Seeking A Career In Photography

Posted on 1/15/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Recently, a father asked if I would advise his 26-year-old son on “career options in the photography field.” This boy (we’ll call him John) graduated in 2011 from a four-year course (probably costing in excess of $100,000) at a premier West Coast photography trade school. Then he returned to his home in a major East Coast city where he has been freelancing.

The father provided a link to John’s website and said, “He is a bit lost and needs some counsel/direction. He is extremely passionate and committed to the industry, but his skills/interest are not that entrepreneurial.”

After reviewing the web site – with surprisingly poor content for a four-year graduate of a major photo school -- I responded to the father. My response may be of interest to any young person considering a photography career.

Dear Sir:

I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hire John based on the quality of the work he is showing on his web site. There are many photographer in his city showing work of a much higher quality. I assume this is John’s best work and that there isn’t a printed portfolio of better quality someplace that he shows potential customers. (The father didn’t indicate that there was anything better to see.)

It seems that John’s interests are in fashion and music photography. I need to point out that these are not my areas of expertise so my judgment of what is in demand may be suspect. Nevertheless, John’s work seems to be far below the level of quality I see in magazines and marketing catalogs.

Your statement that “He is extremely passionate and committed to the industry, but his skills/interest are not that entrepreneurial” points to two of his biggest problems. If it is any comfort these problems are common to a lot of young people.


It is understandable why people are passionate about photography. It can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the fun things to shoot often generate the least revenue either because everyone else is shooting them, or they have no commercial application. Passion alone has never enabled anyone to earn a living taking pictures. The most successful photographers have a well-defined business sense. Passion about their “art” tends to be very secondary. Their job is to produce a useful commodity that fulfills a specific customer need. On each project, they must focus first on understanding what the customer wants and then delivering it.

There are hundreds of thousands of passionate photographers out there. They love to spend time taking pictures. Many amateurs take great pictures. Too often they give their pictures away, or charge customers much less than what it costs to produce the pictures, just for the personal gratification of knowing that someone liked their image

The fact that there are so many of these photographers makes it very difficult for those trying to charge reasonable prices to get work. Customers say, “Why should I pay more when I can get a good picture for less, or free.”

I did a quick Internet search for fashion photography and found this link ( There are over 44,000 photographers in this fashion photography group on Flickr. Most of them are amateurs. But, to my way of thinking, much of the imagery they are showing is much better than what I’ve found on John’s site. To get much freelance work he has got to be able to show samples of his work that is of a quality equal to what can be found in the fashion magazines and the direct mail catalogs. If I needed to hire a photographer, why would I hire John instead of one of the 44,000?

John should seriously compare the quality of his work with that of his competitor’s. If his work isn’t at least as good what does he need to do to improve it. Are their costs – better models, better studio, better sets, etc. – and if he makes that investment will the results justify the expense? If he has to spend $10,000 to $20,000 to build a decent portfolio is that likely to get him work, or is it more money down the drain? Even if he spends the money does he have the talent to direct his subjects in a way that produces exciting, realistic images? Many photographers find directing models a very difficult skill to master. Often they turn to shooting scenic’s or still life’s.


To earn one’s livelihood taking pictures that person must either find a staff position or go out and find customers that need images he can provide.

The vast majority of photographers are self-employed. Their work usually involves stringing together a lot of small projects of relatively short duration rather than having one or a few big clients that guarantee them regular income. A huge percentage of their time is spent contacting potential customers, getting rejected and moving on. Those who want to earn their living taking pictures must go out and find customers. They need to demonstrate that they can pictures that will better fulfill the customer’s need than any other photographer, or the customer himself can produce. In addition, the price charged for the service has to be what the customer thinks is reasonable. And often that may not be as much as the photographer thinks he deserves.

Most successful freelance photographers are lucky if they actually spend 50 to 75 days a year shooting. That means two things. First, most of their time is spent trying to get work, worrying about why they are not getting work and operating their business. Second, on those days they are working they need to earn enough (over and above their basic business operating expenses) to support themselves during all those days they are not shooting pictures. That means covering rent, food, clothes, transportation, medical insurance and possibly some day, having a wife, family and sending the kids to college. Photographers just starting out tend to think, “I just spent a day shooting a job and was paid $200. If I can just do that every day (365 days a year) then I’ll earn a good living.” Shooting every day on assignment will never happen for a freelancer. He can’t always be shooting and never have to do the detail work of getting jobs.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor ( the median pay for a photographer in 2010 was $29,130 per year. 139,500 of those filing tax returns said they were photographers. Of course, a huge percentage of the people selling pictures today are not claiming to be photographers on their tax returns. In some cases they don’t even pay tax on their photography income. The non-tax filers tend to earn a lot less than $29,000. Also keep in mind that Labor’s median includes a lot of people in there 40s, 50s and 60s who have been taking pictures their entire careers.

Successful photographers hire assistants – sometimes full time, often to help on specific shoots. John should be knocking on the doors of successful photographers to see if there anything he can do to be of help, of if he can just observe some shoots. Don’t just focus on fashion photographers, but any photographer doing any kind of work. Learn what is required to satisfy a client and run a successful business. Get a sense of the frustrations professional photographers face. Get used to rejection.

Salaried jobs are few and far between. If John doesn’t want to do the things necessary to run his own business then he should check out the opportunities at the limited number of organizations that have staff photographers. He should not limit himself to just one kind of photography. See if there is anything he can do to work his way into a staff position. Be willing to do anything from carrying equipment bags to sweeping the floor just to get in the door. The kind of photography a particular photographer does may not be what John considers fun, but it will probably be more enjoyable than doing something totally unrelated to photography. He can do the photography he is passionate about in his spare time.

Dying Profession

Photography is a dying profession. There are too many images available on virtually all subjects and more are being added to online collections at a much faster pace than there are new customers wanting to use them. Thus, we’re seeing rapidly falling prices as customers have more options. On the other hand, the cost of producing images is, if anything, going up.

More and more of the people producing and selling images are doing it as a part-time endeavor rather than their sole source of income. Part-timers (amateurs) end up taking work away from the professionals. There is absolutely nothing that can be done to stop or slow that trend.

With today’s cameras more and more people are able to produce the images they need. Thus, they buy fewer images. Even when they buy the price they are willing to pay is much less than customers used to pay for the same type of work.

In addition, now it is very easy for people to find images they like online and simply grab them without acknowledging the creator or paying anything for the use. An organization called PicScout has developed a system to find online uses of professionally produced images. They have determined that 85% of the images used on business web sites are not properly licensed. Creators did not authorize, or were not paid for these uses. This says nothing about consumer sites (which PicScout doesn’t track), but it is suspected that unauthorized uses are higher in these cases. In most cases attempting to enforce one’s copyright is more costly than the amount that can be recovered.

There will always be a few successful photographers, but the successful ones are steadily becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of all those trying to make photography a career.  In almost all cases they achieve success through superior business skills, not their artistic talent, although in rare cases they may have a good deal of artistic talent as well.

It is very rare for a photographer focused on his “Art” to earn any kind of significant money selling his work as art. In those rare cases when that does happen, the photographer is always very good at marketing himself and his work.


In the future there will probably be more demand for video than stills. But, good video is a team activity that requires skilled camera, sound and lighting technicians as well as directors, editors and those who can develop and tell a story. It’s all about story, not single illustrations. Unlike still photography no single person does it all. John should try to develop some expertise in one of these areas and find a team to work with. But he will still need to approach it as a business, not just something that he loves to do.

Here are some links that might also be useful.

The Peril of Following Your Passion

Future of Still Photography – Hobby or Career

Mistakes When Setting Up A Photography Business

Hope some of this is of some value and good luck.

Copyright © 2013 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, 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:  


  • Lester Lefkowitz Posted Jan 15, 2013
    I bet that poor father is suffering from major shell-shock after reading your missive. Six years ago he should have forced his son to become a lobbyist in DC.

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