On Free Street Photography

Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

One question I am asked a lot is how I make a living in street photography, and questions about selling prints, and making money.

To start off, I am blessed enough to make a living from my street photography in teaching workshops. I make about 95% of my living from workshops (and around 5% from Amazon affiliates from links to books and other products on the blog).

But I have always been an advocate of “open source” in life and photography– and the greatness of having things open and free.

One blogger who has really inspired my idea of keeping everyone open and free is Leo from “Zen Habits who came up with this concept of “uncopyright in which he doesn’t copyright any of his articles. He claims it hasn’t hurt him in any way– but actually helped him.

For me too, I have found a great business model: to give everything away for free on my blog (articles, videos, guides) and only charge for workshops (at a higher price). This is what philosopher Nassim Taleb calls a “barbell strategy of embracing both extremes.

I think most of you who are reading this have a full-time job (or are a student) and not making a living from photography. Street photography is your passion and love in life. But yet, you might wonder, “Hmmm– I wonder if I could make a few bucks selling prints and stuff like that.”

Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

My personal recommendation is to once again embrace the barbell strategy– keep your photography and your work separate. Have a comfortable and secure day-job, and use that comfort, money, and stability to let you take more risks in your photography.

I know a lot of photographers who take the “middle-path”– of shooting weddings and commercial work which doesn’t make them happy, but pays the bills. But the downside of this is that they often are too burnt out from shooting commercial work that they don’t have enough energy to shoot their own personal work.

However I know other guys who work as businessmen and shoot street photography fully as a hobby. They might not like their jobs so much, but when they are off work– they are totally free. They can photograph whatever they want, and their livelihood doesn’t depend on their photography. I feel this is an “ideal” situation. And also the plus of having a stable job (that is decently paid) is that you can afford camera, film, photography books, workshops, and money to travel and explore.

So if you have a full-time job and do street photography as a hobby and a passion– I recommend keeping everything free. What do I mean by that? Here are some examples:

1. Free prints

Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

If you don’t make a living selling prints, I recommend not charging for them. If a person likes a photo of yours, print it and give it to them for free.

There are many upsides to this approach. First of all, you don’t deal with the stress of figuring out the pricing of your prints (which is quite stressful). Secondly, you give the person a great surprise and it also makes you feel great. Lastly, giving a free print might actually be financially advantageous for you in the long run. If that person runs a company and you give them a free print– maybe that can lead to some sense of gratitude, and they end up helping you in some other way (giving you business connections, offering you a job, etc).

Also to be quite honest– printing stuff is pretty cheap (unless you go to a super high-end place). But most people don’t own prints, and giving someone a print is one of the kindest gestures you can give. Everybody loves art.

2. Free teaching

Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

Another way you can contribute to others is by giving free photography classes or lectures. This can be as simple as volunteering one day a week teaching photography to less-privileged students in an inner-city. Or it can mean teaching your nephew, cousin, or sibling a thing or two about photography.

I also recommend everyone to have their own photography blog, whether it be on WordPress, Tumblr, or whatever platform you use. Use that platform as to share your own tips, lessons, and tricks that you use with others.

I find that giving away free knowledge pays huge dividends. A lot of people tell me that my business sense of giving away my “content” on my blog for free and charging for my workshops is brilliant. Honestly, I never thought of things that way– I just wanted to be as helpful to the street photography community as possible, by writing lessons that I’ve personally learned along the way. I am still a student and learning in my personal street photography journey. But sharing the small tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way has helped others.

3. Free cameras


Let’s face it– digital cameras are like smartphones. They get outdated every 2 years (sometimes even quicker, every 6-months to 1 year)– and we always upgrade.

I am a big advocate of buy books, not gear. But if you have the money and resources to buy both books and gear– I think it makes sense to upgrade digital cameras every 2-5 years. I upgrade my smartphone at least once a year, and my own laptop every 2 years– so I think if you consider that a digital camera is a small computer, the same timeframe applies.

But anyways, I have gone through a lot of different cameras the last 8 years. This is what happened to all of them:

  • Canon point-and-shoot (gave it to my mom)
  • Olympus EPM-1 (gave it to my mom)
  • Canon Rebel XT (gave it to one of my best friends)
  • Canon 5D (gave it to my friend’s little brother who wanted to study photography in school)
  • Leica M9 (sold it, and used the funds to buy a Leica MP)
  • Leica M6 (which was given to me by a good friend– and I also gave it to another good friend who is an extremely talented photographer, Bill Reeves)
  • Ricoh GR1s (sold it and bought a Ricoh GR1v)
  • Ricoh GR1v (gave it to my friend Josh White, who is much more talented than me at shooting black and white film)
  • Contax T3 (still own it, and use it on trips to the grocery store)
  • Leica MP (still own, and is my main camera)
  • Pentax K3 (given to me for free from Pentax, gave it to my friend Medhi Bouqua who needed a camera)
  • Hasselblad 501c (gave it to my girlfriend Cindy)
  • Ricoh GR (gave it to my girlfriend Cindy)
  • Fujifilm x100s (currently use)
  • Fujifilm XT-1 (currently collecting dust, prefer using the x100s)

I have personally found that giving away all of my cameras have brought me much more joy than hoarding all of them.

By giving it away, I am able to empower and give an opportunity to other photographers. Simply by hoarding it– I will never use it (it will collect dust), and its potential will be wasted.

So next time you plan on upgrading your camera, consider giving it away to someone in need. This can be a parent, a sibling, a relative, a local photography program– or anyone willing to learn (but may not have the means to a camera).


Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

I think all of us living in capitalistic economies– we want to always make a few extra bucks on the side. But I think at the end of our lives, we will better remember and appreciate the times we’ve been generous (instead of how much 0’s we had in our bank accounts).

So consider adding more “free” in your street photography.

I don’t think this works for everybody and every circumstance– but just some ideas for you to chew on.

Please share your thoughts and personal ideas in the comments below!