Why is it that we are so interested in making money from our passion — photography?
Is it because that somehow making money from our passion shows that we are “successful”? Is it because we have a dream of turning our passion into our living? Is it because we want to make some money from our photography as a side-hobby, to buy more cameras and gear?
Why do we want to make money from our photography?
Chapter I: Should I follow my passion and make a living from it?
I know for me, my hypothesis in life has been: follow your passion, hustle hard, and (maybe) you can make a living from your passion.
I remember reading an old blog post of mine in 2009 (when I was around 20 years old) I wrote that photography was my passion, and I knew that it might not necessarily be possible to make my passion my living. Therefore I ended up getting a ‘real’ job (online marketing, community management) for a tech/media company after I graduated college.
Regardless, I pursued my passion with all my heart, soul, and energy on the sidelines. Every spare minute I had, I tried to take photos, think of ideas for my photo blog, or to build connections on social media.
At the end of the day, I was another cubicle slave, contemplating my escape. I loved the comfort of my 9-5 job, but I hated the arbitrary rules set on me by the company and my boss. I wanted to do what I loved for a living— yet I had no idea how I could make that possible.
In my spare time, I also started to read a lot of business and marketing books. I studied sociology in school, and I actually found it as a good primer to understanding online social networks and communities — and some fundamentals of marketing.
Regardless, I continued my self-knowledge. I read books like “The Long Tail” by Christopher Anderson (showing how niches are taking over the modern economy), books like “Cognitive Surplus” by Clay Shirky (about how much the modern economy could prosper if we all used our spare time to come up with great ideas), as well as books like the 4-hour workweek by Tim Ferriss (which gave practical insights on how to make my passion my living).
If I think about it — I wanted to make my passion my living, because I hated my job. Perhaps hate might be too strong of a word — I thought my life could be better spent doing something that I was passionate about, because I thought that by pursuing my passion, I could contribute more to society and humankind by sharing what I was actually interested in. I felt that I could make a bigger impact on the world, and perhaps “change the world” by devoting more of my time, energy, and attention to things that I thought were truly important— photography, blogging, and living.
Chapter II: Reasons why to make money from your photography
Going back to the question why make money from your photography— you might have several ideas, which might include the following:
- Make your passion your living
- Have some side-income from your passion, which might help you buy more camera gear, have extra money to travel, buy photo books, etc.
- Make some extra money from photography, to work less at your job — and perhaps one day make your passion your living
Regardless of what your idea might be, it is possible to make money from your photography. Taking a step further, it is possible to make your passion your living. And if this is really your goal, it is possible to make a lot of money from your passion.
Chapter III: Will making money with my passion ruin my passion?
So this is a general question that a lot of people ask: “Will making money with my passion ruin my passion?”
For me, it hasn’t. In-fact, by doing what I am passionate about, I have become even more alive, more inspired, and more encouraged to help others.
But of course, this doesn’t always happen. I have friends who go into graphic design and photography (and other ‘artistic’ fields) and end up having no more time or mental energy to do their passion as a hobby anymore. For example, if you become a wedding photographer, you might be so burnt out from shooting weddings, you have no more time to shoot ‘leisure’ photography. But then again, on the other hand, I have some friends (like my manager Neil Ta) who has made photography his living, which has afforded him more free time and freedom with his schedule, which allows him to work on personal photography projects in Toronto, and travel and shoot photos.
So to sum up, it is possible for it to go both ways— pursuing your passion as a career or full-time living might ruin the passion and fun for you. Or on the other hand, you might love it.
My only suggestion: you never know until you try it out. And life is too short — why not try it out?
Chapter IV: Turning my passion into my living
I’m one of the fortunate few who has turned my passion into my living.
For me, I would really say that my passion is teaching photography, sharing what I learn in photography, blogging, writing, meditating, shooting photography, and building photography communities. I was able to make this possible through teaching workshops, blogging, making YouTube videos, organizing local meet-ups, and writing/sharing free photography ebooks.
Have I started to resent photography or blogging ever since I made it my living? Hell no.
For me, I used to work around 8 hours a day, wasting my valuable energy, time, and mental resources building up someone else’s company. I used all my “cognitive surplus” to answer my company email, to deal with office politics, and to think of clever ways to get a promotion and climb the corporate ladder (hopefully to earn more money).
Now I have those 8 hours a day to read, write, reflect, meditate, take photos, and create information which I hope will empower others.
8 hours a day is a lot. What could you better do with your time, energy, and efforts if you had an extra 8 hours a day, to do your passion for your living?
When I had a full-time job, I still blogged, engaged in social media, and took photos. I did it before work, during my lunch breaks, and after work, and on the weekends. And honestly, I still had enough time to do my passion as a side-hobby.
But to be honest, once I made my passion my living, my personal growth, self-education, and blogging output probably went up 10x. Almost all of my “Learn From the Masters” series was written when I made blogging my career, and I had the time and energy to research all these master photographers, and distill their lessons into practical tips and insights.
Now that I do my passion for a living, I wouldn’t say that I take any more photos than I did when I had a 9-5 job. I’m not constantly on the streets, 8 hours a day, taking photos. Rather, I’m spending more of my time to read, write, blog, and think. I now combine my photography as a hybrid between street photography and ‘personal photography’ — photographing my loved ones like Cindy, my close friends, and family.
Chapter V: But can I make my passion my living?
I honestly think that anybody can make their passion their living. But once again, the question is why do you want to make your passion your living? And if you do want to make your passion your living, you need to be innovative, you need to have hustle, you need to have personal drive, you need to risk failure, you need to learn how to survive on little money and resources, and you need to have a burning fire inside your heart.
I feel one of the best reasons why make your passion your living is this: in order to empower more people. If your passion is something that can contribute something valuable or useful to humankind, it is worth pursuing. And the more time and energy you have to push the common interests of humankind forward, the better.
My personal drive to make my photography my career wasn’t so I could have more time to take more photos to make myself happier. Rather, it was so I could blog more, to help more people.
Chapter VI: How to be innovative
Okay, so “innovation” is one of the most hyped-up words in today’s world.
The root of the word “innovate” comes from Latin, which literally means “breathe new life into.” So the basic idea is you’re putting new breath into old ideas. A new spin on ancient ideas.
For example, the iPad was an “innovation” because Steve Jobs turned computing back into what it was in ancient times— clay tablets.
So I feel if you want to learn how to innovative— study the past. Many of the greatest ideas have already been created— the problem is in today’s world is about implementation — how can we apply these ancient ideas to the modern world.
For example, I’m really into ancient Stoic philosophy. A lot of these 2,000+ philosophical ideas still ring true today— how to deal with the lust for power and wealth, how to deal with death, how to deal with desire and longing, how to live a fulfilling life, how to avoid vices and pursue virtue, and how to deal with a busy life.
A lot of my blogging ideas come from when I read a chapter or two from Seneca— in his “Letters From a Stoic”, his “Dialogues” (‘The Shortness of Life’ being one of my favorites), or “On Benefits” — which has actually inspired me to write this article.
Similarly, I feel the best photography philosophies come from the past. Rather than follow trends on social media, studying Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Richard Avedon, and Garry Winogrand has given me more insight into photography and personal direction. I’ve taken their personal philosophies, remixed it with mine, and put a modern spin on it.
There are no original ideas. All ideas are common property.
Ideas are like rough ore. However you decide to refine it, and what kind of materials you create out of it is is up to you. Ideas are a dime a dozen, putting ideas into action is the hard part.
Chapter VII: Cross-pollination
Another way to be more innovative in your photography, to perhaps make money from it — is to “cross-pollinate.”
For example, Michael Zhang (founder and editor of PetaPixel) studied computer science at U.C. Berkeley, and combined his passion for photography with blogging, the internet, and social media. He’s built up probably the most popular photography website on the web.
Nick Turpin took his background in advertising and his passion in street photography, and has done a lot of commercial work with his street photography.
Matt Stuart started off as a skateboarder, and found street photography as a way to show off cool “tricks” — and is now a Magnum nominee, and also does commercial photography for a living.
My manager Neil Ta had a passion in architecture, urban landscape, and street photography. He applies his personal aesthetic to his commercial-client work, and makes unique imagery. I would say that the wedding photos he shot of my wedding (thank you Neil) were some of the most beautiful, arctic, and “out of the box” type of wedding photos. His eye for composition and capturing the “decisive moment” made for non-boring wedding photos.
For me, I combined my interest in sociology with photography, and discovered street photography. For me, I see street photography as doing social research with a camera. I’m kind of a “street sociologist” in a sense. I have a passion for understanding people, individuals, and society through my camera and lens.
What are some other ways you can cross-pollinate? Just think:
- Computer Science x Photography = Photography AI (artificial intelligence) that can automatically post-process your photos, choose your best photos, crop your photos, or help you organize your images.
- Law x Photography = Be a lawyer for big-time high-art photographers, with copyrights, publishing rights, etc.
- Marketing x Photography = How to do “branding” as a photographer, build up a social media following, do cross-collaborations with other brands in photography, etc.
- Engineering x Photography = Design and create cameras, lenses, devices for photographers, or any products for photographers.
- Finance x Photography= Figure out better ways to monetize photography, help other photographers monetize their photography, teach photographers how to do their taxes, etc.
- Philosophy x Photography= Blog on photography, write photography books, talk about the why behind photography, comic up with photo theories, being a photography editor, etc.
There are a billion ideas how you can make a living from your photography — simply through “cross-pollination.”
Chapter VIII: Idea “Megazord”
Even taking it a step further— what if you took more than 1 of your passions and interests, and created something unique from it?
I’m going to call this the idea “Megazord” (the giant robot from Power Rangers, in which several different pieces combined to create one mega robot — which was stronger than the sum of the parts).
For example for me, here are some of my interests and passions I’ve combined to make my living from photography:
- Social justice: Keeping information open and free to the masses, because I grow up pretty poor, I don’t want anyone to not have access to information (because of lack of money/resources). This is why I keep everything on this blog for free.
- Sociology: Using photography as a tool to understand the world and society around me. Combining sociology with photography, I have street photography.
- Open-Source information: I always thought it was bullshit to charge money for information (as a poor starving college student). I believed that the strength and growth of a society was dependent on open and free-access to information. I want all photographers to prosper, this is why all the information on this blog is open-source.
- Philosophy: Wondering the why behind the things which we do in life. Later applied to photography — why do you take photos, and like in this article — why make money from your passion?
- Psychology: Understanding the human kind. Trying to decode the psychology behind street photography. How to overcome your fear of shooting street photography, hesitation, and self-doubt.
- Cognitive Science: Understanding the flaws of the human mind and the limits. Using this to make better decisions about business, and life.
- Blogging: I first discovered blogging as a form of self-expression, diary, and sharing ideas. Later applied to this blog, I can share ideas about photography and life, and now entrepreneurship.
- Travel: I always dreamed of traveling, seeing the world, exploring new cultures, taking photos, and making new connections. I now love to travel and teach photography workshops, learn from other cultures, and combine them into new ideas.
- Teaching: Sharing what I’ve learned with others, through blogging, teaching workshops, ebooks, YouTube lectures, etc.
So how can you take all of your different ideas, passions, and create some sort of “Megazord” out of it? Because if you take all the random things you’re interested in life, you can make something very useful out of it — something that you can perhaps make a living from, and monetize.
Chapter IX: Making money with photography 101
First of all, if you want to make money with your photography, you need to do the following:
- Provide value
- Charge money for it
The implementation is of course, much more difficult.
Let’s break this down:
1. Provide value
What is “value”?
Value is making someone else’s life better. You can create value in the life of someone else by creating something that inspires them, motivates them, uplifts them, takes away some of their misery, makes their life easier, or makes someone more creative. In the realm of photography, here are some “valuable” services/products/ideas:
- Photography blog posts
- Inspirational photographs
- Photography accessories (camera bags, straps, filters, light modifiers, etc)
- Photography equipment (cameras, lenses, tripods, etc)
- Commercial photography (wedding photography, business clients, portrait photography, etc)
- Fine art photography (selling prints, books, etc)
- Photography teaching (workshops, schools, either online or offline, coaching, mentoring, etc)
- Photography Consulting (For camera companies, individual photographers, businesses, etc)
- Marketing for photographers (either marketing yourself, or helping others learn how to market themselves)
And of course there are many more ideas I can’t come up with.
2. Charge money for it
There are many ways you can charge money for your services:
- One-off: Charge a client once for the service or product you provide
- Subscription: Have a client or student pay weekly, monthly, or yearly for whatever service you provide
Generally when you sell products, do commercial work, or consult clients— it is on a “one off” basis.
For the subscription model, you can monetize by selling photography magazine subscriptions, teach semester-long photography courses or workshops, or any other photographic services.
In terms of how much money to charge— don’t under-sell yourself. If you really want to make a living from your passion (photography) you cannot do it for poverty wages. My practical suggestion: charge 25% more money than you think you should. Photographers and beginner entrepreneurs always sell themselves short, because of lack of self-confidence, or some weird idea that money is the root of all evil.
Personally I grew up in (somewhat) poverty (not knowing whether my mom could pay the rent at the end of each month), which caused me to have a strange personal relationship with money — which has taught me more risk-aversion with money (that if I charge too much money, nobody will pay for my services or products, and I will go bankrupt, become homeless, and die).
But over time, I’m realizing that I am providing something valuable. Really valuable. Services (like workshops) that can change someone’s life in a positive way, and give students dividends for the rest of their life. That is priceless. The same goes for the products I sell — I believe in the creative tools that I sell in order to empower photographers to find more personal meaning with their photography (through photography books) and to go out and make more photos.
So if you want to monetize your photography, think of the value you’re adding to the life of your client or student. What needs of theirs are you fulfilling? Are you fulfilling their need for adventure, excitement, community, self-worth, self-confidence, courage, imagination, creativity, or something else?
Give people what you think they need. And of course, that will take a lot of your personal imagination.
Chapter X: Conclusion
To wrap up this article and personal essay, long story short— yes, if you want to make your passion your living, go for it. Personally by pursuing my passion and making it my living, I feel like I’ve been able to contribute more to society. I feel more personal self-worth, more self-value, and more self-empowerment. I have freedom of my time (the best thing in the world, even more valuable than money), I earn enough money to pay my bills and live moderately, and I feel truly alive.
If you want to make your passion your living, I want to give you all the tools and resources to make your dream possible.
Photography Entrepreneurship 101
Learn how to follow your passion for a living:
- How to Become a Photography Entrepreneur
- How to Do What You Love for a Living
- Should I Follow My Passion For a Living?
- How to Create an MVP (Minimum Viable Product)
- How to Fail Big
- How to Invest in Yourself
- How to Be Bold in Photography and Life
- Mission: Cover Your Rent and Food
- 1,000 True Fans
- The “10x Principle”: The Only Difference Between “Success” and “Failure”
- Make More Value Not Money
- We Live in a Photo Utopia
- Can Photography Change the World?
How to Teach Photography Workshops
- How to Make a Living Teaching Photography Workshops
- How to Become a Photography Teacher
- How to Teach a Street Photography Class
- Why I Teach Street Photography Workshops
How to be a Full-time Photographer
- How to Make a Living From Photography
- The 3 Principles of Making Money With Photography
- Advice for Aspiring Full-Time Photographers
- Don’t Go Into Debt For Your Photography
- How to Brand Yourself as a Photographer
- Trust: The Most Important Thing You Need to Succeed as a Photographer
How to Start a Blog
- How to Make a Living with Blogging
- 50 Blogging Tips For Beginners
- How to Start Your Own Photography Blog
- A Photographer’s Guide to SEO, Blogging, and Social Media
- How to Start Your Own Photography YouTube Channel
- The Social Media Blackbook for Photographers
- Why Do You Need More Likes or Followers?
- Instagram is Going to Be the Next Facebook
- Don’t Trust “Free” Photography Social Networks
Learn more: Photography Entrepreneurship 101 >