If you want to earn money through your photography, and have really considered to yourself: “Should I earn money through my photography?” I hope this is some advice that can help you. It has helped me— it is only advice I wish someone told me. And of course, your mileage may vary.
Principle 1: Focus on your niche
Photography is a big pond. There are millions of photographers out there. How can you stand out and succeed?
I recommend starting off by focusing on a niche. For me, that was street photography.
In 2009, when I was starting street photography, I couldn’t find many resources on the web on how to shoot street photography. Being frustrated, I experimented for the next 2 years with different tricks and tactics. In 2011, I decided to start this blog to share my experiences about street photography, and I wanted to help share information that I thought could help other street photographers.
To be honest, I didn’t intend to make a living through street photography. I simply did it for fun; as a hobby. I had a full-time job, which allowed me the income and freedom to do writing on street photography. I blogged roughly 3 times a week (Monday, Wed, Friday) and was consistent for a year before my blog really took off. On Monday, I focused on sharing street photography tips, on Wednesday, I focused on doing interviews or features with other street photographers, and on Friday, I shared street photos from the social media community. This helped me initially build my audience, as well as doing guest blog posts on other popular photography blogs.
I also focused on engagement with my audience. I used my dead time at my job to answer all my emails, tweets, Facebook messages, Flickr messages, etc. This helped me build trust with my audience and followers.
I also tried to build as many connections as I could in the photography industry. I am very grateful for all the support that I got from Darren Rowse from Digital Photography School (who featured a lot of my writing), JJ and many others at Leica who helped me guest blog post on the Leica blog and attend events, and to the hundreds of others that I cannot recall off the top of my head (I love you all).
While I was doing all of this, I focused exclusively on street photography. Nothing else.
The benefit was this: there weren’t many street photography blogs in 2011, and I was one of the first. From 2011-2016 I’ve written over a thousand blog posts on street photography, and needless to say, the blog has grown tremendously. Now Google indexes my blog posts quite high in search results (experts call this “SEO” or Search Engine Optimization) because my blog has been around for a while (5 years), the content is relevant to the search term “street photography” (I include it in the title of my blog posts), and the information is in-depth and well-researched (a lot of people end up linking to it, which also builds my legitimacy and page ranking).
I think the benefit of focusing only on street photography is that I was able to master my domain. I am not certainly the best street photographer, but I am one of the most informed ones. I have studied the works of the master street photographers extensively, spent thousands of hours shooting in the street, interviewing other contemporary street photographers, teaching street photography workshops, interacting with strangers on the streets, and thinking about street photography. Needless to say, street photography is one of my passions in life— and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
If I started off just blogging on general photography, I wouldn’t be able to build the audience I had. Because I would just become buried in a sea of other photographers. I needed a specialization to stand out.
Honestly, a lot of my “success” in the domain of street photography is due to luck and timing. If I started my blog today, I’m not sure whether I would be able to have the same success. Furthermore, I have been very lucky and fortunate to have so much support from camera companies, friends, family, and the street photography community.
So if you’re trying to make money from your photography, focus on your specific niche. Of course that can be weddings, portraits, lifestyle, landscape, nature, documentary, street, whatever.
As of 2016, photography is insanely popular— and most of these niches are dominated by someone else.
My suggestion: create a micro-niche.
So if your interest is in wedding photography, specialize in a certain style of wedding photography. Shoot all your weddings only on analogue film. Or be a Jewish wedding photographer. Or be an Asian-American wedding photographer. Or be a wedding photographer who shoots “street style” or “documentary style” photography. Or perhaps make a living through wedding photography by being that one person who creates epic digital/Photoshop manipulations.
The more specific you make your niche, the more you are able to dominate it. And when people end up googling whatever you do (“film hipster wedding”) you will be the first to pop up on the top of Google (if you have a blog, keep it consistent, and produce a lot of work and information related to it).
Principle 2: Make money
This is pretty obvious, but if you want to earn money from your photography and perhaps make a full-time living, you need to focus on making money.
That means you need to have someone pay you money for your photographic services. Money. Cold-hard cash (digital money works too).
Some ideas to make money through your photography:
- Teach photography workshops (what I do)
- Shoot weddings
- Shoot commercial work
- Do photography consulting
- Do social media consulting for other photographers
- Become a master Photoshop image retoucher
- Teach photography lessons online via Skype 1:1
- Be an online photography community manager
- Shoot for magazines/publications/blogs
- Be a real-estate photographer (apparently a huge business)
- Make an app for photographers (and monetize via ads or by selling it)
- Start a photography blog and monetize through advertisements/affiliate ads (what PetaPixel and many other blogs do)
- Make a product for photographers (camera bag, strap, flash, adapter, bracket, etc)
There are millions of ways to make money through photography that still haven’t been discovered. But know that you need to earn money. And furthermore, your photography doesn’t have to earn you money directly— meaning, you don’t need to take photos for a living. You can make money through photography via teaching, education, selling products, selling information, selling advice, etc.
I do think that when you are starting off and you have absolutely zero experience and a portfolio, start off by doing your work for free. Contrary to popular advice, I do think it is a good idea to start off working and taking photos for others for free.
But once you build up your portfolio and you are confident in your skills as a photographer, don’t be afraid to charge your client.
But how much do you charge? Experiment. Start off charging $100 an hour, $200 an hour, $300 an hour, or even more. If you sell a product, just experiment with your pricing. If you teach a workshop, experiment with different prices, and see how many people sign up. Your photography is worth what people are willing to pay money for— meaning, if you charge a certain amount for your photographic services and you get someone to pay you money for it, that is what your labor is worth.
I think one of the mistakes I made earlier on was to charge too little— and that is the mistake many of us make. It is because of fear that we aren’t good enough or qualified enough. So as a rule-of-thumb, when you start charging clients, charge more than you think you should. Funny enough, by charging more money, people value your time, effort, and expertise more as a photographer.
Think about it: who would you think is more legitimate— the photographer who charges $10 an hour for his work, or the photographer who charges $1000 an hour for his work?
If you go to the grocery store and you have a painful headache, do you buy the $1 generic, or the $5 Tylenol? We know the active ingredients are the same, but we still think the product that costs more should work better— and according to studies, the more expensive product will actually cure our pain more, even if the active ingredients are the same (the effect of a brand is very powerful on the mind).
Principle 3: Put yourself out there
You can’t expect people to miraculously find you, you need to be active and put yourself out there.
For example, if you want to build a successful blog, you need to blog actively and be active on social media. You need to connect and engage with others, build a relationship with other bloggers, and the photographic community.
If you want to earn money for shooting for magazines, don’t expect just because you have an Instagram a magazine is going to call you and offer you a job. My suggestion: find the email addresses of magazine editors (usually on the first inside fold of a magazine) and directly contact them about your services, show them your portfolio of 5 images as an attachment, and ask if they are interested in trying you out.
If you want to teach photography workshops, actually practice teaching photography workshops. I suggest start teaching them for free at a local school or community center. Use this as your dojo to build up your skills. Receive honest feedback from your students to help hone your skills. Then later, you can charge for your workshops by finding students (they can find you through your blog, through a book you publish, through an exhibition you have, through paid advertising, or through social media).
I know it is scary to put yourself out there, because there is a fear of failure. But if you don’t put yourself out there, you will never have a chance.
Can a baseball player hit a home run if he doesn’t swing his bat? How do you expect to get a client if you don’t swing your bat, be active, and show your worth to the rest of the world?
Obviously I’m not a millionaire with my photography, nor am I rolling with BMW’s, and Lambos.
However I have been very fortunate to make a good living through photography. I am blessed with luck, the fortune of my friends, and all those who have helped me along the way. And at the same time, I have found that building a sense of trust, honesty, and authenticity is the most important thing.
“Branding” in photography is building a sense of trust with your audience, your student, or your client. Trust is the bond which holds all of humankind together. Without trust, there can be no commerce.
Moving forward, I’m going to share more thoughts on entrepreneurship and photography. Thank you so much for being an amazing part of this journey, and know that you have the hustle within you to earn a living through your photography, and be happy.