A lot of photographers want to make money with their photography. But a better question should be this: “Should I make money with my photography?” In this article I want to share some of my personal experiences— whether monetizing your passion will lead you to hate photography, or whether it will empower you.
Obviously it is preferable to have money in today’s economy. Money allows us to pay the rent, pay for the gas in our car, and pay for our food and subsistence.
But think to yourself first: why do I desire more money? Do I truly “need” more money— or do I simply want more money?
In the context of photography, you probably have a full-time job. If you have a 9-5 (that you might not love), you might pursue photography as a side hobby or passion.
I think a lot of us are miserable with our jobs and our 9-5 cubicle lifestyles. We dream of escape, dream of traveling the world, camera-in-hand.
I used to feel this way. I felt like a “cubicle slave” after working at my company, and I wanted more freedom. I hated the arbitrary feeling of being stuck at the office, even though all my work was done. I enjoyed doing (some) of my work, and I certainly enjoyed the company of my co-workers. But feeling trapped and feeling like a prisoner wasn’t something I enjoyed.
I romanticized the idea of being a full-time photographer and just having the freedom to always go out and take photos. I imagined traveling all around the world, making amazing photos, gaining tons of social media followers, becoming “famous”, having expensive Leica cameras, and all that jazz.
I have been fortunate enough through hard work, luck, and persistence to have become a “full-time” photographer. While I don’t make my living directly through selling and making photos, photography is still the pillar that helps me support my lifestyle of freedom, travel, and exploration.
Myth 1: You’ll take photos all the time
The first myth is that once you become a full-time photographer, suddenly you will be taking photos all the time.
In reality, I don’t take more photos now than I did when I was working a 9-5 at an office.
And to be honest, I’m not more “inspired” or “creative” either. If anything, being stuck in an office helped force me to be more creative, as photography was a form of escapism for me. Being stuck in the office all the time, I valued every hour of my free time, and would shoot whenever I could (lunchtime, after work).
However now, because I have a lot of free time, I am less pressured to always be making photos— and perhaps lazier as a side-result.
Myth 2: You can be a full-time photographer because you’re good at making photos
The second myth is that once you become a full-time photographer, you just need to be skilled at making photos.
The truth is, 90-95% of it is business, marketing, advertising, and branding yourself.
When I look at “successful” photographers— they’re not necessarily the best photographers. You might notice this too— some of the most talented artists are obscure and never “discovered” — whereas the glitzy star photographers are the ones who don’t have the best work, but the personality and marketing abilities.
If you plan on becoming a full-time photographer without any knowledge of business, marketing, or branding— you’re in trouble. At the end of the day, to make a living as a photographer— you need people to pay you money. And getting people to pay you money is really really hard.
Practical suggestion: before deciding to quit your job, see how many shoots or gigs you can get on the weekends. I would only suggest quitting your job once your side-income is enough to pay your rent and monthly expenses.
Myth 3: Being a full-time photographer will bring you happiness
The third myth is that if you become a full-time photographer, you will suddenly be “happy.” In truth, I have the ideal life. I have a beautiful partner, I have a camera I am satisfied with, I have freedom of my time, I travel, and have no boss to report to.
But I am still not “happy.” Dissatisfaction is still a lingering feeling in me. I still covet more money, more fame, more influence, and more experiences.
I’m probably as happy now as I was when I was working full-time. And if anything, in some ways I’m sadder— it is harder for me to socialize with others (I’m mostly working alone at coffee shops), and I have weaker social ties with my local community (as I am always on the road).
I’ve discovered that true happiness is more about gratitude and counting your blessings in life— not how much money you earn, what your lifestyle is, how many social media followers you have, or whether you do photography for a living.
Why else do you want to make money through your photography?
So friend, if these 3 myths of being a full-time photographer have struck a chord with you in any way— re-consider becoming a full-time photographer, or earning money through your photography.
If you already make a comfortable living from your job— do you really need to earn extra side-income from photography? To be honest, it would probably be easier earning side-money through Uber or Lyft.
I know some photographers who have full-time jobs, but shoot weddings on the weekends (extra money to buy more gear). But why do we need more gear? We will never have the “perfect” camera. The “perfect” camera is the one we are satisfied with. Even if you have the most expensive Leica camera, you will always lust for more if you’re not grateful for what you have— and instead covet what others have.
Do you want to make money through photography for external affirmation? Remember, validation is for parking— not for photographers. Just because you don’t make money with your photography doesn’t mean you’re not a good photographer. Vivian Maier didn’t make money from her photography, yet her images have inspired millions. The same goes for Saul Leiter, who only achieved “fame” towards the end of his life (he was still very happy before then, living a humble life). The only person you need to impress with your photography is yourself.
Do you want to make money through photography to have some extra cash for a better lifestyle? Once again, having a slightly nicer camera, car, or more starbucks lattes in your life won’t bring you happiness. We don’t need more money, we need more gratitude in life.
Why you should earn a living with your photography
Obviously everything I write here is simply my opinion. But what I want to encourage you is to wonder why you want to make money through your photography, or whether you “should” make money through your photography.
But so I don’t leave you empty-handed— here are also some reasons why you should earn a living with your photography:
- You are skilled at making photos, marketing, and you know that photography is your passion, and that’s the only thing you want to do in life. If that is the case, I support you 100%.
- You value freedom in your life, and you believe that you can have more freedom in your life is you take up photography full-time.
- If you cannot pay the rent or other basic expenses, and you happen to have a camera that can earn you some side in-come.
As for me, the reason why I make money through my photography (by teaching workshops) is to afford me more free time and freedom to write and share information, that I hope to empower others.
While I am not necessarily more creative now than I was when I had a 9-5 job, I have more time. I have more time in the morning to read, do research on the masters of photography, to reflect and meditate, and to write, make YouTube videos, and meet other photographers.
I also feel that teaching is my calling, and I have been blessed to have been lucky enough to make photography my living. To be honest, being a full-time photographer was something I never expected in my life. I just kind of fell into it. Often, it still puzzles me how I have been able to make a living through photography.
Once again, if you have noble or legitimate reasons to make money in photography, I will outline more ideas in another post on how to make money. Certain strategies that have worked well for me, and hopefully can work for you.