I shoot almost all commercial work. Net income is a murky number. I pay myself $26,000/year and my wife $35,000/year through payroll. $5,000/month goes to our 401k accounts which leaves almost no cash in the actual paychecks. At the end of the year, the corporation doubles that contribution to our 401k accounts. The corporation also pays all of our healthcare and disability insurance for me (you need to have this if you are the bread winner in your house). One of our vehicles is owned by the corporation and it and every related expense is paid by the corporation. Cell phones, internet, etc.—all corporate expenses. I can also distribute profit as I see fit which being incorporated (S Corp.) is not subject to several W-2 taxes. In addition, I run a very lean ship with very little overhead—my office is on my personal residence property and I have no employees. My recurring expenses are accounting/tax advice, payroll, insurance, odds & ends and not much more. I don’t really count equipment as an expense but more as an investment—all my equipment is rented out to my own productions and after a year it pays for itself and then from there on generates real revenue. When I upgrade, I can usually recoup 50-75% of the initial investment. So, if you ask the IRS, the business net number is a very small number. In reality, it’s probably about 90% of gross as benefitted by me.
Gross income ranges from $500,000 to $1,000,000. The last few years have been at the lower range. 2023 I have only shot 6 jobs and I currently sit at about $400,000 and I would expect to have another job or two shot by the end of the year.
Reps are so key once you get to a certain level unless you could possibly keep up on all that they and their staff do. They have a pulse on the entire industry that you as a single artist probably could not really keep up on. Sometimes bidding on a job can be 2-4 weeks of back and forth—how could you possibly stay on top of that while shooting another job? Who would want to indulge in that? Not me. Most of your jobs are acquired by your reputation but I have booked several jobs by someone just calling my agent and asking, “Who do you have that can handle this job for us?” I would say half my work it is lifestyle/people and half automotive.
My clients are pretty much all national/international Fortune 500.
My general business expenses are close to nill. Of course, when we shoot a job, there are a lot of expenses but it all gets covered by the client. You have to bill for everything and you quickly learn to make line items in the estimate for everything just like an attorney. Don’t ever just chalk something up as an expense of doing business when it belongs to a job. I bill for everything the moment I walk out of my house to the moment I walk back in.
As touched on above, my wife and I are employees of the corporation and we pay ourselves a fair wage according to the tasks that we do. There are calculators out there that will tell you what your fair wage is—the IRS will like that you did this. My wife is actually paid more than me because I only spend half my time at this corporation. We pretty much put all our “wages” into our 401k accounts and then the corporation matches it at the end of the year. I like investing so I have no problem managing and having our retirement grow tax free until a later day in retirement when I can start withdrawing it in a much lower tax bracket. If you don’t like investing, hire a fee-based CFP but don’t hire someone from one of the companies you see in a commercial—those guys are paid to push products that benefit someone else.
I suppose that I am always “working” but in recent years I would say that I am only on shoots for about 30-45 days a year.
I feel like that I am semi-retired as there seems to be less jobs out there than there were just five years ago and the number of shoot days for each job are much less. Or maybe I am just becoming irrelevant? I shoot 5-10 jobs a year. All my jobs used to be 2-4 weeks long and now I think they are mostly about a week long. Commercial photography is extremely competitive to begin with and with what I feel like are fewer jobs out there, it becomes even more competitive. My income used to touch the $1,000,000 mark every couple years but now I barely cross the $500,000 threshold.
Photography has been good to me because in my early days I did fairly well. I am entrepreneurial so I was able to take those earnings and expand. Out of my 4 possible income streams, photography has now ranked 3rd for that past 5 years or so. It is my favorite hobby for sure.
I pour my heart and soul into a shoot. We usually don’t bid on something that I will not be able to pour some passion into. I will spend some considerable days prepping for a job even if my fees are not designated to cover those prep days—I feel my overall fee is there for me to nurture the creative vision from start to finish regardless of X days for prep, X for tech, X for shoot, etc.). So, prep days can add up quickly then travel, tech scouting, more prep, fittings, shooting and then traveling home—a job with 5 shoot days can easily consume 2 weeks of my time. Shoot days are usually 12-18 hours from portal to portal. Take-home pay is always fair to current industry rates (I hope) and the expenses are basically coming out of another budget (I almost never deal with expenses as they are taken care of by the producer). I would say I usually take home $50,000-$100,000 per job. Licensing terms are erratic as some agencies are fine with licensing and others basically want perpetuity for one fee.
I pay assistants $800/10hr day plus OT. Travel, tech and prep days are billed the same.
We don’t really have a “worst-paying shoot” unless we put it upon ourselves. And that would be if I want the creative but the budget is not there because it is pro-bono or a good cause. Even on a pro-bono shoot, they are going to cover expenses—I am just donating my creative and right index finger. If it’s a regular job and they don’t have the budget, we politely let them know we can’t do it.
I would say half my income is video as we have some stills only jobs, some hybrid jobs and some video only jobs.
With marketing I don’t think there is a silver bullet to getting everyone. I can’t tell you that a certain ad or email is the job monster. It’s a consistent culmination of all your efforts that gets you noticed. Basically people need to know you exist in order to bid you on jobs. So, the usual suspects: advertising in industry pubs, email blasts, sources books (mostly online now), Instagram and entering award shows (but don’t enter photo shows—most ad people don’t know what PDN, Rangefinder, etc. is). We used to do a lot of printed promos but Covid pretty much squashed that since I think the majority of all agency people are still working from home. Whenever I am on a job, I take a poll from the creatives if they actually go into the agency and some have actually not been in since before Covid. Also, on your Zoom calls you can see they are almost all still at home.
Best advice is you have to be fanatical about what you do. You have to love the art to become successful (except for the guy that picks up a camera once and then becomes the jewel of NYC without even trying). If it becomes a job, then it shows you are just there putting in the hours. After 20 years, I love every minute of being on set and creating. Even when I am done with this as a career, I will still be out making images.
Worst advice is “you have to specialize in one subject”. Maybe I have misinterpreted that and am too literal but some people will tell you, you have to be The Taco Guy or the The Car Guy. I feel better advice is to define yourself with a style, way of composing, lighting or ? The subject doesn’t really matter. But when someone sees your work in the wild, they should be able to know it is you that shot it (or have a pretty good idea). When they look at your body of work on your website, it should look like one person’s work. It doesn’t have to be a concise collection of butt plugs for someone to be able to define you. There was a point where I never shot a car but now half my jobs are car jobs. People like the way I compose subjects in environments and said, “OK, now do it with this piece of sheet metal.”
The world is changing everyday and right now is a really scary time for commercial photographers. You have to keep up and continue to evolve. Look at artists like Nadav Kander or John Huet—their work is not the exact same as 20 years ago but you can see the evolution of the artist in their new work that keeps them relevant. Keep an open mind as technology changes. Remember when people freaked out when Photoshop and retouching became a thing? Remember when people freaked out when CGI came along? I am sure those took some jobs away from photographers but not a significant portion. And now AI? You just have to evaluate and see where things fit in with your workflow. Erik Almas just did what he does best of merging backgrounds with talent that he shoots later in a studio except this time he made the backgrounds with AI and it looks pretty great. Everyone is so mad and afraid of AI right now. I could be wrong, but I don’t think AI as tool on it’s own is going to take all the jobs. There’s a great meme out there that says don’t worry about AI because there is no way a client is going to be able to concisely describe what they want to a prompt.