Want A Photography Career: Do Your Due Diligence

Posted on 12/1/2015 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

So you want a career in photography. You like taking pictures. It’s fun. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get paid to do it?

You’re a high school student about to graduate. Everyone says you need more education to have a chance at a good job. You’ve no idea how much you’ll have to earn to feed, clothe and house yourself, and maybe some day a spouse and family. But, it seems you should get more education in the career path you want to follow.


The United States Department of Justice has just announced a landmark global settlement with Education Management Corp. (EDMC), the second-largest for-profit education company in the country. The $95.5 million settlement resolves allegations that EDMC violated federal and state False Claims Act (FCA) provisions by falsely certifying that it was in compliance with Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and parallel state statutes.

Basically, EDMC was getting paid by the government for each new student it signed up, regardless of the quality of the education they provided or whether there was much potential for the student to find work in career path chosen. More than 100,000 students are enrolled in the more than 100 schools named as defendants in the case. (See list of schools below.) Most of these students are studying photography, graphic arts, design and fine art although the exact number in each category was not disclosed.

I’m sure a few of the graduates learned a lot and been able to launch careers with some potential. to careers. But it seems that many who spent tens of thousands of dollars for this education, and often went deeply in debt, were not given a realistic understanding of what the market for their skills might be, or prepared to get a job in their chosen field.

Here are a few questions students should be asking before they take out their next student loan.

1 - How many people are majoring in photography in two-year and 4-year schools in the U.S.?  (I have been unable to find a number, but with all the data being collected about all of us, this number should be available somewhere. My guess is that there are tens of thousands of people studying photography in the hopes of making it their career.)

2 – How many of the students majoring in photography expect to earn their living as photographers?  (Maybe, a lot are just interested in photography as a hobby and a way to express themselves. They expect to earn their living in some other way. That’s OK as long as they can afford the time and money for this distraction.)

3 - How many of the students who begin such courses actually graduate?

4 – Of those who graduate, how many are still working in their chosen career 5 years after they graduate. (I suspect very few schools track all their graduates, but this would be a very interesting number, particularly in the fine art fields and particularly in photography. Most schools keep in contact with a few of their more successful students and trot them out to show current students what is possible. But, that may be more misleading than helpful. What are the odds of current student reaching that level?)

The latest figures (2012) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 136,300 photography jobs in the U.S. These are people who list their occupation as photographer on their tax returns. Most who sell pictures part time list some other occupation. The median salary for photographers in the U.S. in 2012 was $28,490. In 2012 the BLS projected that there would be a 4% growth in photography jobs by 2022, but the average growth rate for all occupations would be 11%.

I will be surprised if there is even a 4% growth in full time jobs in the next ten years given the increasing trend for part-timers to supply many of the images needed by publications and commercial users.

If the student is interested in editorial photography (which many are) ASNE's annual newsroom census found that there were 5,894 photographers, artists and videographers employed in 2005 and 2,806 in 2015, a 52% decline in staff positions. And that number is expected to continue to decline. Increasingly, the trend is for writers to provide the needed illustrations for their stories.

There is an increasing demand for photos that are published online but the amount publications can afford to pay for these images is a fraction of what they pay for images used in print. It is not a great market for someone interested in photography as a business.?

CareerCast rates various jobs annually in terms of desirability. In their 2015 Jobs Rated Report photojournalist was the 195th most desirable occupation out of 200 considered. The worst occupation at number 200 was newspaper reporter, just below lumberjacks.

5 – Many photography instructors are working professionals and teach part-time. Ask them if their current earnings from the images they produce (not counting teaching) is greater than $40,000 a year?  If so, is it more than double that number?

6 – Ask the instructors how much their photography earnings have increased, or decreased in the last 10 years?

7 – If the instructors are full-time teachers find out when they last earned the majority of their income from the images they produced? (Will your teachers be able to help you understand what the job market is like today, or what it was like when they were working?)

Increasingly, photography is becoming a “supplemental” income, rather than a career. Most people who enjoy photography and earn some money from it have found some other way to earn most of the money needed to support themselves and their families. They take pictures in their spare time and for the most part are the happiest photographers I know because they are not struggling to support themselves from the revenue their pictures generate.

The business of professional photography involves a lot more than just taking pictures.
Seldom are clients interested in a photographer’s “vision.” They are not hiring a photographer to create art, but to solve a problem. They usually want to see evidence that the photographer has solved exactly the same problem for someone else. The business of photography involves research, marketing, networking, promoting, record keeping, managing cash flow, finding and managing support services and by the way, occasionally taking pictures. Taking pictures is the easiest part.

When you’re starting out it’s really exciting to get your work published, even if it means doing work for free. The reality is that it’s cool for a little while, but you quickly learn that your time and the investment you’ve made in equipment and training is worth something, and you’re not covering your costs.

Copyright © 2015 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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