My clients are all over the US; local to larger national (and sometimes global) brands. We partner directly with brands and creative agencies on projects big and small. From local cannabis producers, to iconic brands like Nike and Adidas (those last two are also local to our area, so that’s pretty helpful for Portland creative industries). In just the last 6 months we’ve done work for E&J Gallo, PetSmart, Tony’s Chocolonely, and Dr. Bronner’s.

No employees. Just me and my partner (it’s a family business). We share the production work; I handle all the photography, and he handles the set design and shoot-day producer role.

We have a small production studio and a workshop space that we rent. Add the utilities and insurance and it runs us about $5k/month.

Profit margin: 2020 – 19.5%, 2021 – 22.5%, 2022 – 26%, tracking at 26% so far this year

We technically are in the studio/office at least 3-4 days a week but the days a year I am actually shooting… 2022 I had about 30 shoot days (not including the production or prep/wrap days).

Once I changed my business model from that of a freelance photographer to one of a production company/studio my income and profit margin really started to see a positive and much needed change. Mind you I’ve been in the business for a long time now and have managed and produced my own photoshoots since I was in my early 20s. I decided it was time to start charging for all the production work I had be previously doing for free.

Those choices, along with bringing on my spouse as a support and collaborator, has made a drastic difference in both our income and how we navigate the future in this industry. I say all of this knowing that my ability to grow all came from some amount of dumb luck, a lot of rejection and hard work, and a certain place of privilege.

Our workshop/set designer also takes on other projects outside of the photo work our studio produces, so this accounts for another very helpful income stream (about 15-20% additional billing).

Here’s an example of a typical shoot we just wrapped:

2-day stills shoot for a locally-based (but nationally sold) non-alcohol beverage company that has been in business for over 10 years.

For our in-house product shoots we typically only hire a prop stylist and a photo assistant. My partner takes on the role of producer on the shoot days to help manage our client and the crew, keeping us all happy and on schedule. A shoot like this will have us in the studio for a prep + prelight day before the first day of shooting (and our stylist will usually have an extra day or two for shopping/crafting). We had about 15 shots to create over the 2 days: 6 custom scenes, and a “super close-up” setup.

The client received 21 images in total. Licensing terms are 2 YEARS: web, social, PR, print, and BTL use.

Estimate total: $15k. Take home after expenses: $11k

When we won this job we also knew there would be a “phase two” a month later, which we’re shot (same deal, 6 additional skus) in March.

We just wrapped a personal best last month for an iconic national wine brand. This was a one-day studio shoot here in Portland, Oregon. Both the clients and agency creative team traveled from across the country to shoot with us. The main focus of this project was to create six color-blocked “backyard” scenes, in-studio and to capture 3 lifestyle images and 3 product-focused images on these sets. The client received a total of 6 final retouched images for their POS campaign, with 6-months requested usage, BTL print and digital (we consider strictly-POS as BTL in this case).

The agency also requested a second “digital asset” product/tabletop set to capture 10-12 social media assets for the client, during our one-day photoshoot. We did a thing we love doing, which is hiring one of our talented photographer contemporaries to join us for the day on her separate tabletop set. The client walks away with a hard drive of all the captures from this set at the end of the day to do with as they please (including any retouching). The selects from this digital shoot come with unlimited, perpetual use, strictly digital, no print.

Here’s an estimate breakdown:

Photographer day rate: $6500
Licensing fees: $5k
Photographer Prelight: $2k

Studio Services: $1k/day for 3 days (prep, shoot, wrap) covers studio use, in-house lighting + grip, and production fees.
In-house Photo Producer: $750/day for 5 days (casting, production, on-set producer)
Production Coordinator: $650/day for 3 days (prep and shoot days)
In-house Custom Fabrication: $600/day for 3 days (custom wall flats, set build)

Second Photographer: $4k (fees + digital use)
Art Department Lead: $1k/day for 5 days
Wardrobe Stylist: $1k/day for 3.5 days
H/MUA: $1200/day for 1 day
First Photo Assistant: $600/day for 4 days
Second Photo Assistant: $500/day for 4 days
Art Dept Assistant: $500/day for 3 days
Wardrobe Assistant: $500/day for 1 day

Talent Fees: $8k ($2k/each (including usage) x4)
Agency Fees: $1600

Set Design Budget: $5k
Wardrobe Budget: $3k
Prop Budget: $2400
Craft Service: $1500
Misc: $1k (kit fees, expendables, mileage)
EQ Rentals: $600

Post Production: $2700 (6 images)

TAKE HOME: $22.5k

Now I’m sure we could’ve charged more for usage or what have you, but the reality is we always try to get a rough budget out of our clients so we have a number to work towards (or back from). I also like to live in the reality that I am getting paid A LOT OF MONEY to make images for a living. Images that typically have a commercial shelf-life of much less than one year (if we’re being honest about how capitalism constantly forces new products to market). At the end of the day, if I feel what we’re charging is fair and reasonable to us and fair and reasonable to our clients then we should be satisfied.

Our worst recent shot was in the summer of 2020 (at the height of all the uncertainly surrounding the pandemic) a skincare brand reached out and offered me $2k a month to create up to 16 images for them (per month). It was hell, and as you can expect nothing was ever good enough from them. They we’re fired after three shoots.

We can shoot video (simple tabletop stuff), but choose to focus our motion work on stop motion animations and “motion-burst” photography (high-speed strobes with a human-motion component that can be edited into a short video).

My years of photo assisting and working as an art department assistant really gave me the confidence and knowledge to know what I was getting myself into when I decided to go the freelance route. Too many people end up in this industry these days without taking the time to learn how it functions and what people’s roles are, especially when you get to the bigger clients and higher levels of production. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

My clients are Regional 50%, National 50%. I have a number of large repeat clients who I enjoy working with. Well known international brands who sort of have me on retainer as they use me constantly without putting out the job for bid from other photographers.

I have one freelance assistant who is with me for 70% of my shoots and I hire other freelancers when needed.

My expenses for last year were $70k, with $35k going to freelancers. The rest was a good split between new gear, marketing and travel.

I work around 4 days a week averaged over the year. I can have 2 weeks with no work and then 6 shoots in 7 days. But it averages out to 4 days a week.

My income has raised steadily since my start in the business. The last few years has seen a slight increase.

I have no other sources of income.

Best shoot from recent past was May of last year. I shot 3 days for a national sports organization. I hired 2 assistants and a MUA. The total invoice for the shoot was $28k, 200 images were licensed with light editing for 3 years of usage. After paying for gear, assistants, MUA, my take home was $21K.

I don’t shoot video.

My income is 40% product, 30% food & drink, 30% lifestyle. I get hired for my creativity and my attention to detail. I am pretty open to shooting anything as long as I feel confident I will do a good job. I don’t let the idea of a “niche” limit me, if they want me to bid I will bid!

I spent 1 year in house as a “content creator” 2023 marked my 7th year freelancing.

I have clients all over the spectrum, small biz all the way to fortune 500. I have been working with lots of startups, which has been fun because I play a large part in the creative identity of these new companies.

My studio is about 15k a year because it is shared, I outsource 90% of my retouching which adds up, and because I do not have a rep I take on all production costs associated with my jobs. Expenses are over or close to 100k a year.

I would say I am on set maybe 4-10 days a month. Some months I am on set for a day…Consistency month to month is hard to come by, but yearly it is pretty good.

I have a lot of direct-to-client work, start-ups with decent budgets, and small businesses that understand why we invest in photography. I love working direct with clients, I love having a vision and executing I also enjoy building relationships with clients. I like agency work too, but I find it discouraging to triple bid and play the game constantly. For a few years, I knew I was the “low number” because of my experience and it made it hard to enjoy the process.

From my first year on, income has steadily increased. From year to year, my rates go up, project sizes go up, and of course, so do expenses. 2022 was the first year I was down in my years of freelancing, I brought in about 20k less than 2021. I expect that to be a little bump in the road with 2023 going right back up to meet 2021 or exceed it, or at least I hope!

Photography is my full-time gig! When I left my agency job I just went for it. It was a learning curve for sure, only a few resources out there gave me some insight into how to run a photography business. I didn’t have any industry friends to lean on. I was charging like $800/day in my first year and just tossing RAWs out like candy. Some days I am still trying to figure out if my rates are fair because no one talks about it. That is why I am so thankful for this new resource!!

On average I am working a 1-2 day shoot, with about 20 deliverables for social and web. Smaller teams, props, food and talent. My day rate averages $2,500-$3,500, and retouching is around $200-500/image depending on complexity, I include organic web and social in that fee. Paid ads or print ads range anywhere from an additional 5-10k on the job. After hard costs, I bring in about 50-70% of the project.

My best-paying job was 14 days, 9-5, on set for one client – 100 simple assets for $100k I took home at least $50k. Images were used for an e-book. I loved the routine! I blasted music and had a good time.

I am pretty good at saying no to jobs that don’t suit me, which I know is a privilege. Honestly, the worst paying jobs are editorial, which I do mainly for the experience and challenge anywhere from $300-$1000 for a half day and I am lucky if I get an assistant rate on top of that.

I am starting to direct but I never hold the camera on motion jobs. A lot of my jobs lately have been asking for motion and I have a few video teams I call on to shoot in tandem with me. I have a good relationship with a motion production company that I call on for the bigger gigs. Maybe 10% of my income right now but I hope to get that up to 30% this year.

It can be lonely out there, so prioritize finding a community. Be it your classmates from school (if you went) or other photographers at the same level as you. Friendliness and warmth trump competition. Reach out and go for a coffee, stay in touch, and refer jobs to one another.

I worked ten years as in-house marketing photographer for a small, private university in a large city. The first three years I did photos, video, social media, some website updates and a touch of graphic design. The team grew and I eventually got to focus solely on photography.

I made $43k, with zero overhead. Gear was supplied, when I could make a strong enough case for it. Salary for my position was low compared to folks in my role at other universities, and about $15k lower than the guy they hired to do video and to be my supervisor. Budgets were always tight and raises were unheard of.

I supplemented my income with weddings and some varied freelance work. At my best I had a couple years of earning 20-25k outside of the ‘real’ job.

I always tried to advance my work, staying on trend and upping the production value. The graphic designers loved it, but nobody else really saw the increased quality; often times quantity is all that was needed. I even taught myself headshot retouching along the way. Again, not a selling point to those in charge of my employment.

When Covid hit, I was very rapidly jettisoned. The videographer/anyone with a phone would take my place. From the looks of it, the image library I created is still very much in use. After ten years, it was a hard way to go, but it was something I didn’t know I needed. We had a six month old at home, and I immediately became a stay at home dad, gaining an irreplaceable bond with my daughter while saving on daycare costs. Had I stayed, we would have spent almost all of my paycheck on daycare. Leaving gave me the chance to reflect on what I wanted to do in the future.

I walked away with an incredibly diverse portfolio and a wealth of experience. I now know where my specialties lie and what types of jobs I’d be happy to do without. When time allows, I still pick up freelance gigs, and in the next few years, foresee myself jumping headfirst back into the market, freelancing full-time, doing what I love.

Last years income is after my agent has taken 25% of creative fees. After agency fees, I consider that my gross, from which about 30% goes to expenses, leaving me with my net.

I would say the bulk of my work is Lifestyle with a still life component. When I was only shooting still life (food), I found that there was a cap to the scale of productions, at least for me. I also direct motion, going on 3 years, and at this point it’s about 60% stills only, 35% stills + (directing) motion, 5% motion only (directing).

I’ve been with my current rep for 2 years.

No employees, though I do have to run payroll on smaller shoots that are not handled by a production company.

Aside from what I consider regular business expenses (equipment, insurances, payroll, software, sub contractors, travel, etc), I don’t have any overhead. Overall, 30% of my gross is expenses (last year that was 90k of expenses).

I’m counting this as shoot days on set only. Obviously a lot of work happens on non set days in pre-production and post:
In 2021 – 64 shoot days
In 2022 – 58 shoot days but earned more overall
I know people sometimes balk at photog rates but there are a lot of days we work that we don’t get paid for, especially in the bidding/treatment process, which can take 1-2 weeks and only has a 30% award rate, as well as 2-3 weeks of pre-pro time.

Once I was able to start charging appropriate usage, with the help of an agent, my income increased substantially. This also coincided with larger scale production budgets based on my career’s momentum. For the first few years, I was living off just day rights.

All my shoots are so different, so I’ll talk about my most recent shoot, which had a decent budget but by no means extravagant. It was primarily a motion job, so I was directing, with a minor stills shot list that I captured as well. I haven’t kept track of hours worked, but it was about 4 days of work for the treatment. Once awarded, we had 2.5 weeks of pre-production which required me to be at my computer or in meetings a few hours a day. This one didn’t overlap with an existing shoot, as it’s much harder to do all this stuff on top of a 10-12hr shoot day. The shoot was 2 days and was a travel job. Total, I received 2500 @ 6 days for travel, pre-pro, scout, etc, and 8,500 @ 2 shoot days. Total take away of my fees after 25% agency cut was 24k. Overall shoot budget was 215k. Licensing was all assets captured, unlimited digital for 1 year.

Best paying shoot – 3 day shoot, 12 hour days, doing stills on a broadcast commercial with a full buyout of all imagery captured, I made 80k, agent took 30%. Expenses handled by producer.

Worst paying shoot was a 1 day 8 hr. shoot, maybe 2 hours of pre-pro, licensing was web, marketing, printed cards for in store, I made $750, agent took 25% 😂. I thought it’d be a fun passion project but I ended up having a miserable time.

I truly think that if you stick with it, put in the work, and build a solid business, you can find success. Don’t feel entitled to anything off the bat. While I find this career to be super fun, it is NOT easy. BTS shots on insta look like work is a blast, and parts of it are, but there’s a lot of hard and stressful work surrounded by those highlights. It’s a slow road, requires a lot of time (and money) invested, and it’s a challenging and ever evolving industry. Continue to put in the hard work day after day, year after year. There will without a doubt be extra hard times where no work is coming, you feel taken advantage of, etc. Also, sharing is caring!! Fuck gatekeeping – it only leads to undercutting (both intentional and unintentional) and it really affects the industry as a whole.

Recommended Posts

1 Comment

  1. This series is very helpful and encouraging. Thanks!

Comments are closed for this article!