I get asked a lot of questions about my work, amongst the most popular must be “How do you actually make money with photography”? It always catches me a little off guard when someone in a different profession asks me that question… like my dentist. But with photography and filmmaking being so popular, it’s a fair question for people in the industry looking to make some extra cash on the side, or weekend warriors looking to jump into full-time.
There are a lot of different streams of income for most photography niches, I’ll speak to the few that I personally use in the genre I work in -outdoor lifestyle (adventure, travel, sports, etc.).
If you haven’t figured out your niche yet, that’s the first thing you want to do. It might take a really long time of trying a lot different of things. For me, I worked backwards, I asked myself what my “perfect day” looks like. I knew I wanted to be outside, I knew I didn’t want to carry a shit load of gear around, and I also knew I wanted to collaborate as often as possible with other creatives and athletes. Working backwards from my “perfect day” gave me the ability to narrow down what niches I could chose from that already existed. And if it doesn’t exist yet, create it.
You have to be great at what you do, but being great isn’t enough. You have to be unique. Ask yourself, “what is unique about my outdoor adventure photography, what is unique about my portraits of people in places?” Highlight those unique styles.
Tip: Don’t settle, pick a niche that inspires you… not one that feels like work.
But not “free” free. Time is the single most important thing in life. If it takes time, there’s value to that, so make sure you’re gaining value for the free work you’re doing in order to build your portfolio. For example, if you’re going to photograph a product for a new emerging outdoor brand, make sure you can advertise their logo on your website, get a reference from the client, ask them to introduce you to others in their industry that might be looking for product photos. Let’s say that you want to charge $1000 for this photoshoot that you’re now photographing for “free”… make sure you can acquire the value of $1000 by other means. A reference, an introduction, and a photoshoot for your portfolio might be worth the free shoot.
I want to add that shooting for “free” isn’t just for the emerging professional. There might be a concept or a passion project that you really want to introduce to a potential client, or a new direction you want to explore with an existing partner. A lot of times, the only way to convince them to pursue your idea, is proof of concept. But again, even if it’s just “proof of concept”, make sure you’re getting value for your time from your photoshoot. You can’t just wager your future projects on nothing but hope, it’s not sustainable, and you’ll have a short lived career.
Tip: Work for free, but never work for cheap. If you’re the $500 guy, it’s hard to break free from that and charge more. If you say that generally you charge $1000 a day, but you want to work something out anyways because you really believe in the cause, invoice the your price and show them the discount they received.
Definitely no “get rich quick” approach here. But very important none the less. If I find myself traveling to a new destination for a client, I might come home with nearly 1000 photos that will ultimately end up nowhere. I’ll deliver the agreed upon amount first to my client, then pick a few to share online and social media. So instead of just sitting on those 1000 photos that will go nowhere… make selects, of those 1000, I might be confident in selling 100 of them. Of those 100, maybe I’ll make money off of 50 of them.
Tip: Consider your niche even with stock. There are tons of great stock websites out there, but most of them are extremely generic. Pick a stock website that specializes in selling photos in your area of photography. Clients want photographers that specialize in a specific area, photographers should approach micro-stock agencies the same way.
Cost of doing business
This one is critical. How can you even know how much you should be charging a potential client, if you don’t even know what you need to make to survive, and not just survive, but thrive?
All of your professional overhead needs to be factored in here. Are you paying off gear… how much? Do you pay for editing software? What about lessons – you should always be learning. Then there’s storage, physical and digital. Don’t forget your website, and maybe you have more than one. I have a Shopify website for selling products, a Smugmug website for selling digital downloads at mass, a Squarespace website for my portfolio, and I have WordPress website for my blog. It’s not even as if I like websites, but I base everything I do around my clients, and if it makes their lives easier, it’s important to me… but it adds to my overall overhead.
Once you figure out what your monthly overhead is. Do the same for your personal life, add those together, add some financial goals, include savings and emergencies (don’t forget that you don’t have health benefits or a 401k if you freelance).
Tip: Add 20% onto your day rate once you start landing clients. The better you get and the more your work begins to stand out, the more room you have to charge what you want to grow your business and ultimately do what you love. Remember, “We don’t make art to make money, we make money to make art” -Chase Jarvis
So you’ve got your niche figured out, lets say your niche is shooting downhill mountain biking. You’re selling some stock on the side from riding with your buddies now too. Well once you’ve figured out your cost of doing business, you’re able to quote on event coverage. Event coverage is a great way to make some cash doing the thing you love. There are a ton of different pricing models out there where you can earn your day rate from. Sometimes the event organizers want to commission you to promote their event, sometimes the sponsors of the mountain biking race want to sponsor your photos in exchange for having their logo on all of your participant photos. Sell them directly to the mountain bikers.
Put yourself out there. And don’t get discouraged. I think I have an average 100:1 ratio of being ignored or – literally told “thanks but we have no need for your services, and by the way you’re overpriced” to actually landing a new client, or coming out on top for a bid. But guess what, I like my odds. The prospect who says “you’re overpriced”, all I hear is “we don’t recognize your particular skillset as being beneficial to us at this time”… and that’s alright, that gives you the ability to continue to seek out clients who do recognize the value you’re offering, those are the clients you want.
Tip: Find a few templates or template designers for drawing up proposals so you can set yourself apart from others in your niche. Ultimately it’s not just your skill that’s going to land the client, it’s how you package your skills, design is important… we’re working in a visual field after-all.
Events come and go, they’re rarely enough to build your annual salary around. Depending on your area genre of photography, it might be beneficial to seek out sponsorship. If you’re traveling to beautiful destinations for work, and you need a tent and a backpacking tent for example, try to partner with a tent and backpacking brand. Trade your services for product you need.
Also make sure you can advertise the work on your portfolio. It’s a great way to build your list of clients, that you might not otherwise land just yet.
Tip: Approach the manufacturers, not the retailers… retailers have to purchase their goods from the manufacturers, meaning they have less wiggle room to sponsor free gear.
Once you do become an expert in your niche, again lets says it’s mountain biking photography, offer an online course on how to photograph mountain biking competitions or photograph the riders. Offer semi-annual workshops and sponsor a give-away to create some marketing for your services in the meantime. It’s all about being as creative as possible.
How will you know you’ve become and expert and your insight will be valuable to others? Well, once you are successful in your area, and others are emailing you, asking you to go for coffee, and trying to “pick your brain” for insight and knowledge. Once other people recognize the value you have to offer them, leverage that in a way where you can teach others how you got to where you are now. Your experiences are valuable and you can save others a lot of time, that insight is valuable.
There are obviously tons of ways to make money with photography. I left a few out like editorial -mostly because there’s not actually any money there generally. There are others like offering portrait sessions, headshots, promotional shoots, writing about photography, creating and selling a coffee table book of your photographs, prints etc. The ones I highlighted are some of the ones I’ve personally had success in, and enjoy. So to be as helpful as possible, I wanted to stick to what I knew well.