One of the first things most aspiring photographers want to know is how much they can expect to earn once they step into their chosen profession.
Of course, the answer to the question of whether photography is a highly paying career isn’t a straightforward “yes” or “no”.
Photography includes everything from portraits, landscapes, pet photography to photo-journalism and even stock photos, so how much you earn will depend a lot on the type of photography you want to get into, as well as your skill level and ability to market yourself.
Recent figures from My Career's salary centre show that the average salary for photographers in Australia is between $30,000 and $100,000, so there is clearly some wiggle room.
You get what you put into it
You’ve probably seen success stories like the one about the photographer who made $15K in one day by selling his photos on Instagram.
But it’s important to realise that not only are stories like this atypical, but also that this particular photographer spent over two years building up his online reputation and photo collection before ever seeing any monetary returns.
Philadelphia-based freelance photographer Thomas Clarke notes that one thing most would-be photographers don’t realise is just how much work it takes to build up and maintain a career as a full-time professional photographer.
“Photographers need to constantly be networking and searching for that next gig, because it can dry up in a heartbeat if you don’t prime the pump, and the banks and utilities don’t care if you’ve had a bad month,” says Clarke.
“I wish I listened when my instructors told me just how much hard work it takes to stay in business and that actually shooting photos would only be about 20 per cent of my work week,” he notes.
“I had visions of hanging out with rock stars and models, and working a few hours a day before jetting off to some exotic location. But of course, it’s not like that at all. I may own the business, but every one of my clients is my boss.”
Which types of photography are the most profitable?
So what about the various types of photography? Are some more lucrative or easier to get into?
Generally, most photographers will tell you that this depends on what you are good at and how hard you are prepared to work at it.
“If one is good at something and really focuses all their effort to be the best they can at that then whatever that “it” is can be quite profitable,” Clarke says.
Of course, some photographers tend to be in higher demand, and Clarke notes that while portrait and event photography tend to be easier to get into, commercial photography is the most profitable and least stressful.
“Companies have never been more profitable and they are willing to spend giant piles of cash getting the consumer to buy their goods,” he explains.
“These days it is all about the visual content, so companies pay quite well for quality imagery. Also, with commercial photography, 99 per cent of the time you will be dealing with people who understand that it’s not worth the time and aggravation of going with the cheapest person to save a buck.”
Clarke explains that weddings and other events can also be very profitable, as these industries tend to feed the belief that everyone needs to keep doing “bigger and better,” which also means more expensive.
“People know they are going to be spending tens of thousands of dollars [on their wedding], and there are even some that will spend hundreds of thousands, so we price accordingly and get less sticker shock.”
“These are very physical gigs, though, and photographers can get burnt out quick, especially if they aren’t good with people. There also tends to be a lot of up-selling and hand holding throughout the process,” he adds.
Changes in the industry
Over the last decade or so, there have been some major changes in the photography industry, largely due to portable cameras and smartphones that have the ability to take higher-quality photos.
These advances in technology have led to increasingly tech-savvy consumers and a larger number of amateur photographers, who often sell their work for next to nothing, or even give it away for free.
One of the best examples of this change was when the Chicago Sun-Times fired its 28 full-time photographers last year and began relying on reporters equipped with iPhones instead.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in the industry since I first started is the devaluation of photography in the eyes of the general public – anyone with a smartphone can generate content and the majority of people are fine with giving it away,” notes Clarke.
“But I’m hopeful that this is a short lived trend that will correct itself as people begin to see that it cheapens their brand to use “good enough” imagery.”
Of course, in most industries, there will always be a demand for photographers with the ability to shoot great photos consistently, even when the subject isn’t necessarily very outstanding or interesting.
“There are still plenty of individuals and businesses that recognise they have to pay for quality,” says Clarke.
“Starting is easy; it’s staying in business that is the tough part. But again if you love what you are doing then it doesn’t seem like work and if you are good and care about your craft the money will come.”
In short, photography can be a highly paying career, but only if you are willing to put in the hard work necessary to improve your craft, learn the essentials and build up your reputation and client base.