Making Money from Photography

This photo has been sold many times over the years, appearing on magazine covers and posters.

Many people mistakenly think the photography industry is about photography. The photography industry is, however, about business. The actual photography plays second fiddle in an orchestra which is becoming increasingly large, out of sync and unrehearsed. You can use this disorder to your advantage though, as it makes it easier to step aside from the cacophony and seek more focused attention away from centre stage.

If you want to be successful at making money with your photography, you must have two basic skill sets in your armoury. The obvious one is to be a good photographer, but you don’t need to be a great photographer. There are many very average or mediocre photographers making a decent living from their trade. The second, and most important skill is to understand business and marketing. Being a great photographer but lacking crucial business skills will always provide an uphill struggle on the road to making money with your camera. Possessing a great business mind but poor photography skills is far more likely to get you somewhere than the other way round. Obviously the best scenario is to be good at both, as this will set you on the right path to being successful at your trade.

I was fortunate enough to spend my first career working in one of the most competitive markets in the world. Over 15 years of working at the very top of the industry, I learnt more than I could ever write in a book, so to attempt to even scratch the surface here would be futile. Although this previous career had nothing to do with photography, the lessons I learnt through experience helped me in establishing my current photography business, so I thought I would pass on a few pointers for anyone wanting to make the jump into the photography business.

Taken for China Southern Airlines – the 4th biggest airline in the world.

1. Try to specialise

Specialising in a subject or a genre of photography will propel you into the spotlight. Being a jack of all trades but master of none is going to put you amongst a very large pool of people. You are much better being a colourful fish in a small pond than a muted one in a giant ocean.

2. Never work for free

Trying to get a foot in the door by working for free, or giving images for free is unlikely to get you very far. All it does it sets a precedent that you are cheap and willing to work for free. Once you have worked for free, it will be very difficult to negotiate decent rates. If you set your price and are confident that your ability justifies the price, then you will most likely get the job. If not, then the job wasn’t worth it anyway.

3. Don’t try to copy your competition.

It’s good to know what your competitors are doing, and it’s good to learn their strengths and weaknesses, as this will enable you to exploit gaps in the market. However, imitation is purely a form of flattery, and copying a competitor only highlights your own lack of creativity.

4. Be a good communicator

Many photographers who shoot non human subjects (landscapes, wildlife, still life) are often not as good communicators as those who photograph people (portraits, street, weddings etc). However, even as a landscape photographer, you are more than likely going to need to communicate with customers or clients if you are going to make money from your work, so skills in this area are key.

5. Get a decent website

I hold my head in my hands with despair when I see some photographer’s websites. If you aren’t an expert in design, then don’t try to cut corners by doing this yourself. Your website is the shop front to your business, so if this doesn’t stand out, neither will you.

6. Never attempt gimmicks

A red post box in a black and white scene, or framing a photo with a film negative effect aren’t going to win you any contracts. Professional photographers don’t do this. It smacks of “I’ve just found out how to do an effect” which no one will care about. Showcasing gimmicky photos is never going to gain you credit, but it will put many people off your work. Trends and fashions come and go, and by trying to be up with the latest trends will only date your work. Play it straight down the centre and leave the HDR, focus stacking, and zoom bursts to the enthusiast weekend photographers.

7. Avoid a massive portfolio

Too many photographers think it is best to show hundreds of images in order to show how skilled they are. Most potential clients will look at only a handful of images before deciding if you are right for them. If you only have a few images in your portfolio then you will ensure that clients see your very best work. Dilute your best work with a load of second rate images however, and you’re more likely to bore the viewer. It is far better to leave the client wanting more than to have them leave before seeing all your work.

8. Be consistent with your style

If you look at the most successful companies in the world, they each have their unique style. Create your style (even if it’s not unique) and stick to it. Love it or hate it, when you walk into McDonalds, you know what you are going to get. If they suddenly started doing pasta or rice, they would need to rebuild their customer base. Stick to what you know, and know what you stick to.

9. Do your research and don’t be late

Never turn up unprepared and never turn up late. Simple.

10. Don’t bother with stock photos

Stock photography used to be quite lucrative in the 1980s and 1990s, but the market is now saturated with mediocre photography at cheap prices. It is almost impossible to make money from selling stock images today. Yes you can sell photos, but when you factor in the time you need to invest (shooting, editing, key wording, etc) in order to make a few sales, you will be better off (financially) working in your local supermarket as a toilet cleaner.

11. Enjoy what you do

Many photographers clearly don’t enjoying being photographers. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, especially if what you do is creative, then give up and do something else. This will benefit not only yourself, it will also create space in the market for someone who does enjoy photography to have an opportunity.

12. Avoid watermarks and fancy signatures

Watermarking your work only creates a distraction from the image. It won’t discourage anyone from stealing your photo, so don’t bother. Buying one of those fancy signatures which all look the same (regardless of your name) won’t do you any favours either. It just blends you in with the crowd and highlights your lack of originality and creativity. You don’t need to sign or watermark your work if it is on your website or social media page. No one cares.

Taken for Café Nero.

Finally, to be successful in any kind of business it’s fair to say that you need to have an element of luck. You can largely make your own luck however, or at least maximise the chances of luck being on your side by being in the right place at the right time. As Ansel Adams used to say – luck favours the prepared mind.