Can you still make a living as a photographer?

I’m writing this at the end of 2018. Over the last couple of years, many of my friends have asked me whether I would recommend photography as a career for their camera-mad daughter or son. Reluctantly, I’ve said, “Probably not.”.

The reason for my reply is that I don’t think a love of photography is the main qualification for running a profitable photography business. I would say being able to take saleable photographs is about 10% of what’s needed, and that it’s a lot, lot harder to start a business now than it was 10 years ago.

What else is needed for a profitable photography business?

  • finding a gap in the market and filling it

  • recognising what you can do for your customer and doing it

  • having a reason people should buy from you, not from someone else

  • being able to enjoy selling and asking for the sale

  • knowing your craft inside and out, so you never miss the shot

  • being able to afford a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, professional indemnity insurance and stand alone website hosting

  • knowing which social media platforms your client uses, and being on there

  • the willingness to network with other photographers and industry suppliers

All of that needs a lot of self confidence. A lot of time not actually taking photos. A lot of market research. A lot of objective criticism of yourself. A lot of trying things to see if they work, finding they don’t, and trying again with something else. And a reasonable amount of capital to get started.

Why is it so hard?

It’s more difficult now to build a profitable photography business than it was 10 or 20 years ago because the barriers to entry have lowered dramatically. When we used to shoot film, it was very technical and very expensive to learn the craft. Even with early digital cameras, they were so expensive that access was still not universal.

Now though, with affordable digital cameras, anyone can do it.

Add to that the fact that the perceived value of photography has dropped significantly, and the surprise is that any businesses get off the ground at all. (The perceived value has dropped because “anyone” can take photos now, including your potential client. You can’t fight this, and there’s no good that will come from being angry about it. You have to work with it and find a way to add value. Enough value that someone will pay you for it.)

Now think about how you will compete with sites like Unsplash which have beautiful photos available for unlimited commercial use. All for no charge at all. Free. Who can compete with free?

Finally, consider how many people are selling their photos to make a bit of money on the side. They don’t need to make a living wage, so they can charge less. These people are your competition.

Having many strings to your bow

I don’t know any professional photographers who just do one thing every day. I’m sure there are fashion photographers, or photographers who work for magazines who do high end commercial shoots day-in day-out. But I don’t know any of them.

The photographers I know do 3 or 4 jobs. One of them will be their passion, and the others a necessity to pay the bills, especially when they just start out. They might do weddings but also professional headshots and social media campaigns for local businesses. Or they want to sell fine art photos full time, but also need to do some teaching and family portraits. They might dream of being a sports photographer and volunteer at local clubs whenever they can, but do product shots in their studio and sell T-shirts online to make ends meet.

In the last year I have been able to cut down my commercial client work (with florists and cut flower growers) to repeat clients only, because the part of my business I love most - writing books and teaching - has reached the point where I can do it virtually full time. I am now able to devote more time to personal projects, and have rekindled the joy of shooting for myself - something that had been lost in the last 3-4 years of my commercial photography business. But it took me 15 years to get to this point where I am doing exactly what I want to, and being paid for it.

I have been fortunate (and have worked very, very hard) to get to the point in my career where I wouldn’t change a thing. If you or your offspring are prepared to put in the time, there’s no reason you or they can’t do the same. But never forget that if you are dependent upon the thing you love doing to pay your rent, the joy tends to drain out of it once the deadlines approach and the bills pile up.

Do you still want to go professional?

Before you make the leap, do some research.

  • How many different ways can you earn money with your camera?

  • Join some pro photographers’ Facebook groups and find out what’s working.

  • Do your sums. Each month: A) How much do you need to live? B) How much will your business cost you (don’t forget tax)? C) Realistically, how much can you earn? Is C bigger than A + B?

  • Has anyone other than a blood relative suggested they would buy your photos? (The gap between friends and family gasping in awe at an epic shot you’ve taken, and a client being happy with a shot they have commissioned, is enormous.)

  • Can you try it as a side hustle to start with?

  • There will be days when the last thing you want to do is go out with your camera. Can you keep going even on those days?


Do you need help with the basics?

Join my free beginner’s online course here:

Click here to subscribe

GeneralEmma Davies