A male Commercial and Editorial Portrait and Fine Art photographer: $80k (net)

It’s been quite humbling reading through these and realizing how business savvy so many photographers are. I have not been particularly smart about running my business. I feel like it’s been 12 years of focussing on the creative side, then just crossing my fingers and praying that people pay invoices within 30 days. I keep everything to the bare minimum with low overheads. I have many different clients in different industries but the bulk of my work is shooting portraits within entertainment/music/arts. Sometimes direct for client sometimes through ad agencies. My income is 65% commercial, 25% editorial, 10% fine art.

I don’t want to be a small business owner – I want to be an artist who can live an acceptable lifestyle solely through my art and I want to have spare time to travel and pursue hobbies. Yes I would like to earn more money and be more successful but I constantly remind myself how lucky I am to be doing this and making any kind of living at all.

I was a professional musician in Europe in my early 20s which lead to my photography career. So I have always had steady work for major record labels and music management companies in the US and EU. Some of my music clients moved into advertising so I began shooting for ad agencies – stills on set mainly. Around 2018 this eventually led to good work with large alcohol and tech companies shooting smaller campaigns.

Then most of these clients disappeared entirely during the pandemic. A lot of my contacts lost their jobs, left the industry or simply changed creative direction. It was worrying for a while.

In that void I have built a little editorial career I never had, shooting for major newspapers and some established magazines. The money is not good but its not too bad and most portrait shoots are short, easy and inspiring. I still do a lot of work for record labels and smaller creative agencies.

I rent a tiny art studio for desk work and fine art stuff. Its a luxury and I love it. Its $425/month. I stopped shooting film this year which has been life-changing financially (and artistically!). I have owned a medium format digital system for a six years now and it is paid off. I own a lot of pretty basic lighting and video gear. I rent it out sometimes which helps.

I am an only child from a single parent. We were comfortable but not wealthy. However I live my life knowing one day I will inherit a house in a major city and that allows me to take risks with my career that many others may not have the privilege to. I am enormously thankful for this.

Also important for people to note that there is a huge amount of unspoken, generational wealth in the photo world. A lot of nepotism too. Especially the more glamorous fashion/fine art side of things. If you feel bad for not publishing that book or finishing that series just know that a lot of people you are comparing yourself to may not face the daily restrictions that you do.

I’m lucky to have a partner with a slightly more stable income who is very supportive.

I shoot about 50 – 70 days a year. Then a lot of editing and admin time in the studio.

I have just reached my pre-pandemic income again. 2020/21 was incredibly tough.

In 2017/18 I had some health and financial problems and a friend got me a job as a camera operator for (some terrible) reality TV productions which paid well for about 30 days of work.

Never forget that as a photographer you have technical knowledge that is valuable to people and you might be able to find some niche work if you ever feel stuck.

I shoot a few editorial portraits a month. These range from $450 to $1k. They usually take 1-2 hours, then I deliver the contact sheet and 1-6 final images. Travel can often be the most time consuming part!

My current commercial jobs are usually 1-2 days, 8-12 hours per day. My base rate is $2500 per day. I make sure that is minimum take home. It is sometimes more, rarely less and never below $1800.

Edit and delivery will often take a day or two. I make sure I charge between $400-600 for these days. If clients want multiple retouched images then more.

I only do all-in budgets or buy-outs really. I need to get better at understanding licensing.

My best paying job was a campaign for a large alcohol brand. 2x travel days, 3x shoot days, 4x edit days. I agreed an all-in fee of $25k and needed to deliver 4 images which were total buy-outs.

I do a lot of favors for friends and my wider network when I have spare time. I never go below $350 for a few hours. If its a full day I’ll charge at least $750. Whether this is headshots for actors or little music videos etc.

People will always ask you for favors as a photographer. Have the courage to say no if you feel so inclined. Just make sure nobody is using your work to make income directly, if they are or if they have personal wealth then ask for your commercial rates.

I used to shoot a lot of video up until 2020. I found it an easy way to make money but weirdly unsatisfying. I have a good portfolio of music videos and branded docs as both director and DoP but really want to focus on stills right now. I would say I was 50/50 in 2019 and in 2022 I was 80/20 stills/video. I think my video career harmed my stills career and stunted my growth as an artist. I am trying to focus on stills from now on but video work will come calling I’m sure.

In this fine art/editorial/commercial world – 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. The last time I did this, it lead to some really great commercial work. I think a lot of people in positions of power, need to see initial recognition from somebody else before taking that leap and commissioning you.

Instagram is of course the necessary evil and undoubtedly the most important marketing tool for a photographer – I put in minimum effort and try to have fun with it. I would say I have a good following for my type of work, but I would also like to get better at using it. It can be real bad for confidence though, just know that a lot of people with big followings are just playing to algorithms or buying followers. Its a fine line between using the platform smartly and keeping your distance from it.

Best advice was to have a positive routine before traveling to a shoot. For me this includes looking through my recent comparable work, thinking about what I should do differently and what I should repeat. I might look through a photo book for inspiration and I’ll try not to think about any stressful everyday life stuff too close to the shoot!

Worst advice was my Dad telling me to “take any job for money”when I was young and inexperienced. I did this for years, it slowed my progress in crafting a personal style which is key for long term success. Don’t listen to your parents too closely if they haven’t had a creative career ha!

Take inspiration from outside photography. Look at paintings, watch sports, get into gardening. Photography careers are evolving rapidly but I still think it’s a long game and the most curious people always win in the end.

In House Product, Lifestyle, and Ecom photographer: 60k (salary)

I work for a childrenswear retailer. This position was listed at $55k max, but with the retouching and excel skills I brought to the job, plus experience, they were able to increase it to $60k which I still feel is undervalued for what I provide.

When I moved to South Carolina the options to work as a photographer were slim. I was previously working in North Carolina for a shoe retailer making $72.5k as a lead photographer.

I work for a single employer as a typical M-F 8-5 w2 employee. I do have an employer matched 401k and 13 paid vacation days plus additional sick days available.

Their cycle of shooting is a bit chaotic and changes with the seasonal release of product to vendors. Photography consists of necessary files for store plannograms, ecommerce on white, flat lays and on figure (both on white and lifestyle). I do not have an assistant and do all of my my own lighting and editing. We do bring in a stylist as needed. We are a team of 3 photographers plus a manager and we each handle a specific brand and retailer in the children’s clothing business. While the other brands are split amongst photographers here, I handle a single brand and all of the types of photography listed above for that brand. It can be hectic.

Worst advice: Being a photographer will make you a starving artist. You should go in to marketing.

I’ve done well in my career, and while this position has been a step back financially, in many ways, it was a necessity in my career.

Learn photoshop – and more than the basics! It has helped me to be an asset to the companies I have worked for and helped me advance in my career.

32 year old male Documentary Wedding Commercial Lifestyle photographer: 65k (net)

My income is 80% Weddings and 20% Commercial Photography. My business is structured as an LLC but taxes as an S-Corp.

My commercial clients are smaller businesses. I work with a lot of commercial video teams that bring me on to take stills alongside video.

Studio space – $300/mo
Equipment upgrades – $5,000-10,000 a year

I have a Roth IRA that I contribute a little bit to, and then I also have a small real estate investment portfolio. The goal is 10 houses in the next 8 years (I currently have 2 houses at the moment). After those 10 houses, the goal is to continually scale.

Realistically working roughly 160 days a year.

General increase of income year over year from 2018 until 2020. I still did roughly 100k in 2020. while in 2021 I photographed more weddings than any year prior and had an income decrease to 90k. 2022 picked back up with work, I shot less weddings but more commercial work and brought my average business income back to 95-100k.

I have two houses (3 rental units total). I live in a duplex and rent out the other side which covers 80% of my mortgage. I live for next to nothing because of my real estate income, which averages to about $400 a month take home. It’s not much at the moment, but I plan to scale and purchase another house within the next 12 months.

An average wedding is around 8-10 hours of coverage, and they are usually 30-90 minutes away from my home. Average wedding couple spends around $5,000. Take home after paying assistant and taxes is around $2,500.

Commercial projects are roughly 8-10 hour shoots with 3-4 hours of editing. My day rate is between $2,500-3,000 depending on the scope. Historically there have been few expenses per project, so take home is roughly that full amount.

Best shoot was for a local internet provider asking for photos of local spots in two nearby cities. Pay was initially $3,000. For some reason they dragged their feet on payment for three months. As an apology they added an extra $2,000 making the total take home $5,000 for about 6 hours worth of work over 3-4 days.

The worst paying shoot was for an education company. They wanted studio layflat images and then 2-3 headshots. The payment was $1,700 for 40 images. After I sent a contact sheet, they chose to select only headshots and lifestyle portraits of the owners. Which meant 40 heavily retouched photos. I outsourced the editing for time. After outsourcing and studio / light rentals, take home was around $1,000 for 8 hours of work.

I do not shoot or offer video.

I am strictly word of mouth. I have a wedding website, and have yet to build the commercial photography website.

Best advice was to learn how light moves, and hire an accountant.

Worst advice was to shoot destination weddings for free or next to nothing.

When quoting a commercial photography project, quote a number that makes your stomach turn. The worst thing they can do is say no for this project. Then when they have a project that has the budget you quoted, they’ll likely remember you and come to you. We all know higher price is often higher perceived value.

Assistant Photo Editor with 2.5 years experience based in San Francisco: $60k salary

I commission photographers for 1-2 shoots a month in addition to performing daily photography research.

This is my first photo editing role.

For retirement I have an 8% contribution to a 401k. Condé has a decent match policy but I’m unsure of the specifics off the top of my head.

Standard full time job. 260-ish days a year.

My income has increases recently from $55k to $60k due to a raise fought for by my union.

Email with a portfolio is the best way to reach me! I also don’t mind instagram DMs.

I use Instagram, stock agencies, Google, Tumblr (still), and word of mouth recommendations to find photographers.

A media Company Junior Photo Editor with 3 years experience: $50k salary

We hire editorial photographers that have extensive previous experience shooting for magazines, key art, event, interior, or celebrity portraiture.

I work 260 days a year. I have a 401k for retirement. My income hasn’t changed in the last few years because my company does not give raises.

My job consists of helping the photo director/producers with budgeting, invoices, sourcing everything for a shoot (photographers, stylists, locations, catering, permits, etc). I go to almost every shoot as both producer and assistant. I produce shoots as well but tend to stick to photographers who have worked for us in the past. I would love to find newer, untapped talent but my job likes to hire the same, safe options, unfortunately.

If you want to work as a photo editor, administrative experience is super important and will go a long way. I know it’s the tedious part of a creative job but it’s necessary to know how to invoice, fill out forms, stay organized, communicate via phone and email, troubleshoot, etc.

Also, consume art as much as you produce it too! We cannot get stuck in our own little world, consume art out of your comfort zone, art that you don’t understand, etc. You never know where you’ll draw inspiration from and I think it helps cultivate your own unique creative eye.

Best Advice: Be polite and treat every job no matter how big or small as important.

Worst Advice: “Don’t respond to photographer’s emails when they reach out if you don’t like their stuff, they are annoying” – I just think this is a disrespectful way to think about reach-outs. YES, I am SUPER busy and I do WAY more than photographers think I do, but they are equally busy and I can give them the respect they deserve of giving them a simple yes, no, maybe later. On the flip side, photographers please do not take “no” personally; just because you are not the right fit for us, doesn’t mean you are not perfect somewhere else. Photo editors especially tend to be constrained by higher corporate people who heavily constrict our creative vision and we have certain aesthetics and brands that we have to stick to.

Work email is the best way to reach me! Attach a link to your website and portfolio. Some people can be very verbose when sending reach out emails, but I don’t mind if you just get to the point and be polite. Personally, I think it’s okay to repeatedly email and check in every once in a while, especially after your portfolio has new additions that you think would fit in with the style of our publication. Instagram, art galleries, other magazines, agencies.

We use Instagram, art galleries, other magazines, and agencies to find photographers.

Here’s my advice:

-People are more willing to talk about their job/how they got there than you think! If you’re considering transitioning from freelancing to photo editing, don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask them if they have any free time to talk about their career. Worst case scenario, they decline and you ask someone else. But people love to talk about themselves so just try!

-As someone who came from a different field prior to entering the photo world, I’ve noticed that there can be an us vs them mentality amongst photo editors and photographers. I understand that this stems from years of industry BS and some jaded photo editor’s attitudes, but I really hope that my generation can bridge the gap and fight for the rights of freelance artists as much as we can. We can be limited by the corporate overlords we work for, but we can TRY to make change happen. I try to show photographers/crew I care and respect them wherever I can and I try to share their work widely and often. I think sharing creatives work is a small thing we can do show our support. I really hope you can get 5 other jobs from the job you did with us!

-Similarly, can we PLEASE credit everyone?? It’s not hard and it’s the tiniest thing you can do to help someone out and acknowledge their hard work. There is no shoot without them!

-I love my job but the pay is unacceptable, especially in one of the most expensive cities in the United States (for reference I had multiple years of relevant job experience prior and I have a BA). I want to stay in this field, but unless I find a job that provides a livable wage, I will have to pivot which is depressing because I love working with photographers. 40k in 2005 is NOT what 40k is today…i’m drowning and my job thinks it’s okay because it’s technically “entry level”….That being said, the stability of just having consistent income and insurance is a privilege.

-Be respectful to everyone on set. I’ve worked with amazing photographers/hmu/stylists who I will never hire again because they were incredibly entitled and rude to other crew members for no reason. It’s 2023, basic respect is COOL! Along those lines, perhaps consider having a public-facing social media page with your work, and a private one for friends/family.

Studio photography Lighting Tech with 22 years experience based in NY/LA: $87k

I currently only work for 1 photographer as a lighting tech but in the past have worked primarily by referral through photo agencies.

I shoot as well but assist 75-150 days a year. Over the last few years it’s been less labor and more money. Lots of tracking down incident angles and adding gradients in surface.

I make 450 for editorial and advertising base is 750-1200/day. Prep days and travel are full rates. Business class if flight is over 3 hours .

Editorial assisting is usually a noon call time. Load in. Find the frame. Shoot subject and load out by 3.

Advertising jobs is a prep day going over the deck and making EQ orders, scouting the location and path of sun. Shoot day is always a solid 10 hrs with 2-3 OT. Typically IBM, Apple and Google jobs are 5 day jobs total with 1-2 being shoot days.

For my best paying job I was supposed to go to Bulgaria for 8 days. Job confirmed and then something happened and the creatives pulled the plug. I got paid full rate for cancelation.

Worst paying was a 3 day job and the week after it was shot and rounds of retouching were being approved agency went radio silent. Turns out CEO was taking money from the company and they had to shut the doors mid project. Job never paid out.

Shoot what interests you. 17 years in fashion was brutal and boring from a personal stand point. Now working in science and technology and talking to engineers is so much more fulfilling.

Know the value you bring to the table. I’d say 75% of agency photographers would be lost without their first. Assisting is a thankless job that’s hard on the body and at the end of the day it’s the center of advertising work being produced.

Also take the time to really understand how light works. The different qualities of light and how that relates to shape and texture of the subject.

Photography Assistant with 2 years experience based in Los Angeles: 20k-35k

Best advice: Be nice to people! Make genuine connections. You can work hard and be kind. Treat everyone on set with respect and just try to be helpful to anyone you can be.

I’m about to hit my two year mark and cross over into my third as an assistant. I have a degree in photography and imaging but started my first year post-grad assisting to gain more on-set experience.

Year one (2021- 2022) part-time job at a tabletop prop house, supplemented by assisting. I was very green and grateful for the opportunities and chances given to me. I worked mainly on food sets and my average assistant rate was $400. I was mainly working smaller jobs with just the photographer and me.

Year two (2022-current 2023) managed to get on some larger productions at the end of year one that helped me gain experience. On these sets I was mainly second or third assistant, with a rate somewhere between $400-500. As the year progressed, my hours at my part time job became significantly less because I was fortunate enough to have assisting opportunities that took precedence. My goal is to be able to full time freelance by the end of 2023. I began working more frequently on larger productions and have worked up to first assisting on a couple of them. My rate is usually between $600-$750 and I’m still picking up work at the $400 rate as well for smaller productions.

An Editorial and Commercial Photographer transitioning from Assisting 2021: $75k (net, mostly assisting) 2022: $75k (net, mostly photographing)

2021: $100k gross (75k assisting, 25k photographing)
2022: $125k gross (100k photographing, 25k assisting or 2nd shooting)

2022 was sort of a transitional year. 2023 is my first year supporting myself exclusively as a photographer. My clients are primarily New York based editorial and small commercial clients. Some West Coast based tech clients. I’m a sole proprietor. Not yet making enough for incorporating to be a high priority.

70% commercial, 30% editorial though of course that percentage gets flipped if you ask about shoot days for each.

I try to keep overhead fairly low:
I share a studio/office with a few other photographers for ~$400/month
Insurance ~$700/year
Software licenses ~$500/year
No other recurring consistent overhead.

I probably put off buying new equipment longer than some photographers though I expect to spend about $15k on cameras and maybe a new computer this year.

I’ve been maxing out a Roth IRA for the past 3ish years. When I first opened it, I was contributing around $100/month and have gradually increased my monthly contributions as my income has allowed. In 2022 I opened a SEP IRA and I try to contribute around 10% of my gross to that as the checks come in. Some months that’s not possible. Both of these accounts are invested in low-fee target date funds.

As an assistant, I was working many days at fairly consistent rates and by my last year assisting, I could often command $750/day as a first on commercial projects and was rarely being paid less than $600. I would also still occasionally assist friends on editorial for $200–500/day.

Generally I pay my assistants now as much as I can. Sometimes that means paying out of my own pocket. On commercial jobs that means $500-750/day depending. For editorial anywhere from $250-500. I try not to ask assistants to take any rate I wouldn’t have taken when I was in their shoes.

Now, as a photographer I am on set many fewer days and the amount I make varies wildly. After expenses, I make anywhere from $0–1000/day on editorial. Commercially, I have made anywhere from $2000–6000/day including usage, etc. though rates at the high end of that that are very rare for me at this stage. Honestly, I don’t have an average.

My best paying shoot was a Tech/B2B services company. 4 shoot days, 1 tech scout. ~5 different creative calls and pre-pro meetings in the weeks leading up to the shoot. Whole shoot was work for hire. I netted around $26k. I recognize that’s low for WFH.

My worst paying shoot was a web-only editorial. Probably a total of around 13 hours of work between shooting and post. $400 flat rate. I used all of it to hire an assistant.

Not really shooting any video, but have some projects in the works that will change that.

Never feel like I’m doing enough marketing. I do one fairly large printed promo per year. Also do end of year gifts for select clients. I do individual emails with tailored PDFs or mini-sites for the person I’m contacting. In my experience, the more personalized my emails, the higher the response rate. I try to post work I’m proud of on Instagram regularly. I definitely go for quality ahead of quantity though I could probably use to shift that somewhat.

Best Advice I received is to just keep making work. Truly, deeply, deeply wish I could’ve internalized this about 5 years sooner than I did.

Forming genuine relationships with other photographers as well as with those in hiring positions will probably do more for your career than any marketing email you will ever send.

Also, and this is advice for myself as much as for others: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Nobody will know you exist unless you tell them.

An On-Set Photographer Mostly In Films: 2023 $12k, 2022 $60k, 2021 $130k

My responsibilities are to take photos that promote the film, both behind the scenes and on-set. The images end up online, billboards, posters, etc.

I’m shooting along side the rest of the crew each day of filming. Smaller jobs and some tv don’t require you to be there everyday.

The job requires the normal skills of a photographer but also a great deal of experience not being in the way, while being creative and very adaptable.

The current writers strike has not only hurt writer’s incomes but all film crew jobs. The TV and commercial markets weren’t hit as hard and many friends who have a foot in both worlds are at least surviving. I have made a good living, up until recently, just being a set photographer so I never diversified. I’m now regretting that choice.

The only income that I’ve made this year is from a random commercial job that came my way because of an old relationship with a producer.

Last fall most production slowed down and stopped even before the contract negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP even started. No one wanted to start a project knowing that shooting would be interrupted.

All photographers working on larger films are in the camera union, IASTE – Local 600, and have separate contracts from the writers. Our contract was renegotiated recently and many were disappointed with the results. The Union has very limited ways of assisting during these hardships.

Ask anyone who works in film and tv, as fun as it sounds from the outside, the truth is often quite different if you aren’t high up on the pay scale. Working 12-16 hours a day is not uncommon. Having 10 hours to sleep, eat, and travel to and from the location, day after day, becomes difficult and often unhealthy. Shooting conditions are not always ideal and you have to be ready for everything. Sometimes it can be fun, or you may shoot in a place that you would never have access to, but mostly it’s a lot of work and time away from family.

Where to go from here? I’m not sure. The greed that the studios have displayed is really disturbing and disgusting. This behavior, and the response to it, seems to be happening in many different fields. Corporate greed is nothing new but the outpouring of people willing to try and change it is hopeful.

A Product Photographer Working In Rural California Making $88,000

am a studio product photographer shooting remotely. I shoot mostly outdoor clothing along with bags, shoes, hats, belts, and other accessories. Clients send me the product via FedEx ground, and I photograph it in my home. I have two rooms dedicated to studio / office space. I shoot most items on white and then do all the postproduction myself. I deliver the images to my client via Dropbox and then send the product back. In the past I have had a variety of clients but for the last 5 years I have only been working primarily with one client, a national clothing company.

I used to also shoot outdoor lifestyle images but since having kids 12 years ago my focus has been studio images.

I coordinate with the local high school and hire students with learning challenges to work a couple hours a week during the school year. The school pays the kids minimum wage which is currently $15 an hour in California.

I write off a portion of my home expanses for the studio space I have in my house. My house is paid off, but I have done a lot of renovations in the last 3 years. I also have accumulated a lot of studio and camera equipment over the years and try to upgrade when I have had a profitable year. I also use cleaning companies, and contract photo assistants / photoshop tech when I am busy with tight deadlines. My cleaning service is $350 a month for a few hours of work 2 days a month. I pay my photoshop tech who is currently a college student and works remotely $24 an hour.

I would like to add that Health Insurance has always been a big expense for our family. I don’t think I could still be in business today if it wasn’t for the implantations of the Affordable Care Act. Expanding the income levels has also been helpful. When my husband was still alive, and we were both self-employed, we weren’t always able to qualify for subsidies depending on how profitable were in a given year.

Now that it is just me and two kids, I have been able to qualify each year. This is a gigantic savings for me. I currently have a Silver Blue Shield policy for the 3 of us that would be over $1800 a month on the open market. Through Covered California is it costing me around $450 a month instead.

I always maximize both my Traditional IRA and SEP IRA accounts yearly. In 2022 I contributed $7,000 into my Traditional IRA and over 16,000 into my SEP IRA. These contributions also lower my “Adjusted Gross Income” which usually allows me to qualify my family of 3 for some health care subsidies through the Affordable Care Act.

In 2022 I worked about 180 full days on client work. Other days are spent paying bills, bookkeeping, ordering supplies, upgrading my studio space, and end of the year tax stuff.

My income has always fluctuated depending on how many clients I have at the time and the size of the companies I am working with. Some of my biggest earning years were 2009, and 2017. My wages have not kept up with inflation and I was actually making more per day in those bigger years. In the past, the fluctuation didn’t matter as much because my husband had a full-time job as well. However, he died in 2020 at the start of the pandemic so now the income fluctuation is a concern. My current client is trying to do more images in-house so I expect my income to drop this year unless I can find additional clients. During years that my business slow, I would spend my time doing home improvements to better the equity in our home. My husband did the same. We both had home offices so this also improved our workspace. We were lucky that our business yo-yoed at different times and the home projects helped our long-term financial goals. The only time we both plummeted in profits was 2010 and 2011 which was also when we finally had kids. Things were tight for a while, but it also allowed me more time with my kids when they needed me the most.

My two kids get survivor benefits from their deceased dad until they are each 18. The money goes to me to cover their monthly expenses. I also put a portion of it into their college savings account. Each kid gets about $1700 a month for a total of $3200 a month. This has been additional income since my husband died in 2020 and it is a great buffer in slow months. However, it is less than 1/3 of what his income was when he was alive. Having a partner for over 20 years that also had a full-time job was instrumental in my success as a photographer.

I try and work 7 hours a day 4 days a week when I know product is coming my way. If I am asked to meet a tight catalog deadline, I might work 10 hours a day and on the weekend. In the past I would also charge a “rush fee” for overtime hours but I haven’t done that lately.

I charge per item and the rate depends on the type of item or accessory. Therefore, my rates are consistent and more dependent on how productive I am on a given day.

I have done very little in the last 12 years to market myself. This is something I need to work on if I want to stay in business. It is not a good idea to be reliant on only one client.

I was told that I could never make money as a photographer and that photography should only be a hobby. Best or worst advice?

This is a tough business. It is easier to be lean, aggressive, and mobile when you are young and single. However, now that I am a single mom with two kids, I am not sure it is the best career choice. I am trying to find ways to diversity my work so I can find a more secure place for my family. Save when you can and put money away for the slow times. Also, when you have extra cash, invest in things that will help you and your business in the future.

Architectural Photographer Based in LA and Miami making $360,000 a year

I am primarily an architectural photographer but much of my work blends into the commercial space since a good portion of my clients are retail and hospitality brands and just architects and developers. My business is a registered S Corp.

My clients range from mid size architectural firms to fortune 500 companies. It’s quite a mixed bag of budgets, expectations, usage needs etc.

Most of my overhead is travel expense for me and my assistants as 80% of my work requires it. So hotels , flights, transportation etc. Otherwise my overhead is pretty low. I don’t buy much gear these days as I already own everything I need, and the rest is just things like subscriptions to the various softwares and programs i need to run my business.

Last year was lightning in a bottle. Between shooting and retouching, i’d say I worked easily over 100 days. It’s usually closer to 50-60. 2022 was a crazy year for my business and I was booked to the point of burning out. I went from averaging around 120- 150k/ year to more than doubling that.

I have been working on developing passive sources of income and turning myself into a photography brand as I don’t wish to continue relying on client work exclusively.

An average shoot for me depends on the client. For the fortune 500 companies, they usually demand buyouts, so I charge appropriately and they tend to be very demanding for what’s needed in post production. Often times, the client doesn’t even know how “photo ready” some of the sites will be until we arrive, so we have very honest discussions about expectations and what can be achieved in post. I’ve gotten pretty good at the photoshop miracle. For architects and developers things are more reasonable and usage fees are pretty standard.

One project required two visits with an enormous amount of travel and two weeks of shooting. I had two assistants, and had to bring a retoucher with me to edit images as we shot because they needed to go to press ASAP. I would shoot for 12 hours a day and then join my retoucher to edit images all night long. For both projects I billed over 150k.

I pay my assistants 500-600 / day. A little higher than most, but they’re so crucial to me that I want them to drop what they’re doing whenever I need them.

I come from a heavy video production background and do my fair share of freelance DP work. It’s common for clients to want to bundle video and photography services. Although the last couple of years photography has been my main source of income and honestly I prefer it. It’s less work and the profit margins are much higher.

I am terrible at marketing myself. My biggest effort goes into SEO where I rank number one in google for several key terms in my target markets. It’s a mixed bag of results. It helps with website traffic, but 80% of it is people just kicking tires. Otherwise I suck at marketing. I am making a better effort this year to be more intentional and traditional with generating leads.

Worst Advice: you need to specialize. That might have been true ten years ago. But in this day and age, the more things you can do, the more value you can offer. Clients and agencies have arduous vendor uploading systems, so if you’re already in their database and can do something they need, you’re likely to get that call. Not saying you have to try to be a jack of all trades. But you should definitely at the very least be proficient in video services as well.

And you should start understanding AI. Whether we like it or not, it’s here to stay and will play a major role in the day to day development of marketing assets in the near future.

Best advice: If a client bitches about price. Don’t lower your rates. Lower your deliverables to meet their budget.

Don’t obsess about gear. Gear is just a tool and honestly any camera made in the last 5 years is going to deliver excellent results. Invest in the tools that make your life easier, like tilt-shift lenses for me. Invest the money you’d otherwise spend on gear into personal projects. Personal projects are what make you stand out and carry your own unique voice and perspective on the world, which is what attracts people to want to pay you to do the same generic shit they always do. You can polish your skills, and you have complete creative control.

And please stop undercutting the industry. You’re only hurting yourself and the rest of us in the long run.

Photographers, How Much Do You Make?

2019 – 100% assisting
2020 – 85% assisting 15% Editorial
2021 – 75% assisting 10% Commercial 15% Editorial
2022 – 60% assisting 20% Commercial 20% Editorial

I’ve been assisting for several years, trying to gain insight and experience in the industry. 2019 was my first full year assisting, I also had a full time job at the time that I was attempting to segue out of to pursue photography.

When Covid lockdowns started I decided to go all in on assisting and portfolio building; I took a decent loss upgrading / adding gear and trying to get my name out there. I worked with a few meal delivery services and local restaurants for trade that year.

Most of my clients are small, local businesses that only have budgets for me solo; those projects are all remote from my home studio or on location. For slightly bigger projects or when budget allows, I rent a studio and crew as needed: usually one stylist and one assistant.
I’ve been working mostly solo (including styling) since I started, but would love to outsource production, post processing, and marketing help as my business grows.

Currently I work with local small businesses in the food and beverage sector. Most of my client roster is liquor or wine brands, a few food brands, and occasionally food/bev product work will come in.

I also have one Bay Area specific web based editorial client. I had one national brand I worked with, but the experience was awful and pay wasn’t great either.

I’d estimate my overhead is about $3-5K per year: My current overhead is mainly business software subscriptions (Capture One, Adobe, Squarespace, Dubsado) equipment rentals, and consistently updating my prop collection. In 2019 it was $8K as I had to upgrade most of my gear from college, but haven’t needed to add too much since. I also try to buy refurbished as often as I can and only when necessary.

I do all of own my marketing through services I’m already paying for: email, newsletters, organic social media, etc. Due to the limited amount of work I’m getting, I really try to keep overhead to a bare minimum. I don’t have employees, I’m fortunate to be on my spouses work insurance, and only rent studio space when I can pass the fee on to the client.

I’m actively photographing about 10-12 days a year, with an average of 10-15 combined prep and post production days per shoot day. I now only assist a couple days a month, and the rest of the workweek is dedicated to marketing and client research. Prior to 2023, I’d average around 100 days assisting.

Assisting was very lucrative during 2020, I worked a lot and gained a ton of experience and knowledge in the industry. I was also able to supplement what I didn’t make in client work with assisting jobs in the two years following. But I have noticed a dramatic decline in income this year; I left one of my 2 main assisting roles to take on more of my own work, but haven’t had a ton of success booking consistent projects. I’ve also seen a considerable drop in budgets and increase in scope with the inquiries coming in. It seems to be the perfect storm of the market I currently attract, the overall economic instability, and the over saturation of food and beverage photographers contributing to the high demands and low budgets.

Pre-production typically takes about 1-2 weeks for commercial clients, studio days are standard 10 hours, I’ve only had a handful of multiple day shoots. Most of my clients are pretty small local businesses and don’t really need licensing beyond company website and organic social media use for a few years; I’ve spent a ton of time educating on licensing and found it’s easier for my current client base to digest if it’s included it in my Creative Fee. Paid advertising or print is additional in almost all cases. I think it’s important that clients understand they are still paying for usage even if the amount isn’t a separate line item, so I make that very clear when quoting my Creative Fee.

As I progress in the size of clients I take on, that will inevitably change. I raised my Creative Fee this year to $3000 per day (dependent on project scope) to reflect included usage and current inflation, take home averages $1900 after expenses and taxes. My editorial client pays $350 per restaurant, 2 hours max on location, pretty liberal online usage, and I’m usually assigned two restaurants a day. I’ve heard this falls within the standard range for editorial these days, but have minimal experience in this market.

My highest paid job thus far was a commercial shoot for the launch of a food brand, take home was $4500 after taxes / expenses for one 10 hour shoot, 10 images licensed for brand website, organic social media, and email promotion for 3 years. Pre-production, shoot, and post processing totaled 8-10 days.

The worst paid overall was for a product client I took on retainer a couple of years ago. I agreed to “test” at a lower rate for the first shoot, with promise to come up to my day rate after a couple of shoots together. I was to photograph 30-40 products for an online seller at their home, two days a month, 7-8 hours each shoot day. Rate was initially $800 for around 150 images with minimal post processing and use only on the shop site. After taxes and expenses, take home was about $650. I was never able to get them to pay anything close to my day rate as agreed, the working conditions were awful, and after about 4 shoots I had to terminate our work together.

I also had one editorial shoot that paid $150 for recipe testing, styling, and one hero image in print for a national publication.

I’ve just started experimenting with video and don’t currently offer it; but I will provide any bts unedited phone footage I take.

As mentioned, I do all of my own marketing. I utilize Squarespace for newsletters, and organic email and social media for direct outreach. I don’t use any paid advertising; most inquiries currently come from my social channels. I’ve noticed that even as my emails get more personalized and consistent for each client, I have better luck with Instagram and LinkedIn. I also know with the changing market and flux in social platforms this may not always be the case.

Best advice: ‘Be patient with your career trajectory; it’s a long game and it takes time to get established.’ I still don’t like hearing this, but it’s so true and I remind myself constantly.
Also ‘don’t forget to celebrate the the small wins.’ I tend to get especially down and critical of myself during slow times, it helps to reflect on how far I’ve come and how much those seemingly small moments contribute to where I am now.

Worst advice: ‘Never lower your price.’ I struggle with this, though. While I don’t want to devalue my work or the industry overall, I also need to work and a lot of budgets coming my way are low these days. I do have limits to how much I’m willing to depart from my current day rate, but I wouldn’t have any business if I didn’t fluctuate my rates.

I hope we’re moving toward more transparency regarding pricing with each other; it’s been difficult to gauge where my rates stand in the sea of other photographers in my area. Most tend to stay pretty guarded; and while I don’t intend to mirror anyone else’s business, I would find it enlightening to know where I fall on that spectrum especially as I’m in my first five years of business. I think we all benefit from more knowledge and are able to add more value to the industry as a whole if we’re able to make more informed decisions on pricing our work. I do see a bit of movement in the right direction, and I love seeing the openness with sharing rates on posts like this.

Photographers, How Much Do You Make?

Only the last 4 years my income was solely from photography. I have one large retainer client that allows a balance of consistency and flexibility.

My income is 30% – Lifestyle, 30% E-comm (in studio), 15% Product (in home studio, very basic,) 25% – Retouching. These are mostly west coast based brands that sell all over the US and a few start ups/local businesses.

Not much overhead other than basic rent/utilities. Most expenses are basic marketing/website needs. I own most of my equipment and will expense any additional rentals need for each project.

Does the lottery count as retirement haha.

I work 8-10 days per month on average. Sometimes more depending on the season. The rest of the days are spent marketing/networking/shooting for myself.

In my early 20s, after getting my BFA, I worked/pursued shooting action sports as a career but that quickly went away once I realized the income was terrible unless you were at the top 5% of the field. I transitioned to commercial fashion and spent a good 5-6 years assisting and working on my portfolio by doing test shoots.

I was fortune enough to have a great relationship with a local modeling agency that allowed me to quickly build up a book of some models that went on to be very big in the industry. At the same time, I assisted in a creative agency where I learned as much as I could about all the business side of the industry while expanding my network.

After I felt I had learned all that I could, I took an in-house photographer position at a local brand that was quickly on the rise. I enjoyed the team, but the brands overall aesthetics were not aligned with mine. I was often told my work was too “professional” looking, which admittedly did make sense for a brand that catered to the youth/IG/TikTok market.

So I decided to go out on my own full time freelancing… in February 2020. COVID put a halt to any plans I had for that year. So that first year was incredible hard and I had to take anything I could just to keep a roof over my head. That often meant shooting product from home in a makeshift studio and even shooting family portraits.

Over the last two years I was slowly able to start getting more work that fit my style. I’m lucky that my partner was a designer at a midsized clothing brand that was growing fast so I took on most of their photo work (lifestyle and ecomm). I was also able to start working as a second shooter for larger campaigns via some photographers I had assisted in the past which I’ve been very excited about as its allowed me to work with a great team and enhance my portfolio.

I will sometimes take on select retouching jobs to supplement my photography income but its not something I put a lot of time or effort pursuing. I may do it more in the future as it can but pretty profitable but I don’t enjoy the aspect of having to lock myself in front of the computer for hours and hours at a time.

Average day for a lifestyle shoot is either a full day (8-10 hrs) or a half day (4-6 hrs) and my rate usually is a lump sum creative fee. Then Ill spend a few days after the shoot culling, color editing, and some light retouching if the client is willing to pay for that. Avg take home pay is $1500.

Licensing has been the most frustrating part educating clients about and I’m often stuck in a limbo of needing the money regardless so I often give just a simple 1 year usage that goes into my creative fee. But i’m hoping to change that going forward as I’ve had some clients take advantage of that. ( licensed for social use doesn’t mean the same thing as paid ads.

Best shoot was second shooting for a large international fitness leisure brand. It was a work for hire agreement but i was still allowed to use the images for my portfolio. The shoot was 4 days over two locations and take home pay was 5.5k. Great team and amazing producers made it feel like a breeze.

Worst paying job was a half day e-comm job where they asked to add a small lifestyle shoot at the end of the day. The client assumed a half day rate was hourly and tried to say the lifestyle shoot only took an hour so it should only be 20% of what the e-comm rate was. the half day rate was $400 and my lifestyle rate was $1000. they attempted to get both for $500, after having audacity to show my images on the front of the website before acting surprised that the rate would go up.

I quickly dropped them and I don’t do half day rates anymore or last min add ons without prior conversations. I also used it as a sign to up my rates overall to filter out cheap clients.

I did one small video job last year where I was brought in as a specialist (I have extensive experience shooting surfing in the water). All i did was shoot for 30 mins and the client handled the edit. I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of my footage used in the final ad.

I would love to pursue it more but learning how to approach video vs stills is a bit daunting. My goal would to at least have some short motion clips to pepper in throughout my book.

I’ve upped my game in reaching out to potential clients this year via direct email with curated PDFs but still haven’t been able to translate them into jobs just yet. In addition to that I do my best to send out a quarterly newsletter. I’m not as consistent as I should be but have found its always easier if I have new work to show, so I focus on that first, and then go from there.

Best advice – Unfollow photographers you like on IG. All it does is fuel an inferiority complex.

Worst advice – Take any work you can. Its ok to say no to jobs/clients that you don’t feel like are a good fit to you.

Trust your gut and shoot what inspires you. Always be kind and pleasant to everyone you meet on set. Don’t be afraid to take the boring e-comm jobs because at the end of the day you gotta pay your rent (you don’t have to share them on you portfolio). Always aim to find one thing you can learn each day on a shoot. Fake it til you make it.

Photo Directors, How Much Do You Make?

I manage a team of other photo editors and we work with editors to produce food, interior, lifestyle, and style content for a few brands.

I was promoted a few years ago to Director which came with a decent salary bump.

I work full time (5 days per week) and often work weekends as well.

I have a 401k and the company matches up to 6% and I contribute 6%. I have about 100k in there right now.

If you are interested in my line of work: it’s a tough industry right now, but anything you can do to get your foot in the door; internship, contract work, etc. helps a lot.

Best Advice: Treat every shoot with the same stamina, whether it’s a product shot in the studio or cover image with lifestyle.

I want photographer to reach out to me via Email or Linkedin.

I find photographer in competitor magazines, regional magazines, portfolio introduction emails. I also use Instagram. Word of mouth in this industry goes a long way.

I (or someone from team) try to meet with all photographers who send me their portfolio so that I can provide feedback.

Creative Directors, How Much Do You Make?

My “day job” is with a very large holding company – I work on one of the owned brands. I report directly to senior leadership. They remain pretty stoked as long as our creative team is pressing on new ideas and innovative concepts to support the brand story and products.

There are 5-6 full time employees on my team. We also use a dozen or so contractors; designers, producers, copywriters, etc. This figure does not include freelance photographers/videographers of which there are many.

I started a side business in 2022 doing creative consultation and sniper style projects for brands; photo and copy mostly. I am very niched down in my zone of competence and specific knowledge – so if brands in the space I play need what I do, there aren’t many others to go to. The money that I make from this really a secondary “nice-to-have” to my real reason for taking on side work. In my main gig, I play within the sandbox. Just the nature of big orgs. But my side work is my creative outlet. It is boundless. I get to play, create, push ideas. That is where I scratch the itch. It makes me better at my main gig to let that energy out elsewhere.

My LLC has no overhead. Just me. Home based, registered as an S-Corp to save on self-employment taxes.

I work ~230 days a year.

I built a small brand on the side with my photography while working hourly jobs until getting my first agency job in 2015. That was a $48k gig, my first salary ever. Worked my way to another agency in 2016 at $75k + bonus. Left to go brand side in 2017 for $90k. Moved to another brand in 2019 at $110k. Moved up ranks to current position now. A side note on salary; the “golden handcuffs” thing is real. Consider that in the path you take.

I lead a team of art directors and producers that are all the time hiring stills and motion shooters to work on our projects. Having come up as a photographer myself, I am always keenly involved in that process. We are vetting new talent, assessing project fit, assigning work, contract negotiating, and running all phases of production at all times.

For retirement I have a traditional IRA which is comprised of my rollovers from previous companies. Roth IRA maxed every year. 401k at current company is 3% gift. Also have stock at current company that is vested and grows each year – this is part of my total comp package.

The photographer + writer + director pipeline is pretty unique I suppose. People will tell you to pick a competency or creative discipline and stick with it. “Do one thing really well.” I have never agreed with that. I think you should explore the edges of your interest and see where it takes you. Being multi-disciplinary in your creative work makes you a valuable asset to a team as you are able to see things from a unique perspective. Don’t be afraid to tinker.

Best Advice: As a creative, you need other outlets. You cannot always have a camera in your hand. Do something analog. Rebuild a motorcycle. Learn how to cook. See how fit you can get if you slept and ate well for a year. Do anything but sit at your computer. Your creativity and work will be better for it.
Worst Advice: “You’re too creatively altruistic – you want everything to look and feel just so.”- a former boss that just doesn’t get it.

My advice for photographers looking to get on my radar is to find a way to be my friend and engage me on anything other than hiring you. I’m smart. I’ll do my seven second search and see that you are a photographer and make an assessment on your talent which you have made visible to the world. It happens that fast. Your homepage or LP needs to be fucking dope. Impress me, and quickly.

I have worked with a dozen or so shooters for the last 7-8 years. I came out of their ranks myself. We are a community. I ask all of them to bring me fresh talent – “who are you seeing that is on the come up that I need to pay attention to?” They bring me people and I trust them more because of it. As a CD, if you as a photographer bring me fresh camera talent, that tells me that you understand my job. You are trying to help me succeed. You are not operating from a scarcity mindset. This action makes you more valuable to me, not less.

If you want to be making real money, you need to be networking with clients that actually have money. Once you are doing that, if the $ figure you bid does not scare you to type, it’s too low. You can always negotiate down – it’s very hard to negotiate up.

Photo Editors, How Much Do You Make?

I currently work for a company (150+ mostly full time) in the women’s fashion/retail industry with a very small creative department. There are four employees in our photo department (including me), backed by a handful of freelancers.

I work 260 days in a calendar year (minus any PTO. I currently have Unlimited PTO).

I oversee all photography for both Ecomm and Marketing content. We have an in house ecomm photographer but also book freelancers weekly. For marketing, I book 2-3 shoots a month. With the pace at which we are booking/shooting – I lean towards booking photographers who understand my process, the turn around time, the budget and they are of course, on brand and can bring something fresh to the product and content.

I you want to get into my line of work I advise that you practice patience, stay organized, and learn how to manage many personalities and budgets. Stay assertive and take initiative!

Best Advice: Keep up! I lived in NY for majority of my career and if you want to stay in the competition, you have to keep up with the pace and everything evolving with it.
Worst Advice: Ive already forgotten it!

I am often happy to hear from a photographer whether its a quick hello on instagram/email just to keep their name on my radar. I am always saving and bookmarking photographers, agencies and photography I come across. But it’s also important for photographers to understand there is one of me in my current role/company, and thousands of you. I think transparent communication is important and I do my best to respond to a lot, but I don’t always have the bandwidth to respond to everyone. It’s not personal, it’s just the nature of the beast.

But also, I want to approach photographers with the same respect and consideration that they would give me. Some of my closest friends are photographers in the industry and I highly value photographers, stylists, set designers, etc. work and skill set. I want them to see that I come from that approach. I do my best on my end to make sure they are also excited about the project and are getting the most out of it. Any time a photographer (or crew member) leaves a shoot happy, gives me positive feedback, appreciates how organized or respectful me or my team is on set, that’s the most important to me at the end of the day!

Instagram is now my main source for finding photographers, I also use agencies, and recommendations from creatives I’ve worked with.

My advice to photographers is to be personable but stay professional!

Photo Editors- How Much Do You Make?

I work a standard 5 day work week with additional hours needed around shoots. I have a company 401k for retirement. I recently received a slight 3% or 4% raise only after asking several times for years.

My average work day is a mix of constant email correspondence, searching for affordable shoot locations, processing vendor paperwork, excel spreadsheet budgets, making payments for shoot production, editing images, overseeing retouching, putting together call sheets, trying to find ways to stretch out an already low budget that’s been cut yet again, and production meetings.

My advice for people who want a job like mine: Don’t. Your job will eventually get cut and the number of years experience you have in this industry only makes you less employable :\

Best/Worst Advice: “It’s way more important to know how to take a picture than use a camera.” – Olivia Bee

I want to be approacehed by photographers through email. You can DM through Instagram to ask for my work email. Then send a promo or a new project drop every few months or so. Don’t email again and again if I don’t reply. Just because I follow you on Instagram, doesn’t mean I want to hire you.

I find photographers through Instagram, other publications, Diversify Photo, and Women Photograph.

Any photographers reading this, please stop putting people in the middle in every single frame it’s so boring and I am sick of it. That is all.

Photo Editors, How Much Do You Make?

This is my salary + additional freelance photo work (per year) over the last few years.

I am a former full time freelance photographer who is now a salaried photo editor. I was making $45-60K gross when I was a full time freelancer for the first several years of my career.

I work for a mid-to-large size publication and it is mostly remote. We have enough work to hire a handful of photographers every month and can pay between $1-2K per day for shoots.

I understand that it’s easier said than done, but leaving full-time freelance work and getting a salaried job within the industry was probably the smartest thing I did financially but, more importantly, emotionally. I was not built to be a full-time freelance photographer. It’s a hard life and is very difficult to maintain relationships, have kids etc. The up and downs are too great and it’s hard to live off of the $450 day rate that the New York Times, or other publications, would occasionally send my way. It was the absolute worst not getting work for a few weeks. It made me jealous of people who were getting consistent work and big advertising jobs and I did not like who I was becoming. I was always anxious and my work suffered. Being able to rely on a salary allowed me to become a better photographer since I was able to focus on my craft and get better, rather than having to constantly try to get hired and paid.

Between full-time job and freelance, I probably work 250-300 days each year.

Since getting my current job I have been able to max out my company matched 401(k) every year. I have $100K+ in savings, vast majority of which has come in the last few years.

If you are still a student – intern anywhere you can. Work for photographers, see what their world is like. Work for museums, see how they operate. Work for publications and see what life is like as a photo editor. The stakes are low and you will likely hate some of them, but that is incredibly valuable information for you to take with you.

If you are already a working professional – Don’t wait to get hired to start making the work you want to make. If you want to, for example, photograph protests for the NYTimes, don’t wait for them to hire you. Photograph it anyway and put it on your instagram. Treat it like an assignment and ask your friends for feedback in how you can improve. The best thing to do is always be shooting. If the work is strong enough, there is a good chance the right people will eventually see it. If you are not making work, you lose any chance of getting seen.

Best Advice – Shoot what you know.
Worst Advice – Any advice I received from professors in college who hadn’t been a working photographer in decades. They had no knowledge or desire to learn about how the modern photography industry works.

Instagram is the best way for photographers to approach me- If you follow me, I will at least look at your work. If I like it, I will follow you. If you’re looking for freelance work, please put where you’re based in your bio.

I find photographers everywhere: friends and I talk about who is making interesting work, instagram, reading magazine/newspapers and checking credits, being online too often…

You do not have to go to photo school to be a successful photographer, especially in this day and age and especially if you would have to assume substantial debt in order to go. This is not to say photo school is not valuable or doesn’t give students a leg up. Some of the best photographers I’ve met either didn’t go to college or studied something else before becoming a photographer.