I first picked up a camera in early 2000 and pushed my way into assisting some top tier photographers. My first assignment was 2004. I got on with a big rep and landed a huge pharma campaign. Just as everything was falling into place and I was feeling on top of the world I ran into life changing family problems.
I decided to make a radical change. I left New York, put away my photo gear and started a seafood business. For the first three years I loved it. But then I tried to up scale. The next 3 years were hell. It ended when I caught my employees doing lines of coke at 4 in the
morning. Their incompetence and drug addiction combined with my lack on experience running a business wiped me out. I lost all my savings and I had no choice but to sell off all the assets. In the end I owed $60k to the bank.
So I picked up the camera again, contacted everyone I had ever worked for, and got the same response from everyone. In those 6 years the industry had changed a lot. Most clients had moved on, magazines no longer had budgets, and I had no new work to show.
So I moved in with my parents. At first I couldn’t even give it away. There just wasn’t a market for my type of photography. My images were too expensive to produce and no one was interested.
I decided to reinvent everything about my images. I put away my lights and taught myself how to take simple, naturally lit portraits. On Facebook I offered to take free portraits of any woman who owned their own business. I did that for two months. With those images I started a portrait/headshot business.
Then the pandemic hit. So I was dead in the water before I ever made a dime. But I kept trying.
Finally with the vaccine becoming available, I made a huge push, did $500/month in google ads and took any job that came my way. I’m talking birthday shoots, pet portraits, I mean I did any job at any price. The mid-Atlantic market is so incredibly saturated with headshot photographers that people constantly tried to get me to lower my price. It was humiliating. But I didn’t know what else to do. So I just filled every day with 4-6 portrait sessions at $99/session.
Eventually I was getting enough calls that I was able to raise my price to $400 a session and companies started to have employees come back into the office and I started to get headshot jobs where I was shooting between 10-30 people in a day.
With this little bit of success I was able to spend a little more time looking for commercial clients. I pitched to every startup I could find, and I connected to a small bio-tech/pharma firm. I have now taken over all their branding photography and am doing 1 shoot almost every month. I charge $15k/day to create a library of images licensed for branding, not advertising.
I am now busier than I’ve ever been. I keep my overhead very low, I don’t use assistants or digi-techs. I pretty much just show up with two cameras and two lenses. I’m not even bringing a laptop.
I have no stats for before Covid, but last year I made $230k in profits.
For me, the days of big productions are over. I know that my new work is nothing special. It’s just simple, sort-of-stock type images. But I’m not spending any energy creating bids, or producing anything. I am spending $500/month on google ads. I’m not creating promos, I’m not even spending much time retouching. There are times I wish I was creating more unique and artful pictures, but this is where I am right now.
I’ve been a hybrid photographer/graphic designer for a really long time. I found it to be too much to try and manage both, so I jumped ship from graphic design entirely only over the last couple of years. In a lot of ways I’m a bit of a newbie on the market.
I started in stock photography long ago around 2010. I also shot for smaller local companies as well as a small company within a Major Fortune 500 for almost 10 years. It was consistent, reliable photography work that I could dovetail into my graphic design work and I didn’t need to do any marketing to sustain it. In 2019 I began the process of polishing up my online presence, creating test shoots to improve my portfolio, and began reaching out to larger brands and corporations with the hopes of going full time into photography (which is where I am now).
My client base varies from fortune 500 to smaller brands all over the US
In the past most of my income came from food and product, lately it seems to be leaning more towards lifestyle. I’d say 30% food 30% product 40% lifestyle at the moment, but in the past 40% food, 40% product, and 20% lifestyle.
Definitely have more overhead than I had as a graphic designer. Last year I invested heavily in marketing, listing sites, portfolio reviews, SEO website overhaul, personal projects/test shoots, promos. Ordinarily my total overhead is closer to about $50-$60k a year
Big chunks include:
Marketing expenses came to about $20-$30k in 2022
New equipment (computers, monitors, lenses, cameras is about $9k
Accounting, software, website hosting $8k
How much I work varies and I’m always looking to work smarter, not harder. So better clients that understand licensing that have better budgets. During the pandemic I took whatever came my way, now I’ve got a minimum I won’t book without. Ideally 1 (2-3 day) shoot a week is the sweet spot, but off weeks are perfect for marketing and admin work.
While my income was down last year, it was partially due to my taking time off for a personal project and then having a perfect storm of a few repeat clients changing direction creatively either away from professional photography or shooting their own content. That put me in a real dry patch for a while, but I used that time to hit marketing super hard which also cost some money. Overall I think this year could have surpassed last year if I had been on call for the entire year and I think there’s room to grow from here especially if my marketing keeps exposing me to new people.
Average shoots are 2-3 days, lately on-location. 8 am call time (but I usually arrive a bit earlier so I can scope things out and get setup), my day involves hauling all the gear and tech into the location (with assistants) and getting everything lit, getting the tether station up and running, handing out ipads with live view on them, etc. and then coordinating with talent and stylists as we work through the shot list. We’ll work typically until 5:30 or later… sometimes to 7 pm (so that’s a 10-12 hour day). After wrap it’s a lot of work combing through the selects and retouching. I’ve been doing a lot of my own retouching, but I’m branching out now to outsource that when I can afford to.
Average take home per shoot day is somewhere in the $7k range depending on expenses and client contract.
I can tell you my worst shoots were during the start of the pandemic when I was just happy to have work to shoot. I had one client take screenshots while I was sharing the shoot remotely. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but they proceeded to use those images in their marketing without paying for them. Most shoots during the pandemic covered only a day rate, better jobs in that time included the day rate, equipment, travel, and post production. Editorial shoots paid me $200 a SHOOT and I was doing the food styling, prop styling, everything. Awful.
Know your worth, make sure you get paid a fair rate. If you’re wearing multiple hats like many do when starting out, CHARGE for those services (styling, propping, set design, etc.). And never forget to keep marketing yourself. Just because you get busy doesn’t mean there won’t be a dry spell, so every day you have off set without retouching to do, put your head down and get those emails, postcards, mailers, etc. out… update your listing sites, and scour LinkedIn for possible opportunities.
ADDITIONAL COMMENT ON THE MARKETING LAST YEAR:
I kind of turned on the fire hose when things got quiet on me. The positive side of that is I could tell what worked and what did little to nothing for me.
1. Paid an SEO expert for my website $$
2. Did LeBook event $$$$
3. Upgraded Workbook to a higher level (not seeing any results in that investment) $$$
4. Listed with Production Paradise (didn’t feel like that was a fit, ultimately and not a fan of the layout/delivery) $$
5. Listed with Found $
6. Listed with Komyoon $
7. Listed with Wonderful Machine $$
8. Worked with a consultant to refine my portfolio & help direct personal work $$$
9. Invested in email services and contact management $$
10. Invested in listing with regional business listings for SEO $
11. Physical promos $$$
12. Website/domain name expenses $
13. Monthly agency fees (no longer with agency) $$$
14. Contract with marketing assistance $$
15. Social media scheduling service $
16. Occasional stock image/graphic/font purchases for marketing materials $
The single most helpful thing was SEO and then starting to understand how my specific regional market works.