Sunday, June 17, 2012

Earning a Living as a Photographer

Being a professional photographer - and the definition of that would be best encapsulated here - is a challenge. We've written before about the fallacy of the pride in being a starving artist. In most every profession I can think of, you put in your time financially challenged, with some modicum of success as a result of years of hard work. Most people understand that you pay your dues, and then you can do okay. Yet, as photographer James Maden points out in his most recent article on - Should You Become a Professional Photographer - "There can be few other careers where you regularly work for the world’s largest companies like the New York Times and Time Magazine, are at the pinnacle of your career yet don’t earn enough to make a living." 

As Madelin notes, and is also cited in the British Journal of Photography, the winner of one of the world's most prestigious photojournalism contests, Samuel Aranda, was quoted as saying "They called me yesterday around 7pm, and told me that I had won the World Press Photo," Samuel Aranda tells BJP in his first interview of the day. "At that exact moment, I was checking my bank account because I didn't know how I was going to pay my rent this month. I was crunching numbers to make it work."  Aranda, in his early 30's was on assignment for the New York Times, and is represented by the Corbis agency. "

This state of affairs is a problem.

(Continued after the Jump)
Countless photographers - extremely talented photographers - find themselves several months past where Aranda found himself crunching the numbers, their having to stop shooting professionally, for financial reasons. Either they don't have healthcare and go bankrupt having to pay the bills from a health issue, or they can't afford the rent because they're not being paid enough, or even because a corporate monolith has a 60/90/120 day pay cycle, while the photographer has to pay all their bills every 30 days. 

The experience and talent that shutters operations and moves on to a career that is less fulfilling, and also, making less of a difference in the world - is lost. Sure, a young upstart with a clean credit rating, all their school loans deferred for 6 months after graduation (or, maybe, paid for by parents), will step in.  Then, 6-12 months later, they will find themselves in Aranda's shoes - crunching the numbers to pay the bills, but without the award that *might* bring in a few more assignments to further defer eviction, or bankruptcy. 

One of the biggest concerns of historians as the digital photography evolution is taking place, is while almost every photographer is making many more photographs than they ever did before, not only is the storage medium not as permanent as film/prints, but that people will just delete things, causing a historical void. The only think worse than this, is for talented professional photographers to either have never entered a financially unviable field, or having had to close up shop after the bills outweigh the income, thus creating an even greater void.

Nothing, of course, will happen with clients raising their rates, until there is a void of photographers available to fill assignments.  I once had an experience where a colleague who was charging $200 or so to a client for years was unable to do an assignment, and the client called me. For that particular type of assignment, my rate was just under $1,000. I did that one, and 2-3 more that year, and then I heard through the grape vine that my colleague was upset with me because I had used up the client's budget, and so there was no more work. That seemed to be an odd perspective. I would have preferred he appreciate that my assignments illustrated that the client was willing to pay more, and that, in the future, he might consider a higher (and more sustainable) fee, and that the client would, no doubt, have to raise their budget in future years (or borrow from another line item in their overall budget) to pay for photography.  Sometimes, photographers are their own worst enemies.

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  1. "Sometimes, photographers are their own worst enemies" That's generous. ~ From a photographer of 27 years with no other income or trust fund and still, with challenge, earning that income. Good article, thanks for writing it.

  2. It's no different with wedding/portrait photographers. There are so many photogs coming into the market charging practically nothing and then giving the disc away for free. They usually have another job to offset this and are just using it to make a little extra. Those of us trying to make a living, can't do it.

  3. I've tried explaining rate to people and they still charge $200. At that rate, if you did a shoot every other day and spent 1 day editing and delivering those photos, you'd make $26,000 a year in revenue. Then subtract equipment, gas, computers, hardrive space, etc, website, advertising, etc. You're at about $16,000 a year. Better off working fast food.



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