty sure it's never coming back. We might get called in to photograph the very top end but...

The modus operandi at many ad agencies who used to assign original advertising photography is now to have little crews of in-house computer experts and to supply them with the comprehensive layouts and a budget for stock photos. They buy as many inexpensive stock photograph as they need to cobble together the visual concept and then spend days and days fixing it all in PhotoShop.

The benefit to the agency is that the time spent by their in-house people is generally billed at a fairly high retouching rate while the people who do the work are usually not well paid. A week of working on an ad "collage" may return $4000 net to the agency but it's a far greater profit than the mark-up (if the client even allows mark ups) on the external photography might have been. This is now the norm as far as I can see. Assignments are as rare on the ground as $100 bills.

I tend to get hired to shoot stuff in a certain style that I do well and I still get hired to do portraits and ad campaigns that require the participation of top executives. No one wants to screw up in those situations and go with the low bidder because it might be a job killer.

My take is that commercial photography as we know it is being replaced by commercial video. Photography has become so easy and, for the most part, client standards are so low that they are willing to default to iPhone images and what not instead of hiring a professional. In many instances I agree with them. What it means is that the way we practiced commercial photography, pre-2008, is now quickly dying and anyone who depends solely on income from photography either has an amazing (and hard to duplicate) style or they are watching their income dying a bit each quarter. I'm only speaking from my experiences as a regional shooter, not a national celeb. photographer.

As my income from assignment photography drops I work hard to find more things to replace the overall income. I've been very successful with the books. The blog returns some decent affiliate income. The Craftsy.com online video workshops are profitable. My writing seems to be the saving grace of the income stream. I even made some cash last year shilling cameras for a large technology company.

More and more I push myself to go after the video market only because it takes time and effort to do good projects and most clients understand the "black hole" of time it takes to create, shoot and edit a decent project and they are still willing to pay for that. More so because it's so easy to place the final product into inexpensive channels.

My future? Advantaged by some good equity and real estate investments in the 1980's and 1990's. And some good buys during the depths of the recent recession. We could both survive and put the kid through college even if I exited the market but it wouldn't be an "American Dream" level existence.

My most recent gamble is the upcoming publication of my first novel about an anxious corporate photographer who stumbles into a web of corporate espionage and intrigue while on assignment for a major client in Lisbon at the turn of this century. I have high hopes for it. And it is tangentially a product of my career in photography.

I'd say writing a novel about photography trumps having to teach workshops about photography every day of the week. And the income might be ongoing.

To sum up: Sucky time to be an aging photographer with the inertia of old school practices sitting heavily on one's shoulders like a dead albatross. The few times I am able to buck tradition and do things in a new way I see a glimpse of promise that there's still money to be made in the business. But it won't be in the field of selling wall prints to consumers. The only real game is business to business and my hope is that clients get bored dong the work themselves, in-house and default to the few remaining full time professionals.

My advice to people in the field? Diversify as quickly as you can and have multiple streams of income. And also remember that since clients are aiming the work at a much different medium than big, glossy magazines which required high production values, don't get wrapped up in thinking that you always have to have the very best of equipment. Most of the stuff we've bought in the last five years is---good enough.

Commercial photographer in Boston:

Market seems to be strong and getting stronger.

Income/work flattened or only grew a bit for the three or so years of the recession. For the last 2-3 years, income and work has grown steadily.

Job satisfaction: Some clients are better than others in terms of appreciation of photography and willingness to spend money. When it's busy it's too busy - mentally and physically. Too busy most of the year to do much personal work - that is bittersweet.


+1 I do high quality product photography in a small European country.

+3+, have one of the few full time jobs left (in Madison) and still learning and creating images I am proud of.

I'm at +2. I sell fine art photography to hospitality and healthcare markets, and things this year have definitely been improving. I think this mainly has to do with me getting my act together and improving my marketing efforts.

The commercial side of my photography is probably a +1. I'm bidding on jobs and winning enough of them. Revenue is up from the same time period last year. (Knock wood.)

There is much room for, and I would certainly like to see, improvement. (My wife would like to see vast improvement.)

I went out on my own in roughly 2008 so my baseline might not be as high as some a bit older than myself.

I work in a vertical photography business, i.e. lab and photographer packaged into one beast. I'm a traditionally trained/ educated photographer who found his calling in the lab. I specialize in volume photography (school pictures, sports team and individual, etc...). Our school pictures business would rate at a +4 but our sports segment would rate at a -2. So overall the business would be a +1, maybe a +2.

Rebounding from the last three years. +4


Category 1.

-3 and heading towards -4

Don't see a reversal of fortune in the near future, or in any time to impact me; I'll be long gone, just trying to make it to social security!

Read with Interest Kirk's information, have to say tho, he says: "...sucky time to be an aging photographer with the inertia of old school practices...etc."; but I say, if your idea of old school practices is having a viable business and working on high end, creative, and complicated photography for appreciative clients who are like partners to you...vs. new school practices, which is running around town shooting on the fly for very little money, and "half-assing" the creative because you're not getting paid for your time correctly...well, then, I'm perfectly happy to have been working with that old school albatross around my neck and very happy to be very close to retirement.

I rate myself at +8, I do corporate photography in Toronto and have great clients, best move was to reduce my prices after digital came in and switch to location service only, virtually no overhead except equipment. Sadly my competition was mad but for business photography is a commodity and price rules. The day it is a drudge to pick up a camera is the day i pack it in. I have 35 years in this now and 5 to retirement. I would have said 10 but I do not wish to pick up the camera at the weekend. GB.

Robert -2 I work as a PR photographer at a University. Sometimes I (and others) think we'll be the last generation to make a "living" at being a photographer. So many cell phone cameras and folks who don't see well enough to understand that their photos are not very good - the acceptable level of quality is very low these days. Writers and editors who deal in words also think they're photographers.
42 years of experience, maybe I'm a little tired)

I'm running at a +2 I think. I'm a freelance commercial/editorial shooter for the past 13 years. I've done a lot of catalog work, e-commerce, periodical, and advertising. The bottom fell out in late 2007. Nothing came in for a year or so, burned through almost all of my savings and now it is back to about where it was pre-crash with a little bump and a fair amount of attention from the industry due to promotions and networking.

Can't think of another job I'd want to do.

Transitioning from full-time commercial photographer to full-time visual creative — that is, I'm diversifying my income streams.

At this particular moment, photography is OK. I have a major comission to keep me sweet for a few months, along with some other assignments in recent weeks. But, that's after months of no photography work at all. So looking at a very short horizon, things are good. Business is up suddenly. +3. But that's a skewed data point. My feeling is earning a full/sustainable income from photography is something only a few people will manage. Who knows what will happen after this glut of work? Maybe it will continue; maybe it won't.

The growth area is video, which I've taught myself. Here there has been a marked up turn in business. Producing good video is easier than it once was, but still a hell of a lot harder than producing photography. For now, supply and demand aren't too far away from each other. That'll change as more video-capable people come into the market. Then the same mechanism will kick in that's hurt many photographers, I think: lots of people wanting a piece of a pie that can't sustain all of them. Right now though: +3.

From a creative perspective, this is an interesting time. Video is new, so it still pushes me and I haven't found my voice just yet. There is still a journey to travel. On the other hand, my photography has stalled. The enjoyment has seeped away a little. I used to know that I did meaningful work. Now I wonder. -1.

Used to make enough to live selling prints and licensing photos. This year, I've sold nothing. I still get constant requests for free work from wealthy companies. Knew the world was heading this way years ago, so I went back to school and got my masters degree in literature and began teaching English at a local high school after I finished grad school in 2012.

I have been asked to teach art a couple of times. I always refuse. My students are not from wealthy families; most are inner-city kids whose families have very little.

Selling them dreams of a career in a field that has been systematically destroyed by those who feel that creative people do not deserve decent lives would be immoral. A lot of these kids are incredibly creative and intelligent, but no one wants to hear what they have to say. I love my students and it pains me that art and photography have become hobbies for the rich instead of honorable trades that allowed a creative and intelligent man or woman to earn a respectable living.

Don't know if you're still taking comments but…

I'm a 0. I feel fortunate to have a salaried job doing photography at a college, however I'm not doing the type of photography that I want. Why won't people pay me to take pretty photos of mountains and forests?!

(Rob, good to see you're on here. Good luck with the studio. Lookin' forward to getting some family portraiture of us and the new baby in the new studio!)

Christopher Crawford said it all. I have a few friends that teach photography in college, but they refuse to tell people it's a viable career. Out of all the staffs of creatives I managed over the years, it's usually the people that came out of a two year trade school teaching photography, that are, if not 'miffed', then sort of "at sea" when they find out the options are few and 95% of the work available is soul-crushing e-commerce photography for a wage not enough to repay their college loans. Two year colleges have to stop teaching photography like it's a viable money-making alternative to nursing or car repair.

Just on the edge of category 2 - 1/3 to 1/2 my earnings come from photography. My bread and butter is documentary style photography of events and my main work is events/award ceremonies (20+ per year) and weddings (5-10 per year). There are a smattering of other jobs that come in as well - portraits, location documentation etc. The rest of my income is made by music (I play in a band and work as a recording engineer) and a tiny amount freelance business and IT consulting.

I'd give it a +2/+3. I don't advertise so all my work is from word of mouth and personal contacts and it's steadily increasing each year. I have one major client for the events and awards and as their business expands they're taking me with them. The weddings come in at a steady rate from personal recommendation. I'm super happy with it at the moment! My rates are just above industry average and I haven't had to drop them (although they have remained the same for the last 2 years) Given my 'portfolio' career I don't feel the pressure to increase the amount of business I get and I don't feel like I'm competing with anyone else for business to be honest. My style of working is unique enough that my clients struggle to find anyone who can replace me to their satisfaction if I can't do a job and I'm quite honestly having a blast with it. It's exactly the right amount of work for me at the moment and it's also exactly the work I enjoy.

I forget who I heard say this but someone once told me the following three rules of freelancing:

1) Produce awesome work
2) Be on time (produce the work on schedule, respond to communications quickly etc)
3) Be a pleasure to work with.

Assuming that the work you produce is of a standard (and being able to understand the standard your clients require is a very useful skill) most companies will be happy with someone who can hit any 2 of the above! And sometimes even just one! If you can hit all three then I think you have a super good chance of getting and keeping work.

I'd also stress the importance of trying to be unique in your genre. Repeating work and getting recommendations is generally about clients employing YOU. A lot of photography/video work is actually kind of generic. Anyone of a certain standard can produce similar work and hit the brief tbh! Clients need to see something in you that makes them prefer you. That could be your attitude and demeanour, it could be an edge or quality to the work, it could be an ability to read through a brief and deliver something surprises and delights them as well as hitting their requirements. In the work I do I often try and deliver shots that will make the client laugh so they look forward to seeing my photos after an event. And those shots are often way off brief but they're the shots that get shared round the office and that people miss when I'm not working.

I'm continually trying to make art in the way that HCB or Elliot Erwitt made art when doing commercial work. One day I'll get close (nowhere near 99% of the time!) but in this world where there is so much average work being done it's still possible to stand out by just doing work that has a lot of YOU in it and by finding joy in the work rather than it being just a job.

Kirk again, in the featured comments section, hits the nail on the head. It wasn't unusual for photographers to gross 100,000 to 200,000 a year in the 80's-90's (hell, I did in the 80's), but now, people are lucky to make 60-80K (and my experience with most of my pals is more like 40-50K). Problem is, making that little self-employed is walking a dangerous line. After the expenses of running a business, 50K gross isn't enough in most markets to pay for long term retirement funds, health care, etc., unless you're relying on a spouse to bring home all that bacon (and until he or she gets tied of funding your folly, kicks you out of the house, and marries someone with a regular job and a decent paycheck with their own benefits, and has a great life).

Amazingly, film, Polaroid, and processing didn't take up that much of your gross in the olden days, it was mostly studio overhead and insurance; but today, constant computer upgrades, equipment upgrades, and technology changes eat up a huge sum. I know a retoucher that went into retirement because his computer upgrades one year were going to be more than he made the previous year. Add into this the uncompensated time spent, in most markets, for working on your digital files (which is why I farm that out and pass on the bills), and there doesn't seem to be much financial reason to be a photographer.

One one the basic tenets of small business, is never use you own capital to finance a job for yourself that someone else would just pay you to do. The problem with most photographers is that they never separate that money from job enjoyment, and in this day and age, you could end up living under a bridge if you don't.

@ Rob Brodman: You show some excellent creative work on your site, Rob. Surviving in one of the toughest creative markets in the US, and among the most expensive, is no small feat.

Did I mention that I had just finished a novel about a corporate PHOTOGRAPHER shooting a trade show in Lisbon in 1999? A wonderful tale of intrigue and suspense, dappled with a realistic portrayal of commercial photography at the time?

[So you're not going to tell us what it's called? —Mike]

Perhaps I have no place commenting here as I make zero directly from photography except on rare occasions. But I felt it worth pointing out that many professions have to struggle with change and undercutting. Photography took longer than most.

I have worked in IT for 30 years. It's a wide field, but requires many specialisations. Many of those have their bright moments, when you can make monster day rates for a few years, but then the next big thing comes along and you are back level pegging with the rest of the noobs fresh out of your latest training course.

Welcome to the new world, but next time you complain about ads on your free iOS app, remember that the guy who wrote it needs to earn a living too.

I'm at about +1 financially compared with the last couple of years as we slowly recover from recession. After 30 years in this business my income overall is about 30% of what it was at its peak 10 years ago and I don't expect it ever to improve beyond 50%. I love this work but if I was ten years younger I'd have to get out. I hope to at least finish on a little bit of a crest before heading off into an impoverished retirement. It was the world's greatest job, but those days were 20+ years ago.

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