This is a different kind of post than most here on Photography Domination.
But it just might be the most important one.
Consider it the “Photography Business 101” for your career as a young (or maybe old) photographer.
To tell you how making a living as a photographer works in the real world, and save you from a lot of needless pain and suffering.
So, here goes…
Table of Contents
If you know nothing about economics, here’s the basic summary:
The price for anything (including you and your photos) is a function of the demand and the supply of it.
Let’s talk about the demand first.
Most photos are not created by fine-art photographers and then sold in galleries.
Most photos are used by companies who want to sell their product, or in case of a person, to sell themselves and their services. They are used on billboards, in sales folders, in advertising, on social media ads, on menu cards,…
Or, when working with regular people, photos are a means to an end and used as a tool. To capture, share and relive memories either by looking at them on a phone or laptop, by sharing them online on Facebook and Instagram, or by framing them and hanging them on the wall.
In other words, photos solve business problems or capture memories.
And for these companies or people, it actually doesn’t matter how these images get created, it only matters that they either make money or enable them to relive some important memory.
Which leads us to…
Why photographers exist
A person who hires a photographer is not doing it because they like to have a photographer around.
They are doing it because hiring the photographer allows them to do things that increase revenue or help them relive important moments.
Having beautiful photographs is not a goal.
Those are the goals your clients care about.
Because in any business you have people and things that cost money and others that bring in money.
You really (really!) want to be seen as someone who brings in money, and not someone who costs money.
It will bring you more jobs, more money, and more opportunities.
The problem is, most photographers are usually considered very high costs, which makes most people that want to hire one think twice.
It’s the reason why they often think “My uncle also has a camera, let’s ask him as he can also take pictures that are kinda what we need but he’ll do it for free”. (By the way: you can absolutely ignore these “people with cameras” as competition if you read the rest of this post)
Or at least it’s why competing on price is a lost battle.
So, what’s the solution?
Don’t call yourself a photographer
To most people, “Photographer” sounds like “Anomalously high-cost person who does some arty stuff / just presses a button”.
If you call yourself a photographer, people will always be looking to keep you as a cost as low as possible.
So instead, describe yourself by what you have accomplished for previous clients in terms of making them money or capturing memories.
(Or, if you’re just getting started, say things in such a way that suggest you have the skills to increase revenue or to capture memories.)
I know a couple of well-paid photographers who create images but almost never describe themselves as being a photographer.
Instead, here are some examples of how they describe themselves:
- Helps events have more visitors by showing people what they missed the last time.
- I make sure companies sell more by showing off their products in the best possible way.
- I let 142 couples relive their special day forever.
You get the point, and I’m sure that in brainstorming for an hour you can up with a similar way to describe what you do for your clients (and can do for potential clients).
Not calling yourself a photographer also has another advantage…
You are not defined by your niche
One of the most heard advice for photographers is “choose a niche and own it”.
And while it’s true (I even advise you to do so myself), people who call themselves a “portrait photographer” or “food photographer” lose.
Because 1. they call themself a photographer (see above why that’s wrong) and 2. they are making themselves non-hireable for most photography jobs.
In the real world, most people are more interested in what you can do for them than what type of photography you specialize in.
Trust me, nobody cares about that.
And if they ever ask if you can handle the type of photography they want you to do (the answer is always yes), most things can be picked up and practiced in a couple of days if you have some general photography experience.
For example, if a restaurant was looking for a photographer to shoot their food, the fact that I’m mostly shooting events and portraits would not get held against me if they are convinced my images help people like them get more clients (and I can practice a couple of days and add it to my portfolio and skills).
Talented photographers are rare.
Vastly rarer than people looking to hire one.
Almost everyone wants a wedding photographer. If you have no experience with them, but are a good photographer, they’ll hire you anyway. (“Good photographer” in this case = someone who has a track record of capturing moments for people to relive and show off).
And if you really need the specific niche in your portfolio, you can add the relevant experience by offering to shoot something relevant for free (or highly discounted) just once.
Bam, just like that you are now a food/portrait/wedding/[insert niche]/… photographer.
Of course, you can also combine both.
Niche + not calling yourself a photographer = big win.
Just describe what you do for people in a specific niche.
A word about competition
Most photographers radically overestimate the average skill of the competition.
Many photographers who make a living with their images are only a bit better than most amateurs and just use a couple of Lightroom presets.
Does that suck? Maybe.
The good news: you probably are good enough to start a photography business and make a career out of it.
“See ad. Send in portfolio. Have meeting. Get job.” is the exception, not the typical case for getting photography assignments.
Most photography jobs are never available publicly.
The propagation of the information about the job is decided by coffee and beer mostly.
In other words: Someone who needs a photographer tells/asks his friends and business contacts.
(See the importance of connectors)
One of them knows someone, mostly family, a roommate, someone they met at a networking event, an ex-colleague,…
Contact info is exchanged and then the regular portfolio, proposal,… show starts.
(This doesn’t mean portfolio websites don’t matter for photographers, on the contrary)
This is especially true for photography jobs you actually want to get.
And there are many reasons why most hiring happens privately.
One is that publicly visible photography jobs get spammed by hundreds of portfolios (try asking for a photographer on a public facebook page) from people who are definitely not good enough for the job.
The other reason is that most people have no experience recognizing a good photographer from a bad photographer, so they defer to others to make the right decision. Especially since their money (and reputation) is on the line.
Networking and connectors
Networking for photographers means:
- meeting people who can do things for you (or vice versa)
- making a good impression on them
There are many places to meet people and clients.
Events, conferences, weddings, coffee bars, online user groups,…
The main thing is this: strive to help people.
People are very aware of those who have in the past given them favors. And if you can’t help someone, pass them on to someone who can with a recommendation.
Of course, you can find new clients online (oh God, can you), but we still put a much higher value on people we meet in-the-flesh.
The physical handshake is a major step up from an online like or follow, and even an email.
So definitely work on your online presence on Instagram and Facebook, but make sure to meet people in the real world as well.
School is not like the real world
Your education doesn’t matter.
Nobody hires a photographer because they went to photography school.
And if you are reading this, you know that your education isn’t the primary way to get hired as a photographer.
Most people hiring a photographer (and even experts) couldn’t tell a self-taught one from a photographer with a formal education if they tried.
Teachers at photography schools might know how to create good images (or they might not), but they often have no understandings of how the real world works, or how to make money as a photographer.
Of course, if you really like the atmosphere at these schools, go ahead.
Take your camera and start improving your images.
(Or, just follow one of these online photography courses)
How much money do photographers make?
The answer is, less than helpfully, “all over the place”.
For an overview, see my separate article about how much photographers make.
In general, though, big companies pay more than small businesses and photographers working in high-cost areas make more than photographers in rural areas.
But most importantly, photographers with high perceived value make more than those with low perceived value.
So how do you raise your perceived value? This is a post/course in itself, but here are the essentials:
- Remember you’re selling the solution to a need (increase business revenue or capture memories), rather than taking beautiful images.
- Use a good pricing strategy and negotiate aggressively with confidence (say no to working for free). You’re aiming for a mutually beneficial agreement, not for saying “Yes” every time they say something.
- Always have a counter offer.
- Read a book. Many have been written about negotiation. (I like Getting To Yes)
In short, learn how to increase your perceived value and to sell yourself. It is a little disconcerting that these skills are worth thousands of dollars for your career but most photographers think that investing in them is crazy when the same time and money could be used to take better pictures.
So would you recommend working as a photographer?
Working as a photographer is a career path but, more than that, it is a lifestyle choice.
If you genuinely enjoy that lifestyle, go ahead.
If you only enjoy certain bits of it, remember that many things are also attainable without being a full-time photographer.
For example, if you want to create images of beautiful girls or landscapes but also be free from work at 5 pm or be able to buy al the latest camera gear and tools, you can just work a regular job and shoot in your free time and buy gear with your steady paycheck.
Your most important professional skill is communication
Remember, photographers are not hired to create beautiful images but to create business value or capture memories.
The dominant quality which gets you jobs is the ability to give people the perception that you will create value.
This doesn’t mean being able to create that value.
Some of the best photographers I know are very bad a carrying a conversation, let alone sell themselves.
As a result, people don’t want to work with them or they will underestimate their value-creating ability (because those photographers suck at showing them).
At the same time, people often assume I’m among the best photographers they know, entirely because there exists evidence that I can take photos (even better, for people or companies they know) and because I can communicate my value very, very well.
Once upon a time, I would have described myself as “Slightly below average” in taking pictures.
I have since learned that I had a radically wrong impression of the skills needed to be successful as a photographer.
These days if you ask me how good of a photographer I am I will start telling you stories about how I have taken images that have helped successful business sell more of what they are making, got organizers more people to their events, or how many couples relive their best day ever through my eyes.
The question of how good my images are matters to no one as soon as they are “good enough”, so why bother worrying about it?
(Mind you, I like improving my images just as much as the next photographer, and I always strive to get better. But business-wise this is of no importance.)
Communication is a skill.
Practice it, and you will get better.
(Or take a look at the Photographers’ Playbook)
And if you only remember one thing from this post, make it this:
Learn how to quickly, concisely, and confidently explain how you create value to someone who is not an expert in photography and who does not have a priori reason to love you.
You should be able to explain what you do to an 8-year-old, your mom, and the CEO of a company.
In short, don’t call yourself a photographer.
And you will be very successful.