From Photographer to Bus Conductor: COMMENTS/FEEDBACK

Here in the USA, it is entirely possible to make a decent living at being a portrait/wedding photographer. That’s basically the photographic equivalent to being the family dentist. You build relationships with your customers. One reason why doing high school senior portraits is important is it opens the door to your being their wedding photographer. But to do high school senior portraits, you have to be seen taking pictures at various events, like at church, school or other social activities where families in your circles are at. Once you have shot a person’s wedding, if they haven’t moved away, you get to shoot their baby pictures and the cycle continues.

Building up a successful photography business as a home-town portrait/wedding photographer is a lot of work and you are always going to be cultivating new customers and contacts. But it is so important to build relationships. One reason why most photographers of this genre are shooting other things, like team pictures, commercial work and other things like that is so they can either be building contacts or filling in the holes of their time in building the business. It takes a good ten years before the business stabilizes and the repeat work will account for the majority of your sales. If there is a school event anywhere in your community, you need to be there with your camera shooting all the kids and handing out business cards.

The biggest problem that the vast majority of photographers struggle with isn’t getting the customers, but running their business as a business. A photography business is less about photography and more about running a business in a service industry. This means that you have to very carefully manage your costs (no buying new cameras every six months), have successful marketing methods (keeping the existing customers returning while flogging the sheets for new ones), and having little to no credit. Over 90% of all small businesses will fail within five years. Sometimes that failure is disguised as “losing interest and changing directions” but the fact is, the business is shut down and the proprietor “gets a real job”. My own photography business has been a low-key affair and always a part-time operation. But it’s been there since 1989. What may be of fascination is that over any 5 year period of time I’ve made more take home money through my part-time business than the vast majority of full-time photographers have. What is sad is that it wasn’t much. There are reasons why I still shoot an E-1. It’s paid for, does the job, is extremely reliable and totally depreciated off the books. I waited before buying it when the price came down enough that I bought a factory refurb with lens for $1024 USD. Other equipment has been purchased in similar manners.

We make a huge mistake in our teaching people to become photographers. We really shouldn’t be teaching photography as much as we are teaching business. As is seen every time you go into a Walmart, Sears or Target and see the “portrait studio” or the mall photographer taking pictures of screaming kids with Santa Claus, ANYBODY can be taught to take pictures. THAT isn’t much of a skill set. Posing and getting people to look their best is more an issue of people skills. But those photographers are “employees” earning near minimum wage. If you want to be self-employed as a photographer, you have to be a businessman. Frankly, you could hire those same minimum wage workers to do the photography while you are out drumming up business or managing the paperwork. After all, the non-photography parts of being a self-employed photographer IS A FULL-TIME JOB.

So, just how much can a home-town photographer make? Is it possible to earn a decent living? Well, let’s run some numbers. These are all USD.

Desired annual income (pre-tax take-home pay) of $60,000.

So we start with $60,000. Add 15% to that for retirement savings and we’re up to $69,000. Round this up to $70,000.

A studio (rented or built) will run you about $12,000 per year. (Rent of $1000 per month, or the value of money on construction is equivalent). You can fudge this one way or another from $500 to $2500 per month depending on location and quality of the facility. Most of us would top it out at $1000 per month.

Equipment. You can actually get going pretty inexpensively, but upgrading and replacing equipment is a given. Figure $2000 per year averaged out over five years. Computers and software not included. Probably another $1500 per year for computers and software.

Utilities. Electricity, telephone, water/sewer/garbage, heat/cooling, etc. $6000 per year.

Insurance. $500 per year.

Licenses, fees and accounting. $1000 per year.

Miscellaneous costs that come up, including set construction, parking lot repair, signage, etc. $6000 per year. That’s only $500 per month. It happens.

Vehicle costs. $6000 per year.

Your baseline costs are $105,000 per year. That’s before the first customer walks in the door. Said another way, that’s about $2020 per week.

How many hours per week do you desire to actually be serving customers? As a sole proprietor with no employees, you can’t do more than 20 hours per week. This means that you have to have a net profit PER HOUR of about $100. For every single customer you spend an hour with, you need to net $100. Sitting fee for an hour shoot? We’re typically getting between $75 and $150. The assumption is that for every hour of customer time, you have no more than an hour of order processing time AND business management. (This is why most of us work far into the night and are putting in 80 hours a week).

Print sales are very important. You can’t just earn your money on the sitting fee. How much should you charge? You have your baseline numbers as defined above. If you front-load your income (pre-pay, fees, packages, etc), the revenue from the prints need not be as much. But if you back-load your income, (print sales), then you must not only cover your entire baseline, but also the cost of production. Product pricing in a retail environment is partially accounting, partially market forces.

Speaking of cost of production in print sales, the absolute worst thing you can do is produce your own prints. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea. You are front-loading all your costs in computers, printers, RIPs, profiling and supplies. If you don’t know what “cost of money” is, please do your research. If you want a quick-and-dirty estimate, for every $1 you spend, the cost of that $1 over five years is about $1.35. Another major reason why it is a bad idea is time investment. Are you a photographer? A business person? Or a lab technician? Pick any two. Thirdly, you run a massive risk of failure to deliver when you have equipment problems. Do yourself a big favor and outsource the printing. While you are at it, consider outsourcing not just the final color/density adjustments but spot editing too. There are people at labs like Millers which do this far faster and at less cost than what you can do. Most importantly, this is a run-time cost NOT an upfront cost. This expense ONLY occurs when you have the sales. No sales, no costs.

Whatever you do, NEVER borrow money to establish a photography business. Not only is it stupid to take on any debt, but you can build the business from bottom up scaling your expenses entirely with the income. No income? No expenses. It also helps to have a spouse who is working and has health insurance. When you borrow money for the business, you MUST have steady income to pay for the loans. If you have a slow month or two, and your cash reserves are depleted, you will have to shut the business down. It really is totally unnecessary to borrow money to build a photography business.

So, how much can a home town photographer earn? By him or herself, that $60,000 is really about it. When you get past the 20 hours per week with the clients, you start to need assistants. Unfortunately, this is usually an expense which seems to eat up whatever additional income is earned. The more you earn, the more you spend. Each of these numbers is a bit elastic. A person can run tight on facility, vehicle and other costs, but that only means that you need to save money from one year to the next to absorb costs that might occur there. You really have consider a five-year running average adjusted for inflation. All of these costs, identified above, can vary a bit depending on the photographer, local market conditions and location. But it does point out a trend that for every 20 hours of direct customer contact, you need one full-time employee, assuming outsourcing of all printing.

An easy answer to this $2020 per week need is to shoot more weddings. Most home town photographers I know are either wedding photographers who shoot portraits to fill out the budget or are portrait photographers who use weddings to pay for the kids’ braces and for vacations. Most photographers shoot an average of 35 weddings per year. That $105,000 divided by 35 is $3000 per wedding NET PROFIT. That means your average package price is going to have to be around $4000 if you are solo, $4500 if you have a second-shooter. Obviously, that’s not going to fly for most of us. The typical home town photographer is averaging half that. That means that no more than half your business can be reliant on weddings. There are full-time wedding photographers doing quite well, but they are also well over 50 weddings per year and have other tricks of cost avoidance. In reality, though, if you honestly look at the five-year average, even these high-flyers rarely have take-home pay that exceeds $100,000 per year. There are possibly a hundred wedding photographers in the entire USA that exceed $100,000 per year averaged income. (all of them seem to be on dpreview claiming to have $15,000 package prices…don’t believe them, they are living in a fantasy world).

This is all about business economics.

Ken Norton


A while ago I read somewhere that professional photographers in the USA earn not
much, with the situation deteriorating in the last years due to microstock and
the oversupply of images. So I’m not surprised, in fact I would have been
surprised if Mr Dee had been successful as a photographer.

Alfred Molon


And this is where I think a lot of people don’t understand where people make
money on photography these days. MOST photography is sold as a SERVICE rather
than a product. It used to be you could make a good living taking and selling
stock photos where you literally are selling the shots you took. Likewise the
same could be said for things like news photography and such where the photo is
the product. 

But as you mention through out your post Ken, most photography now is not so
much the photos themselves (since a LOT of people can not make great photos) but
instead the service you are providing by actually attending a wedding and
committing 12 hours of your day to taking photos on top of things like editing
and getting prints done not to mention all the “specials” you will be requested
to take while there. 

In addition part of the “service” provided isn’t just the photo itself, but
knowing how to take that photos in the first few shots (time = money). In other
words, anyone of us can take that perfect senior photo for someone’s yearbook
with a cheap external monolight, an umbrella, and all the time in the world to
try different places, backgrounds and poses. What you get paid for is being able
to have the client arrive and you not only have backgrounds and equipment ready
but also the experience to know how to pose someone and set up that same
equipment to get great shots from the get go to get the professional looking
shot within minutes.

But if you are competing other photographers to sell your lovely field of
flowers shot to an advertisement firm looking for that perfect shot for the
client’s nasal de-congestive spray, well your shot will be competing with a few
thousand others, many of them amateurs, soccer moms, as well as pro shooters.

Olympic Rings…


I think this is a really good analysis Ken, I hope you will consider posting it
to a blog somewhere so kids taking Photography in college can get a realistic
idea of what they’re facing if they want a career in photography.

Mike Scirocco


The good ones make good money.
The rest… not so much.

Photographers are still in demand for “on location” shoots, like
weddings. But many people buy a minimum package and rely on snap-shots
from family and friends to make the photo story complete.
When our son got married, he had hired a photographer to take a number
of specific pictures. While they were being taken, no one else was
allowed to have a camera out to take their own pictures – by contract
the photographer could have packed up and our son would still have to
pay a set fee, had anyone taken even one picture there.

Competition for portrait-style photography is stiff. Department stores
like Sears or Walmart have their own studios, and for a few dollars you
can have your and your family’s pictures taken. The first picture is
often free, you only pay a sitting fee of around $12 – $15. But watch
out for the pressure to buy more images for outrageous prices.


This is the biggest problem most creatives, not just photographers, have
trying to make a living at their art. Musicians, writers, etc. They want to
sell product, with a business model of “if you make it, they will come”.
That simply is not going to happen in the day and age when all such
“product” is a series of ones and zeroes that can be squirted out in
millions of copies at the speed of light. What you have to sell is your
time and talent, and the relationship you establish with the people who
might want to pay you for them.

Working that kind of business model is a whole different skill set than is
required for creating art.

Rex Deaver