I’m so excited about a great new column I’m kicking off today called “Ask Anything.” Former Art Buyers and current photography consultants Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease have agreed to take anonymous questions from photographers and not only give their expert advice but put it out to a wide range of photographers, reps and art buyers to gather a variety of opinions. The goal with this column is to explore more of the commercial side of photography (not my area of expertise) and to solicit honest questions and answers through anonymity.

To submit a question you can email me or leave a comment in one of these posts.

The First Question comes from me:

One commercial photographer told me he was bringing in $250,000 in profits and another said he has several million in billings. So, what do successful commercial photographers make? I’ve always believed it was a lot. How has the economy effected the way people price? Are photographers starting to base their usage on their cost of doing business instead of the cost of the use?

Amanda and Suzanne: The responses have been amazing, from photographers with all levels of success to a very high level art producer. We really enjoyed the personal and honest insight we got as to how they bill and the thought process behind it. It reminds you that you are not alone in this negotiating process. Keep reading – we had 1 photographer bold enough to give the answer everyone has been waiting for.

Hot Emerging Photographer:

What is an average successful profit for a commercial photographer? My rep doesn’t price based on CODB, but on what the market bears. And it’s definitely going down from what it used to be (from the mouth of my rep). Times are changing, sadly enough it’s because the high earning commercial photographers with big overheads are struggling to stay alive and taking jobs for much lower fees in order to pay it. In turn, that makes the emerging photogs like us less competitive because we don’t have the experience and portfolio that they do. Then to think about hiring a staff, and having to pay for that. Now I understand why photographers get paid quite a bit. My rep basically bids on what the client’s budget is, we push the production as low as we can to do a good job then create the fee out of the gap. I think if everyone goes by CODB that will drive the market down even more because the smaller guys don’t have as high of a CODB. I vote to keep an industry standard of fees. Especially with this digital era.

Established Photographer 1:

250K in profits! I want to be him. In my best year, I grossed 225K and I was quite pleased. I can’t remember what I net’d but would have to guess around 1/3 of that.

I’m not sure I’m not a great one to compare as I keep it small, simple, and avoid big overhead. I’m happy with a couple of big jobs a year. I’d rather work fewer, better jobs than be cranking at 100% all the time (and burning out). It’s also difficult to compare me to most; I was away from business from 2005-2007 and have had a very challenging economy to grapple with upon my return so there’s no steady recent history for me to gather information with.

I have estimated jobs based on usage, and I haven’t won many of them :-(

Established Photographer 2:

I have always tried to avoid talking about this kind of stuff. Even though I bill well over a Million Dollars in gross billing annually. What you actually pay yourself is much, much less.

I am at the top of my game and probably make about what a halfway decent Attorney makes.

It is quite exaggerated what photographers make.

Keeping up with new equipment, software, insurance, salaries, and repair keep you from making any truly great money.

I assure you the owners of Advertising Agencies make much more money than us guys in the trenches.

Sure there are a few Super Star photographers but they even go broke. Take Annie Leibovitz for example.

Established Photographer 3:

Alas, I am south of 250K…. I think my rep told me once that most guys are around 20 – 25% of their gross, I was typically around that to maybe a bit more. I don’t know specifically what the numbers are, just in a general sense – as I remember that 08 taxable income was about the same as 07 but at less billings in 08.

I don’t do cost of business pricing per se, but can’t say I am a poster boy for usage fees either. I have found that it’s harder to get a premium for bigger usage on some projects (i.e. art buyers ask for a specific usage and then later want unlimited for a year or 2 for the same money or relatively modest increase in the fee). That’s big and small agencies, not across the board, but it’s not unusual. Maybe I am getting played, but it usually happens in competitive bids where they say the other guy will do this usage for this money, so to be competitive I need to come closer to that number – that kind of thing. I typically but not always cave into it, as my costs are relatively low now, I don’t have a staff or a rep, my equipment is paid for and my studio mortgage is relatively reasonable – less than what I was paying in rent a few years ago….. so in that sense my cost of business does figure into it, but I only consider it when pressed to meet another person’s price.

Established Photographer 4:

o.k. here is the poop in Vague terms.

Yes, many years the take home profit (the photographers net earnings after operations) is over 250K but that depends a lot on investments in equipment etc.

Last year for sure the usage is based on the size of the client and the size of the buy. For example a one year print license starts around $2,000 per shot. Big clients/ big media buy $5,000 per client. There are some exceptions for tiny clients and design firms.

Established Photographer 5:

Depending on what you shoot, it’s not necessary to bring in several million or even a million to generate 250k in profit (e.g. – Still life and product shooters don’t have the high production expenses compared to someone who shoots talent). In a good year, I can earn $200k personal salary on $800k in sales. (THIS AIN’T ONE OF THOSE YEARS….). I’m sure those billing 3 million can earn a profit of a million. What their personal salary comes to is another matter altogether.

It’s in our best interests to keep money in the corporation, as a corporation is taxed differently (lower) than an individual. Many buy company cars & new gear at the end of a good year to reduce taxes payable. There are creative accounting (and totally legal) ways to reduce one’s personal salary while maintaining a very nice lifestyle. The perks of running your own business.

Personally, I don’t believe in the CODB model. It’s far to limiting and does not represent what one’s competitors are charging. I don’t believe one’s fees should ever be based on one’s overhead. My overhead is my choice, and so is that of my competitors. But my fees need to be as high as possible while being as competitive as one can be. Low bids are generally not well received by art buyers.

Hi-end guys/gals don’t price themselves as commodities. They tend to price very high to maintain their perception as hi-end.

License model, combined with photographers fee (shown as one line item!!) is the way the top guys estimate.

An Established Photographer with Actual Salary Numbers:

We grossed in 2008, $218,000 in fees alone. In 2009, we grossed $253,000. In 2008, we paid $100,000 in salaries to assistant photographer and myself combined. In 2009, that figure was $125,000. That is most of the picture. There are other benefit issues, such as health insurance, meals and travel, that come out of the business and reduce the net of the company… If you look at our net between 15K-20K each year, after buying gear, bonuses and finding every write-off. We are also a C corp, which makes me a salaried employee.

A Very Established Art Buyer:

Believe it or not, top photographers do gross a million or more in fees. Of course, agent commissions come out of that, but it’s still a nice living. I don’t see top photographers any more willing to compromise on pricing than before the economic downturn. It still comes down to the project and what it’s worth to the photographer.

Usage pricing is all over the board and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. It’s simple survival: people are doing whatever it takes to survive. Sometimes the compensation is reasonable, but I’ve also heard horror stories of unreasonable compensation and even blatant disregard to copyright laws. Unfortunately, in those cases it comes down to who can hold out the longest with lawyer fees.

I wouldn’t say it’s the Wild West, but I certainly don’t see the solidarity in holding out on pricing that an “up” economy allows. There is definitely an air of desperation among many photographers, especially those just entering the market. I don’t know that it’s any different from any other business, though. It’s tough everywhere.

Stock imagery seems to be taking quite a bit of a hit this past year as well. Account reps are disappearing and even the Big Two (Corbis and Getty) are making drastic staffing cuts.

I hope the recovery heads our way soon!

Our 2 Cents:

From across the board – everyone has the same hope and desires – do good work and bill appropriately. Regardless of your status in this market – it all is interconnected. You have to know your worth creatively to bill appropriately. Of course – Joe Blow may gross $500k annually but his overhead could be $300k – which means he is not better off than the wedding photographer netting $250k with very little overhead other than equipment updates. So from a wide range of talents – you can still net 50k – 1MM in our BAD economy. But you have to do your part to get those jobs and keep those clients and ask for what you are worth – NOT WHAT IT COSTS TO PAY YOUR BILLS!

Call To Action:

If you are willing to share your actual annual earnings – what you grossed in fees and what you took home at the end of the day (net) – please email us your exact figure and how long you have been in business and the type of photography you do (editorial, commercial advertising, consumer, etc…). We will be thrilled to be able to share if with your peers – while keeping you anonymous! We respect everyone’s confidentiality. This information in the end is not for us – but for you the photographer!

If you want more insight from Amanda and Suzanne you can contact them directly (here and here) or tune in once a week or so for more of “Ask Anything.”

My jobs tend to be fees inclusive of usage, and however high I can negotiate given the client.

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  1. I love visiting your blog posts……..always juicy!

    • I have a question. Do the high end photogs get dicked by these magazines like the little people? Mulitiple invoices? Super late payments? No payment at all? Are the big guys effected by deadbeat publications too? Or is it a status thing?

  2. Fascinating reading! Looking forward to future columns! Si

  3. I’m so excited to see you’re doing this column! These ladies are brilliant and have such a wealth of practical information for photographers.

    • @Tiffany Findley, We love you- thank you!!! You are the very best!!1

  4. I think this is relatively correct. The gross amount we make always looks good, sound good but by the time you pay your staff and buy your supplies and gear then payroll, there is not much left in net profit. I do know a few guys and gals that clock in double to triple these numbers as photographers. Not sure if it’s a coincidence but these photographers are also dealing with divorces and other legal crap. If I netted over 500k per year I would continue to keep the overhead low, invest the money, keep surfing and mt. biking, and not talk about the money you earn. One day your going to want to retire in Aruba… and you need money. Skadoosh!

  5. Rob,

    Thank you so very much for allowing Amanda and I to be a part of this forum. We hope that photographers will ask some questions, no matter what, so we can help all those in the industry!!!

    Tiffany- thank you for your kind words!!!

    Be well.


  6. It’s tough to really gage anything on these numbers because of all the write-offs. I consider myself successful because I haven’t had to get another job and continue to make a living from my imagery.

    • @Steve Boyle, no, these numbers tell you accurately what we know: a commercial shoot typically has high expenses: location, travel, wardrobe, crew. All are expenses that come off the gross just like any business operates. Write-offs may be misleading.

      • @kevsteele, correct, but what is classified as a write-off / business expense is a lot more forgiving in the self-employed world. I’m not referring to line items on a job. What you consider a business trip may really just be a vacation to Greece that you brought a camera along for. If there is anything I learned in statistics it’s that you can make numbers say whatever you want them to. All I’m saying is that everyone is different in their math and misc deductions.

        • @Steve Boyle, got it. Most of us are likely in the self-employed category whether we are set up as sole P, LLC, S-corp etc. and as photographer #5 pointed out there are perks and ways to reduce your salary.

          • @kevsteele, I am a S-corp and while it may be harder to set up and the paperwork, it has allowed many more write offs to my business while giving me not only a better way of life but protection from my personal assets.

  7. This sounds exactly right to me. CODB model? WTF – are we a hardware stores or sub shops?

    • @Bruce DeBoer,

      We use CODB (plus a profit margin) when quoting itty bitty local businesses on work taken between bigger jobs that represent most of the profit for the year.

      I’m willing to bet most photographers who read this forum are doing (or can hope to be doing…) that kind of work though. Really, there’s two kinds of business around here, local corporate and then agency advertising with all its usage fees.

      And editorial of course, which has its own rules to the money game.

      • @craig, we should all know what it cost to do business but I’ve never seen hourly wages work well in our business. I’ve been wrong before though.

        • @Bruce DeBoer,

          Who said anything about hourly wages?

          • @craig, perhaps I don’t understand a cost of doing business model as anything other than a breakdown of labor and production w/o creative and copyright fees. If that isn’t what CODB model is – never mind (sheepishly).

            • @Bruce DeBoer,

              Yeah, but you don’t have to charge by the hour… CODB just gives you a floor for estimating production cost. As I said, it’s for itty-bitty businesses who can’t/won’t pay high profit license fees that bigger projects will. This isn’t meant to be disparaging, these itty bitty businesses often make a slow month profitable.

              You need different pricing models for different types of clients. Seems like everyone on the internet wants a “one size fits all” approach, which is unrealistic.

              In the real world, not every photographer is shooting 6-figure ad jobs every month. The number of those is very few indeed.

              • @craig, and Bruce

                I am there with you on that. I have been in business for 13 years. I work in a smallish market. And most of my work comes from regional publications/a few local agency jobs/corporate/ and small business.

                I am, this year, starting to market to a larger audience. But still have my local clientele. I have been trying out new pricing models for several years, and in the process have lost more jobs then I can shake a stick at. When I inquire why, it has nothing to do with my work. It always came down to my pricing. There was always somebody bidding lower then me. And in the area where I live price rules, not talent. This is why I am leaving this market AS SOON AS I CAN

                I tend to use codb as a base line for my quotes in this area. After all, if codb is not covered then in the end I will be in the red. After I determine that I then add creative fees on top, for my income. For small business’ I educate them that this fee is what they are paying me, and that the other line items are what they are- CODB. Unfortunately, I can not charge usage fees to small business’ in this small market.

                If it is a job for a local Agency I price it as such, they are a different beast, even here. And publications, well they have their own pricing structure.

                Every client and job is different. As Craig said “there is no one size fits all”. Heck, I get lots of repeat clients, but each job they need done is different, and in different years- so each job, for the same client is different. Even for the same amount of work.

                Lesson here, I think, is you need to know you CODB so that you Can be profitable, no matter who your client is, or how small the job. If your potential clients wants to pay below your CODB, let alone your creative fee, then walk away.

                Each job, and each geographic market is different. If I tried to charge the same rates to a local business as I would to a local ad agency they would laugh at me and move on. Well, I have bills to pay. So I quote according to customer/client and their job/budget.

                But I always take into account CODB.

                All that said, you can bet your bottom dollar that once my new marketing campaign starts to pay off (fingers crossed) and I begin to get work in larger markets I will be pricing by usage, and what the market will bear. But I will always account for CODB.

  8. Wow! This is cool…I don’t have a question, only b/c I have probably asked too many already (in reference to talking with Amanda Sosa Stone)…but she is GREAT…very insightful…I’m speaking from a short brief experience…and I’m sure Suzanne is awesome too! Can’t wait to read some answers! Thanks for doing this!

  9. Great idea to put this together Rob -and thanks Amanda & Suzanne for contributing. This is why this site is my first hit with my morning coffee.

    The CODB points struck me: I have always assumed that you need to know it as you need to plan your business, budgets, marketing but it is a floor beneath you. Never a guide to estimate or price. Maybe some people think it should be used to structure your fees? Only tells you when to say no to a job and go back inside to your marketing or go shoot for your book.

    photographer #5 is absolutely correct: “Personally, I don’t believe in the CODB model. It’s far to limiting and does not represent what one’s competitors are charging. I don’t believe one’s fees should ever be based on one’s overhead. My overhead is my choice, and so is that of my competitors. But my fees need to be as high as possible while being as competitive as one can be.”

    And Amanda & Suzanne hit the same point home: “ask for what you are worth – NOT WHAT IT COSTS TO PAY YOUR BILLS!”

    And @bobscott (4): I think you mean “grossed $500k” not netted. Your net is your gross minus operations, expenses, salary if a corp,. etc.

    Interesting to see that expected net is 1/5th to 1/3rd of gross.

    • self-edit: maybe bobscott meant that, netting $500k, he would keep his “personal” overhead low (as opposed to business overhead). i.e. living simply…always a good motto.

  10. […] I’m so excited about a great new column I’m kicking off today called “Ask Anything.” Former Art Buyers and current photography consultants Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease have agreed to take anonymous questions from photographers and not only give their expert advice but put it out to a wide range of photographers, reps and art buyers to gather a variety of opinions. The goal with this column is to explore more of the commercial side of photography (not my area of expertise) and to solicit honest questions and answers through anonymity. […]

  11. It’s super that you posted this information! I’m optimistic that some folks who may have seen saw high end commercial photography as a glamorous money machine may realize it’s not the “get rich” job that media and photographers have previously promoted.

  12. Gerhard Richter doesn’t sell paintings at prices based on the cost of canvas, paint and studio space. There will always be an artistic and professional element that allows for a premium on top of the CODB. Why forfeit that?

  13. Are these figures taking into account location? It looks great to net $xxx,xxx,xxx in Kansas, but might not be so grand in NYC or LA. It’s a start, but there are SOO many variables. I’m personally trying to figure out how to comfortably live outside the city far enough that it pays but close enough so that it pays…

    • @Anthony, Actually some of the most successful people we interviewed live in secondary cities, they charge what they are worth not what it costs in their city. Some of the people actually have staff so they need to make more than living in New York City or LA. We have the airplane theory, you should be able to live where ever makes you happy, get on a plane to do large jobs where ever. I remember a campaign we did for Wrangler called “Western Originals” it required us to travel to the subject so the photographer could happily live in Austin, TX where he raised his family but was paid for the usage of a National campaign.

      • @Suzanne Sease, I agree with this. In a smaller market you can’t get away with an assumption that superior support staff will always be available. If you fine excellence it may be best to increase payroll. Larger markets have more leeway in that regard.

  14. Rob,

    Thanks, this looks like good dialogue ahead.
    I’d like to see this approach on your blog with regard to Editorial Photography, too. I’m clueless about how editorial photographers make a good living.

  15. If I’ve learned one thing in business, It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you keep.

  16. love that these photographers were honest with their answers ( even if they had their names withheld )

    thanks for this, super cool.


  17. Oh my GAWD thank you for this post, I just read it three times. It’s so helpful to have this info and to hear the different perspectives! Really, THANK YOU.

  18. Rob,

    Hey there – I’ve been following your blog for quite some time, and appreciate your insight. Lots of useful and thought-provoking information.

    I have a question regarding the changing industry that we are in the midst of – curious if you have any comments.

    I’ve noticed more and more that major ad campaigns are now crediting the photographer in ad work. I was paging through Outside (I think?) at the barbershop the other day, and it again struck me that work is being credited where it never has in the past – this seems to cross apply to catalogs, etc.

    Patagonia has done this for a long time, but they were the only one (or one of few).

    So my question – are major ad companies crediting photographers as a way to drive down rates? Are photographers embracing credit is in large-run/big exposure scenarios as a way to further their brand/drive traffic/get noticed?

    Curious what your take is on this. Thanks for the input.

    • @Jacob, I am on the phone with Amanda right now and the answer is yes, but this is a two fold answer. 1. yes, buyers are using photo credits as a way to reduce fees (I remember in the early 90’s- when advertising took a hit-photographers asked if they could do this- and clients said “no” back then)
      2. But also thinking of back to the 90’s when Irving Penn got a “yes” or a few others, it was a fabulous way to get PR and direct future clients to your site. When I was a buyer I would read photo credits on editorial articles and call in books from them so photo credits are really important! Imagine one with a great creative campaign- Wow! worth its weight in gold!!!

      • @Suzanne Sease,
        Hey Suzanne, Great thread and I’m happy to see the open and frank discussion. I wanted to chime in about reducing ad usage fees for a photo credit. I’ve always understood the notion and value behind editorial is that (in theory) editorial work provides a very large degree of artistic freedom in exchange for a vehicle to showcase work that is not influenced by agency art direction or the client’s marketing needs. For most shooters, the trade off for doing editorial at a lower fee is the exposure and the possible quick resell potential to other pubs. As you point out, the exposure also gains the attention for, presumably, higher paying advertising gigs. With ad work, a comparable level of freedom rarely exists, and the photographer’s vision is often shaped to the “greater good” of the brand. The process of making an ad is much more collaborative than editorial. An editorial photo credit is a must, but unless you’re working on an ad campaign such as the Kohler account, which is really about featuring the photographer’s vision, the value of the photo credit is questionable, while the value of memorable imagery to enhance a client’s brand and support the media spending is undeniable. Further, the media buy almost always dwarfs the photo fees. Magazines don’t typically have the big money to pay advertising scale fees for the volume of work needed for feature content, while major advertisers and corporations spending huge sums on media certainly have the $$$ to pay a commensurate fee to license a few images. If photographers begins to reduce fees in exchange for exposure gained by ad work, where is the payoff? Wouldn’t you simply be setting a precedent of reducing fees to gain more reduced fees? It’s my understanding that back in the 90’s Herb Ritts charged the client an extra $100K to allow his name to be attached to an ad. This reflects the value to associate the brand with a respected photographer. Nevertheless, if a photographer is fortunate enough to end up with a great creative campaign, it ends up in the trade pubs and award shows, receiving lots of valuable recognition. I think, whoever said “do good work and bill appropriately” gave the best possible advise.

        • @Glen Wexler, I agree completely. Taking reduced fees for ad work is very dangerous.

          • @Clark Patrick, Hi Glen! Thanks for replying. Your insight is priceless!

            • @Amanda Sosa Stone, yes, what I am saying that you should do great work and bill accordingly but if the campaign can help launch you to be the next Herb Ritts or get the Kohler campaign, maybe conceding to a lesser fee (as clients are doing that across the board) but NOT taking a bath and lose money but get a photo credit can be beneficial if that campaign is going to win you more business.

              Glen, Clark, Jacob- thanks so much for replying- like Amanda says the insight is priceless. And yes reduced fees for ad work is dangerous- the question of adding one should be asked by the photographer and rep NOT the buyer. It is when they are pushing you to reduce costs, you can decide if this would help you agreeing to taking the job.

              • @Suzanne Sease,

                AHHH!! This is what I see as Wisdom with this topic:

                “…the question of adding one should be asked by the photographer and rep NOT the buyer. It is when they are pushing you to reduce costs, you can decide if this would help you agreeing to taking the job.”

                Yes, yes, yes….. In my market clients ASK me this all the time. But they want me to take a “Bath” on the invoice in exchange. No way.

                I would never have thought to work it the other way around! Brilliant…But only when it will, potentially, actually benefit your career.

                Thank you.

  19. Well done sir, Well Done Ladies, Well Done!

    Yes it is good to see some rough numbers to confirm my puny operating budget, however, like Photog #1 who had a break and coming back wast not easy, his numbers may be average for the guy who wants to keep it small, have an minimally cluttered life.

    I look at my numbers projected for this year, I hope I gross near 200k, if I do I will have had a Supendous year since I have changed the primary foucs of my business. Thus the projection for the followwing year would be a banner year with good growth.

    I want to keep things small; Me and maybe one more shooter. yes a part time assistant that could turn into the second shooter is actually better. I want the freedom for the travel to shoot Fine Art work. Medium or big is a lot of managemnt work that I don’t want.



    • @Ed Hamlin, THANK YOU! GOOD LUCK to you!

  20. My grandfather use to say everyone one is poor on their own level. If it was money I am after I could pick an easier way to make it, for me it’s lifestyle. I have a great lifestyle and I don’t do that bad $ wise. Coming from film to digital I see the changes, I look forward to the new revenue streams that are emerging. A love for creating images is one thing but when you choose to make it your business, then you have to be a business person as well.

      • @Victor John Penner,
        Technology has taken things like publishing, video, marketing personal stock images and prints sales and put them in the hands of everyone. I know that people have mixed results with various markets like these but it is exciting to try different things that were once out of reach or not possible. I am working on a personal project that will generate video, print sales and a book. Plus the social media content I plan to market. This is revenue that is above what I bring in doing client work. I can go out and make projects my own and market them to produce an income. I think it’s the new reality of photography or visual artist if you will.

  21. As a photographer just starting out in LA this is a great post. Thank you! Now I know I need to go back to acting to supplement I suppose… At least there it was like winning a lottery ticket. One day your broke the next your reading for network; the following month you signed a contract that’ll net ya a cool 300k for the year. Even those days are pretty much gone though. Every industry is taking hit after hit…

  22. just finished watching the Canucks game . That Burrows goal was killer ! Pretty drunk right now and while I can tell this is an interesting and probably “sobering” post , i just gotta waite till morning eh ….. plus im just a student and only say im a photographer to get girls

  23. An aspect I’ve always wondered is how much you should be able to count on as far as repeat business? I wonder what sort of number shooters at all level have in relation to that stat? It seems I rarely have a chance at repeat business… and I wish I did because it would take so much heat of my constant struggle for scoring the next gig. I feel like a photo-junky…

    • I have learned that you should NEVER count on repeat business. Even in the advertising industry – we lost clients when trying to focus on too much new business. You have to have a balance of the 2. Always work equally as hard to keep your existing clients happy while trying to find the next gig.

      • @Amanda Sosa Stone, Exactly- you need to “groom and nurture” your existing clients while reaching out to new ones. Make sure you send personal e-mails to existing clients like “Hey there, how are you doing- shot this recently and thought you may like to see it- Had a blast working with you on that project. Hope this finds you well.” Another way is to Facebook friend existing clients and post your recent work. I saw on there yesterday “I love working with Weiden & Kennedy- what a fun bunch” wow that tells me this photographer is working for a great agency- I may check them out.

  24. I’d love to know what fashion photographers make as I hear that is a whole other world and one that is never touched upon in this blog.

    • @ANON, It ranges from the new fashion shooter shooting for small lines with fees about $5K to the celebrity shooter that I hired for a major hair product whose fees were 15K and another $25K to show up on set. This was in 2000, though.

      • @Suzanne Sease, how do these fees compare to commercial fees? What’s a commercial photographer charging for a creative fee vs a fashion shooter? And does that number take into account usage fees?

        • @ANON, I think this may be getting confused- high profile shooters whether commercial or fashion make more in fees than the average shooter because of the PR factor. No matter what the product or service for the average photographer it is based on the usage and the length. Also the level of the product and service: i.e. a local jams (here it is Graves Mt. Lodge) vs. Smuckers. Local designer vs. Chanel. Local tax firm vs. H&R Block. I wish there was a set usage fee structure but unfortunately it is more of what the market is willing to pay or getting outbid by your fellow photographer. Amanda and I created a huge chart of fee structures but were told by a high level art buyer that it would shoot us in the foot to publish it.

          • @Suzanne Sease, Yes I understand different calibers of work. And obviously the guys above that this post describes are big ticket photographers. I was just curious as to how big commercial photographers compare to big fashion photographers. Say how does shooting an ad camping for Exxon compare to shooting and ad campaign for Dior…

    • @ANON, Not sure if this is worth much but as to shooting fees for fashion photographers a buddy of mine shot for Elle Italia last January. He flew to Miami. 3 stories, each budgeted at 20k. That’s 60k for a months work. Not too bad. Now I didn’t ask for the invoice but he also mentioned that, THAT particular publication was the biggest in size. And size equates high revenue he said and that made sense. That being said mags are cutting back more and more every month; he’s only shot once since then. He had a crew of 30 and used Annie Liebowitz’s producer… I asked him about the budget; all I heard were crickets.

      • @Jan, With a crew of 30 and a total of $60k budget I’m sure the line item production expenses dug into quite a bit of the $60k gross.

        • @kevsteele, I don’t know what the budget was on the “crew of 30”. He mentioned it was for “Details” magazine but didn’t go into details about the budget. The 60K budget was for Elle Italia.

  25. Thanks for this great article! I’d also be curious to learn how much of the income is based on assignment work vs. stock photography income.

    • Great question! Another CALL to action. I will also ask around.

      • @Amanda Sosa Stone, Stock has taken a HUGE hit for income to photographer- you must diversify your income streams. I have several clients who were strictly stock but now marketing to assignment. In good times they were clearing over 6 figures but are seeing numbers from sales declining so they are reaching other markets to make more income. I have heard of once $10,000 + months to just a couple hundred today.

          • @Bob, thanks for the link- a great article I had read- reason why you need to diversify!!

            • @Suzanne Sease, Diversity is great. Do you mean having many regular clients in a single market or working a variety of markets?

              What other markets besides these? :

              – Stock: Not so hot these days (over saturated), ROI?

              – Editorial: ROI?

              – Corporate: Hasn’t the market shrunk considerably?

              – Client direct: Maybe. But in this economy? ROI?

              – Advertising: Extremely competitive, economy, ROI?

              – Family photography: Extremely competitive, economy, ROI?

              – Music: :o

              – Art: ROI?

              ROI seems to be where gravity kicks in the business of photography today. Thoughts?

              • @Bob,

                It depends on your interests and what floats your boat to see how you would diversify.

                If you want to add Family and Wedding Photographer where it seems photographers are adding to their income but you have to decide about giving up your weekends.

                Client direct has been an increasing area and why stock has taken such a hit. Client direct has found that the “double vision” with out the clients brand was costly and therefore client’s are shooting libraries that cater just to them and adds their brand (product).

                Editorial is worth the photo credit if it is a good publication although my recent Bon Appetit I didn’t think was the caliber I am used to and makes me wonder if they are using unknowns and not paying what they were paying known food shooters like Con Poulos (brumlconlon.com) so I am wondering if this is a new trend. One that I will be watching. I read photo credits more then the articles sometimes.

                Corporate is great if you are able to show the business as its capabilities. In other words not just CEO head shot but the whole structure of the business.

                Advertising/Graphic Designers still have the money and am still seeing art buyers/producers over worked and traveling on shoots (from my FB friends who are buyers and their status)and the fees are definitely a big pay off on the rate per time ratio.

                Music- think of CD tangible sales and its decrease since itunes and it is not an area I would put all my time into
                Art- in these times this is an area people are cutting back- I think of the Christie’s auction where AMAZING fine art prints from famous artists didn’t sell for what they should so you have to lay out a lot of money upfront so ROI is risky.

                Does that help??

                • @Suzanne Sease,

                  I think you are missing my point entirely, Susan. While there may be gigs in all the areas mentioned above, the market is glutted with images, image makers, photo shoppers, etc. The current economy and the loss of projects in better paying sectors adds to the pressure.

                  ROI !!!!! That is the big question in all markets and genres of photography.

                  Showing anecdotal evidence that Jane Doe netted $100K this year, last, or next does describe the market well, and may not even describe the individuals career well.

                  Ask some of the top actors, musicians, athletes, or photographers how they are adapting to the market. They don’t have to adapt much, they are in that very slim percent at the top. The reason this has become such a big topic over the years is the shrinking of the middle class of photography. The top is still there, the bottom too.

                  How many other businesses or professions follow the carrot on a stick model? How many students would study fields outside of the arts if their area of study (doctor, lawyer, engineer, MBA, etc.) had the same business model and prospects as those creating images? Look at the photographer’s entire career, say 35 years. Now divide the net income over that time. Look at the time energy, and resources applied over 35 years vs the return.
                  Compare it to other career opportunities.

                  Now, this may seem like criticism. It’s not. It’s honest feedback. There is a reality here which needs to be described to understand the complete picture.

                  Stock – It is my opinion that stock imagery is doing so poorly more because of the glut of imagery, than the shift to client direct. Though the influx of “good enough” and consumer digital may also be a strong influence.

                  Family photography – is a business like any other, and requires more effort than just weekends to do well.

                  Corporate – The backbone of corporate imagery has been for annual reports. But annual report production is down. Stock images are being sourced, and consumer digital is also being used. http://www.american.com/archive/2008/january-february-magazine-contents/annual-report-r-i-p

                  Editorial – Carrot on stick. Editorial jobs can get the occasional cherry project. More often they produce more low paying editorial gigs. I’ve also seen clients expect low fees from an editorial photographer because of the knowledge that editorial pays less. There are a few editorial photographers that seem to do VERY well with it, like Winters and Leibovitz. I’ll be honest, I don’t know that much about editorial photography – especially rates.

                  Art – Again if you are at the top, art is producing amazing returns. If not…. ROI ???

                  The other markets not mentioned are those supplying photographers. Some of which appear to be doing very well.

                  • @Bob, Hey Bob, I am so sorry you feel this way. This is a tough economy for all kinds of careers. I have friends in other fields that are struggling too. I also have friends in this industry that are having their best year yet only because they are investing in their business so the ROI (Rate of Investment) has paid off. It is all about someone’s personal decision to how much they want to invest. Presenting yourself in the best form possible has always seen a better ROI than not presenting yourself at all. In all the categories listed above I am seeing some have positive results and others not. But the ones who are having positive results are those that did invest in their business aggressively. Just my experience and talking with all levels of photographers tackling all areas of photography. Stock has been the hardest hit so that is why I said diversify. Again, sorry you feel this way about the business- I still believe in it. Went through it in the early 90’s (before you say it- yes digital and the internet have made this time harder) but business has always been in cycles- up and down. And sometimes turning us sideways. Be well, Suzanne

                    • @Suzanne Sease,

                      I’m not attached, either way. I’m open to what is actual. I’ve been looking at this industry and other creative arts industries to develop a true picture. An understanding of how these markets function.

                      I’m not rich, and have been creating images since well before digital. I do it as well or better than any other skill. However, I am starting to reassess – including past beliefs, assumptions, and dogmas.

                      btw – ROI = “Return on Investment”! (or rate of return) An important difference from “rate of investment”.

                      All the best!

  26. I have a hard time thinking that the photographers interviewed are typical. In over 30 years in the business, shooting in a small market, I only know a handful of photographers that actually net more than $25-50K. Who cares about what you gross? I know a number of photographers in bigger markets make six figures, but I hope young photographers in most parts of the U.S. realize that they probably won’t ever net as much as a school teacher or plumber.

    • @Edward McCain, And take a look at the U.S. Census numbers for 2009:
      I know this doesn’t represent Commercial Photographers as a whole, but the median income for ALL photographers was $31,512. That means that for every big gun that was making six figures, there are a lot more snappers that are making a LOT less.

    • @Fashion Photographer Jerry Avenaim,

      Exactly, me being young with essentially a non-existent overhead I’m able to bill the client for assistants, gear, retouching ontop of my creative fees and usage. So I’m able to walk out and keep 90% of what I charge. Now my fees are nowhere near what these guys are charging but I’m glad I’m able to ride this wave of tiny overhead and I’ll enjoy it for as long as I can.

      Also I’d never even THINK of charging a client based on what my CODB is, I’d be broke. Juts because it cost me less to make a photo than Joe-next-door doesn’t mean my photo is worth less than his.

      • @Paulo Dourado,

        Just a nit… by the very definition of CODB, you wouldn’t be broke, you’d be breaking even.

        This is an important number in negotiations… you need to know at what point a job begins not paying for itself. Having a low CODB certainly puts you at an advantage over competitors that must charge more to cover their costs.

        • @craig,

          I’d like to add…. I don’t know where this idea came up about basing fees on CODB. I don’t know any established pros who work this way.

          Somehow the concept of CODB has been distorted and misrepresented. As Craig notes, CODB is the basis for understanding what it costs to break even – NOT what to charge.

          However, just breaking even is a huge loss based on opportunity costs & ROI. If one is not running an imaging business they are able to apply their time, energy, and resources to another endeavor.

          • @Bob,
            I made it up. I hear people talking about undercutting so I thought I’d throw it out and see if anyone would bite.

            • @A Photo Editor, Ha, Bravo! :D

  27. Maybe for next time ?

    I would like to know the best strategies for NON-established photographers pursuing fashion. I find it very difficult to find practical information about pursuing fashion specifically. Maybe you can touch on advertising as well.

    If it helps, I will explain my path. My primary income comes from developing models with top agencies in NY. Modestly, I make $2000 – $3000 per month depending on seasonal variables. That’s not so much if you live and work in a studio in NY.

    I started out assisting (for one year) but found it shockingly difficult to progress with my work. I knew assistants who had not shot anything of their own for 8 months and beyond. It was like that for me as well. I also knew assistants who were coming off 5 years assisting but they still had to develop their work. I have a really strong itch to work, so I cut my losses.

    Beyond model development, what is the next best step for someone in my position ? I mean to make money. I’m avoiding stupid magazines, and pursuing hip magazines which fit my particular style. This however doesn’t really pay.

    Thoughts ?

    • @Jonathan Waiter, This is a fantastic question that we are going to put out to an art buyer who has a fashion account and two emerging fashion photographers who are having their best year ever….And one who is just hitting the fashion scene and is getting amazing results!! Stay tuned!!!

      • @Suzanne Sease, Id be very interested in hearing about this as I’m starting out (read: 3 years in). I don’t shoot every month mind you… and had to take 6months off for personal reasons. I’d be interested in knowing the city and if in fact he has a rep. I’ve heard approaching a rep in this climate is like knocking the cement wall and seeing if it’ll open. Now I would assume that if you had a rep you’d at least have someone in your corner sending-pitching you and getting you out there.

        • @Jan, Same here, seems the fashion world is the most elusive as to how to break into it. I’m in the exact same situation as Jonathan except only a year in.

        • @Jan, I live and work in Brooklyn, and I dont have a Rep. From what I have gathered, a photographer’s agent or artist rep does not want you unless you are successfully running a profitable business. I’ve been told not waste my time looking until I have so much work I dont know what to do with it. To shed more light, I hear stories of represented friends of friends who market and find most of the work themselves. It’s an illusion to think Reps do all the work for you. You need to get yourself out there. But that’s what I am asking here. How do I do that ? What doors should I be knocking down !!! Who should I hustling!!

          • @Jonathan Waiter, you need to work collaboratively with a rep- you and the rep do marketing together and separately. They can’t do all the work. Do more shooting they can market. Some reps LOVE untapped new and innovative photographers not just what you have currently in your financial books. Put yourself out there, you never know what will happen!!!

            • @Suzanne Sease,

              Thank you for the advise. I’m eager to hear more :))))

              • @Jonathan Waiter, I just got off the phone with one of the most sought after reps. Understand they get e-mails every day from people looking for representation with two huge mistakes: 1. No research has been done on why you are a good fit for them 2. Introduce yourself properly even if you may have introduced yourself at a function- these reps meet TONS of people so help them out a bit. 3. Create a sample PDF of your work and with your goals and current billings and clients. Even if you are young and fresh- they still may want you but be honest from the start!!

        • @Jan, working on this for one of the next question forums. Have feedback from some already but waiting to get more…..stay tuned!!

  28. Thanks very much for such an important topic.
    I begin Commercial Photography studies later this year–So I’m trying to gain all of the knowledge I can.

    • @Scott, Don’t listen to all your professors but reach out to active professionals who are more likely to mentor you as a student than when you are “competition”. Love students who want to learn all they can- way to go!!!

      • @Suzanne Sease, Some professors are active commercial photographers who do give students excellent information about the industry. :)

        • @Greg Ceo, thanks for writing!! yes, some are and they are wonderful to reach out to BUT I have found many students graduating without the skills to run a business so make sure you take classes on not just the technical aspects but the business side as well. All the best to you!!

          • @Suzanne Sease, Right. Agreed. Many programs do not offer a Business Practices course, like we teach at Savannah College of Art and Design. I think it is essential.

            • @Greg Ceo, yeah,and you are the one of the ones I was referring to about being wonderful and reaching out to students. I loved meeting the students at SCAD in April and they were far more advanced than some other schools I have seen. And I loved meeting your faculty! You are a working professional hence why SCAD has such a great reputation!!! And yes, there are some others that offer great courses but there are some colleges that don’t focus on photography as a business.

              • @Suzanne Sease, Thanks for coming to SCAD last spring! I know the students got a lot out of your presentation!!

  29. Interesting details. Thank for posting.

  30. Suzanne,
    I’m a huge proponent of the “Airplane Theory” you mentioned above and believe it’s realistic and achievable for any photographer, particularly if your work is primarily location oriented rather than shooting in a studio. For me, there’s no need to have anyone on staff (salary) and the only equipment i own is for my personal work. Everyone/thing else is hired or rented per job and I walk away with the fees…nice and simple. The key is to work with extremely efficient producers who understand your vision. My experience has been that jobs are won or lost not based on fees, but on the producer’s ability (with photographer’s input, of course) to budget efficiently. Marketing is highly targeted and personal.

    Thanks for the info, ladies, this is great! Thanks Rob for the delving into commercial issues as well.


    • @Peter Dawson,

      Thank you so much for writing. You are not only a talented photographer but a smart businessman. A producer is worth their weight in gold, a bad one can ruin your chances of getting a job or repeat business. I have some great stories to share and some horror stories too. Hmmm, I see another forum for a later date!!

  31. This was a very informative post! Thank you so much.

  32. There is one question I have that I don’t think has been discussed, its a two part question- (1)how often are people working in order to net $200k? Do commercial photographers get paid enough from one gig that they only need to work once or twice a month or are they shooting several jobs all month?

    (2)How long does a typical job last? The length of a shoot is relative to subject matter (products vs models) but there had to be a general time line from bid to final images delivered, right? Do typical commercial photographers have gigs lined up back to back or is there space between shoots?


  33. What is the best way to approach an ad agency with the view to gaining work?

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  36. Thank you Suzanne and Amanda and all you others for the insights and contributions. Very interesting read. Two years ago I had my highest gross sales in my 11 year history of being in business (I shoot primarily architectural assignments), 2009 was my second lowest $ year.
    It is good to see that despite all the BAD news about the BAD economy there are photographers who are still making (seemingly) good money. It can be very tempting to fall into the “bad news pit” and to ease up or let off on all sorts of marketing related matters because of the: “Oh what the hell, the world is coming to an end anyways, therefore we may go and play instead of “work” and wait until it all blows over…. “And then to sit on the pitty pot instead, at times. Very vicious cycle. What works, as proven so many times before, is Action, Action Action…

  37. I would like to ask how much per month could be the salary be for a Chief photo editor in a very well known business magazine in the states and the arab world now…

  38. I would like to ask how much per month could the salary be for a Chief photo editor in a very well known business magazine in the states and the arab world now…

  39. Im a Sophomore in highschool and I plan on becoming a photographer in the future. Is there anything thing that I should do before I go after my dream? This was a great article and it makes me have hope for what I’m going to be.

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