Going pro vs doing photography for love, not money

I make my living as a professional photographer. I initially believed that the designation “professional” meant that my photographs were so good that people would part with their hard-earned money to own, publish or see my work. Digital photography has prompted me to rethink that idea a good bit. Today, millions of new images are created weekly and the perceived value of those images is spiraling downward. A couple recent e-mails from student and the democratization of photography caused by the digital imaging have contributed to that reconsideration. The thought process that I went through as I pondered this question is the heart of this week’s blog entry.

Over the decades of being a professional photographer I have exposed thousands of rolls of film and more recently filled up equally many empty digital memory cards. I have made thousands of mistakes and some how pulled off hundreds of small miracles when the situation demanded. I have been the target of abuse from clients, subjects, cops and soldiers. I have been lied to by some of the greatest names in politics, publishing and popular culture. And the funny thing is I am just an average professional photographer, albeit with a bias towards publication photography.

What makes me (and the thousands of pros just like me) worthy of the title professional is that we have survived all those experiences and that we have internalized important lessons from many of them. We bring all of that collective wisdom/life experience to any new photography that we do, for a client or for ourselves. That is what makes us professionals. It is not just that we get paid for our photography, (though I certainly do like that to happen.)

I need to say this out loud because the explosion in digital imaging has prompted more photographers than ever think they want to become professionals. I am not writing to discourage them, but I am writing to make sure they ask themselves a few important questions before “going pro.”

The biggest question I would ask is why become a professional? One of the myths about being a “pro” is that we have more time for our photography. That is highly debatable, since most pros that I know spend far too much time marketing themselves, learning new software programs, organizing tax records/bills, keeping up on market trends, etc. When I was starting out I did NOT ask myself that question though I wish I had. I am not sure things would have ended up differently, but my thinking would have been clearer and my resulting actions would have been more directed.

The next question to ask is how will you get the experience required to seriously call yourself a professional? You should have that for your own peace of mind but equally importantly you need it so the client knows that you can deliver whatever it is that they need. Since photography has never been licensed as a profession like medicine or law, there is no certification to earn or exam to pass. Degrees from institutions teaching photography can help, but only to a point. The experience at the core of a pros set of skills is learned by photographing, critiquing and then repeating that over and over till the mistakes are few and the successes many. I am something of a slow learner who acquires knowledge visually and by doing. So, for me being a pro is the best way to do what I love and to continually learn what I need to know. That may not be true for everyone.

The last question is, are you ready for the inevitable compromises that come along with being a professional photographer? I say that because being a pro often means taking the thing we love (photography) and doing it on command, for money for strangers, which sounds a lot like a kind of prostitution.

With those questions in the back of my mind, two emails recently arrived and pushed this big question to the front of my mind:

One student wrote me:

I’ve been wondering about the wisdom of submitting photos to an online stock photo companies. Is this advisable as a possible source of income (or outlet for images)? Also, I’m not sure about alternatives such as MPIX and/or Zenfolio as potential outlets for images. Photographic “shows” have also crossed my mind as perhaps more suitable for what I do and my photographic interests. I want to do this because of the challenge of competition, the desire to contribute to the discipline, and of course the opportunity for remuneration.

So lets break down the answers. Think of this as a cost benefit analysis. We each only have a finite amount of free time so where can we put that limited time to use most effectively?

The problem with the online stock photo companies is that they are an incredibly inefficient use of the average photographer’s time. Lets take out the time to make the photos (the so-called fun part) and only count the image processing effort involved. The time spent key-wording, uploading and organizing those images is vast and the return is small. The only folks making money on what is also called micro-stock (because of the small size of the payment,) are either the agencies or those photographers churning out thousands of images. Prepping and sending a few dozen images a month is a complete waste of time if you look at it analytically. Also, stock photography is an anonymous business so you rarely get credit lines and often do not know which images are used where, so the visibility and/or feedback generated by stock imagery licensing is minimal at best.

Using MPIX and/or Zenfolio as a potential outlet for images can work, but again, is that good use of the limited amount of time one has? Those are great fulfillment services as noted below, assuming you have a market of people who want your specific images, like wedding and portrait photographers. If not, you are going to need to spend time marketing yourself to build up that market demand and again, that takes time.

Photographic “shows” are a hard way to make money rather than lose money. Again, the real question is why? There certainly is a great deal of competition in that market so if you feed on competition that might be a good market for your efforts.

This is not to argue against pursuing any of these various routes but be clear about what you will put into these efforts. Try also to be equally clear about what you hope to get out of the effort. A realistic perspective will increase your prospects for reward and mitigate the inevitable setbacks.

The real question for my correspondent, or any photographer, is what do you want to get out of selling prints, licensing stock or being in photographic shows? If you look at all three strategies, unless you have time to dedicate to them fully and/or are looking to be a full time professional photographer, they are not always very productive uses of your time.

Joining a serious critique group, disciplining yourself to photograph twice a week no matter what or immersing yourself in a community of thoughtful photographers will do more to improve your photography. When I press most aspiring pros that I meet, they admit that though the money is a consideration, what they really want is skill building and a supportive community.

The other student wrote:

I could use some feedback on pricing. I sent a link to my pix to the folks I went on tour with. One of the women would like to order prints of 45 of the images, for use with posters, etc. Here is my dilemma:

1) Do I sell them or just give them away? I’m leaning toward charging a small something….

2) What would I charge for these types of prints, unframed?? It seems as though other people who sell images on Zenfolio are putting very small prices on them, such as … each.

3) Zenfolio will allow me to turn on print ordering — they will print images and take the payments, etc. How concerned should I be about the print quality??? Selling products fulfilled by the Zenfolio labs would be the easiest solution.

Echoing what I wrote above, one thing makes us successful pros is that we are good at deciding where to spend our time and energy vs when is it better to pay someone else to do a job for us? With that idea of wisely using time in mind, should you use a lab such as Mpix or Zenfolio to make the prints that people want and have them ship those images to the buyers? Assuming you have calibrated your entire system and the lab makes the prints the way you want, then that seems like an easy YES. You will learn little or nothing new by making and shipping prints. Plus larger scale operations can do the same thing much cheaper so that is one place NOT to put your limited time and energy.

In terms of pricing, I cannot give you a dollar figure. Are your images unique? Look at them brutally honestly! If so, price them higher. If not, price them lower. You should be aware of what others are charging but only to a point. Also, do you want to raise funds for a non-profit organization by selling prints? If so, build that into your pricing and promote is loudly when you sell the prints. That motivates some people to buy.

I would think long and hard about why people are buying your images. Is it because you have what they could not get with their own cameras/skill sets? If so, then edit what you offer and set your prices accordingly. They probably have, or can easily get snap shots of the group activities/people, so do not dilute your portfolio by posting images they can easily get elsewhere.

Another pricing related mystery is why many people who want to be pros quibble about asking for money when they would never have “given away” their labor in their other lives. Lawyers, plumbers and barbers all charge for their services. They do that, because like me, they are professionals, having accumulated years or even decades of experience. Yet, when many of those same people start doing something like photography, their business skills seem to go out the door.

Also, when I read “One of the women would like to order prints of 45 of the images, for use with posters, etc.,” I worry because it sounds like she plans to make money off the images that you made. I would clarify that very carefully, price accordingly and get EVERYTHING in writing. Many people wrongly believe that owning a print entitles them to reproduce it. You need to remind her of that fact! One other thing that marks me as a professional is that I will do nothing for a client without something in writing. It is one of many reasons that I love e-mail, because I always have a paper trail in case something goes wrong, like it often does.

As a professional, speaking of using (or wasting) limited time and energy, I am very diligent about deducting all of my expenses from my income. The idea is that those expenses offset some of the income I make as a photographer, though not all. The Internal Revenue Service has what is known as the “hobby loss rule.” Simply, that says that you need to make a profit from your business three out of five years in order for the expenses to be allowed and for the business not to be considered a mere hobby.

One other example of efficient use of time is that when pros are actually out photographing, we tend to be very efficient in how we use our time. The experience I described above, our ability to plan a shoot and our willingness to cut our losses quickly when something does not work, all of those factors mean we generally use our limited “shooting time” pretty well.

Another thing that makes me a professional is that I have records of my business dealings and financial transactions. The fact that I have such records and can find images or information from a job done five years ago is very reassuring and important to certain clients.

These last items become important because, they are hallmarks of a professional. They are massive time-sucks that take a photographer away from the thing they love best. I am okay with them because I have chosen to be a professional photographer. I have a pretty clear idea where my time goes and why. For people who love photography and may (or may not) want to become professionals, such clarity is the key to enjoying the thing you love, photography, (and may be the key to making money while doing that.)

5 responses to “Going pro vs doing photography for love, not money”

  1. great discussion–one of the best I have read on the many issues of the day–thanks for sharing. I am a financial services exec turning my passion for photog into my long dreamed of and planned for ‘second act”–business is second nature to me which helps but amazed how many dont realize its a biz first–well said

  2. Glad to help! Hope you can successfully wear both your business and creative “hats.” Please feel free to share the link to the blog or the whole site!

  3. with all the work that goes into being a professional, the business side of the professional photographer equation:
    -keeping records and accounting and dealing with tax considerations of all that
    -marketing yourself
    -maintaining a pipeline of projects
    -focusing on being “effective” when out in the field shooting..
    -shooting “on command”
    etc.

    how do you keep those aspects from sapping the joy and fun of photography, which I take it was or is the core of why any professional is a photographer in the first place.

  4. Hi David,

    Great thought-provoker, thanks. Gets at the heart of why one does what one does.

    One question popped into my head reading this and, if you’d be willing of course, I’d like to know in broad strokes what your business model looks like. On a percentage basis, what are your sources of income as a professional photographer?

    I know from visiting with you last year your sources are varied and diverse and that teaching figures into your life a great deal (at least on a time basis). You have embraced this web-based world with your blogs and podcasts which is why I’m curious about the mix of income sources; how you have diversified your business.

  5. I think yours is such a great question I am going to blog about it, if you do not mind. Check back in the next month and I will try to have answered it.

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