Earning a living from photography is really hard, but it can be done
Before we get into how to make a living from photography, can we just acknowledge that photographers have had it a little rough in recent years? Newspapers and other publications have been laying off entire teams of staff photographers. Camera phones and cheap digital cameras have turned pretty much everyone into a photographer. And vast numbers of businesses seem to be under the impression that anything published on the Internet is fair game to be stolen and used for free.
With all this happening, it is easy to see why photographers new to the industry might be feeling jaded about their prospects of turning their passion into a profession. And yet, despite all the above, I believe it has never been a better time to become a professional photographer. Thanks to the Internet and social media, there is such a massive interest in the visual arts, it can be hard to keep up. Millions of people around the world are viewing and interacting with photographs in such volume, there is an almost insatiable demand for new work. All of this opens up so many opportunities for those brave enough to try. But where to start?
Find Your Niche
Presumably, the best place to start when attempting to make money out of photography is deciding what you want to sell. As with any business activity, the laws of supply and demand very rarely fail. Where supply outweighs demand, prices will fall. That is a fact. And with so many hobby photographers prepared to allow their work to be used for free, in exchange for seeing their name in print, we have that oversupply in droves.
Inevitably, the only way to counter this is to offer products and services which are in demand, but under-supplied. In the world of photography, that means finding a niche, something to allow you to stand out from the crowd. It doesn't much matter whether that niche is something very specific, such as exclusively photographing diamonds for the jewellery industry, or a speciality within a broader genre, such as a portrait photographer concentrating on headshots. The key is to provide a unique selling point, a service that very few others offer.
Of course, finding that niche is easier said than done, and individual style will only develop over time. But the first step to making money from photography is to choose a speciality that customers are actually prepared to pay for, one without a large pool of competitors willing to undercut your prices.
I never could have imagined I would end up a travel and documentary photographer when I first set out in photography. Finding your niche can take time.
Be Really Good
So if step one is offering a service customers are prepared to pay for, surely step two is being really good at that service. How to define "good" in photography terms is a whole other conversation, but for the purposes of this discussion, the only definition which matters is that of your customers. Those customers will only pay for your services if they see value in the work which you do, and believe they will achieve a return on the investment they make.
As with most skills, some aspects of your photography will come naturally to you, others you will need to work at. Either way, you need to be sure you feel sufficiently competent as a photographer to deliver upon the assignments you win.
Developing those skills will take time and commitment. In my own case, as a travel and documentary photographer, I have to spend long periods on the road, as I travel between assignments. Being away from home can be difficult, but this is the commitment I had to make to succeed in my chosen niche.
Perhaps the most import skill to develop, besides photography, is effective marketing. If your customers don't know you are there, they won't buy from you. Without a doubt, social media is one of the most important means by which photographers can market themselves, but certainly not the only means. Email newsletters, blog posts, exhibitions, and events will all play a part in getting the words out that you are open for business.
When marketing yourself, don't be afraid to communicate your strengths. Your customers want to know you can produce the goods for them, and your confidence will help convince them of this. Some might see this as showing off, but sometimes there is a need to blow your own trumpet. Effective self-promotion is a skill every photographer needs to develop.
Don't Undervalue Yourself
As any freelancer will tell you, pricing the projects you pitch for will be one of the most challenging aspects of your work. Charge too much, and you will put customers off, charge too little and you will sell yourself short. But of these two challenges, underpricing is by far the more difficult issue to rectify. As with any other premium product or service, your customers will infer value based on price. Your pricing needs to accurately reflect the work you do. Otherwise, it will be challenging to build a client group willing to pay rates which will sustain your business.
The solution is to create a sensible pricing structure, one which adequately takes into account the unique selling points of your work, and then find the discipline to stick it. Of course, that is far easier said than done, and turning down even a low paid assignment is difficult to do when you have bills to pay. But you must find that discipline.
Ultimately the success or failure of your business will be based on more factors than price alone, but you should value your work enough to demand the price you deserve. Not everyone can do what you do. Don't be afraid to promote that fact.
Up Your Game
As obvious as it may seem, to stand out from the crowd, you actually need to stand out from the crowd. Merely declaring yourself a professional photographer is not enough, you need to demonstrate you can behave professionally. That means staying on top of your email, following up on inquiries, keeping your website up to date, working your social media networks, preparing your service brochures, and much more besides.
So many photographers neglect these essential aspects of running a business, claiming not to have the time. And yet those same photographers will moan that they never seem to be able to secure paying assignments. How can a photographer expect customers to book new customers if they don't reply to emails, or maintain their portfolio? Successful, fee-generating photographers will find the time because that is precisely what it takes to succeed.
The bottom line is business will very rarely just fall into your lap, you will need to actively go out and look for it. Claiming not to have the time is merely declaring you don't have the time to make money. So up your game, and get it done!
Growing and maintaining a photography business is no different from any other business, the same tried and tested principles apply. Develop a clearly defined service, for which there is a market. Price that service correctly and deliver it professionally. Nobody, not least other professional photographers, will ever claim any of this is easy. It really isn't. But if a photographer is to succeed in making money from their craft, these are the steps they will need to take.