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how to earn a living in photography

vani malley , Oct 21, 2006; 02:10 p.m.

I have a question for the pros in the field.. How can I earn a living / be successful in photography (studio, wedding, child photography)? Or, it is only just for the very few like a professional athelete, where only a handful make it to the top, and rest are just struggling.

Strange as it may seem, I've been an engineer (electrical, chip design with a masters degree in engineering) worked for 10 yrs, about $100K+ salary. But now quit my job this year to be with my little kids. I have a serious passion for photography..

My husband is supportive and lets me do whatever I want to do. I don't have too much pressure (from my husband) to make equavalent money in photography, but I want to succeed. I want to get into studio photography, after shooting with Nikon D70, mostly my kids were the subjects, and I am into digital retouching, digital graphic design, putting together albums, web design, digital scrapbooking for my own pleasure that I did for friends/ family So far it is just for fun and because I want to learn. The photography has become a passion that I can't seem to get it off my mind.

I have just ordered the course from NYIP. I'm looking for any suggestions and encouragement from this forum, and I'm hoping more people are actually making decent money. The average salary seems to be $30K which is quite depressing, but again I am not interested in working for someone and doing something I don't like.. I might as well go back to engineering. I'm looking into succeeding at my own business in studio and wedding/event photography. Learn the photography skills to produce consistent results in studio and outdoors, and do the marketing and get good at it. I am now getting more training and reading books for the techinical knowledge. I do understand business, my experience as Applications engineer taught me how to work under pressure, and how to make the customer happy to close business.. Ofcourse, I expect to learn/ experience different things, and challenges in photography business.

Thanks for your support! Vani

Responses


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vani malley , Oct 21, 2006; 02:12 p.m.

Sorry about some typos in my previous post, I typed too fast and did not thoroughly proof read.

Keith Van Hulle , Oct 21, 2006; 03:00 p.m.

Loaded question. What do you consider "earning a living"? How long did it take you to get to the point of six figures in your profession? To me, the big difference between those that do really well and those that get by has little to do with the technical aspect. ANYBODY can learn that. But unless you're a great businessperson AND you can "see", you'll just be another also-ran.

Read the threads here - it's all about running a successful business. Even a few poor shooters do well because they have good business sense. Between that and having an artistic eye for shooting (for weddings) will make or break you. You might want to read a bunch of the wedding forum threads to see whether that's really something you want to get into. You also need to make sure your business plan will stand up to things like Wal-Mart studios and such also.

Bob Atkins , Oct 21, 2006; 07:10 p.m.

I suspect it's very, very difficult to make 100K as a photographer doing anything you'd enjoy doing. It's probably next to impossible to do it just taking pictures.

Pretty much anyone and everyone is shooting weddings these days. Many are doing it quite badly and still making money. It sounds dreadful to me, but some people seem to enjoy it.

Even making 30K or 50K might take quite some time. Everyone and his mother is now trying to sell digital stock images and stock photo prices have been dropping for years as more people get into the game and digital makes it all so much easier.

I suspect that the reason that a number of well known professionals write books and teach workshops isn't because they'd rather do that than take pictures, it more likely because it's a way to make enough money to be ABLE to go out and take pictures.

I'd guess being a photographer is very much like being a musician. Lots of people do it, enjoy it and can survive on what they make, but few people make a good living and even fewer ever get rich doing it.

Art Haykin , Oct 22, 2006; 12:03 a.m.

Professional or commercial photography is FIRST a business. The basic craft can be quickly learned by anyone with an above average IQ. The other required qualities are: ambition, determination, problem solving, being able to think on one's feet, the ability to self-promote, and a certain audacity. Absent these and you'll be an also ran. And as for being with your kids, well, nearly every successful event photographer I've known was rarely at home with the kids, and was usually divorced. Being a successful photographer is NOT something you do, it's something you ARE!

Mark Rogers , Oct 22, 2006; 10:20 a.m.

Hi Vani,

Your question hit a chord with me since I too was an electrical engineer and I had the desire to have more independence with my life. I started taking my photography hobby professional. I did some work for hire but ultimately decided to open a picture frame company helping photographers with framing.

Photography is like music. It is fun, and everyone likes to be paid to have fun. That drives the cost down. For instance, a commercial photographer I know lost a bid to shoot a hotel in Mexico . His competitor was a part time photographer and said he would do it free as long as they paid his expenses to travel to the hotel. For him it was a free fun vacation.

When I looked at replacing my engineering salary, it appeared my quickest route would be via weddings but I don't like shooting weddings. If you shoot an average of 1 a week and charge a couple thousand then you can gross $100,000. I was looking at Dallas , TX . That would not be possible in a small rural town. There is a lot of competition but I found most people shooting weddings should not have been. They were not as skilled as many amateur photographers, and they did not have the back up gear. You will need to give yourself a few years to build up your skill level and get your reputation built up. If you have the evidence that proves your better than the average wedding photographer and you have a market that will pay for quality you can raise your prices.

I took a bridal portrait class from one of the best in Dallas . One of the shots was a location shot by a small pond. The pond was commonly used and other bridal portraits were being shot at the same time. Most of the other shots were done with just using a camera with a stoboframe-mounted flash. One of the shots our teacher did was of the bide in the gazebo. The light was harsh so we draped a 12 x 20 foot sheet over one side of the gazebo to diffuse the light. We setup a strobe behind the bride to back light her hair, another strobe was up high and fired into the ceiling of the gazebo, a third was used as primary light, and then sunlight through the sheet was fill light. The camera was set on a tripod and since he was shooting with a very long lens, he had to place it 20 feet from the gazebo. Since the gazebo was pretty high he had to stand on a small ladder to see through the view finder. When he shot the bride near the pond with handheld camera he still used off camera flash and light reflectors. None of the other photographers shooting at the time even used a reflector let alone off camera flash. I suspect most of the other photographers were charging around $125-$250 for the bridal shot. Our teacher I am sure was charging well over $1000. I am sure he makes more than most wedding photographers in town but he doesn't do weddings, only bridal portraits.

In short, if you want to make serious money, you need to be a serious photographer. Acquire the skills and or the resources (equipment/studio) that the less serious pro's or part time pro's don't have and then find a market that can appreciate and is willing to PAY for the difference. Some people are perfectly happy paying $25 for a Wal-Mart portrait. You can't make a living off of those people.

I would also point out that it is also hard to make money at web design. There are lots of kids in college that will stay up all night doing websites for hardly any money. Coding the website is not the hard part. It is coding the website appropriately for a target industry or market that few can do. Finding a niche is important with any business. Your goal is to be known in town as the person you go to if you need ?X?. My frame business niche is photography. 98% of my customers are photographers and digital artists. You can also combine different skill sets to help set yourself apart. For example, if you focus on doing children's portraits you could combine that with a website that displays the children's portraits for all the remote family to see. Now that might not be a good idea I am just throwing it out as an example.

Since you are in a position to not worry about money, then I would suggest you explore your passions and deepen your skills while opening your heart and let your path of opportunity unfold before you. Few people on the planet get to do this. Make the most of that gift and use it to help your customers so that the gift will grow.

Quang-Tuan Luong , Oct 23, 2006; 02:48 a.m.

If this can be of encouragement, I'll say it is possible to shoot what you like and have an income such as those mentioned in this thread. It's not easy. My approach has worked for me, but you'll need to find your own way. It's not by following other people's advice and paths that you can significantly beat the average.

Michael Brochstein , Oct 23, 2006; 12:34 p.m.

Great website!

Quang-Tuan Luong,

Enjoyed your website!

Fraser Harding , Oct 23, 2006; 10:13 p.m.

I came to photography the other way - started at school, did a degree, and began work assisting some top photographers in the US and UK. I worked for 5 years learning the busines before setting up my busines.

I strongly belive that if you want to learn the business, you should assist as many other photographers as possible; it teaches you about planning for erratic income (can you be busy for a month, and then quiet for three, and stay afloat?!), and it teaches you about being flexible and available for clients (you need to be able to take calls at any time of the day).

As mentioned in one of the other posts above, the technical stuff is pretty easy, the hard stuff is sales, accounting, client relationships, tax, insurance, affording equipment, production management, data management... the list goes on and on and on...

In my view, a professional photographer is someone who gets the shot no matter what - no excuses unless something completely cataclysmic happens....

So that means as well as a good eye, you need business skills, people skills, tenacity... at least two camera bodies, multiple lenses for any situation, reliable lights, extra batteries, double data backup straight outta the camera, a dedicated server for storing all your images (the data adds up pretty quickly nowadays), and a reliable off-site backup of that too..

You need to understand computer hardware, and digital workflow; procesing hundreds of images to a professional standard without fail, day in day out is much harder than doing a few each month...

You need to work out multiple channels for selling - in the same way that Coke sells out of vending machines and through convenience stores.. you need to know what is your niche - there are many and they often overlap: commercial and advertising, corporate, portrait, wedding, product, industrial, fashion, annual reports, illustrative, scientific, editorial, sports, documentary, reportage, photojournalism, books, movie stills, animal portraits, automotive, boats etc etc etc... the list is really as long as you want it to be, but you need to be able to say in one sentence what it is you are selling.

Also, within each of those categories, however you choose to dice it, there are rock stars, and there are people who struggle. You mention an "average" income of 30k... be aware that averages can be misleading - there are people that earn serious money in photography, literally millions in USD... so the "average" can be skewed quite high, and this is no small matter, bacause if you want to be a professional you will need a lot more than 30k worth of equipment and marketing.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that getting a picture is easy, therefore being a photographer must be easy. There is a kind of inverse square law, where the more defined the image that the client wants, the more difficult and more expensive it is.

Also, in business in general, there is a law that the lower the barriers to entry, the tougher the competition - photography at the entry level is tough, because so many people want to get in, they price unsustainably - and the wedding and portrait end of the market has perhaps the lowest barriers to entry of any business...

There are a lot of people out there who "work" as photographers to feed their habit, and comepletely undercut real professional photographers - so you also have to be skilled and tenacious and bold enough to be able to overcome this serious obstacle - when you have $100,000.00 tied up in Camera and computer equipment, you simply cannot compete purely on price with someone who only has a 6mp SLR.... but at the same time, they can't compete with you on quality, or reliability... many are the times I have had clients take the cheaper option, only to come back whan the cheaper option failed.

So.. I guess I am saying test the waters first, assist as many photographers as you can first, you will find out more in a few days working than you will ever learn from books.

Once you have a stable of photographers and are making an income, and you know the business (usually at least two years), then start to shoot jobs for people..

Remember, working under pressure as an engineer (which is something you know intimately) is completely different to working under pressure as a photographer (which is new to you, and every client and shooting situation is always hugely different)..

Keep in mind also that starting a business is unlikely to give you more time with your kids, and what time you do have will be dictated by your clients, not you...

But if you are filling a need for your clients either better, cheaper, more reliably, or faster than the comeptition, you will do well.

That's all I can think of for now....

Robert K , Oct 24, 2006; 09:08 a.m.

If you quit your engineering job to be with your kids, do you still plan to give them the same amount of time and attention after turning into a professional photographer? If you do, you are kidding yourself. Working at home is still work. Pros who manage to make a living are *definitely* being paid much less per hour than the engineers.

Enjoying what you photograph and making a living from it are two different goals. Making a living typically means working for someone else, whether that someone is an agency or a client. To sell your service or work means pleasing them and not necessarily yourself. Many pros I know would either give up what they love (and shoot weddings), or shoot weddings for a living and pursue their love in their "spare" time.

Hate to sound negative, but it is better to know now than later. Perhaps an alternative is to leverage what you already possess as a way into photography. For example, you may use your talents as an application engineer to support photo equipments as sales rep, technical writing or training, etc. You will have an advantage over other photogs. (Think about the tons of Photoshop books out there!) Not perfect, but more realistic.


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