How To Make a Living From Photography

To start off, how do we make a “living” — not a “killing”?

What do we need to make a “living”?

We need very little to “live”:

  1. Food
  2. Water
  3. Shelter (protection from the cold)

So to make a living, you just need enough food to feed yourself, enough water to keep you from dying of dehydration, and a place to live.

  1. Food: If you don’t always need to eat out, and you can cook at home, food doesn’t cost much.
  2. Water: Practically free, as long as you don’t drink bottled water.
  3. Shelter: Rent can be expensive, as long as you want to live in a desirable neighborhood or have a big room/home/apartment. If you desire to live in a less exciting neighborhood, in a smaller place, or in a smaller room — rent is pretty cheap.

How much money do you need to make a “living”?

Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject
Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject

To start off, you need to do some calculations.

How much will it cost you to make a very basic “living”?

  1. Food: Assuming you never ate out, and only ate at home, how much would your grocery bills be? I think for most of the Western world, you can feed yourself for less than $5 a day. That is around $150 a month.
  2. Water: If you subsist on tap water, practically $0 a month. For me, I like drinking a lot of coffee, so assuming you have this luxury— let’s say you spend $1-2 a day on coffee. That is $30-60 a month.
  3. Rent: For a simple room in a more expensive neighborhood, maybe $500 a month.

Of course I’m not factoring things like transport, utilities, cell phone bills, internet, etc.

Let’s assume you bicycle or walk everywhere, then your transport is effectively $0.

Most people think they “need” a fancy smartphone. But if you just get a basic phone, it will probably only cost you less than $30 a month.

Random bills, let’s say another $200 a month (to be generous).

So if you’re a single person without a family, with no credit card or student loans (in the Western world or America), you can probably make a “living” from $840 a month. Let’s round it up — let’s just say your basic living expenses is $1000 a month. And If you have more bills, a partner, or a family, you can probably get by on $2000 a month.

Cutting superfluous expenses

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Once again, we’re discussing how to “make a living” in photography — not how to make a “killing.” If you truly want to make a living in your photography, you will really need to subtract all of your superfluous expenses from your life.

Superfluous expenses you can remove from your life:

  • Car payments
  • Smartphone data plan
  • Cable TV
  • Expensive rent/home/mortgage
  • Eating out
  • Buying new clothes, cameras, equipment, gadgets

Charging money for your photography

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

Then of course if you want to make a living from photography — you need to actually make money.

That means you need to have the courage to actually charge money for your photography.

If you want to make a living from photography, you cannot do shoots for free. You need to charge money.

But what if you’re starting off, and you don’t have a portfolio? Then my suggestion: while you keep your day-job, build up your portfolio. You can start by shooting for free to build your portfolio, and then when you are confident in your portfolio, stop doing work for free. And charge money for your work. Start off by charging less than your competition, and as your skills and experience and influence grows, start to slowly charge more money.

If you pursue a different field of photography, or a more nontraditional path, figure out how you can charge money for your products.

Without money or an income stream, you will die.

What field of photography do you want to focus on?

Tokyo, 2015
Tokyo, 2015

Also realize there are many different ways to make a “living” from photography. It doesn’t just mean for you to make money from taking photos for money (commercial, portrait, or wedding photography). Here are some alternative ideas:

  • Photography blogging
  • Photography writing (freelance for magazines, publications, etc)
  • Photography curator
  • Photography critic
  • Photography teacher
  • Photography YouTube’r
  • Photography printer
  • Photography gear reviewer
  • Photography magazine editor/publisher

As long as you can make money within the genre of “photography” — you will essentially learn how to make a living from your photography.

Don’t focus on getting rich; avoid going broke

Tokyo, 2015
Tokyo, 2015

I think the secret of making a living from photography isn’t to increase your profits, but to reduce your expenses.

Of course you need to have profits to make a living, but often our failures come from having too many expenses.

For example, photographers waste too much money on buying new gear, lenses, equipment, renting a studio space, renting an office, having expensive transportation, or accommodation.

And also another secret: prevent going bankrupt (over becoming “rich” with your photography). Keep your cash-flow high, and your expenses low.

How much are you willing to sacrifice?

Prague, 2015
Prague, 2015

Honestly— how much are you willing to sacrifice in terms of your lifestyle to make a living from photography?

I feel that most people are better off keeping a 9-5 job and doing photography on the side as a passion, than trying to make a living from it.


Once you make a living from your photography, you might have less time to actually do “creative photography” — because you’re constantly going to be scrambling to make a living from it.

Furthermore, to make a living from photography — you need business sense. You need to know how to advertise and market yourself. If you feel like you don’t have a skill or interest in the business side of things, you probably won’t succeed.

Furthermore, having a day job and combining it with your passion for photography might be better. You will earn a more reliable income, which can be invested in your photography education — in photo books, travel, and workshops. You can actually have some money to invest in equipment and gear. And you will never be put in a situation where you might “prostitute” yourself in photography (shooting things you don’t want to shoot) just to make a buck.

Okay, if you’re really crazy enough…

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

But if you are really willing to put everything on the line to make a living from your photography — I encourage you. Follow your heart and dream.

1. Lower your expenses

Start off by lowering your expenses. Chop off all your expenses to the bare minimum. Perhaps that might even mean moving to a cheaper city, or country. In many places in South-East Asia, you can probably make a living for less than $500 a month.

2. Have some cash in the bank

Also I recommend before quitting your day job, have some cash in the bank. Imagine the worst-case scenario; how long can you live on your savings before you go broke? Also as a last-resort, remember you can always (probably) move into your parent’s basement.

3. Expect failure; but don’t fear it

Don’t fear the shame of failure. If you want to do something risky in your life, you will avoid having regret in your life. Because in most cases, you can always get another 9-5 job if you wanted to.

4. Create 10x the value for others

Next, figure out how to make money from your photography. My suggestion: try to create as much value for your clients, or for your audience as possible. Start off by shooting high — see what everyone else is doing in your photographic field, and try to do 10x better. Have a “moonshot goal” — aim high, and even if you fall short of the mark, you will probably create much more value (than if you shot really low).

5. Cherish the day-to-day

As an entrepreneur, it is a grind. It is a struggle. I think Elon Musk said to own your own business is like eating glass, and staring into the abyss.

But cherish the struggle, and the day-to-day. After all, to be an entrepreneur and to take on risk, and live an extraordinary life is honorable. You will never reach a point where you feel truly “successful” or “stable” as an entrepreneur. But that is the whole point. That is what keeps you sharp, alive, and for you to continue to innovate.

You never want to be too comfortable — otherwise you would just settle for a 9-5 job.

How I did it

Kettleman city, 2015 #cindyproject
Kettleman city, 2015 #cindyproject

I don’t have it all figured out. I’ve never made a living from shooting photography, so I have no idea how that works.

I make around 90% of my living from teaching workshops. So essentially, I am not a “professional” photographer— perhaps I am a “professional photography teacher.”

Find your #1 skill or talent within the realm of photography. Then focus on that. Try to be 10x better than your competition, and never stop hustling. For me, I try to create 10x the amount of information regarding street photography, while also trying to create 10x the quality. I am obsessive about street photography and photography in general — and blogging is my #1 passion. I’ve been lucky enough to monetize what I love through teaching workshops (teaching is also one of my biggest skills and passions).

You might try and you might fail. But life is about taking risks, and not living in a conventional way. Otherwise, is it worth living?

Never stop hustling

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

I hope these tips will help you on your personal journey. I believe in you. Be strong, frugal, and never lose your optimism or drive.


Learn how to make a living from your photography: Photography Entrepreneurship 101 >