We all need to make money. Trying to find out “How much does a photographer make?” is typically a person’s first step once they consider it as a career. But to be honest, my answer is that it is based entirely on his or her hustle. Here’s what I mean:
A Quick Story on ‘Hustle’
Once there was a travelling salesman who was in a new town on business. He was grabbing breakfast at the local diner and saw dark rain clouds out of the window. He wondered if a bad storm would affect his sales calls. Since his server was local to the area he said, “I have a lot of sales calls to make today and I have to walk to most of them. Do you think I should go out in the storm?”
The server replied, “That depends on whether you’re on commission or salary.”
If the sales was on commission, it didn’t really matter because he’d be going out to make the calls anyways. He had no choice but to do the work, to hustle.
Hustle is going the extra mile. Doing the extra work. Doing the un-sexy grind work that make others quit. Pretty much all of what I talk about here at Photo MBA.
You can do it. It’s possible.
Is it easy? Nope.
Will it happen overnight? No.
Can you manifest it by believing you’ll succeed without doing the work? No way. Even if you make a vision board and The Secret tells you you can, you can’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll get all ‘Rah Rah!’ at the drop of a hat, but let’s set some real expectations here before I explain the HOW TO portion of this article.
For the first few years of your photography business, you’ll make less than you friends working a steady 9-5.
If you’re starting out, you’re trading time for money right now. Granted, if you persevere, your time will become exponentially more valuable in the future, but that takes passion and patience.
You’re limited by what gear you can afford and by the amount of time you can dedicate to shooting weddings, portraits, events or whatever kind of photography you’re trying to pursue. If the wedding is at 1PM then you have to be there at a certain time. You can’t expect a pajama + laptop lifestyle if you want to be a photographer.
I’ll be honest with you though, if you are going to work your butt off, position yourself as a premium product, and serve clients who appreciate professional photography, you’re all set.
You might see blogs saying you shouldn’t start a photography business.
You might see other blogs telling you that cell phone cameras and cheap DSLRs are making the demand for professional photography go down, but I disagree 110%. I believe the opposite is true.
Because there’s so much crappy photography out there now, it makes the professional work stand out even more. When people come into my home, they’re blown away by the work my friends have done and even though I hang their work next to my own, it’s light years better.
Anybody who tells you that the marketplace is saturated and you shouldn’t join is shortsighted, ignorant, and isn’t allowed to sit at our lunch table (very mature, Brendan).
Yeah, it’s hard. It’s business! Business isn’t easy and the market is the market. If you’re off your game it’ll eat you alive. So here’s how you stay on your game and make a living as a photographer:
Understand that Different is Better Than Better
Being amazing at your craft, or in the process of pursuing that, is a must. It’s just a non-negotiable. The longer you’re in this game, the more you’ll hear old tired photographers lamenting that young hustlers are more successful than they are even though their photography isn’t as good as the old-timer’s.
And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you if you have great skills, but think that the only thing that matters is the quality of your work. I don’t care if you’re Chase Jarvis (one of my favorites). You’ll lose if you think that simply being better will get you better clients and more work.
Sally Hogshead has an amazing book called Fascinate, where she talks about why different is better than better.
“Better” is not better. It’s worse. “Better” keeps you chained to the same way of working as your competition. Being better is temporary. It’s a flimsy advantage that can be toppled in a millisecond by someone with a bigger following. – Sally Hogshead
They might have a bigger following
Or better local connections
Or newer gear
Or a lower price
Or a second photographer.
Trying to be ‘better’ at their game keeps you on defense.
Being different puts you on offense.
Once you differentiate yourself, you need to learn the business of photography. Which is perfect, because that’s what I’m the best at.
Learn the Business of Photography
The entire thesis behind Photo MBA is that you need more than just an education about how to take amazing photos.
You need a business education, an MBA so to speak.
I know genius photographers who can only do it as a side business because they don’t have the business skills to be successful.
High-quality and ever-improving work isn’t optional. If you’re making crap, it will catch up to you no matter how amazing you are at running your photography business.
But if you’re good and trying to get better at your craft, you’re set.
Now let’s get down to business.
Running a photography business is 20% photographs and 80% business. Veteran photographers I know have even put it as high as 10/90.
How much a photographer makes depends 80-90% on their skills in business:
- Customer Experience
- I could go on all day (here’s a comprehensive list of tools to help as well)
You can learn it. I know because I’m a teacher, a really good one. And I’m going to show you how.
As you’re building your business chops and improving your camera skills, you need to overcome what Ira Glass calls the ‘Taste Gap.’
Survive the ‘Taste Gap’
Ira Glass has this amazing quote where he says:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.”
What I mean is that you actually have to get good at this if you want to make a living out of it.
And that’s not easy, but you have something special on your side….
You started a photography business because you’re brave. You’re BRAVE.
This is a scary thing to do and 100% of your friends and family think they have a great idea. They’re going to write some type of book or invent something.
But tell me right now, how many of them have executed on that idea?
Ideas are worthless. Executing is everything.
And that’s what you are. You’re a doer, an executor. And if you don’t feel like you are yet, you will be.
There’s a VERY good chance that you’re in the taste gap right now. You started your photography business and want to know how much a photographer makes because you have killer taste: you know good photography when you see it. But you don’t think you’re there yet.
So what should you do?
You start and you go. And quickly you realize it’s a whole lot more than taking photos.
You realize that this career is a job, just like any other job.
Here’s one of my biggest tips for you if you want to make real money as a photographer:
Don’t get caught up trying to be one of the cool kids. Because how many of the ‘cool kids’ from high school are crushing it now?
None. That’s how many. And why? Because whatever they wanted was given to them. They were naturally smart or good looking. That’s why there aren’t a lot of good looking comics. And there’s a reason that the people who are amazing photographers rarely come from a background of privilege.
Growing up with adversity forces you to hustle. It breed creativity. Both are necessary if you want to make a living as a photographer, along with two other key traits:
First, Have Passion
In the age of Instagram and while I’d like to think that social media hasn’t influenced our ability to make a great living as a photographer, it does.
It helps us get our name out there easier than ever before, but it also has a dark side.
I can go on Instagram right now and check out a bunch of photographers humblebragging about their new gear, new setup, new clients, travel, riches, etc. When I started my first podcast, there were a few Facebook groups I couldn’t even be in because it was a constant stream of humblebrags that made me want to freaking vomit.
And the downside is that you come to expect to make a top 10% living as a photographer right away. Instagram is the highlight reel of how everybody wants you to THINK their photography business is running.
You see that photographer you want to be like and wonder how you’ll ever get the shot he just posted and the deals he’s making. But what you don’t see is that the photo he posted on Instagram took him 3 hours to set up, $12,000 in lighting, upload for editing, back to the phone, then to Instagram. It was the best shot he took all day, but you see it and think he has a million of those.
The point is that it kills your patience by distorting success. You don’t see that the she’s been shooting photos since she was four.
When I started my first company, people would see our Instagram page and get a cool preview of the stock we had coming up, but they didn’t see the six months of R&D, and 100+ samples of various items we had to scrap to get to that point. They CERTAINLY didn’t see the late night I stayed up hustling but mostly feeling freaked out of my mind.
I’m one of the most confident people you’ll ever meet, but the path to get there isn’t really spelled out unless you look for it.
I’ve had to exercise an amazing amount of patience to learn what I share here on Photo MBA.
I don’t want the young, hungry, foolish photographer to confuse being able to do it all and have it all with being able to have it all at once.
One in a million people can do it overnight, but that’s not me. And it’s not you.
Better start being okay with that.
This is going to take work.
Second, Have Patience
I remember when I first started a business, just like you’re starting your photography business now.
My passion would wake me up at 3am or keep me up until midnight for the first week, the first month, and really even that entire first year.
But will being passionate about making photography your life be enough to keep that up for 5 years? What about 10 years? Can you get up at 3am every day for the next five years?
Because that’s where I am.
And I think it’s rooted in the fact that I absolutely refuse to allow my passion to be overtake by a lack of patience.
Right now, I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear: this is going to take a while.
It will be 110% worth it, but it’s not going to come fast.
But here’s the best part, patience is the game.
There will be other photographers who are more talented or have better ideas or better marketing, copywriting, SEO, etc but they’ll quit before you. All of them.
Passion is the jab, but patience is the right hook.
It’s the one that takes the money you make as a photographer into the stratosphere.
So how much does a photographer make? It depends on how long she’s willing to wait.
I want to help you get there and share what I’ve learned.
I know you want to be a full-time photographer and have more freedom and leverage in your life. You have the passion and now you just need a bit of help to make that happen.
That’s why I started Photo MBA.
But right now you need to slow down because it’s hard to see past all of the fake gurus out there promising you riches overnight. Promising you’ll make $50k in your first year of shooting.
Fight for passion, not for pay.
How much does a photographer make? Who cares. If you’re passionate and you’re ready to be patient, then you’re going to get there.
So Brendan, how much does a photographer make?
According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for photographers comes in right around $30-40k per year with the top 10% of earners making over $70,000 per year.
But I call BS on that. That doesn’t tell how many hours they work and what their skill level is.
It’s like reporting what the average NBA player makes. If the average NBA player makes $5 million and LeBron James makes $24 million per year, is the average reflective of LeBron or those making less? No! The average player makes less than $2million per year.
If you’re reading this site and you’re going to crush it in business as a photographer, you’re going to make way more than the average. Trust me.
The Call to Action
We’ve established that this is going to be hard. It’s probably going to get harder as great cameras become more accessible and everybody with a DSLR starts a photography business, BUT if you just read over 2,500 words in this article, I think you have the GRIT to make it.
Photography is art, but this business isn’t a game. The market is ruthless. My good buddies Shane and Abby are still shooting after all of the changes in the last decade.
You’re going to execute. You’re going to keep your passion alive by showing some patience.
You’re going to MASTER the business side of photography before anything else. I’ll give you everything you need to make it happen.
Is that you? Are you a doer?
When you ask “How much does a photographer make?” are you really asking how to be successful at something you love?
Would you do this even if my answer was less than you expected?
Then you’re ready. Sign up for free here and let’s start taking some action.
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This article was last updated Janaury 10, 2017.