I know lots of amazing photographers who are broke

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There is a difference between being a good photographer and being a successful photographer who runs a great business. I know lots of amazing photographers who are broke. The difficult thing about the photography business is you have to apply yourself just as hard to both the photography and business aspects. If you’re painfully dedicated to just one, that still doesn’t guarantee you anything. Now, if you are truly dedicated to both, then you’re very likely to succeed as long as you’re smart about what it is you’re doing.

via Steve Giralt | Photo Talk Is Cheap.

There Are 39 Comments On This Article.

  1. some dude

    Word. Day in day out one must be at battle! Or the flow. whatever you wanna call it.

    As an aside, reading long essays on black backgrounds is not ideal.

  2. So much of it is just having a PLAN. You can’t expect to roll into this profession and it’s just going to work out. You need to know the clients you want to tackle, the marketing efforts you’re going to utilize and how often to promote. It’s mostly business with a little bit of photography here and there.

    • I tell my assistants this:
      1. Have a goal – this could be how to shoot a certain subject, how to achieve a look you admire or how to start making enough money to pay your bills with just photo work.
      2. Have a plan to achieve the goal
      3. Do a little part of that plan every day. Schedule it. Write it in your calendar.
      4. Don’t be afraid to fall down or change #1 and #2.

      Note: You do not have to be 100% certain of your goal, or 100% certain of how to achieve it. Just start doing it and don’t get discouraged by the fact that along the way life will happen.

      I know it’s easier said that done, but this works for me, especially the whole writing it down in the calendar thing.

      • agree totally craig, it is not just enough to have the passion, no matter how strong….needs to be a balance -passion and brains. the business side of it is the hard bit, but with a written down plan as you say and consistently working on that with refinement and trial and error, you will move forward.

  3. The real question is: How many “successful”, well paid photographers, are truly great photographers? Our age is no different from any in the past. The people willing to sell out, whose work will be forgotten in 3 years, let alone 100 are making a decent living. The people who are making beautiful work that will still be beautiful and desired in 100 years will probably die broke and literally starving. We like to think we have changed as a species, but if we have, it was for the worse, not the better. This is NOT me saying that I am one of the ones who’s doing work that will live on through the ages. I just keep running into amazing images and when I follow up, invariably, the creator is starving or doing something else for a living. I used to think you could do both, make a living at it and make art, maybe not in the same photograph, but in the same career. But other than a small handful of noticeable exceptions, I have been proven wrong. The shit you have to wade through to make a good living at this, seems to kill the part of you that made the art. In a very real sense, it’s the old “deal with the devil” bargain. I just hope it’s possible to resurrect the artist and to find a way to live without the almighty dollar.

    • I was having similar thoughts, Mark — that a lot of “successful” photographers are not great…or even good. (What’s that saying…? The opposite of a great truth is also true.)

    • Frank Marshman

      In the past 50 years I’ve been interested in and involved in photography I’ve only known a handful of Art photographers who made their living entirely through the production and sale of their images, (Sally Mann, Michael A. Smith, Paula Chamlee, Kim Weston for a few). Every case they are working 12+ hours almost every day in some aspect of the business of being an “Art” photographer. That might be in taking, developing and printing, editing, mounting, selling on the phone, getting in their cars and driving across the country to galleries and collectors, putting on workshops… All of these people work their butts off.
      THAT IS THE CLEAVAGE! WORK!!
      There are a thousand great images made every day through photography. Most noone will ever see.
      It is not a matter of “wading through shit” that gets you there, (provided your work is worth a shit anyway}, it is a matter of the nasty 4 letter word that seperates the best in any field: WORK.

    • everard williams

      The hard part is getting everyone to agree on a definition of GREAT! Half the battle just might be that definition alone. How do i define greatness … how do i define success …… and having the capacity to allow the definition to evolve much like ones career.

  4. I have been broke a thousand times. I have never been poor since I became a photographer. I never thought that I would get or be wealthy. I feel so fortunate to play a part in a field that is so important to me, interesting to others and meaningful in history.

    The economics of a career are a very different engagement. The accountant in me always watched spending more than billing. I could always try to make more money, and there have been times when I did really well, but even then, spending the money never made me happy. Looking for the good work, figuring out how to solve problems and how to move the whole thing forward was my occupation. I saw people doing bigger and smaller jobs that I didn’t want. I just kept searching for where I was supposed to be.

    Teaching has also turned out to be more of a commitment and investment than a real lucrative career move. My days spent interrogating the photographic possibility has made for an even richer life, but still hasn’t brought me the deluge of cash that I see unhappy people have.

    I like this life lived in the present. Don’t know where it will lead.

  5. Tru-dat!
    To succeed you must be an entrepreneur first and then your chosen field.
    Or else you have to work for someone else.

  6. and if you’re not a business person, collaborate. find a partner to help you handle your weakness. Use that collaboration to turn a weakness into a strength

  7. Jules hit the nail on the head for me too. I’m gaining lots of business friends recently – investment people, accountants and lawyers. I’ve learned a great deal and gained confidence to jump into a business venture I’m creating with a great partner because I am being advised well. I’ve never had a business ‘head’ but I’ve learned as work has grown but missed opportunities because of the lack of experience. Being a great photographer has never been enough to stay in this business. You need good people around you too.

  8. My 2 cents.. and I posted a blog about this a year ago….

    There used to be an abundance of low paying, middle budget and high paying photo jobs. Now photography is doing just what the rest of the economy is, eliminating it’s middle class. Or I should say photographers are eating it’s middle class.

    Now, it seems we are left with either low paying or high paying jobs. All the “good/average” jobs have turned into low paying ones.

    It’s become a choice for photographers. You either race to the bottom and try to lowball each other… or you race to the top and try to do the best work possible and bid what you know you’re worth.

    The problem is that there are far fewer jobs at the top, therefore a lot of good photographers are finding it hard to get work.

  9. kurtphillip

    There is am old saying:

    “A Photographer is a person who has a spouse with a job”.

    or is a person who has a full time job, with a wedding business on the weekends.

  10. There’s a reality that most commercial photographers don’t want to face and that is the markets are drying up. With 10′s of thousands of doe eyed college students thinking photography is a quick way to make a buck the industry is doomed to implode with lowballers…with a few exceptions. The only ones left when the dust clears will be the elite top grossing photographers and female wedding and baby photographers. That’s one of the few markets growing. Facts are facts, there’s always babies and weddings, but your ‘unique’ commercial eye can be replicated, shot in house, or passed on to some kid with just as unique an eye and no overhead. Lord knows how many ‘fashion’ photographer wannabes proliferate the Internet.

    By the way, anyone know any photographers who have retired with a great retirement?

    • Ah yes, the ‘blame the kids’ argument. As if that hasn’t been around since the beginning of time…

      The sure sign of a clueless failed businessman is blaming others for their own problems. It’s like the craftsman that blames his tools.

      I know several photographers that retired with a great retirement. None are famous or ‘elite’, whatever that means. They were however hardworking and competent business owners that knew how to forge relationships, tend to their market and spread out their money to other venues and investments. No smart owner has everything all in that one thing.

      They kept up to date with things and were – this is important – well liked. A lot of photographers with a blame-others attitude are not likeable people.

      How do you think the ‘top grossing’ got to be that way?

  11. Mary Virginia Swanson

    The photographers I know who are generating income are doing one or more of the following:

    1) completing great work, on time, within budget and maintaining great relationships wit those repeat clients,

    2) agreeing to short and tightly-defined licensing agreements that at expiration are extended (and extended, and extended) as it is cheaper for the client to re-licensing that re-shoot,

    3) utilizing excellent research skills to exploring NEW MARKETS for print sales, researching sales to hospitality, healthcare and corporate markets (either directly or through corporate art consultants, interior designers or architects),

    4) using digital printing to produce promotional pieces and/or exhibition/commission proposals,

    5) revisiting local and regional clients where in-person meetings with editors, art directors, galleries, interior designers are more likely to achieve towards building a working relationship

    and last but not least are making and sharing new work, seeing new work by others, pursuing continuing education and maintaining a lively dialogue about photography – both the creative and business side. MVS

    • everard williams

      especially like number 5. in a global society we have a tendency to think that the key to success is being national or global. certainly many of the photographers that we admire have been able to attain that, but looking inward and becoming a localvore and finding local and regional clients even going client direct can mean the discovery of a new and LOYAL client base. it does also require you educating them so that they have a clear understanding of the business of photography and what it is that they will be receiving.

  12. My first class the photo teacher asked “who in this room wants to be rich” some said yes, The yes voices were asked to leave.True story.
    I knew what I was getting into so I laugh at the people who bitch and moan.

  13. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this whole topic without some clearer idea of what we mean by “photographer.” Are we talking about a wedding photographer? Someone who strictly shoots fine art for galleries? Photojournalist? Freelancers who’ll sell anything to anyone? Stock photo specialists?

    I think your odds of being broke vary wildly depending on which kind of photographer we’re talking about. If you’re a strictly fine-art photographer you should expect to be broke for most of your career. A wedding photographer should have no such expectation, or should get out of the business.

    Etc, etc.

  14. Wow, I read these comments and see so many of my thoughts echoed back.

    I am a photographer, making the transition from full time assistant to full time shooter, and this narrative is playing it self out in real time. These are the questions I face daily: Is it even possible, for someone with a middle-class income and limited revenue to “make it” in photography? Not even, is it possible for ME to make it, but in general, is it possible? Am I the “doe eyed college grad” bidding on projects for what seems like a crime to established photogs but is more money than I ever thought I would make in a day (I don’t want to be and try very very hard not to be)? Does anyone even care about my work, or are they looking for a deal?

    I would like to retire, own a house, periodically go on vacation, and not be scared shitless about having to go into the hospital for some random thing. Are these things even attainable with out a trust fund, shooting weddings, or a rich spouse?

    Great conversation so far

  15. Frank Marshman

    Most photographers and most other fields as well are lacking solid financial education and solid business skills.
    Both of these are intentional by the educational system almost all of us are raised in. We are taught from the begining to study hard so you can get a good job. Who is taught to look for opportunities and start a business?
    Financially we are advised to save our money in the bank and invest it in the stock market. Both of these are schemes to seperate you from your money. Who is taught to invest you money into assets that create income for you?
    Photography is no different from any other business. The digital age has changed the world. Noone is immuned. Learn how to harness it or bitch that you can’t make a living…

  16. How do you make a million dollars as a photographer? Start with two million. It’s difficult being in the “middle class” of photography, seeing others around you burn out trying to be the first to the bottom of the barrel while their clients are more than happy to help them get there, and working hard to stay above water by finding the few and far between clients who “get it”. I was once one of those who thought when you started out you charged less, but after many hours of research determined that was not the way to go and figured out what fees would keep me from being swallowed byt the lowball whirlpool. It’s not very easy on that end, either, but at least I know I’m charging what I feel I’m worth and not compromising because someone tells me I should or forces me to drop fees because “there are others who will do the work for less”. It’s the “principle or paycheck?” approach to the photography business and I’m fairly comfortable with the principle and hopeful the paycheck thing will eventually come back around.

  17. Robert Younger

    The original ‘question’ was framed as a binary or dualistic statement with success as a photographer being defined as including financial success. But a successful photographer may be someone who photographs the places, objects, and people whom she or he wants to photograph, in the manner he or she wants to photograph. Connecting with the subject of the photograph, and being a present participant in the process may be the reason they photograph. For those photographers, financial success may not be an objective at all. The likability or potential for sale of an image may not enter their minds. That’s not the reason they are photographers. It may be at some future time someone will see a particular photograph, or their body of work, and connect with it as the photographer did when they made it. Perhaps they’ll become financially well rewarded for their work. But I think we need to rethink the vocabulary that equates success with sales.

    On the other hand, I’m not implying that everything that gets labeled as fine art photography is good (or successful) just because the photographer enjoyed making the picture. There has to be “something there;” it has be more than just pretty, or shocking, or bizarre, or abstract, or ……..

    • That’s right Robert. I think all kinds of artists are in the same position. “Making it” as an actor, playwright, novelist, poet, singer, musician, etc. have always been understood to be long shots. Until recently, making and printing good images required a lot of education and practice. There was mostly a middle class lifestyle for those who mastered the craft. Now a lot of people can make “good enough” images, and the cost of a hiring a professional is just too high.

      Today, if you want to be a commercial photographer, good luck. (Think hard about it.) If you want to make fine art photography, you live the life of the artist, which mostly hasn’t changed for centuries. Still, what is life for, if not to really live? Just don’t have any illusions. Know that you’re jumping into the abyss.