These days, about 70% of my income is wildlife photography. This includes both workshops I lead and my stock photography and stock video sales within wildlife work. The balance of that is split between NGO work and photojournalism assignments.
My clients are International and all over the U.S.
Wildlife work has a lot of overhead, mostly in travel expenses and fronting the costs of my workshop side of the business. As a wildlife photographer, I have to be where the wildlife is – I control nothing about the timeline of when animals breed or migrate or anything else that makes for great visual storytelling in this genre. In 2022, I had $39,000 in travel expenses. It would have been more, but I bought a travel trailer (camper) to both give me a sense of having my own home and transfer some of my costs over to profit in 2023.
My NGO work and photojournalism assignments have very low overhead.
I work 300 days a year give or take.
I have a few different types of clients because my business has a few different models within it. For the wildlife photography workshops, my clients tend to skew age 65+ and retired, mostly retired executives, as they tend to have the most time and money. Most of them are hobbyists who have invested $25,000+ into their photography gear and don’t bat an eye at dropping another $8,000-15,000 per workshop.
My NGO clients are international. I was a staff NGO photographer and video producer for 5 years, so my network for that area of my work is fairly extensive. I love working with NGOs and am pushing to expand this part of my business.
I don’t do as many photojournalism assignments anymore, but love it when I have the chance. My clients there tend to be more regional publications or specialty publications around nature and wildlife. Honestly, most of them pay better and faster than some of the national and international publications I’ve worked for.
Moving from a staff job to being independent was a major change. I loved my staff job, but when I went through my divorce, the salary wasn’t enough to live on my own in the city in which they required me to be. I’m lucky – I have almost zero debt. No car payments, no student loans left, and no credit card obligations. It was devastating to leave a job I loved simply because it would have cost me 65% of my monthly take-home pay to rent an apartment.
Moving to my own business, my income has gone up by about 15-20% year over year for the last three years.
Wildlife photography grew significantly with hobbyist photographers during the pandemic, and I feel strongly that is what helped boost my income in the last few years. They’ve invested in their hobby and see photography workshops as a way to now level-up the hobby they fell in love with during that time.
About halfway through 2022, I launched a subscriber-based newsletter for wildlife photographers. It’s educational and a niche within a niche, and I have a monthly/annual option or a mentorship option for purchase. While still in the growth phase, I’ve managed to generate about $35,000 in sales (about $25,000 profit) in the first six months or so, with very little investment up front.
This recurring income model has definitely helped me work toward the lifestyle I’m designing for myself. It gives me a bit more balance and stability from the yo-yo income cycles.
I’m hoping to double this income in 2023.
Since most of my income comes from workshops, and I haven’t seen that discussed here yet, I’ll use those as an example.
Workshops for me require at least one week of scouting and traveling to the location one year ahead of time. I need photos from that workshop to market that workshop. Then, I arrive a week ahead of the workshop to scout the current situation and get my personal photos.
A typical workshop is 10 days and I work about 16 hours a day in that time – from before breakfast to after dinner every day. I’m not only a photographer in this phase – I’m also teaching everything from biology and ecology and why you need to know these things as a wildlife photographer to camera settings (I have to speak Canon, Sony, and Nikon fluently) to the art of composition, etc.
The other thing with workshops is the upfront costs. Most vendors require me to lock-in my dates with 100% payment upon booking. That means I’m investing anywhere from $40,000 to $75,000 to book vendors for the workshop even though I haven’t sold any spots on the workshop yet.
After expenses, I usually bring home about $28,000 per workshop. A couple of my less expensive workshops have me taking home about $17,000-20,000, but they also require significantly less work.
I also license a lot of the photo and video I take during my scouting weeks to these locations. Typically, I can get an extra $5,000-8,000 a year from each of these weeks through rights managed licensing. I have a solid list of photo editors I work with directly. Anything else that I don’t want to keep as direct-to-client licensing goes into Getty. I know, I know, I hate them, too. But since I’m already investing in these trips, I might as well get as much out of it as I can.
I think my best paying day was a private workshop for a client. It was over 3 days in a location I’m deeply familiar with. It took me about 5 hours of planning and I made $15,000 ($5k per day). Since the light is harsh from about 10am – 4:00pm in most places, I’m usually not working at that time. So I typically only work about 5-6 hours with the client for trips like this.
The worst pay comes from stock photos I license as royalty free through agencies, which won’t be a surprise to anyone. My criteria is that they have to be good enough to carry my name, but not so good that I don’t keep them for my direct-to-client collection.
My worst stock year was last year, at $2,300. But, I only had about 100 images in that collection, so statistically, it was higher than average, I guess.
Shooting video has made it easier to land assignments when I pitch. I’m lucky that my staff job turned me into a solid interviewer and storyteller with video. My video work in 2022 was about 10% of my income, but I am on track for that to be about 30% this year. I’m also a private pilot and have a decent drone setup, which adds value to my video clients, as well.
In addition to shooting stock video early on, I also focused on vertical video right out of the gate. That proved to be a smart move financially.
Email is my gold for marketing all of my business buckets, though. It’s the one area where we have complete control, algorithms be damned.
For NGO work and photojournalism, I keep my emails brief and respectfully infrequent – just enough to stay top of mind, but not so much that I annoy editors. For those larger NGOs, I’ll sometimes send email that showcase campaigns or info that’s relevant to their work. I want them to view me as someone who has a finger on the pulse on their particular industry.
I don’t really need to market my workshops anymore, but I still write a bi-monthly email newsletter. I almost never write anything marketing related – I simply keep to my brand as someone who educates others on photography and wildlife. I aim for 1,500-2,000 words per email so that I’m providing an insane amount of advice and education for free. While time-consuming at first, this keeps my email open rates well above average – I see about 75-80% open rates.
This means that any time I do want to market something, it’s almost instantly profitable for me. I’ve built trust with my list because I keep marketing infrequent. I give them a ton of valuable information, consistently demonstrating my expertise in this genre. When I launched my subscription product, I made the first $12,000 in one day from this list alone.
I used Facebook and Instagram ads to build my list. Because of my background, I have an advantage here. My best advice for building a high quality email list via social advertising is to think “psychographically,” which goes beyond demographics and taps into the psychological motivations of your target client.
For example, think about what brands your client buys – how do those brands write copy and what kind of images are they using in their marketing? What does your client read? What kind of hobbies are they likely to have? These companies spend millions and millions in market research every year, so why not take advantage of it and apply your observations of how they advertise and speak to the same client base to your marketing efforts?
In my case, I created five or six groups of people and my most successful grouping was targeting people 50+ who like national parks (I chose a bunch of specific parks), Patagonia, REI, Arc’teryx, National Geographic Travel, Lindblad Expeditions, National Geographic magazine, AND they had to also like “wildlife photography.”
There were a few other brands in that group, but you get the idea. By narrowing my newsletter ads to this audience, I got a lot of high quality email addresses that fit my niche perfectly. And, I never spent more than $.60 per email, which is well below average.
I’m working on my retirement plan. I have a savings account right now, and I put about 15-20% of my yearly income into it. I was fully vested in my retirement plan from my staff job when I left, so that is still there, too. I’m just letting that idle.
The worst advice I’ve received was to do any kind of photography to make money. While sometimes that’s necessary when starting out (we all have bills to pay), I wasted a lot of time that could have gone toward honing my skills in my niche.
The best advice I received was to build registering my images with the U.S. Copyright Office into my workflow. Because of this, I recover anywhere from $8,000-15,000 in lost licensing revenue from image theft a year without the need for a lawyer or litigation.
I was in digital marketing for 15+ years before making my career change to photography. That helped considerably in that I can “speak corporate marketing and comms” fluently when I’m working with corporate clients or NGOs. Knowing how to work those cross-functional teams and what they both will want out of an assignment makes upselling a breeze because I can usually tap into two different budgets to get more work.
Invest in setting up your business first. Hire a lawyer to write your contracts – it’s the best $1000 I ever spent. I found mine through the free Small Business Administration mentorship via their SCORE program. It’s an under-utilized resource. It’s not photographer specific, but I got incredible value from meeting with the person who ended up assigned to me. I learned a ton about how to structure my business and I think that saved me thousands in costly mistakes over the years.
Treat your business like a business. Outsource the tasks you hate because it will be less costly in the long run from a time-dollar equation perspective. Don’t be afraid to change what isn’t working or fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy.
My personal portrait style is very moody and fashion-inspired, but my client work tends to be very clean and crisp.
The bulk of my income, probably 80%, revolves around headshots and corporate lifestyle images. Almost all of my local clients come to me looking for corporate headshots and/or personal branding images. Regionally, I have a few regular clients in the healthcare space that need regular headshots and “lifestyle” shots showcasing their employees at work. The rest of my income is comprised of editorial assignments, modeling portfolios, and product photography.
Most of my clients are on the East Coast, although I’ll occasionally travel as far as Texas for work. For the majority of jobs, I won’t have to spend more than seven hours in the car to get there. I make make most of my money from big companies that no one has ever heard of.
My overhead isn’t bad at all. I shoot a mix of commercial work and retail work and when commercial work is slower, I’ll do a lot of retail work in my home studio (individual headshots and portrait sessions) out of my garage. Most of my overhead expenses are the software I use to keep the business running, insurance, and accountant/bookkeeper fees.
I usually net at least 75% of what I bill out to my clients, sometimes much more. I’m very mindful of my profit margin and when I’m creating estimates and bidding on jobs, I’ll calculate what my take home pay will be after paying my assistants and retoucher to make sure I’m staying close to that 25% COGS margin.
As soon as I read the question about how many days a year I work, I instantly wanted to answer “all of them”. I don’t mean that in a negative way, because I love what I do, but there’s hardly ever a day I’m not working on something. Last year, I had about 50 shoot days, and probably 10-15 more days on top of that if you count travel days. Outside of shooting, I’m constantly creating content, networking with potential clients, reaching out to existing clients, and shooting work for myself.
99% of my clients are absolutely amazing to work with. I view my clients like family and I’ll go and beyond for them to make sure they’re getting more than what they need, I think they really appreciate that. Even with my larger clients, I make sure to get to know the people I work with, not just their titles and positions. When my son was born this past Fall, my biggest client mailed us a card and a gift basket and it basically made me and my wife ugly cry, hahaha. I think client relationships like that are really special and they aren’t something that happens accidentally. You can be intentional about fostering those kinds of relationships.
Since 2018 my income has increased year over year, except for 2020. But in 2021 my revenue basically bounced right back like the previous year never happened and it’s been on an upward trajectory ever since.
I offer coaching services for other photographers who want to transition into the world of commercial photography. Interest in my coaching services has really picked up over the last few years and I make a small amount on the side, but nothing substantial (a little under $10k last year). Coaching really energizes me, I absolutely love helping others overcome the challenges they’re facing in their careers. I used to be a little nervous about the thought of potential clients stumbling upon my educational content and being reluctant to hire me because of how often I talk about money. But I’ve realized that openly discussing things like fees, usage, and negotiation is a very positive thing all around. If anything, a client will see that I’m knowledgable and experienced and feel more comfortable bringing me onto a project.
An average shoot for me might be anywhere from 6 to 8 hours. Let’s say I’m shooting headshots and lifestyle images for a local plastic surgery clinic. My creative fee for the day (including licensing) would be anywhere between $3-4k and I’d bill anywhere from $25-30 per image. Historically for shoots like these, the client will choose between 25-50 images, so that’s $625 to $1,250 for the images. After paying my assistant and retoucher, I’m usually walking away with $4k, give or take.
For me, in terms of dollar earned per hours worked, I think in-office corporate headshot days have everything else beat. I recently did headshots for a large home-builder and we finished the job in two and a half hours, including the drive time. Thirty people, $4,000 billed. Take home pay was $3,500 after paying my assistant and retoucher. They’re hired me two more times since then.
The worst job I’ve done was for a very large online travel agency. Massive company. They needed to update their web assets and the job required driving around a major city a few hours away and photographing up to 30 or 40 landmarks PER DAY (three days total). They had a budget of $2,000 per day and tried to cap my assistant’s rate at $250, saying it was the standard rate in New York (that was their way of justifying why it was reasonable?). The job also required that I signed a Work for Hire agreement (not that I’d want to use those images anyway), so everything I shot belonged to them. The production team was actually really nice and I enjoyed talking with them, but the planning and coordination was an absolute shit show. It was the hardest $6,000 I’ve ever made in my life.
I’m capable of shooting talking head videos with decent audio, but I’ll only do it if the budget isn’t big enough to bring a video person on and I want to pad my pockets a bit more. These days, I recognize the value of focusing on what I do best. It’s such a better situation all around if I can bring in a really awesome cinematographer who can create something amazing for the client instead of trying to do it myself. The client gets a better product, I have less headaches and stress from trying to be someone I’m not, and the cinematographer gets a job. That’s a win for everyone.
If you are an LLC, look into electing S-Corp status as soon as it makes sense. It can easily save you thousands of dollars in taxes.
Invest for retirement. You and solely you are responsible for putting money away for your later years.
Take care of the people you work with and you’ll always get called back for another job.
2022 – $210K
2021 – $136K
2020 – $47K (worked from Dec-April only)
2019 – $190K
My income is 85% Commercial, 10% Advertising, 5% Editorial.
It’s been 10 years full-time freelance, but 16 all in – I spent 6 or so years with a part-time side gig waiting tables before jumping in all the way (it was scary but I regret not doing it sooner).
My clients are International and local hospitality/restaurant groups, and PR/Design/Marketing agencies that are primarily based in my city. I work with a lot of Creative Directors, Dir of Marketing, Dir of Branding etc. Lots of regulars with almost decade long relationships, for which I am so grateful. I tend to work with a lot of women and many of my clients become friends in ‘real life’. I have developed so many relationships being in one city for the entire time I’ve been building my career, and its been incredible to have clients bring me from company to company as they move through their careers.
I have about $25K a year in expenses – in 2022 I grossed $210K and netted $185. My biggest expenses last year: $10K in freelance assistants, $3K EQ, $3.5K travel. I have a home studio and hire freelance assistants. I am really overdue for a new set of bodies so that will be a big expense this coming year – its time to go mirrorless but Im dragging my feet because its taken me so long to collect this set of lenses and I’ve grown attached.
Always working at least a little every day! I did about 95 shoots in 2022 but I do all my own pre-pro, editing, retouching, invoicing etc so there is always SOMETHING to do.
The pandemic really shifted my career – there was not much work happening anywhere, and especially in my city. Had no choice but to accept the downtime and chill, reevaluate.
All my clients were frozen. I took on some shoots where I was cooking/styling tabletop and shooting at home with the client via Zoom. It was horrible. I am not a chef or a stylist. I was sweating my ass off, shooting a breakfast spread during the summer and I remember the client feedback was that the butter “looked cold”. Such a disaster, and such horrible budgets!
When things did eventually pick back up in 2021, I became MUCH more selective with who I would shoot for. I now limit days on location to 6 hours, where we used to do 8-9 on average and raised my minimum rate to a $2K minimum (okay, I made a few exceptions and of course no editorial has that budget).
My typical shoot is one day, 4-6 hours on location in a restaurant or bar. Working directly with the Chef or Bev Director – shooting environmental portraits, food, cocktails, action stuff, and lots of interiors. On average, I’m doing ‘Web, Press, Social, Marketing’ rights in perpetuity on about 20, 25 images for around $4K. I don’t bother to limit the duration on lots of my shoots because the nature of the images makes them obsolete so quickly, as menus and chefs change, etc.
These take me maybe 2-3 hours to edit for client review, and then around 3-4 to retouch. Usually my only hard costs are $400-500 assistant and $100 travel, so I’ll end with ~$3.5K profit/shoot.
My best shoot was for a local branding agency, taking environmental portraits for a campaign. Usage was for digital rights and a full page print ad for one year. I delivered 8 final images and shot for a total of 2 days, about 8 hrs each. I walked with $28.5K after expenses.
My largest single invoice in 2021 was probably the worst shoot of my year! It was meant to be a 3 day shoot for a real estate project with short hours, but ended up being 4 long days. After we finally got everything shot, they took 9 months to get all the selects to me, but during the course of the year, would randomly send me just a few selects and need them retouched immediately with insane, borderline insulting retouching notes. Usage was unlimited digital media and print collateral. I’d initially offered a 2 year license for this but the client balked and in a panic to not lose the project, I offered in perpetuity. I did 4 long, tedious shoot days and delivered 30 stills. $22K was my take home after expenses.
I shoot stop motion and super simple video. More and more clients are asking me for it, and I had only dabbled until about a year ago. Now maybe 25% of my clients want a handful of motion, but primarily stills are my game. I have so much to learn in video!
Theres no wrong way to take a photo. Everything is subjective, everything is a conversation. At the end of the shoot, always pack up your most expensive gear first. Treat each client like they are your most important client. Remember names. Underpromise and overdeliver.
My income is split 50/50 between sporting lifestyle, which takes me all over the world, and architectural, which allows me to stay home a decent chunk of the year with my family and still earn revenue. I’ve been working at it for 13 years but only 6 full time.
My clients range from tiny sole proprietors to $5B companies.
I have one part-time contract admin help and other than that my overhead is primarily just gear.
I shoot about 125-150 days a year.
I don’t have a bad client, thankfully. We have clear expectations and good relationships.
2020 was a stinker. Aside from that year it has gone up at least 20% year-to-year.
My typical shoot is anywhere from 1 to 7 full days. My day rate, depending on the client, is either $2000 or $2400. Some of my bigger clients will roll license fees into the day rate, sometimes taking it to as much as $6000 per day. my clients pay for my expenses and also a travel day rate of $500-$800 depending on the job.
My best paying recent shoot was just licensing for client images I had already taken and that added up to $22,500.
I don’t shoot video.
I love that you are getting the business information out there as that is what I have been trying to do with my Instagram account, as well. It’s crazy to me that you can find out how to shoot, light, or edit anything, but the business information, especially rates and licensing dealings, are so difficult to find online. It should be the opposite. the more photographers realize how much they can, and should earn, and the more they stick to their guns on those things, and valuing their own work, the more sustainable the market will be for people to be full-time professional photographers for decades, and not just for a couple of years before they get burnt out. Keep spreading the word!