Berkeley, 2014
Berkeley, 2014
Berkeley, 2014

I currently wrote an article titled: “Advice for Aspiring Full-Time Photographers” which had a lot of interest. I have also been connecting a lot of young photographers lately (high school and college students)— and wanted to focus on doing more blogging which aimed at the younger photography population. Of course this doesn’t just have to be age— it can also be based on experience. So if you consider yourself as a young photographer (age-wise), experience-wise, or want some insights about the economics of being a full-time photographer, this article might be of some insight to you.

1,000 True Fans

I recently read (actually re-read many times) an article by Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired magazine) titled: “1,000 true fans.” It is probably the best piece of marketing advice for anyone aspiring to make a living (not getting rich) doing what they love.

Pretty much the sum of his article is that for an artist to make a comfortable living (doing what he/she loves) — all the artist needs is 1,000 “true fans.”

Now how would you define a “true fan?” Kelly uses an example: someone who is willing to spend up to a full-days wages (let’s say $100) once a year.

So if you do the math, if you multiply $100×1000 people, you get $100,000 (actually a very good living — enough to support a family quite well).

Of course the number doesn’t necessarily need to be 1,000. It can be less (500) or more (5,000). But the general gist is that you don’t need hundreds and thousands (or millions) of viewers, readers, or fans to make a living at what you do.

Myself as a case example

So let me do a case-example of myself:

I currently have around 60,000+ fans on Facebook, 20,000+ followers on Twitter, 10,000+ on Instagram, and other fans on other social media networks. My blog averages around 12,000-16,000 page views a day.

I currently make around 90% of my living from teaching street photography workshops, and around 10% doing miscellaneous other things.

Currently I charge (on average) around $500 (early-bird) for each workshop I teach. Each workshop I generally get around 8–14 students, so it ranges from ($3000-$6000) profit per workshop I teach. I currently teach around 1–2 workshops a month, so my income varies from around $3,000-$15,000 a month. In the past my yearly income has ranged anywhere from $36,000 to $120,000. This doesn’t include all my expenses (which are a lot).

I would say on average (after expenses) I earn currently around $3,000–6,0000 a month— which is more than comfortable for a guy without any children. My expenses are low (I only spend around $1,3000 a month in rent for a 1-bedroom in Berkeley with Cindy, I don’t buy new cameras, and try to not buy things I don’t need). The only more expensive things I spend money on is film, developing, and coffee (I consider this more as an “expense” for getting blogging done).

Anyways, to sum up— I’m not getting super-rich off teaching workshops through street photography (otherwise I would have chosen to become a lawyer or a investment banker). But at the same time, I’m not a “starving” artist either. I live comfortably, have enough to go out with Cindy, put away a little money into savings, and don’t stress about finances. I live a good comfortable life.

On average I have around 15–20 students attend a workshop per month, which amounts too around I’d say around 150–200 students a year.

Now that is a lot less than the 1,000 “true fans” that Kevin Kelly mentioned— but he still brings up a good point: you don’t need a million “true fans” to make a comfortable living doing what you’re doing— you just need enough “true fans” to keep you going.

Finding 1,000 “true fans” in your photography

So obviously I teach street photography workshops for a living, and that is my passion and what brings me the most joy in my life. But teaching is not for everybody.

Here are some different types you can earn a living through photography (not a comprehensive list):

  1. Photography teacher (teach at a high school or college, teach workshops, teach private courses).
  2. Full-time photographer (shoot weddings, commercial gigs, portraits, babies, etc.).
  3. Web developer for photography-related apps (Flickr, Google+, Facebook, Instagram, Pro Camera, or any other photography-related start-up).

Those are currently some of the professions I could personally think of (related to photography) which I personally deem as “viable”. I’m sure there are tons others— but these seem to be the most viable way to make a living through photography.

So let us try to crunch some numbers, and see how many “true fans” each of these careers would need for you to make a living.

Making a living through photography

For Kevin Kelley’s example, he thought that a “comfortable living” for an artist to make a living out of what he/she did was around $100,000. That is a damn comfortable living.

I think it is more realistic to say something like $36,000. Once again, that is a very low yearly salary— but enough to survive and ”make a living”.

1. Photography teacher (teach at a high school or college, teach workshops, teach private courses).

If you are a full-time photography teacher (at a university, college, or a high school) you’re probably going to be earning at least $35,000+ — which isn’t a great living (but enough to survive).

If you teach workshops on your own, you need to clear at least $3,000 a month. Assuming you taught 4 workshops a month (all on the weekends), you would need to earn at least $750 a week, which amounts to 10 students each paying $75 a week. I think this is definitely do-able.

Also a “true fan” is someone who is willing to pay money to attend your workshop. Focus on cultivating your “true fans” by giving them great information that builds value to their lives (how-to tutorials, free e-books, free presets, your personal experiences, advice, etc.).

2. Full-time photographer (shoot weddings, commercial gigs, portraits, babies, etc.).

Once again, you need to earn at least $750 a weekend, which is definitely possible shooting weddings or commercial gigs.

If you’re starting off as a wedding photographer, you can probably charge $800 (and get away with it). And during the week shoot other commercial gigs (to make your living).

But know as a full-time photographer, you have to hustle hard. And even though you might not charge a lot for a wedding (let’s say $800) — there will always be someone out there willing to shoot it for even less (let’s say $500).

Needless to say, the market for professional photography (I think) is hugely over-saturated. You can only make it if you hustle hard, network like crazy, have marketing skills, and differentiate yourself from your competition.

For a full-time photographer, a “true fan” is someone who loves your work so much that they are willing to spend money to hire you for their wedding, headshot, corporate event, or whatever.

Focus on making beautiful images (the best images you can create) and put yourself out there by going to lots of parties (lots of business cards), networking, and building connections.

3. Web developer for photography-related apps (Flickr, Google+, Facebook, Instagram, Pro Camera, or any other photography-related start-up).

I think if you’re a high school student or college student— I’d recommend to study computer science (do photography as a minor or on the side for fun). Why? You can build cool photography-related applications, which might end up being a great way for you to (indirectly) make a living from photography.

Worst-case scenario, if you can’t program or do something photography-related, you can always end up getting a normal job (as a programmer), and shooting for yourself before/after work— and on the weekends (which is totally cool too).

If you create your own photography-related startup, think about how many “true fans” you need to download your app, and perhaps shell out 99 cents to either pay for the “pro” version of your application, or pay for extras like filters or added functions. Create a truly amazing application and product, and position your features correctly— and people will pay the money.

Other tips to make a living as a full-time photographer

If you are super die-hard about making a living as a full-time photographer, here are some more practical tips:

1. Keep your expenses low

It doesn’t matter if you earn $10,000 a month as a photographer. If you’re spending $9,000 a month in expenses (and just buying random stuff you don’t need) — that is bad business.

My advice is to keep your expenses super-low. Meaning: don’t buy new gear (unless you really need it). And even if you need new-gear, just get whatever is the best “bang-for-the-buck” for commercial work.

Do all of your marketing, design, and financial work yourself (so you don’t have to hire someone else to do it for you).

Don’t rent out a studio where you have to pay rent from. Work out of your apartment (or your parent’s basement). Keeping your overhead (monthly expenses for space) low is an essential.

Maybe you have to eat cup-ramen for a few months, but if you really want to make a living as a photographer— starting off, this is the sacrifice you’re probably going to have to make.

2. Appease your 1,000 true fans

Honestly, if you want to make a living as a photographer nowadays (or any other artist), I think it is around 80% marketing, and 20% of your art.

There is so much competition out there— and good marketing isn’t just spamming people to follow you or whatever.

What is good marketing? Once again, try to please your 1,000 true fans.

If you find someone who is following you on social media, send them a thank you— and perhaps create a conversation and engage with them.

I think it is better to engage closely with 1,000 true fans than never interact with 1,000,000 (not as interested) fans.

Engagement is one of the keys to build a relationship, a sense of trust, and love with your audience.

If you can’t engage with everyone— then pour out your soul and heart into everything you do. If you’re a photography blogger, don’t just write for clicks and spam your website with advertisements. Rather, write from your experiences and be open and true. Be transparent, wear your heart on your sleeve. Write touching stories about your personal experiences in photography. Be open with your advice and knowledge, and give it away for free.

I don’t honestly think there is a future for making a living through photography purely off display advertisements (honestly when is the last time you clicked on a banner ad?) — it will be through (I think) teaching workshops, selling products (books, information, t-shirts, etc.) and experiences (workshops, trips, speaking engagements).

When it comes to “marketing” — I always think to myself, is this article I write, Instagram photo I upload, or comment I leave going to add value to my “true” fans? If I think it is going to add value— I do it. If not, I don’t do it.

Also know that by appealing to your 1,000 “true fans” — you’re going to piss a lot of people off. After all, not everyone out there is going to be a “true fan”. You might get “haters”, trolls, or people who are just halfway interested in what you’re doing. Don’t try to appease them (they will waste your time, energy, and attention). Appease the people who are truly rooting for you.

3. Give it time

I blogged for around 2 years solid before I was able to start making a living off teaching street photography workshops. This meant that while having a full-time job (and still being in school), I would wake up quite early, and blog at least 3 times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). I put a huge amount of effort building up my social media channels, by engaging my audience on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, YouTube, etc. Unfortunately at the moment— I have too many followers to have an authentic engagement (and engage very little). But on the flip side, I try to engage by writing more emotional, helpful, and insightful articles (which I think will help my 1,000 true fans).

So know that if you want to make a full-time living in photography, it won’t happen over-night. Give it time.

Conclusion

There is nothing wrong about having a full-time job (before you do your photography full-time as a living). And honestly I think in a lot of ways, being a full-time photographer is less glamorous in reality than it seems.

But if your passion, soul, and life is only about photography— and you want to pursue it full-time, I highly encourage you to do it. I give you all the love, support, and enthusiasm to pursue your life’s calling.

You can do it. Just be thrifty, create value to your 1,000 true fans, and stay true to yourself. Don’t “sell out” (disobey your own internal morals or virtues to make a quick buck)— do what feels authentic to you.

Now go out and cultivate those 1,000 true fans.

Make sure to also read Kevin Kelly’s original article: “1,000 true fans.

Related articles on Marketing and Photography

Below are some articles that are related to marketing and photography, and the philosophy behind it which I recommend:

  1. A Photographer’s Guide to SEO, Blogging, and Social Media
  2. A Letter to My 18 Year Old Self: If I Started Street Photography All Over Again
  3. Advice for Aspiring Full-Time Photographers
  4. On Social Media and Street Photography
  5. On Patience and Street Photography

10 Things Photographers Shouldn’t Do in Social Media

Some more recommended advice on things (not) to do in social media):

  1. Don’t follow a bunch of people (just to get a “follow-back”)
  2. Don’t add your photos to 100’s of groups on Flickr just to get more “views” and “favs”
  3. Don’t upload photos everyday (unless they are all really good photos)
  4. Don’t spend more time on social media than going out and taking photos
  5. Don’t be jealous that other photographers have more followers than you (someone will always have more followers than you)
  6. Don’t check your social media stats several times a day
  7. Don’t spam your posts with #hashtags (limit it to under 2-3)
  8. Don’t favor quantity > quality
  9. Don’t Instagram your food
  10. Don’t forget– the most “social” thing to do as a photographer is to meet other photographers in “real life”.
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