A Commercial Lifestyle photographer in his 30s: 2023 (YTD) Net: 550k, Income 425k 

Photo has basically been my whole life. Fell in love with photography in high school, assisted during and out of college. Started to get little assignments for the local rags, like $50 (in 2009) to shoot an entree at a restaurant for the regional paper, but I’d pretend I was shooting it for the New Yorker. Would embellish, ask the chef for a portrait even though I didn’t need it, just to build my portfolio. The paper would run the photo of the burger but I’d walk away with 5-10 new images for my book. Hustled a ton. Always sending emails of new work, always going to NYC for meetings. 

That approach lead me into a solid run of editorial work starting in 2009. Unwittingly/unknowingly, the style I was shooting in lent itself to commercial work. I got picked up by a rep in 2011 at 23, purely bewildered as to how I would fit into advertising. It was equal courtship and we talked for about a year before official signing. Looking back through those emails, I was so green. Not only in production experience but also communication. Many folks think getting picked up by a rep is just on the merit of your work, but it’s also about how you conduct your business, and how you communicate with clients on calls and emails. You are your own creative arm, but also communications and PR and admin and financial arms too. If your work is bad, if you can’t communicate well, if you’re careless with finances… these are all things a rep cares about. 

My work has slowly shifted from 90% editorial 10% commercial to 5% editorial 95% commercial. I miss the assignments and feel like it’s the absolute best training for commercial work. Nowadays with less editorial work going around, it’s a rougher transition from personal projects right into commercial. Editorial is boot camp, in the best way. You often have little time, not a huge budget, but you need to make something amazing. There is a growing gap between experience and expectation on commercial shoots. I have heard of photographers that literally can’t hit focus more than 10% of the time on their first commercial shoot or can’t run a crew or handle the time pressures. Just because your personal IG feed is cool doesn’t guarantee a smooth commercial shoot;  editorial used to vet and smooth that gap out.

I haven’t spent any money on marketing since Covid; I generally believe your time and money should go into your work and your work should be your marketing. That said, in person meetings are incredibly powerful and the only marketing I would consider. IG as a platform is trash but it’s free, the reach is huge, and I focus my time there in comprehensively sharing work. Lastly, I hate math and numbers and honestly thinking about money, so I have a CPA as well as a bookkeeper, but I do my own books that she looks over, because I like to stay tight to the numbers. Also I don’t want to have a Rihanna situation. When I hit my 30s, living in the States, my focus shifted away from trying to get cool clout-y fashion-y design-y assignments and towards just being able to fund my retirement, donate a good chunk each year to causes I believe in, and cross the finish line without debt. Sorry, Dazed. So I fully fund my SEP IRA each year, live within my means, and stack acorns. 
I don’t have a dream client or a number I want to hit for the year. My forever goal is life balance and happiness and to sustain a solid, long, consistent career.  Photo is fickle and challenging and all of the things, but it has given me a really incredible life, shown me the world, and I have domain over my time and schedule. I am grateful for that, and I keep the sentiment at the forefront of my mind. I keep negativity far, far away from me. Longevity and relevance are my biggest career goals. I often have 5-10 year old images in my treatments alongside work from a month ago. There are definitely clients looking to chase visual trends but there are also clients who need to use the images beyond the season and I look to meet them there.

Having an ego is dangerous. I begin each year expecting nothing work-wise and build up from there. Keep the hustle going. You can’t control much in this industry (jobs coming in or not, types of shoots that hit your inbox), but you can control how much you apply yourself and your mental state, which often informs the quality of your photography. My main mantra is ‘own your shit’. Don’t make excuses. Make every shoot count. If you’re shooting and are not interested in the photos you’re making, figure out why and change it on the spot. Don’t waste your time or your clients money making work you don’t like, or not being 100% dialed 100% of the time. Commercial shoots are like a one-time circus performance that has no rehearsals so pre-production prep and a focus on the details are huge. 

It’s pointless to gripe, complain, or expend energy on being negative. Similarly, don’t compare yourself to others, and be supportive of your peers. Share contacts, give advice, be excited for folks in this industry when they make amazing work or get the job you were both bidding on. It’s not all about you, and they deserved it and worked hard for it. Photographers are awarded jobs because of the whole package: their work, their treatments, their communication, their experience… what they bring to the table overall. Speaking of treatments, I put a shit-ton of work into them. It’s the document the whole client and agency team will see, and it’s super helpful for non-visual people (like a CMO) to read your writing because they might not get the photos but they get the words. And they weren’t on the creative call this is your one shot. Treatments are highly personal; I have spent hundreds of hours on mine over the years and words are easy to lift, so it’s the one thing I don’t share. 

If I had advice for aspiring/emerging photographers it’s to avoid spending too much time online/proverbially in the comments. Instead, sharpen your eye and develop your visual voice and personal sense of taste. This is especially important as IG is a continual echo chamber of work viewed on a tiny phone that begins to bleed together. It’s hard to get hired for anything remarkable until your photos can only look like they came from you. Look at every author, every musician, it’s the same way. 

As I’ve worked my way into bigger shoots, I’ve learned that I can shine if I am a very dedicated collaborative partner through the whole preproduction process right through the shoot. 95% of what I focus on is everything peripheral to the act of taking photos, 5% is holding a camera and taking photos. The 95% is meeting deadlines, being dialed and prepared for calls, giving 1000% attention in casting and locations, organizing, assembling, communicating and setting up the crew for success, being a calm communicative air traffic control on set. 

Photo assistants are the most important members in my crew. When there are no margins in the schedule on some of the late stage capitalism commercial photoshoots I’m on, where everything has to run as tight as a Beyonce concert, I absolutely need a dialed team of assistants. A good 1st/gaffer can direct a whole crew and pre-set the next shot, which frees me up to think/work in the present, so I’m trying to get them between $800-1000/day for shoot days pending complexity. That rate cascades down the rest of the crew. Assistants are some of the hardest workers on set and deserve every dollar. 

I follow a strict Monday to Friday 9-5(ish) schedule, unless I’m shooting or scouting, I don’t do email or even post work to IG on weekends. Computer gets turned off. I have told many a producer to stop emailing the agency on a weekend because then the agency emails back and it becomes a 24/7 work-a-thon to the bottom and we all end up on Lipitor in our 30s. Everyone’s life is more important than their work. Thanks for reading :) 

A Music packaging/music publicity, commercial, fine art and portrait photographer who is Nashville based: $66k (net)

I work as a photographer in the music industry (album packaging, publicity) as well as a 1st/2nd assistant in the tv/film industry.

My income is 60% tv/film assisting 40% key photographer in music industry.

My clients are Indy and major label for music. Top tier Hollywood studios for tv/film (Disney, Marvel, AMC, FX, Sony, Netflix, Hulu, etc).

Overhead is business insurance, online website costs and file delivery fees. (About $200/month).

For retirement I have long term stock market investments.

In 2022 I worked about 80 days (much less in 23 due to writers/actors strikes). 2020 was nearly wiped due to pandemic. 21 and 22 showed increase in tv/film travel productions (added 3-4 new clients/producers)
2023 has been at a near standstill for tv/film due to the strikes.

As a photographer I’ve shot a lot more bigger music related jobs for Indy and major labels but with smaller budgets.

For a recent music publicity shoot:
1 day shoot with two location and studio shots. One assistant. Budget was $4,500 with allowances for digital billboards and up to 5 magazine cover licenses. All glam/wardrobe and day-of expenses were handled through label. After my assistant ($500),I made $4,000.00. Included multiple phone meetings and concept discussions. Shot, edited and delivered high res files within 10 days.

For tv/film assist jobs:
Average 4-6 days, including two travel days, one/two prelight days, 1-2 shoot days. Based on 10 hours but it’ss usually 12-17 hour pre-light and shoot days. My assist rate in tv/film is $750/10 (1st) and $650/10 for 2nd assist.

Best shoot was ad campaign for Jack Daniels. Included 2 half day travels, 2 shoot days. After expenses (digital tech and assistant, plus producer), I took home about $22,000.

Worst was probably a $1,000 publicity shoot for a well known musician. They (management) ended up licensing out 3 billboards and at least 5 magazine covers without additional fees to me.

I shoot video, but very little on purpose. Other than a few music videos I’ve done some recording session video footage for a few artists while also shooting stills.

My best marketing is reputation and acknowledgment/credit from other projects. Tags and mentions on social media is huge.

Best and worst advice: say yes to everything and shoot more than expected.

Know your worth. Be willing to work for less if it’s a project you want to be associated with. Be willing to walk away from a job that you don’t want to be associated with (no matter the budget). Your reputation is everything.

Marketing methods from photographers in my salary survey

Here’s a selection of marketing methods from photographers I’ve surveyed. Head over to instagram for more discussion: https://www.instagram.com/p/C0PNiUiu18K

I am strictly word of mouth.

My philosophy in general has been “throw enough shit at the wall and some of it is bound to stick.

At the end of the day, I’ve found the most success with in-person events (trade shows, speaking panels, etc) where I can get face time with the right people.

I have better luck with Instagram and LinkedIn.

I mainly market on Instagram, LinkedIn and my website.

Putting time and effort into a strong and visually appealing website has done more for my business than anything else.

My biggest effort goes into SEO where I rank number one in google for several key terms in my target markets.

I find most of my work comes through referrals from past/present clients.

Word of mouth and Cold emails.

I’m a huge fan of trying to meet as many people as you can in person.

word of mouth.

I think that creating coherent bodies of personal work, then submitting them for features in prominent online magazines is pretty much the best marketing you can do.

Instagram is of course the necessary evil and undoubtedly the most important marketing tool for a photographer

Instagram, Google, Facebook and word of mouth are my highest returning markets.

I would prefer to invest energy into LinkedIn being a B2B business this gets the right eyeballs on my work.

I rely on social, website and word of mouth

I really built my brand heavily thru instagram. Everything else has been word of mouth

I have an Instagram, which is meh, and I go out and approach people, or cold call people, which is better.

Word of mouth is my best marketing. I make sure that I do my best to please any client, but or small as they might tell someone else about me. I also do a lot of emails to photographers, agents and producers.

Just posting candidly on Instagram. Haven’t sent personal marketing out besides what my agency shares.

I’ve started sending out a newsletter, which has been fun. I’ll take meetings when I’m in different cities. I keep up with clients on Instagram.

My agent does most of the marketing. They send out newsletters all the time, and they take meetings constantly.

to be completely honest, I’m not sure what’s effective anymore.

I invested a lot in my network in the beginning, reconnecting with old contacts, posting a lot on social media, and cold emailing/newsletters.

Other then maintaining a current website and posting on Instagram, we have not marketed in the traditional sense for years.

Typically word of mouth and when people who hire us change jobs is how we pick up new clients.

Most effective out of that is Linkedin

Only marketing is keeping up with Instagram posts.

Email is my gold for marketing all of my business buckets

Wonderful Machine – every once in a while someone reaches out who finds me there.

I’ve been on Found, BLVD, Wonderful Machine, Luupe, and PhotoPolitic. The only one that has gotten me any interaction was Wonderful Machine where I at least got to put in two bids for large projects.

doing in-person meetings in all major cities 4 times a year.

Since I was never chasing giant commercial clients, most of my marketing focused on building personal relationships with people within my market.

I’ve had great success by shooting and sharing ambitious personal projects that were picked up by local and national press.

SEO is ever

A male Digi Tech based on the West Coast of Canada: 95 – 110k (net) CAD

I’m a Sole Proprietor and looking into incorporating, but held off to maximize my income on paper in the interest of getting a mortgage (In Canada, for sole proprietors, most banks take your previous two years income, average it and multiply by 5 to determine the mortgage amount you are eligible for). I recently did and will likely be incorporating at the start of the coming year

90% is digi tech work, 10% is photography. I occasionally shoot editorially and sometimes get the opportunity to shoot for small brands or small/pick up portions of a larger commercial shoot. I worked 4 years prior as a Photo Assistant.

80% of jobs are for clothing brands based on the West Coast of Canada that sell internationally.

I own a lot of digital tech gear, but not as much as a lot of other techs I know. Most of my shoots are on location and “medium budget” shoots, usually a tripod mounted tech station, a fleet of ipads, maybe a cart and monitor. I own and maintain enough to service clients needs for these shoots and rent anything that I won’t be able to get on set regularly or pay itself off efficiently.

I don’t have a studio or office space, but I do have a home office. My personal vehicle is insured for business use and is a great gear hauler. Small costs like new tether cables, hard drives, memory cards, digi accessories, etc. are the most frequent. I usually spend 10K~ per year on digital tech gear.

I’ve only recently got to a point where I can comfortably contribute to an RRSP, I aim to put 10% of earnings per year into it, hoping to increase that and create a more solid plan in the coming years.

100 average digi tech days a year and 10~ as a photographer.

To be very honest, I got lucky with the timing of Covid. In the previous years, I had invested a lot of time and money into tech gear and transitioning from primarily an assistant to a digi tech. Early 2020, I had paid off most of my current gear and found clients that hired me semi-consistently – if it had of been a year earlier, I would have been in a much more precarious position. When work picked back up again, I was busier than ever with digi tech work as creating space by providing screens and alternate ways to collaborate was more necessary. The clients that were busiest and have continued to be my most frequent were primarily clothing brands with most of the campaigns targeting online sales.

Most shoot days are on location, usually right on 10hrs, some more with travel time to locations. Roughly 60% of my bookings are 1-2 day shoots, while the other 40% are 3-5 days. Most shoots have two photo assists on our crew, sometimes three, sometimes just one. We rarely have video, sometimes incorporating a day or two of it into a multi-day shoot, but more often than not, purely photography.

My digital tech rate is $750CAD/10hr, except for some clients I have worked with since I started teching, the lowest being $650CAD/10hr which will raise at year end. I aim to raise my rates every year or two to account for inflation and for the most part, clients are receptive to the increase. My basic digi tech gear kit starts at $550CAD/day for a tripod mounted laptop setup and increases with additional add ons (ipads, cart, monitor, battery power, etc). As an average, gear rental usually amounts to roughly $650CAD/day. Most photographers I work with use their own camera(s).

I sometimes have the opportunity to hire photo assistants for photographers I work with frequently, if so $550CAD/10hr or higher depending on the budget or the assistant.

There hasn’t been much variation in my pay as a digital tech. On the rare occasion I tech for a commercial job from the US that is shooting in Canada, it can be more lucrative where rates are the same number, but in USD ($750/10hr CAD becomes $750/10hr USD or higher). Most of the time production will come to me with a rate they have already budgeted for. Those shoots usually require a lot more digi gear, but that doesn’t make much a difference to my take home pay as I’m usually renting that extra gear to supplement my modestly sized tech kit.

Nothing stands out as the worst paying, but everything low paying for me has been associated with editorial work. Whether it is teching or assisting for a photographer friend with a small budget or shooting my own editorial, I have taken budget cuts to make something creatively satisfying happen for myself, a friend or to try and distribute a slim to non-existent budget evenly between a small crew.

As a digital tech, almost all of my work has been word of mouth. Consistently trying to meet new contacts and being a reliable, friendly person to work with has done well for me.

Best Advice – be friendly, helpful and support the people you work with! No one wants to work with a jerk. Be aware of the varying reasons you might be a part of a crew and try to excel at those. Support your talented friends and help them make connections that will help them grow in the industry. We’ve all got different stories and are all trying to make this work. Also, most things on Jake Stangel’s instagram are great advice!

Check your ego with your crew – not just digi techs and photo assists, the whole crew. We’re all here to help you do this job in the best possible way if we’re given the space to. Be direct and honest, but there’s no need for unnecessary shade to be thrown.

A Visuals Editor in NYC: $120k

I work at a mid-sized NYC-based news outlet with a national distributed staff. Most of us work remotely.

My company offers 100% match on our retirement fund up to 5% of your base salary and the money vests immediately so it’s yours, even if you leave the company. I also have about $30k in a Roth IRA from my freelance days. Getting a retirement account with a company contribution was a big factor in me taking a staff job. I didn’t see a way to save enough for retirement as a freelancer.

I work about 315 days a year. We get 6 weeks of PTO (including sick days) + company holidays. It’s very difficult to take time off without falling behind on work but my manager and company try really hard to encourage everyone to use all their PTO.

I’ve aggressively negotiated to raise my salary more than 20% over the past few years at my current company. I love to see colleagues at other outlets being paid more than me because it gives me a data point to bring back to my managers to ask for more. Rising tides lift all boats. My income was no where close to what it is now when I was a freelancer living off maxed out credit cards and taking out loans to cover basic living expenses.

I still do a little freelancing on the side that brings in $5-30k/year depending on the year.

We pay photographers $500/day + $250/day for travel + meals and expenses. If days are longer than 8 hours, we will pay extra. We’ve paid as much as a triple day rate for a super long day. I try really hard to be humane to our people by proactively communicating what I can do (like booking their travel expenses on my corporate credit card if the expenses are a burden) and reminding people to invoice as soon as they file (we don’t require people wait for stories to publish before they invoice).

Photo editing is a really gratifying job if you love it, but it’s very different from being a photographer. I think a lot of photographers consider photo editing to be just a plan b photo job but if you got into photo because you want to be outside in the world, ask yourself if you’d really be happy with a corporate desk job being stuck behind a computer and in meetings all day. There’s a LOT of office politics to navigate and the work is really difficult. You have to look at a very high volume of really distressing content and there’s a lot of pressure being responsible for the wellbeing and safety of the freelancers you hire. But if you love telling stories in pictures and love supporting photographers and coaching people to create something special it might be a really good job for you.

Whether you decide it’s the right fit for you or not, be generous because everything in this industry is about relationships. The more you’re willing to give of yourself to others, the more others will want to return the favor when you are in need. For photo editing specifically, good relationships will get you in the door but you also need good relationships to be effective in the job. So much of setting photographers up for success comes down to photo editors having good personal relationships with reporters and word editors and colleagues across the newsroom so we can get the information and resources you need (soon enough) to do your best work.

Best Advice: The best professional opportunities of my career have been totally unexpected but they came about because I was headed in a particular direction. Work hard in the direction that feels right to you but be open to pivoting when something unexpectedly wonderful comes up along the way.

I also heard Bill Cramer say at an NPPA conference years ago that you are not entitled to make a living doing what you love. It’s so true. If you’re able to making a living doing what you love you need to consider yourself immensely privileged (as I do). My immigrant ancestors didn’t have that luxury and most workers in America don’t either. I think photography (news photography especially) is very important to society but passion is not enough for success if the market conditions are not right. I don’t know any photojournalists anymore who make a living 100% from editorial. So you have to take a cold hard look at yourself and your situation and if it’s not working, something needs to change. I see a lot of very miserable (mostly older white male) photographers who lament that the industry isn’t what it once was, walking around with a chip on their shoulders as though in a ruthless capitalist industry, they should be entitled to more than they currently have. The photographers I see who are happiest are the ones who have embraced learning new skills and reinventing themselves, subsidizing their editorial work with other sources of income. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these tend to be people whose identities were excluded in the “good old days”.

Worst: I was raised to believe that working hard and following your passion is enough and that it’s crass to pursue money. That’s not true. I got into a lot of debt working very hard for many years doing work I was very passionate about without valuing money sufficiently. I wish I had learned earlier in my career that money buys you choices. Not making or having enough money can trap you in bad, sometimes dangerous, relationships and work situations. The easiest way to save enough for retirement without being a super high earner is to leverage compound interest by starting to save and invest a little bit of money as early as you possibly can. If you’re in your 20s, start now. Max out your Roth IRA if you can. And invest as much as you can so your money can start earning interest, and your interest can earn interest.

I prefer photographers reach out to me by email or in person at conferences or gatherings but I also know it’s hard out there and I don’t think it’s fair or reasonable for editors to expect photographers to cater to each of our individual communication preferences. However you reach out, please remember that I am a human and be kind. It feels gross to be approached in a transactional or extractive way. I really encourage you to find ways to connect with editors beyond “I’m a photographer and I want you to hire me”. I like to get to know photographers as people because a lot of my hiring decisions are about more than just what your pictures look like. I’m looking to know what you are passionate about and how you would handle different situations. And I’m always looking for people I can trust to be kind and sensitive to the people I send you out to photograph so I need to see that energy from you in our interactions as well.

I find photographer anywhere and everywhere. Women photograph, diversify photo, indigenous photograph, instagram, other publications, portfolio reviews, word of mouth, at conferences and festivals.

Working in photo and journalism can brainwash us into a scarcity mindset but there are a lot of flourishing industries with higher pay, more job security, and more room for growth. If you absolutely love what you do and are finding a way to make it work, that’s a beautiful thing. But if you’re not, know that you’re not a failure. You’re a victim of a collapsing industry. And there’s no shame in closing the door on one chapter and moving onto another chapter of your career. There are many ways besides photo or journalism to contribute meaningfully to this world.

An Action/Adventure Sports and Lifestyle photographer with 2 years experience based in Auckland, New Zealand: $NZ 20,879.49

My income is Action/adventure sports-70%, Video (growing)- 10%, Commercial-10%, Editorial-5%, Licensing/stock sales-5%

My clients are NZ based companies, Small/medium businesses and medium to large events companies but I’m looking to expand to the US market.

Major costs (NZD): $600/ year to for website hosting/platform, $175/ month for business insurance, $85/ month for an accountant, $100/ month for networking groups.

My retirement is a mixture of past life teaching retirement funds that are building passively with no new contributions and a personal stock portfolio, but no direct plan related to the photography business yet.

In 2022, I worked 92 days.

My first year I operated at a loss of nearly $5,000 NZD. I was only working $2-500 jobs with the occasional licensing deal and stock image sales, and had A LOT of startup costs (nearly $35,000 worth). So year 1 was difficult because I needed to accept a lot of those lower paying jobs to prove myself in the industry and build my portfolio. I was constantly pitching for jobs, and turned away because I didn’t have enough experience and I didn’t know how to price myself correctly, or near the market average.

By year 2, I had a much better portfolio, and was able to start charging the industry average rate, if not better. I had less expenses, earned more, and profited nearly $20,000. I was able to live primarily on small drawings from the business income.

I am a former teacher, so I have used a lot of my contacts in the industry and my own teaching experience to help gain some work from schools (rebuilding websites, new photo libraries etc). This has helped pad my bank account during the transition phase to full time photography and during the slow or shoulder seasons between adventure sports seasons.

I would also substitute teach 1 day a week when I needed it, and that would cover my bare minimum costs (food and gas). I still maintain my teaching license in year 2 of the business, but plan to phase that out soon.

Average adventure sports event shoot (editorial style):
It’s never just a ‘day rate’ for shooting adventure sports. There is always a pre production day/days, packing and planning gear. Event days can be 1 hour of travel or more (sometimes flying the day before). Average event is 6 hours and then post processing is faster for me then most. I can shoot an average of 5,000 photos per event, and cull and deliver a few hundred final edited images in a half a day. For editorial style events, I always keep licensing terms limited to ‘promotion of the event’ on social media or websites, and make extra money off of separate licensing deals with sponsors who want to use the image for something else. I charge out for travel and editing time and my gear on top of daily rate, so take home pay usually is pretty high. Probably take home an average of $1300 NZD per event shoot, but that usually covers 2 to 2 1/2 days of work.

My best shoot so far was 4 days worked for a large events company, shooting their “hero marketing images.” Had to deliver 5-10 images each of the 4 days within 3-4 of the event each day, and then 100+ overall final shots. Each day was about 6 hours on course, 3 hours editing post event day. So 9 hour days each day. I maintained copyright, images could only be used in event company portfolio in all promotions (digital and print) to promote the event. Sponsors of the event could only use the images to promote sponsorship, anything else would be separate negotiation per image. Travel covered between locations all 4 days, and back home (~$600). $30 for meals each day. $1490+ tax daily rate (included editing and admin time because I wanted to win the job). Overall pay $6,500 + tax, take home pay about $5,000.

lowest paying job was $150 +tax for 4 hour event photography. 2 of those jobs back to back earned me $300 for the day, but after expenses and taxes, maybe walked away with $200. Photos were to be used to promote the event on social media and company website. Sponsor had access to them as well, but only for event promotion.

I have started offering photo/video packages for small to medium businesses looking for higher quality imagery. The video work makes up maybe 5-10% of my work at the moment, but steadily growing.

I have chosen to mainly only shoot RAW clips as add-ons for businesses that want them. I have tried going for bigger projects, but normally have the help of a video production agency to assist in the planning and execution of shots.

I mainly market on Instagram, LinkedIn and my website. A lot of my potential customer base are athletes from races that want to buy photos of themselves and post it to social media, or they are small to medium businesses or agencies that live off of the LinkedIn atmosphere.

I chose to put thousands of hours into learning how to code and properly design my website, so that the experience was engaging, and many types of visitors to my site would engage. I built a portal for athletes to buy their photos, stock photos and prints to be sold, and for people with potential project ideas to contact me if they wanted.

Putting time and effort into a strong and visually appealing website has done more for my business than anything else.

Best advice. Do less. When things feel like they are getting hard and you have tried everything…just take a step back and do less. It is almost like the law of opposites will bring you what you were looking for the entire time…you just need to give it time and space and it will work out the way you originally intended.

Worst advice. Don’t bother fighting for your images.

Challenge yourself to speak up. Challenge yourself to become seen, find creative ways to get people’s attention. If you want something bad enough, then go after it and keep going after it.

Realise that in this digital age, your photos STILL have enormous value. Don’t ever let companies try to tell you they can’t pay you a certain amount for your images because they are ‘just using them for social media.”” For a lot of companies, digital is their ONLY way to market nowadays…so your photos mean a lot more to them then you might realise.

Make sure that you do your research on what your photos could potentially be worth. Learning about licensing is KEY to being able to stand up for what you and your photos are worth…so don’t underestimate that.

A female Picture Editor and Book Shop Owner in the UK outside of London: £40k (net)

I am self employed.

My clients are mostly editorial, online and print.

No retirement, the biggest worry of my life!

I work 3 days a week roughly (I have two young children).

Over the last few yeas my day rate has definitely gone up but because of maternity leave, covid, and having left London I have not been able to work as much. Now I have more childcare but work has definitely dried up. Never been so quiet If I’m honest and I’m trying different routes as I feel picture editing is more and more thought of as a luxury, not as something that is necessary.

I have an online bookshop. They are all picture books so I definitely use it as a kind of portfolio.

Work hard and be kind to people ;) Make sure that you are always on the side of the photographer, have their back.

I like to be approached by Email or Insta.

I find photographers on Insta, Arles, exhibitions, books, magazines, word of mouth. But mainly Insta.

To anyone wishing to get into my line of work I would say be a jack of all trades, I have had to learn how to design articles! Also learn basic photography skills, photo shop and In-design. Find your own style and stick to it. Learn how to master image research. Learn about AI. Be open to everything and fear nothing.

A Food Stylist based in Phoenix, AZ who is repped: $92,695 (net)

I specialize in technically challenging projects for TV and print.

My income is 70% commercial photography, 20% commercial video, 10% random. Mostly corporate clients who are based in Phoenix AZ.

I have 2 food styling assistants I hire, when needed for projects but otherwise very little overhead.

IRA & mutual funds make-up my retirement funds. This is something I need to plan out better.

I get about 72-90 days on-set or billed as day-rate a year roughly.

Over the last few years my income has increased steadily, even thru the pandemic surprisingly.

As a food Stylist I start a job with 1-2 hours worth of meetings with the client & photographer or video team. Then a few hours on pre-production working on shotlist and grocery lists. Then one-day for prep-work that includes grocery shopping and prepping any food. And lastly the day/s on-set working as a food stylist.

I charge $1000 for prep day/s and $1000 for day/s on-set as a food stylist. I also charge a small ($50-$100) kit fee + cost of groceries (I generally do not mark these up), + cost of assistant, if used. So on a 1 day shoot I make about $2050 apx.

I pay assistants 500-550 per day.

Recently I worked a 12-hour over-night shoot for a rate of $1500. I struggled to find resources to guide me on estimating this rate for the client. I wanted to give the client a good-fair price that had some industry guidlines but found none that apply to me as a food stylist.

Here is how I ended up calculating my rate for myself (I did not share my math with Client):
$1000 day rate (10hrs)
$300 over-time (2 hrs @ $150)
$200 over-night fee (kind of made this up)

I made the mistake of giving a repeat client a big discount on my day-rate. I was charging $1000 a day to all other clients, but this one client I gave a $750 day rate. I still work with this client and have steadily been raising my day-rate by $50 each year.

I don’t do any marketing but could use some tips tho.

Best Advice: Know your value and stick to it. It’s hard to put a $ on your time. I highly recommend taking the time to research your market and find a $ that you are content with. Then STICK with that number. As a freelancer you need to consider all of your life expenses when figuring out your day rate.

A female Digital Capture Tech & Retoucher in Minneapolis: 2022: $200k (net), $242k (gross)

40% of my business income comes from renting equipment to productions (so in 2022 is was around $74,000).

In 2022 I had 3 months off on maternity leave.

80% of my days are for on set retouching, 10% working as a capture tech, 10% hourly rate retoucher.

Majority of my work is for a local Fortune 500 corporation which shoots 90% of their packaging and editorial content in town. On average I have around 4-5 smaller local clients which tend to have smaller projects or just retouching needs.

I have a home office so there is no need to rent space to store equipment. General overhead is fairly low but I do like to stay up to date on equipment so frequently update and replace gear. I spend and average of $24,000 on computers/monitors/accessories (think capture cables/hard drives/dongles/cases). Other expenses come from multiple seats of necessary software (~3,500/year) insurance (~1,000/year) and expenses for being a S-corp (~1,200/year). My partner covers health insurance so I’m lucky I don’t have that expense because I’m sure it’d be a lot.

For retirement I contribute to a SIMPLE plan with a 3% match from my business.

I worked 149 days in 2022 (31 jobs). 98 days so far as of 8/9/2023(21 jobs).

I also provide long term backup and file storage for a fee and charge a flat hourly rate for file retrieval if it becomes necessary.

Larger productions include sitting on on pre-pro calls to understand the scope of the project about a week in advance. Prep days I’ll drop gear and setup all the EQ. Most of my jobs require 2 workstations as well as one on set retoucher station. Make sure all crops/decks/sessions are set-up and ready to go for the shoot day. Once on set I work with the photographer to make sure filenames and crops are correct. Often I’ll do that while also retouching the files in real time for the client to approve. Normally the turn-around time is the Friday of the job so it’s important to stay on top of their needs and to make sure the photographer is being supported also.

Best jobs for me are multi-week packaging productions for our local major corporation. With equipment these jobs can average $10,000 per week.

I am pretty selective about which projects I’ll take on. My rate is mostly non-negotiable but some jobs do need more time than the client is willing to offer so there are times that I’ll have to squeeze in extra work after hours and overnight. I always bill an overtime rate but the physical toll can be a lot (12+ hours retouching for multiple days is hard).

When I first started out I made an effort to really get to know all the producers working in my market. Worked well to get into the last minute/small jobs other digi tech’s didn’t want to take and allowed me to get to know a lot of the photographers in town.

Be kind to everybody on set. You never know what role that person may step into later on in their career. Make it a point to know everything but don’t feel like you need be a know it all (that’s nuanced…. but important). Don’t gatekeep tips or tools that would help out fellow crew members. I think that the first and last points are the most important. It’s a team sport and we all need to be here for each other!

We are in in this together. I’ve found that the more collaborative a set is the better the deliverables look in the end.

A 27 year old female Product, Lifestyle, Editorial, Commercial, Fashion, Events, Runway, Backstage, Street Style, E-commerce Photographer: 10k (net)

In 2022 my business was run as sole proprietorship and before expenses I made just under 40K (USD). However after expenses I only profited 10K and then roughly 30% of that was taxed. I ran/run my business under the 30/30/30/10 rule. Where I pay myself 30%, put 30% back into my business checking for bills/expenses to keep my business running, saved 30% for taxes and then put away 10% into business savings to cover myself for unforeseen expenses such as equipment failure.

My gross income has been steadily increasing year after year but could range anywhere from 10k-40k depending on the market. When I first started I only made 10k total and after taxes maybe profited $40 total. This was while working freelance (sole proprietor) AND as an in house photographer (W2) for a jewelry designer in Austin. Then in 2021 I became fully freelance and made 30k but only profited maybe 5K after expenses, and then $1,500 after taxes. In 2022 I was still structured as sole proprietor and made just under 40k but knew I needed to restructure into an LLC because the amount I was having to pay in taxes was becoming mind blowing.

Currently my business is structured as an LLC with an s-corp exemption. Which has been said that it should provide me way more tax benefits and save me money yearly; however I am not sure if it is beneficial yet. To be real and put this into perspective, as someone who lives in a less creative state, especially in the south, where I have to beg clients to pay me on time, makes under 40k a year and went from having to pay $300 for my CPA to now having to pay 2k in order to even file my taxes as an LLC I am not sure if it is worth it. But I guess that is the price of not having to ever work under someone else or be an employee of a company that spends their life to help their boss live a luxurious life.

I do everything myself like a psycho control freak. Literally everything; business wise, marketing, photography, creative and art direction, set styling, networking, financially, legally, website design, pricing sheets. You name it I am a one stop shop.

80% of my income comes from product photography, and then 3/4 of the 80 would be the fusion of products + models in the form of lifestyle/editorial/ecommerce; while the other 1/4 comes from just product photography in the sense of flatlays/ecommerce/shot in nature or at a venue/rental space/studio. The other 20% comes from random creative direction gigs and then events or videography. When I first started 90% of my income came from weddings/events/family/kids/senior pictures while the remaining 10% was fashion or product related.

The majority of my clients are local small-medium businesses with the exception of random fortune500 jobs in NY, Paris and LA. Typically the companies I work with are small in the sense of employees but structurally they pump out a lot of product and are on the rise into becoming big companies. I like to call myself the photographer who has an extensive collection of working with companies before they blow up.

I do not have any employees but occasionally I hire assistants when I am doing a bigger jobs or when companies hire me as both a photographer and creative director.

My overhead includes equipment upkeep/replacement/rentals/new equipment (anywhere from 5-15k), paying myself a barley livable income (20k ish and that is living modestly), taxes + paying a CPA (1-4k), then spending any extra income on doing creative shoots to build my portfolio or paying assistants (1-2k ish).

To be honest at this moment I am just trying to keep my head up after having to survive covid and then now entering a recession, which honestly may turn into a depression. I think most people under 30 are really struggling with what is going on in our country and older generations are not understanding that most of us will never even be able to afford to buy a home let alone really afford groceries. We are stuck between selling our souls to the corporate world or roughing it as freelance artists; and the worst part is that both options are not ideal when the cost of living at the moment is unbearable.

Ideally I will open a roth IRA for retirement and invest but that is going to take more time and energy having to research and teach myself how to do so and as someone who does literally everything by herself this is one thing that unfortunately will have to be on the back burner a little longer.

The hard thing with photography or being an artist/creative, is that jobs are very seasonal. Especially in Texas. Most freelance business’ or people I know, are either stupid busy where we work 7 days a week, 10-12 hour days, for months at a time or we are sitting at home twiddling our fingers staring at the wall wondering when the next job is going to come in. Especially in the south where life is generally more slow paced and laid back and not as highly creative or providing as much opportunity as other cities or states.

My income the last few year has steadily increased but with the current state of our economy I am fearful that there is going to be a huge collapse in income for all creative people. I am at the point where I either need to physically move out of Texas or mess around and start a movement for all photographers/artists/creatives to join in on the writers strike and stop providing services until the non creatives understand how imperative our work is. To me it is baffling to see photographers take images for companies, have to beg to either be paid/justify our prices, and be the ones struggling to pay rent or buy groceries-and yet somehow these companies are thriving. Can you imagine any company trying to run an business or sell a product without the use of imagery or videography or any of the creative services that make photoshoots possible?? It would be impossible yet we are still highly undervalued and underpaid.

I think there is a lot of time wasted in full day shoots and bigger productions so typically I hustle to keep my shoots under 4 hours at a time because I do not like wasting time. Typically I charge my client $150 per hour and this includes the photography services during the shoot, pre shoot consultations, mood board creation, and pre shoot preparation such as renting lighting equipment or booking studios/venues. Then I charge a per photo editing rate that ranges between $10-$50 per image and this compensates for the amount of editing and forces the clients to be mindful in their image selection. This price also includes the time spent post shoot sorting/proofing/uploading and exporting into an online gallery. Lastly I charge for commercial usage if the client intends to use the images outside of organic usage. All of my clients receive organic usage (simple insta and tiktok post-no ads, and website use) for 12 months; and if they want to use images commercially they have to pay either a per photo per month price or I offer a one time package price that includes usage of all images selected for editing to have commercial usage for 1 year. This is also dependent on the size of the company. For example most of the small business I work with only do 1-2 photoshoots a year so they are not using or needing new imagery very often. Then it increases as the business size increases and their intended usage increases.

My best paying shoot was not the shoot I made the most money on but the best experience. A company hired me to fly to LA 2 times during the summer and only shoot for 2 days, 4 hours each. They respected my hourly rates and even paid for my flights/accommodations while I was there. I think I roughly made 3k between both jobs and got to take home 1k for 2 1/2 days of work.

One of the worst paying shoots was with a small business who threatened to sue me because I would not release the images until they paid their invoice in full. They also wanted me to do creative direction, photography, and videography for a 6 hour shoot; receive 35 images, 96 videos and have commercial usage of all for 1 year. When I got sick with covid and had to reschedule the shoot they also tried to force me to pay for the airbnb they booked, even though I found a suitable photographer/viable options to keep the shoot going. Mind you the pay was only $2,300 for all of that.

My highest paying job was $5,600 for a fortune 500 company and while it was the coolest because I got to travel to France for a week, it was one of the worst experiences ever due to the guy that hired me for the job (not affiliated with the fortune 500 company or the media company they hired). The guy who hired me and the team told me I would make $5,600 for roughly 5 days of work (essentially following rich people around France and taking pictures of them experiencing the spoils of France) and that I would only need to take pictures and would not have to edit any images post trip. However he waited until we flew to Paris to bamboozle us and inform us that each team member would have to do photo and video, as well as edit the images; but would not compensate us for the extra work. He also told us that food would be entirely covered and then waited until we were there to tell us not all meals would be covered. Mind you it was an incredible experience to be in France but not worth the pay when the days ended up being from 7am-10pm at night and then having to deal with traveling for a week with a misogynistic egotistical male.

When I shot weddings and needed a second shooter I paid them $500 for 4-6 hours and then let them present their images to the bride/groom as their own business, in their own editing style. I did not use their imagery as my own work and viewed it as a way to help other photographers advance/get practice in their own career without having someone above them steal their work and pass it off as their own or underpay them/force them to adapt to my editing style.

When I moved into more product/fashion work I would pay assistants $100-$200 for roughly 2-5 hours of work during a shoot day. Their roles consist of helping with lighting, prop retrieval, checking in on hair and makeup or aid in helping finish those roles, using a timer and schedule to help keep me on time when shooting, backdrop set up, behind the scenes iphone videography etc.

Video makes up 10% of my income. I honestly hate video but people love BTS content or short clips to use for reels/tiktok so I often throw that into my services to make extra easy income. Most of the work I get is through word of mouth or through unpaid social media posts on insta and tiktok. I will be honest I am lazy when it comes to marketing but am a firm believer the best form of attracting clients is through word of mouth. It creates loyal relationships.

To be completely honest, being a female in this industry I have not received much worthy advice from anyone. It has shown to be very exclusive and secretive, and “I had to struggle so you will have to as well.”

The best advice I would give would be that in order to be successful or profitable, you need to differentiate yourself as a business owner and learn how to turn off the inner sensitive artist. I used to get so offended over my work and this caused me to undervalue myself and allow people to run over me and underpay as well as over work me.

The worst advice I have received was an old white man told me “keep your day job” and I did the exact opposite and am forever thankful that I did not listen to him.

You also will need to become more strict, obedient and consistent in standing up for yourself because most clients in this industry will try to take advantage of you. Especially if they see real talent, but undisciplined talent. Also remember that there are always going to be people who are far less talented than you but have more confidence and audacity and that is why they are more successful. The phrase fake it till you make it is real and talent doesn’t necessarily mean you will be successful. You have to be savvy and think as much technically, if not more than you do creatively.

This is also a highly dominated field for males and the best advice for women I can give is building a strong network between the girls, gays and theys and really focus on making meaningful connections with not only important people but more so the nobodies who grind as hard as you because; you never know who will become more powerful or influential later on. I have noticed the majority of the time when I help others out in an authentic organic way because I genuinely want to help others, people are more willing to pay it back tenfold and at the end of the day the way to advance further up career wise is getting to know the assistants, lighting crew, and anyone who is key in making photoshoots happen but may not be influential in any manner. Yet.

Become comfortable being uncomfortable and hearing no. Coming from someone who knew nothing about the industry besides watching America’s Next Top Model/Devil Wears Prada growing up, who knew nothing about running a business, who knew absolutely no one in the industry, who had no one to look up to or get help from; do not let anyone tell you you cannot do it. Also have more audacity in general. Most of the biggest moves of my career have been from being crazy and just throwing myself out there and not caring of looking stupid or being told no.

A full time salaried photographer at a New England based branding and design agency: $65k

I’m a full time salaried employee at a New England based branding and design agency. I am the only photographer at this company, I do photo and video work. I mostly interact with graphic designers and 3D artists.

We have our hand in a variety of industries and seem to be dipping into more every couple weeks/months.

Our clients are East Coast mostly ranging from start-ups to more national companies.

I have no employees under me, but as a company we range from 20-40 full-time.

I work the normal 5 days per week, year round with federal and local holidays off. Sometimes I work weekends. There is a lot of overtime and some weeks I work between 50-60 hours, but typically I’m 40-50.

I have occasional freelance work but that stays below $2K unless I do a wedding.

Too many variables to have a typical shoot, it can range from months shooting on the same property, to a 15 minute shot. It’s all over the place.

We pay assistants $250/half, $500/full day.

Video is 35% of my work.

Best Advice: Diversify your offerings.
Worst Advice: Shoot weddings.

Fight for your worth. I stayed at this company hoping for a raise each year, and each year I would have to broach the subject. No cost of living raise despite each year our profits going up. Agencies offer benefits and stability but demand long hours and in my experience less pay. I find the admin/marketing and customer service efforts of freelance tiresome so I opted for an agency job. I may rethink this in the next year or two if things don’t change given I can’t progress financially at this income with where I live.

We should talk about the barrier to entry for neurodivergent photographers

I received the following note:

I think it’s essential to talk about this amongst all the illustrious “35 year old male, net $500k/year”.

I am both autistic and very talented, and the former has made it INCREDIBLY difficult to keep my head above water. I am currently scraping by at the poverty line and am on Medicaid. I am so poor that I get free internet and subsidized electricity bills. I am incredibly good at what I do, and when I have a client, they are always thrilled with my work. But my brain just doesn’t grasp professional-speak, networking, corporate patterns of communication, or entrepreneurship. I feel as if I am working as hard as I can while watching people less skilled than I am make a killing.

I should clarify that I am not inappropriate with my clients, nor do I make anyone uncomfortable – if you met me, you’d have no idea I’m on the spectrum at first. But my brain is markedly different and provides very unique impediments, and the industry is simply not set up to accommodate people like me.

The industry as a whole is incredibly confusing, complex, and cutthroat, and highly ableist.

I have reached a tipping point in my career of realizing I cannot go another day accepting things the way they are, but I also recognize that, if people can’t identify with what I would reveal, it probably doesn’t make sense to torch the last gasping remnants of my fucked career and publicize this struggle for a bunch of people who would be like “…um, what?”. So, I’m going the anonymous route for now. I’m curious what people might say.

I also want to clarify that I think my situation in particular goes beyond a ‘dislike’ of the business part (although that’s a component as well). It’s more just that there are very specific unwritten rules of pitching and interaction that are prohibitively incomprehensible to someone on the spectrum. And it’s awful, because, as I mentioned, I have *never* had a dissatisfied client. People love my work. But presenting as an autistic person who doesn’t “look autistic” is incredibly off-putting for most people. They think they know what they’re working with, and then they get to know me a little more. I never intend to fuck anything up, but this is inevitably what happens, simply because I’m neurologically unable to follow certain (nonsensical???) structures of interaction and interlocution. It’s frustrating as hell.

I should also mention that this is also what caused me to lose a major camera sponsorship. I say the wrong thing, have no idea, and six months of complete radio silence later, I find out I’ve been blacklisted. I learned this from a friendly acquaintance on their PR team who had just gotten laid off, so he had no more secrets to keep. I mean, the industry is wild. Like, I have no idea what I did, I didn’t mean to offend, can we just talk about it first? Lol. People only like the flavors of disabled that make you meek and small and pitiable, not the ones that make you alienating (read: a confident autistic woman who occasionally makes gaffes and misreads social cues). So – I would very much love to talk more about the intersection of photography and disability. There’s a lot that needs to be said here, especially because many of the voices that should be amplified are instead squelched under the weight of industrywide ableism.

A male Commercial/Editorial photographer in the Adventure/Outdoor space with 2 years part-time experience: $5.9k

I decided to turn a photo hobby into a professional endeavor in late 2020/early 2021. For the last two years, my goals have been to build out a professional-level portfolio, supplement my income to cover all photography-related expenses, and work with people that I can learn from.

I maintain a full-time, corporate job (40-60hrs/wk; earning over $100k), so my photo endeavors have to work around the constraints of that commitment.

I generate jobs through pitching potential clients on trips/activities that I have planned (or want to plan) (e.g., a fishing trip to Canada or hunting in Texas). My hit rate is admittedly pretty low, so I usually treat these trips as spec shoots that I later send to clients as my proof of concept/capabilities. I am very lucky to be able to juggle my job with these activities, as my job offers a relatively flexible leave policy and allows me to run a side business. Since I don’t rely on photography for all of my income, I have the luxury of being very choosy about what I shoot, who I shoot with, and who I work for. This has allowed me to take on long-term personal projects (including documentary film making), as well as paid work.

My financial goal on a yearly basis is to cover all photography-related expenses, which I did not accomplish in 2021, but (barely) accomplished in 2022.

My income is 90% Commercial, 10% Editorial.

Clients are US-based, national brands in the outdoor space (outdoor technical apparel, fishing, hunting).

I have low overhead. Yearly expenses are the usual suspects — cloud storage, website, etc. The last two years I have done one gear upgrade/year (lens, camera body, etc) in order to build out my professional kit. $3-4k/year.

Its hard to say how many days/year I work, since I am only part time. Since starting my business, I have averaged 7 days of *paid* shoots per year. If I add on spec shoots, that number grows to 30-40 days/year. Its worth noting that I view the majority of my spec shoots as leisure/fun (hiking, fishing, hunting, etc).

My income grew by 29% in the last year, but income remains low as I continue to shoot professionally in a part-time capacity.

My full time job is both key to my success, but also a major constraint. It benefits me because it allows me to step away from photo when I feel burned out (without losing income) and pays for spec shoots. However, it also constrains me because I’m unable to accept last minute jobs and I’m unable to take on as many projects as I’d like to.

Average job: two full days of shooting (morning and evening, with downtime during midday). Average day rate is 1500/day, based on licensing for 2 years, social and web. Expenses are also covered. Take home pay would be around $2-2.5k.

Best paying shoot to date was actually my third paid gig. I charged 1500/day for 3 days of shooting and received an additional 200/day for lodging/travel/meals. Since it was just me (no second shooter) and very low expenses, I pocketed $3700.

Worst paying shoot (besides the ones that were free) was my first ever paid gig: $400 for a 1-day shoot. No expenses covered. 9 hours of work. Client was local tourism board. Licensing was for all mediums in perpetuity. My take home pay was -$100.

I have recently taken up video through my work on short documentaries. I haven’t generated any income from video/films.

I have never viewed Instagram/Social Media as a viable tool for me. I don’t have the patience/time/interest to put into the platforms for the purposes of gaining followers/interactions. Instead, I focus my efforts on using those tools to network with other photographers and the marketing managers of brands that I’d like to work with. At the end of the day, I’ve found the most success with in-person events (trade shows, speaking panels, etc) where I can get face time with the right people.

Worst advice: Licensing doesn’t matter.

Best advice: You’re at a delicate place in photography. You have all the technical things figured out, but what makes your photo different from anyone else who was there with that gear that day? If you want to move forward and come away with photos that stir emotion, you need to answer the following: Why are you shooting this? Why do you want to photograph this? What makes your photographing this unique? The process of answering these will help you find your voice.

If you’re new to this, don’t feel the need to jump into this as a full time job. There are a lot of benefits to a slow burn, including finding your voice. My skill and portfolio has increased dramatically since I first started out… and to think that I was considering jumping into this full time two years ago is truly laughable. I was not ready, and if I had attempted to do so, I believe I would have lost my love for the art. Keep that love and passion alive.

A female Associate Photo Editor on the East Coast: $67k Salary

I was based on the West Coast and had to relocate back home due to pay not being compensated by location and feeling inflation way too hard.

Photo feels like an afterthought. We’re told that it’s important, but then we don’t get any traction on being able to execute anything substantial that could elevate our company’s imagery. It seems like “good enough” is often, sadly, enough and we don’t often get to strive for excellence. When not using images from in-house staff we predominately use stock sites to source imagery. Benefits are good, but pay across the board is significantly lower than the standard.

I’ve needed to be paycheck to paycheck-ish a good bit of my entire career due to living in some expensive cities. I have some money squirreled away in savings. I know I can budget better, but I just find that my current wellness is more important until I can make more. I’ll probably get roasted for this in the comments. Financial gurus can drop their wisdom in the comments, pls.

I have unlimited PTO and probably take anywhere between 4-6 weeks off annually.

My income has dropped a lot recently: 72k – 2019, 79k – 2020, 83k – 2021, 90k – 2022, 67k – 2023.

I try to pick up freelance gigs, sell imagery, and for mostly my enjoyment, dog sit. As an introvert and neurodivergent person, it’s hard for me to find the energy to do the freelance thing after my 9-5. I’d love to have more freelance clients to work with, but the chasing leads, creating promos, and battling budgets has me pretty discouraged. I get a lot of, “your work is amazing!” but no money or work ever comes my way. My target industry is outdoor, travel, and some niche sports, and it often feels pretty saturated by the male gaze.

Sadly our budget is pretty dismal. I try to tell higher ups that a shoot is upwards 10k to get going and we’ll get a measly $3-4k thrown our way. Then we get questioned why the quality is piss-poor or why shots were missed. Our imagery comes from in-house staff and it’s often not great. My average work day is basically sourcing imagery and basic retouching work.

My advice for anyone looking to get into this line of work is don’t settle during the offer stage. HR is out to give you the hardest sales pitch of your life when trying to get you onboard. Fight for higher pay, more vacation, or other benefits if more pay isn’t available. Don’t hold your breath if they say raises and promotions will happen quickly – it’s their prerogative to get you signed on and they will say whatever they can to convince you. If you’re a woman, non-binary, and/or POC fight for your life to get the same pay as your male counterparts. Do your research and see what others in the role make and demand the exact same. I have had men on my team, doing the same exact job as me, make $5/hr more.

I started out my career scanning negatives and digitizing them while still in college on the East coast making $12/hr. When I saw that I wasn’t getting any traction from West coast companies, while still being on the East coast after graduating, I packed my trunk full of necessities in my car and drove out West. I worked part-time at a whatever e-commerce warehouse making $18/hr in Seattle while doing random photo shoots for $50/a shoot (I could get a shoot done in 30-60 min) shooting food for restaurants platforms like Caviar and UberEats. After 8 months drowning, making no money, I got a job as a photo editor at a tech company making $35/hr.

You can do it but you need to be persistent. For full transparency, I had help from my parents while in college and post college until I got the tech job. I wouldn’t say I’m totally happy with what I’m doing as a photo editor, but I appreciate the consistent paycheck. I see my friend’s who are constantly shooting either as in-house photographers, or freelance, and I am so envious that they’ve “lucked out” with those jobs. If you’re good with being behind a computer all day then I’d say photo editing and retouching is for you. Personally, for myself, I’d much rather be at a healthier 50/50 split with shooting or producing away from a computer half the time.

Worst advice: “Just keep shooting.” A local female photographer told me this once when I approached her asking if she needed a second shooter or could use an assistant on her shoots, unpaid. It just annoys me to this day. Giving people a chance, providing an experience even if you cant pay, is more worthwhile then just telling people to keep shooting. The experience folks get on shoots is not equal/the same as shooting themselves. I could have potentially learned a lot from that person, gained experience in assisting, and made a career out of it. But you know, I’ll just keep shooting.

Best advice: Fucking send it (me, I’m the best advice I’ve ever heard).

Reach out to photographers in your area to second shoot or assist, if that’s your jam. I found that any experience in the photo field was good experience, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing long term. More than not, some photographer in your area knows someone else who is willing to have you help out or shadow them during a shoot. Assisting and second shooting for someone can lead to your photographer passing off gigs they don’t want to do to you and allowing you to build a clientele. I’ve had folks who didn’t need help at that very moment save my email and reach out months to a year later with a gig.”

I don’t promote my photo editor “status” on my Instagram, so most people don’t know where I work my 9-5; but the photographers that do know will reach out to me via DM, and I’m cool with that. Email is also preferred. Please, for all that is good and holy, do not reach out to me on LinkedIn. UNLESS, you are writing me an actual message that I can tell isn’t just some C+P’d laundry list of achievements.

I find photographers on Instagram, Getty, Cherrydeck. Women photograph. Diversify Photo. But as previous folks have said, just because I follow you, doesn’t mean I can hire you. In an ideal world, I’d hire each talented person I find but it’s sadly not the reality.

Pay your interns. It’s 2023. Eggs are $10. There’s no reason why interns should be second shooting or editing your work for you for zero pay. Give new photographers a chance; give women a chance. I get wanting to stick with “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality with some of your golden boy photographers, but there’s lots of new talent out there that deserves to see the light of day. Mine included, honestly.

A female Photo Director and Photographer working in the Outdoor Industry: $130k salary, plus bonus + stock and $50k freelance

I work with various domestic + international publications and in my salaried position I report to the Chief Brand Officer.

The most important thing I ever did was find a reliable accountant who has plenty of experience with creatives that do both salaried and freelance work. He has given me so much valuable financial advice over the years especially with taxes—all the important things we should’ve learned in school. I’m an LLC business elected as an S-corp, a move we made once my freelance income reached a certain point a few years ago (when I freelanced more than I do now). If you’re making over $30k in freelance income and you haven’t looked into converted to s-corp yet, I would highly recommend it.

I have a 401k with company match, and have about $100k. I also have a separate Roth IRA that I started this year and it has about $20k. I didn’t know what to do with my personal finances until very recently, unfortunately. THEY NEED TO TEACH THIS STUFF IN SCHOOL.

I work between 160-180 days a year. I work in an awesome company that has unlimited paid vacation and encourages everyone to take as much time off as possible. It’s been a weird transition for me to just be able to take time for myself as I please because I used to get cold sweats just thinking of the most polite and gentle way to ask for time off in my previous jobs. If I was sick, I had to act REALLY sick just so my boss would believe that I really needed a break. Now, I just peace out when I need to.

I doubled my income in taking this position. I used to be a photo editor in an international news organization that didn’t pay very well and gave very insignificant raises.

I still do freelance work on the side, but in the past couple years, I’ve finally given myself permission to say no to projects that I don’t necessarily feel excited about. I’m in an extremely privileged position to not have to take on shitty jobs for money.

I used to say yes to everything because I was living paycheck to paycheck. My mental and physical health suffered a lot in the beginning of my career. The weird thing is, looking back now, I had so much pride in my “hustle”. I was so proud of the fact that I worked almost all year long, even during holidays sometimes, as if I was doing world-changing work. I wasn’t. I was doing $450 assignments. And I would say my peers at the time felt the same too. And we were ALL quietly suffering, but none of us admitted it to each other.

I spend a lot of time working on art direction for future shoots, brainstorming with my team, and pitching projects. If I’m actively working on a project, I’m usually planning for shoots with my producers. We have a pool of freelancers we like to hire from, but I also spend a lot of time looking at Instagram accounts and websites. My team is made up of incredibly nice + high performing people, and we prefer the same when hiring freelancers.

If you want to get into my line of work be nice. You don’t have to be a saint, but just be a decent, nice person. I’ve unfortunately met a good amount of talented but not very nice folks. Because I’m a woman, I’ve had my fair share of mistreatment. I’ve been mansplained to by someone I’ve hired. I’ve been sent rude emails. And I always say, that’s totally fine. I’m just never hiring you again and if someone asks me about you, I will definitely share my experience.

This industry can be very stressful, but it doesn’t make it okay for anyone to be shitty to people they’re working with especially because photo editors + producers talk to each other. We all move around to different companies, but we stay in touch. If someone gave you an opportunity, at least try not to be a dick. Is it obvious I’ve had a lot of experience with this?

Best advice: set aside money for taxes!

Worst advice: go back to school and get a master’s degree.

I prefer photographers reach out via emails or Instagram DMs. I don’t really like LinkedIn messages. I use Instagram and emails to find photographers, and I like to look at people’s websites.

Please make sure your portfolio’s tightly edited. I always look at the cold emails I get and I’m often shocked at how poorly edited the websites are. First impressions are very important. Let your website reflect the kind of jobs you’re aiming for and learn to kill your favorite images. Some images you’re attached to won’t look the same to a stranger who doesn’t know the back story. Edit and re-edit, see how all the images blend together. Find an editor you can work with to look at your site and give you brutally honest feedback.

Depending on the scope of work, our photography rates start at $1500 plus expenses.

A female Newspaper Photo Editor in her late 20s with 5 years experience working in NYC: 92k salary

I work for a major national newspaper in NYC.

I work full time job with 3-4 weeks PTO.

I started my current job in the low 80s, then received a few small bumps over the past couple of years to reach 92k.

I have no other sources of income this time, but would love to start a newsletter or offer 1:1 sessions with photographers who need editing help on personal projects, portfolio, or grant proposals.

For retirement I have a 401(k) with company match. I contribute 12% per year, with a company match up to about 3% which is not great, but it’s something.

I spend about a third of my day in meetings, talking with reporters, editors and other photo editors about upcoming coverage and how we should approach it visually. Another third of my day is commissioning and briefing photographers, and producing shoots for upcoming stories. The rest of my time is spent reading story drafts, researching and editing photos for quicker-turn stories, building online articles and collaborating with art directors on layouts for print. Also, processing invoices, tracking payment, sending contracts, onboarding vendors, all the admin stuff. It’s a lot.

There’s a slightly romantic view of photo editors from the outside, but some days our work feels so operational and further away from photography than a lot of us ever imagined. The pace, constantly shifting deadlines, newsroom bureaucracy, and aesthetic boundaries can be a bit crushing, but there are some really magical moments of creative collaboration.

There is no set path to break into photo editing, which can be incredibly opaque and frustrating. It took me years of networking to get a full-time gig. Some people enter the industry in more traditional ways, such as art schools or photojournalism programs, others break in through an industry mentor, internships, fellowships, lateral moves in a newsroom from other functions, or years of freelance photography.

While they are super competitive and few, photo editing internships are the most reliable way to establish the portfolio and skillset for a full-time editing job. It is certainly possible to develop your eye and learn the skill of editing, sequencing and visual narrative in a workshop or developing your or a friend’s personal project.

That being said, a truly effective Photo Editor is built making edits in minutes rather than hours, in hard conversations we have around ethical and accurate image making and selection, and constantly advocating for photography in newsrooms where words often come first. You must learn to articulate the value of an image to reporters, editors, etc. with limited visual vocabulary, and often make artistic compromises for the fit and betterment of a story. For the record, I find a lot of this very frustrating. I wish you didn’t need experience (and a whole lot of luck) to get experience. But it’s true.

Best advice: Surround yourself with photo and non-photo folks who support you, inspire you, and offer a safe place to brainstorm ideas freely without competition. This industry is very small, so be kind. Establish strict work-life boundaries. Have a hobby outside of photography, get outside, and take care of yourself.

Worst advice: Settling for the safe, easy option. Often times photo editors get a bit stagnant with commissioning and creative direction because the role is so demanding and they become too risk averse. But every story is an opportunity to push the industry and publication forward, from aesthetics to representation, even if it can be difficult internally sometimes. You have power, so use it productively. You will become a better creative professional learning to have these tough conversations respectfully and collaboratively.

I am never annoyed with emails or even DMs, Instagram is a major tool for me to find new talent and get inspired, plus engage with people in a way that isn’t super time consuming like an email can be. I can’t respond to every message, but I always read them, and will often give someone a follow if I see potential in their work. Getting DMs on the weekend or after work hours isn’t the best, but I’ve kinda accepted my fate there and try to keep my own boundaries because people are on different time zones and are busy too.

The most successful cold emails are highly specific, know what subject matter I cover, and include a pitch idea that is thoughtful, well-researched, and recognizes the need for some sort of hook and a visual narrative that can stand alone without a reported article. If we have an established relationship, I’m more open to looser pitches/ideas and will do more initial legwork to develop the pitch and get buy-in internally. I don’t expect you to be an expert in our coverage, but some awareness around that goes a long way!

One gripe, and I say this with so much love: please do not bcc a bunch of editors on one email–we can tell, and we all talk! I know- writing individual, tailored emails is very time consuming. But I think targeting a few specific editors you want to collaborate with, articulating why your work is a good fit for them and their publication, and focusing your email and meeting efforts there will drastically increase your success rate.

I find photographers through Instagram, agencies, lists like Diversify Photo and Women Photograph, art programs, portfolio reviews, bylines in other publications, other editor’s recommendations.

I pay $500 day rate plus expenses, multi-day assignments or longer term stories often result in a negotiated project fee.

A male Digi Tec in his 40s with 22 years experience based in NYC: 70k-90k (net)

I work almost exclusively as a digital tech in NYC (about 90% of income). I shoot some video projects (less than 10%) and do occasional set design & production work (to get away from a computer screen); combined between business income and paying myself a minimal salary (after expenses). I also own a small amount of gear that I sub-rent.

I’m set up as an S-Corp and I pay myself a small salary. I am the only employee; a handful of times each year I hire freelancers for video work. Keeping my personal salary low allows me to qualify for low cost healthcare.

The type of shoots I digi tech on run the gamut – Lifestyle, Fashion, Product/StillLife/Cosmetics, Celebrity, Occasional E-comm; mostly NYC, occasionally LA and Miami jobs.

Minimal overhead; no studio, some gear I rent out to clients. Try to keep my overhead to a minimum.

My retirement is an IRA that I manage.

I work 130-140 days a year.

The pandemic years between late 2020 and Late 2022 were some of the busiest years of my career as a DT. This year has been up and down.

My day rate as a DT: 650-750/10 hour day. Set Design/Production days: 500/day; Camera Op/livestreaming: $1000/Day.

Best gig recently, last September 2022, 6 day gig as digi tech $6000 including some OT.

Worst recent gig was a photographer I work with regularly who took 6 months to pay a $650 invoice. After that I added a $100 fee on top of all his invoices to guarantee on time payment .

My jobs come from word of mouth/recommendations from colleagues.

I believe the photo industry needs a movement to unionize. Too often it’s every one for themselves. The younger generation undercuts those of us who’ve put the time in; the photogs sometimes forget the crew that are the backbone of the industry and we need them to stand with and stand up for their assistants/techs/producers etc so that we can all flourish. We need a sliding scale that makes sure everyone is taken care of and a way to reward longevity and experience in the industry. We also need a way for clients to know they can hire crew with confidence, while they also pay industry standard rates with a base for minimum rate they should expect to pay.If not I expect the industry will continue to be a race to the bottom.

Producer for Still Life, Interiors, Food & Beverage, Beauty, On Figure based in NYC: $180k (net)

My business is structured as an S Corp.

My clients are East Coast Fortune 500.

I have a Roth IRA for retirement.

I work 50 days a year.

The last few years my income has been up and down.

Average job is 10 hours days and I take home about $10k per three days of work.

I pay assistants $450/day.

Best paying recent job was $20k for a 3 day project.

Jobs are all from word of mouth and networking.

Worst advice: Don’t do grunge work.

Best advice: Under promise and over deliver.