Is A Payday In Photography Like Playing Lottery?

- - The Future

There’s an excellent piece in the NY Times last week titled “Why Are Harvard Graduates in the Mailroom?” that talks about the number of professions where workers accept lower-paying jobs in exchange for a slim but real chance of a large, future payday. Drug dealers have rich kingpins supported by hard working street-corner guys, ambitious accountants toil away at big firms in hopes of making partner, silicon valley startups use stock options to entice young people into working for free, Warner Brothers mailroom clerks accept $25,000 to $35,000 a year in hopes of making a meteoric leap like Barry Diller or David Geffen did, and aspiring actors watch rich people hand each other golden statues on TV each year with dreams of joining their ranks someday.

Certainly we can all see how photography fits nicely in the lottery model where there are a neat group of successful photographers at the top, a few jobs here and there that hint at a big payoff, but putting together a career in photography is harder and more lottery like than it looks. What’s really interesting and counter intuitive about the piece is how this lottery system is actually a good idea. It encourages hard work and attracts lots of potential candidates, but only lets the most tenacious through. The problem, as the NY Times notes, is that the comfortable plan B jobs are disappearing. Solid plan B jobs allow you to go for it and if it doesn’t work out you still have something interesting to fall back on for a career:

New York City and Los Angeles are buoyed by teachers, store owners, arts administrators and others who came to town to make it big in film or music or publishing, eventually gave up on that dream and ended up doing fine in another field.

I received this email recently from a reader who was dismayed at all the commenters on this blog who only look at photography as a six figure job:

I love your blog, but I am disappointed in your reader’s comments. Specifically on the article “Is editorial photography dead?“. Most of the photographers that comment fiercely oppose anyone trying to become a professional photographer and it is quite a deterrent for someone like myself just starting out. I read all the comments trying to understand where they are coming from, but I can’t, because it seems like your commenters are all photographers who used to make six figures. I was raised in a family who never made a six figure income, in fact none of my family ever went to college—I was the first. For me a good job is an income of not much more than $30,000 a year.

What your commenters don’t realize is that many people are happy making less. I have worked for several city magazines and I’ve found that they struggle to find ANY photographers to work with. It seems like most people only consider themselves successful if they work for major publications. I would love for you to highlight someone who is successful in their hometown, based on finding work at smaller magazines and local work. Many times the magazines I work with can’t even find journalists. I think smaller publications are often overlooked because they don’t pay tens of thousands of dollars for photo shoots, but I recently got a gig with one that paid over $3,000 and for just starting out, it was huge for me.

My point is, I just don’t think people actually look for the work, they expect it to come to them. I think many photographers, like other artists, are too snobby to actually go find a job. Instead, they expect publications to find them.

Did my reader miss the point of looking at photography as a high paying career? The lottery system produces talented, hardworking and tenacious photographers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The NY Times goes on to say:

It’s not clear what today’s eager 23-year-old will do in 5 or 10 years when she decides that acting (or that accounting partnership) isn’t going to work out after all. The best advice may be to accept that economic success in America will come as much from the labor lottery as from hard work and tenacity. The Oscars make clear that there is only so much room at the top. In a lottery-based economy, you need some luck, too; now, perhaps, more than ever. People should be prepared to enter a few different lotteries, because the new Plan B is just going to be another long shot in a different field.

The plan B in photography was a mid-level career, but now we see photographers who test the waters in video, writing, publishing and teaching. Looking to enter as many lotteries as possible. Seems like a smart plan.

There Are 51 Comments On This Article.

  1. I want to know where this photographer got a $3,000 job with a local MAGAZINE and move there! I once talked with the publisher of one of our town’s major magazines about shooting for him and I was told they only paid $200 for an “advertorial” portrait which made me think it was better to stick with those national publications that pay at least 4 or more times that price.

  2. You wanna know where the optimism is? Offline, among people who are excited to be working and not reading state of the industry opinions. Not dogging the article which I think is right, but just saying this is where u find the ranters. Most of my network of wedding and portrait shooters are happy, excited entrepanuers. Not everybody finds success, unfortunately. But as woody allen said, 90% is just showing up.

  3. The thinning out of the heard is a good process. This isn’t some handout. You want to make it in this industry, be really damn good. Stop complaining about everything and get your shit done! That’s what people need to hear.

  4. Excellent article! I particularly endorse the idea of “multiple lotteries”, which can mean participating in assignment work, stock photographer, fine art, weddings and portraits and so forth. All of it is photography, all of it brings income, and all of it together can mean a nice living.

  5. Very Good! Thanks for the heads up on this article. It is a Lottery world out there. I work just as hard at snake eyes as sevens. The idea of playing more than one table is smart. As long as you play hard.

  6. Photography is not a lottery at all. It’s a gamble, yes, but more like a 401k, where you invest your time and money knowing it’s a long road and if you stick with it long enough, the odds are it will pay off. I think talent determines how long that road is… but you need the patience and tenacity to stay on that road.

    • Doubly agreed. Also with Mark above. The optimism is out there, offline. Ask people who are out there who are actually working if they feel the industry is fair? My opinion is yes. They’ll say it’s hard, really really hard, but fair.

    • This is true of any business, and has been true for all of history, and will be true for the rest of eternity.

      I don’t get why people here complain that money doesn’t just fall off trees into their hands. In what field does that happen? Wouldn’t everyone be doing that if it were the case?

  7. It’s interesting to hear that “enter[ing] as many lotteries as you can” is a good strategy. I remember when I started out (6 years ago) and everything I heard was that you have to become a specialist because there are very few successful generalists…

  8. When your young reader becomes a not so young reader and has a family, mortgage, monthly household bils, tuition fees and health care costs to pay, for said family, they’ll wonder what the hell they were talking about.

    I know I did.

    • Exactly!

      The young reader will also find that the jobs he/she does for $3000 this year will eventually be lost to a younger photographer who will do it for $2500, who will then lose out to an even younger photographer who is prepared to do the same work for $2000, etc. etc. So at some point in the not-to-distant future the not so young reader will inevitably join the chorus of older photographers who are all seriously beginning to wonder “How the hell can anyone make a decent living in this profession anymore?”

      • This is true which is something that the democratization of photography has brought us. While giving creativity instruments to more people is great I would hope that agencies who work for major corporations are intelligent enough to not go the cheap route with newbie photographers because they have to serve the needs of their clients.

        Also photographers coming into the business need instruction from photographers about this issue specifically how it applies to creative fees and for licensing of the images they create. It is a business unfortunately.

    • I once lost a job to the teenage son of the client, who had been given a Nikon as a birthday gift, because he was interested in photography.

      Nuff said.

      • In these cases, there is not much value to the buyer in the photograph.

        I’ll tell you whats never happened to me: losing a 5 figure job to someone’s nephew.

        The obvious answer is that it is your job to find clients that value the work.

  9. Yes I agree that price does sound very high for an editorial, but I don’t think editorial photography is dead. It will always be there and is a lot more constant than the higher paid commissions, which come around every so often and are very competitive. Editorial is a good way to build up your experience and relationships, and also get your name out there. You never know who will flick through the magazine and see your work and then commission you for a good paying job. I am actually thinking about doing more of it myself just to keep the money coming in. It is better to be working for a smaller amount than to not be working at all and complaining on blogs :)

  10. No, I don’t think the reader missed the point of looking at photography as a high paying career. Photography, like so many industries, might be seeing changes in distribution of work and wealth.

    Is it wrong to not think of photography being a high-paying job? What’s wrong if there’s a more even distribution of the earnings from photography work being passed around to more individuals rather than a select few? Do those who were earning so much at one point deserve to maintain the same amount of earnings when the industry landscape has changed so wildly? Can anyone prove that an individual’s earnings are directly corollary to individual’s talent?

    It’s frustrating for the people who are – or used to be – on top and became accustomed to checks and a lifestyle at higher wealth. But it’s a different industry where high earnings are more rare than they used to be. Young photographers certainly, and I think correctly, perceive a defensive stance from industry veterans who want both to protect earnings. Is it gentle hazing? Is it beneficial to anyone? Does deterring an individual guarantee that a better one will make it to the top?

    Additionally, the reader makes a point of saying it’s possible to be comfortable at a relatively lower income, a sentiment almost unutterable in American culture. I don’t think that’s a particularly bad thing to do. One’s success, especially in a creative field, and income levels are not a matched set. As a general lesson for living I think this is more intelligent a position than any that approach a business with the anticipation of high payouts.

    /// And:

    The problem with assuming that a lottery system is a good, and right, way for the top talent to rise over time is that it doesn’t account for reasons behind talented people not finding work. It also assumes that the people who are getting paid well are also the most talented. It’s logically flawed. It’s wonderfully optimistic, to address another commenter, but still flawed. Not that optimism in itself is flawed. :-)

    Production of talented, hardworking and tenacious photographers can’t really be proven to be a consequence of a lottery system. By its very nature, defining it as a lottery system suggests that if anything, the resulting winner is selected by random chance.


  12. I discourage the idea of only “a” lottery ticket, a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel. You have to stay at the table and let your game play out. A full sampling of how you think it should be played. I just know that if you win or lose, it still has a lot to do with chance. How much chance depends on the game and many things you have no control over.

  13. Add commodities trader to the list, too. There was a guy once who started a training program for such trading, and aptly called his trainees the “Turtles,” with the mantra “many are called, few are chosen.” It had to do with the low number of baby turtles in a large group who make it to the ocean and live, or something like that.

  14. It can be a lottery, but I don’t think it has to be. You can pretty much make sure that you will come out on top eventually, if you have a mixture of judgement, having something to say, working away hard at it, being prepared to finance your way through it over the course of years by taking non-ideal paying jobs, not losing sight of your target, and having talent. If you are good at what you are do, perservere, and take advantage of the opportunities you are presented with, keep your eyes wide open, sooner or later you’ll come through.

    In the last year or two I reached the stage where the P&L graph is shooting up, and it feels like there are more break throughs coming. I’ve had to wait for it, and think I’ve had less than my fair share of luck, but things are going excellently, making a good living, and it’s come after a lot of perserverance, some bad decisions, and some good ones. And I’m pretty sure it isn’t down to luck, except the kind of luck that involves not having got run over by a bus or having been physically incapacitated. Touch wood.

  15. I too am a little confused by the lottery approach on a few levels. Like the gentleman above, I also heard many an art buyer say that they could not understand a photographer who was generalized and expected to immediately see a specialty when they clicked on a photographer’s website. Has that opinion changed?

    Also, I agree with the commentator who remarked that the lottery system was flawed because it assumed that the best/most talented were the ones on the top of the pyramid. I have seen many examples of ‘fake it to make it’ that, scarily enough, keep getting the call even though their assistants are really the visionaries. Is there a suggestion for how to get the truly talented noticed if art buyers choose based on familiarity or picking names out of already established publications?

    Lastly, I think you can live happily with less. And, having said that, many of us might have to. The people that I’ve seen who are happiest are the ones who spend their money and time creating relationships and experiences with the little they have. They are the ones with the great stories to tell. Having it all can make life a little more boring, no?

  16. When you start at the bottom, $3000. can be a lot of money in a non0major city (pick your place of choice with a low cost of living.) The writer is correct, making $30,000. a year can be lovely (if your mortgage is only $800. and your property taxes are low and you are young.) But when you get a taste of jobs that pay $30,000. for two or three days of shooting that changes everything doesn’t it? And when that rug is pulled out from under the industry, it’s pretty hard to go back to $30,000. a year, and move back to a smaller house and scale back the business.

    Some photographers have closed up shop, left the business, and some have changed the way they do business. But new, young photographers keep entering the business every day. And I’m sure as long as National Geo exists on Grandma’s coffee table, a steady stream of young photographers will continue to enter the industry.

    • Sort of why it’s good to know there are still guys at the top working 18hr days (and shooting on film), still busy generally, to give a sense that it’s not all doom and gloom.

      • Sure. There is always, “The Top.” But most define “The Top” as living in New York and being the most well known portrait and celeb photographer. Annie went broke being at “The Top.” Jim Fiscus lives in Athens GA and works about 6 to 10 ad jobs a year and some editorial (mainly covers for ESPN magazine.) As far as I can tell, Fiscus is doing pretty damn well. There’s also a guy who is the most well known photographer in the Business Jet and commercial airline industry. He’s the go-to guy for all the airplane companies for air-to-air imagery. He built a platform on a B-2 Bomber and has a headset to communicate with his pilot and the pilot of the other plane he is shooting. I bet no one on this forum even knows that photographer’s name. He’s been doing it for years and seems to make a great living.

  17. Mitch Wojnarowicz

    The elusive $100,000 a year is not a salary. It’s what’s needed to run a self sustaining business with all it’s attendant expenses, including paying a much higher tax rate (than every other person working as an employee) because you are self employed. If you’re fortunate enough to gross that much, you’ll probably end up with about $25,000 in your pocket. Especially if you work in the much-vaunted wedding business which has a very high overhead in advertising and deliverables.

    • That is a true statement. If someone self-employed has jobs that total $100,000 in one year they will pay taxes (income tax and self-employment), insurance and expenses (because a bid on one job of $30,000 includes assistants, props, stylists, etc)….God forbid that photographer also has a studio overhead and 4 children at home.

      • It’s a crucial difference – when people say they are earning $100,000 from photography, that should be profit, quite different from turnover. To earn $100,000 you may have to pull in $200,000.

        Earnings tend to be quoted gross of tax, so after tax actual earnings from that original $200,000 may be further reduced to $75000 or so net income.

        Being optimists, and being so astonished that we managed to make any money from photography at all, the temptation to describe that as earning $200,000 rather than $75,000 is hard to resist. But the latter is more honest

        • That is why photographers who don’t live in New York or LA can s make more money. Low overhead for a photographer in Little Rock, AK means that the money goes a lot farther. (And when I mentioned the $30,000, I meant my fees. Expenses were on top of that.)

  18. No way I'm giving my name.

    I truly believe working at hard at the one thing you want to do will one day pay off…if you have the talent. I did not put my eggs in a bunch of different baskets, this is all I know how to do. If it wasn’t for photography, who knows what I’d be doing. But it has been very rewarding. After making less than 20K 5 years ago I made well in into 7 figures last year. I am writing this (anonymously) to say the jobs are definitely out there and if you work hard and focus on what you can bring to the industry there is definitely a pay off.

  19. As one of my old photography mentors told me once: “There are lots of photographers out there making a living, and they suck. You have no excuse to not succeed.”

  20. I have learnt in life that others are quick to knock you down and crush your dreams. Is it better to try and get into a career you are passionate about, than to give up because of what others say and spend your life bitching that ‘life is shit’.

    I have spent years in corporate working for equally unhappy grey suits who appeared to have given up on their dreams. The money is good, but the passion is not there. I am now happy with little, living within my means but pursuing photography, as it makes me happy.

    I take on other jobs to pay the bills and do everything in my power to get a break in photography. The market is what it is, people are what they are, same shit different day, the grass is always greener, its the same wherever you go in the world (within the Western World anyhow).

    My advice, yes, cover your ass for the future in what you do to make money, but don’t close the door on your dreams and have regrets just because other people want you to believe that everyone trying to get into photography fails. Just do your best, find your unique style, enjoy what you do and be realistic about life….the bad times make the good times better…