Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

Recently I gave a short 2-hour presentation on street photography at one of the photography clubs at UC Berkeley. It was great being surrounded by students again– with all of the energy, enthusiasm, and passion that college kids have.

Some of the students asked me how I went from college to surviving off photography full-time as a living. I gave some of my personal experiences– and I had the realization: perhaps this was information that may be useful to other college students (who want to make photography their living), or anyone out there with a day-job who wants to make photography their living:

Question 1: Do you want to make photography your living?

So the first question you want to ask yourself before you pursue photography full-time as a living?

I know a lot of professional photographers who become miserable after taking their passion (photography) and making it their business.

Most artists I know can easily get burnt out doing professional work– and therefore have little energy or motivation to do personal work.

To be frank– I think being a “full-time” photographer is a bit overrated.

First of all– I think you have to think the downsides of being a full-time photographer:

  • Unstable income (like any freelance work)
  • Shrinking market for photographers (everyone can afford a nice DSLR nowadays and put together half-decent professional work)
  • Draining your energy (photography isn’t as fun if you do it full-time for a living)

So ask yourself: why do you want to do photography full-time? Here are some reasons you might:

  • Flexibility of schedule
  • Taking photos all the time (might be a pro or a con)
  • Freedom of time (to perhaps travel, or structure your days how you would like)

For myself personally, I make a full-time living teaching workshops (I make about 90% of my income from workshops, around 5% from Amazon Affiliate advertisements from this blog, and 5% from other miscellaneous gigs).

The reason I am a “full-time photographer” is that I fell into it. I never intended to do it full-time as a living. I merely was passionate about street photography, started this blog, did a few workshops, got laid off my old job, and decided to see if I could do workshops for a living.

Personally I love my life because I have the freedom of my schedule and time. At the end of the day, I am more passionate about writing, researching, reading, and teaching (than photography). Therefore being my “own boss” allows me to turn off the Internet in the morning (until the evening so I don’t get distracted). I can take naps in the middle of the day. I can travel (without asking my boss). I can control the structure of my day.

Of course there are a lot of downsides, in terms of stress of getting people to signup for my workshops, dealing with finances, balancing certain opportunities (which business opportunities to say yes to, and which to say “no” to), being away from home (when traveling and teaching workshops), and the anxiety I sometimes get from becoming totally broke and homeless.

The shift of photography in the future

The way I see it– the “traditional means” of being a full-time photographer is over. The only photographers I really see making a living “shooting” photography include commercial photographers and wedding photographers.

There is nobody really making a living selling prints, selling books, or licensing photographs. Of course there is– but they are such a tiny part of the market. And now that images are ubiquitous (just check out Shutterstock) – images are pretty worthless (in the marketplace).

Furthermore, see all the newspaper photojournalist jobs? Yeah– they don’t really exist anymore. Newspapers/magazines/journals don’t really make much money anymore– and they are trying to fire everyone they can (to save money). You hear stories of photojournalists getting laid off – and regular reporters being given iPhones to take photos while they are reporting.

Also if you consider Moore’s law– cameras are just getting better and better, while the price of professional cameras are getting cheaper and cheaper.

In around 10 years– we will all probably have “full-frame” sensors in our iPhone15’s (or whatever it will be) and it will be incredibly easy to make a technically perfect image.

What is going to be scarce in the future

I think there really isn’t going to be a market for selling images in the future– as the market is currently flooded with images.

I don’t really think there will be a huge market for selling photography-related products (straps, bags, etc.) – as 3-D printing will probably take that over (or someone in China will figure out how to sell your product for cheaper).

I don’t even think there will be a huge market for wedding or commercial photography in the future (everyone will be able to make amazing photos with iPhones or Google Glass). I think there will always be “professional photographers” – but only the top .000001% of them will be making a comfortable living, while everyone else will be surviving on scraps.

Education in photography

I think the biggest frontier in the future of photography is education. As humans, we always want to learn – we are learning machines. And as the saying goes, “Everyone is now a photographer” – it is bad for professional photographers (amateur photographers shoot weddings for $200) but good for photography teachers (everyone wants to learn).

I don’t really think there is a future for “selling content” in terms of articles, books, and videos– I imagine a future where all “content” will become free (just see what Amazon Kindle Unlimited is doing to the e-book market).

However there is something that cannot be replicated: experience. Face-to-face interaction. You cannot be replicated (unless they figure out how to clone you in the future).

What makes you unique?

I know I sound quite pessimistic in the future of photography– but I still do imagine there will always be people who will make a living from photography. But these future photographers will have to be much more creative– and think outside of the box (and also do exactly opposite of what others are doing to survive).

If you want to pursue photography full-time and just tell yourself, “Oh– I’ll just be a second-shooter as a wedding photographers, and just shoot weddings for a living” you’re in trouble. Although there won’t be a shortage of people getting married in the future– there will only be more and more wedding photographers out there, competing with each others on price, and although it might be possible to make a living as a full-time wedding photographer– you probably won’t be making a comfortable living.

Rather, think about what makes you unique. What makes you special? What gives you that edge?

For example, my manager Neil Ta currently shoots commercial and wedding photography full-time as a living (as well as helping me plan workshops and business-related ventures). What sets him apart from other wedding photographers is that he has an interest in street photography, urban landscapes, and (formerly) roof topping. He’s therefore done some engagement shoots in which he incorporates his passion and talent for urban-image making into his wedding photos.

Furthermore, he is able to stand out of the crowd by delivering over-the-top customer service. He is extremely responsive with emails, over-delivers in terms of his final images, and is a charming bastard who gets along with his clients really well.

So if you really want to go the wedding-photographer (or commercial photographer) route– think what makes you unique.

Are you currently studying computer science? Perhaps you can see if you can even design custom-made websites for your photography clients after you take their images. Or maybe even some sort of simple program (to stand from the crowd).

Are you a musician? Perhaps you can make photos of a couple – and somehow incorporate music into your final product (or even having your friends play live-music while you are doing a shoot).

Are you a writer? Maybe you can write the couple a poem, or some short story. Or perhaps put together a photography book, accompanying the images with text.

Before you quit your day job (to become a photographer)

One of the best strategies I have heard in business is the following: Don’t go broke. Before you try to become “rich” – just prevent yourself from being homeless.

So some practical strategies when (if) you decide to become a full-time photographer:

1. Have some money saved up

It is crucial to have a little money saved up– because there is nothing more stressful than quitting your job and not being able to have the financial means to pursue photography full-time.

I have heard something like have at least 3–6 months of living expenses under your belt before leaving a stable job. It is always good to have buffer space financially.

2. Realize that you can do freelance work while working a full-time job

Also realize that you don’t need to immediately quit your job. For example, I worked at my company for a year (while building up my blog) before I got laid off– and decided to pursue photography full-time.

If you have a cozy job, don’t quit your day job. Pursue your photography gigs on the weekend, and once you start earning enough money through your photography– then maybe consider quitting your job.

3. Don’t go to photography school

I think one of the biggest pieces of advice I would give to people is to avoid going to photography school. Based on all the photographers I have met– almost all of them regret going to photography school. Why? They go into massive amounts of debt ($200,000+) and all of the technical things they could have learned via the internet. In terms of mentorship, they could have been an assistant to a working photographer – or read loads of photography-books (and perhaps even took workshops instead).

Going into debt is one of the worst things you can do to yourself. It makes you a slave – and the stress of debt is one of the worst things you can do for your creativity.

A different approach: start your own blog

I outlined some strategies which (I think) would be ideal if you want to pursue photography full-time (as a photographer).

However realize that my advice isn’t probably any good– because I have never made a full-time living just from shooting. From my understanding, it is a really tough landscape out there for working photographers (it will only get harder). So at the end of the day– I don’t actually recommend anybody out there to try to be a “working photographer” or a full-time shooter.

I think you should be more creative.

If I could give any piece of advice to a high school, college, or perhaps working person it is this: Start your own blog.

Think about it, at what other point in time could you create a platform, which could be read by millions of people around the world at no (or very little) cost? Anyone can start a WordPress blog (the one I recommend) via wordpress.com (or self-host their own).

What is the big deal with a blog?

I can only speak from personal experience– but starting a blog on street photography is the best thing I ever did in my life.

When I started my blog– there was a dearth (absence) of knowledge of street photography on the internet. There were lots of great street photographs online– but very few resources on how to shoot street photography, the best settings to use, how to compose images, and how to overcome the fear of shooting street photography.

I just started my blog as a hobby– something I did because I was passionate about it. I never intended to make it a full-time living.

But through blogging, it has brought me so many opportunities. Over the last 4+ years and 1,000+ blog posts, I have gotten invitations to exhibit my work, to curate work, to teach workshops, to write books, give lectures, etc.

I always thought the secret to becoming “successful” was to simply get lucky– and go to others and trying to get them to say “yes” to you.

I now think differently: the best way is to build up your own platform, and let others come to you.

The importance of passion

I once read something online: If you suddenly had $100 billion dollars, and you could do anything you wanted for the rest of your life (without worrying about finances) – what would you do with your life?

Some people might say retire on a beach, travel the world, photograph– whatever.

I think it is a good idea to think of what you would want to do full-time day-to-day for the rest of your life (assuming money wasn’t an issue). Then after you figure out your ideal lifestyle, then work backwards– and figure out how you can do it financially.

For example, let’s say your passion in life is to travel and see the world. Then look for jobs (or create your own job) in which you get to travel and see the world and photograph. This can be as simple as being a tour guide, an English teacher, or perhaps you can start a blog on traveling and photography and see where that leads you.

Let’s say that your ultimate passion is street photography. Your ideal life is you wanting to shoot the streets all day. Honestly, you don’t need to be a “full-time” street photographer to do this. Perhaps you can just work a regular job, and get into work really early (6am) and get out of the office by 3pm– and just shoot from 3–7pm everyday (4 hours a day of shooting is a lot). Or perhaps if you want more flexibility, you can become a taxi-driver (or Uber driver) and only drive a few days a week (enough to pay your rent) – and then you can use the rest of your free time to shoot on the streets.

Let’s say you’re passionate about fashion. Perhaps see if you can intern at a fashion magazine, and offer to make some photographs for them. Perhaps you can suggest to do the social media for a fashion magazine, and end up working with them and other fashion photographers. And perhaps one day you can end up shooting fashion full-time.

So know what you are passionate about– and move backwards.

And you really have to be insanely passionate about what you do.

For example– I am passionate about street photography. Not just passionate– but borderline obsessive. It is literally all I think about. I eat, live, breathe, sleep, read, write street photography. I go to sleep, thinking about the next article I want to write for this blog. I go out everyday with the excitement of making a beautiful image. I am passionate about bringing other street photographers together (spreading the love) – and teaching workshops makes me feel 100% alive.

I would honestly continue doing this blog full-time and teaching full-time even if I didn’t make money doing it. I just need enough money to pay my rent and basic expenses in life– but other than that, I want to maximize my time on this earth to write, research, teach, and build a community around street photography.

If you don’t have a borderline insanity when it comes to photography– perhaps you shouldn’t pursue photography full-time. There is nothing wrong to have a full-time job and just shoot photography on the side for fun.

Conclusion

I just briefly outlined some of my ideas I have when it comes to being a “full-time photographer”. Let me recap some ideas once again:

1. Being a full-time photographer is overrated

If your passion is to shoot– perhaps you can see how you can adjust the schedule of your day-job to shoot more? The benefit of having a day-job is that it allows you the financial security to shoot purely for yourself, and not corrupting your personal work with your commercial work.

Perhaps you can wake up an hour earlier to shoot before going to work– and leave work a little earlier to shoot. Perhaps you can work only part-time, to have more time to shoot. Try to figure out how you can modify your own lifestyle before you jump off the ship and pursue photography full-time.

2. Differentiate yourself

If you want to be a full-time photographer– think how you can step outside of the box and add your unique personality and flair to your images.

Also realize you don’t need to make a full-time living just shooting street photography. Perhaps you can be a full-time photography teacher. Perhaps you can manage a team of photographers. Perhaps you can design and code a start-up which serves photographers. Perhaps you can make some revolutionary photography strap, bag, or product that allows you to be around photography. Perhaps you can start your own blog, magazine, or publication about photography (and sell advertisements in it and make a living).

Expand your horizons.

3. Follow your passion

If you aren’t insanely passionate about photography– I would say don’t even try to pursue photography as a living. You won’t survive. Someone else out there will out-work you, out hustle you, and out passion you.

You can’t fake passion– the hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, and stress that will make you great.

I hope to add some more thoughts on being a full-time photographer, and some more practical strategies and insights.

For those else of you who are full-time photographers, teachers, or whatever– what kind of tips or advice would you give aspiring photographers (who want to make it a living?) Share your thoughts in the comments below.