Don’t become a professional photographer!

There is an old saying that something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. Sadly, in the age of digital photography that means nobody is willing to pay what you think it’s worth. Rarely now will they even pay you what it cost you to take the photo.

Let me give you an example:

I have some images from a recent trip on Shutterstock. They have sold quite well so far and I have amassed the grand sum of $2.25 for them. Yes, you read that correctly, I have sold my images and received $2.25. Now, how much of a loss am I at here? Well, petrol is the equivalent of $6.67 a gallon for starters.

Let’s say the trip consisted of 300miles at 54mpg (the average I get from my VW Polo), then I used 5.56 gallons at a total cost of $37.08. Without accommodation, food, or any other expenses (camera costs, insurance, or my time of course) then I am already facing the prospect of at least another 16months of consistent sales to break even on fuel alone.

Shutterstock, and they are just one drop in the competing ocean, pay just $0.25 per image sale on subscribers downloads until you get reasonably well known.

For many people this is a non-starter: Sure, over the years you might see a return on your money, and if you have several thousand images on several sites you might see a profit, in time. But, what you live off in the meantime and how you fund trips and creating new images is another matter.

What about selling your images as fine art prints? Well, you have the initial outlay of the print, framing, and then finding someone to sell it for you in a shop or gallery. You then you have to hope it sells and you get your money back plus a little profit, and after you’ve paid the commission to the gallery. You also need somewhere as storage to put them, between displays, if they don’t all sell. Which they won’t.

For many people this is a non-starter: Again there is the investment need, you have to spend to accumulate is the old saying, but where do you accumulate in order to spend?

So, what can you do to sell your images or make money from your photography in the 21th Century when everyone has a camera? I honestly don’t have the answer, but I do know that the number of people making a sustainable living is ever decreasing. Look in any magazine and you will see the same faces, and very frequently the same rehashed articles – if you want an example take a look at the excellent photos from Fukushima.

This is now the third magazine I’ve seen them in. They’re good, but I am not buying yet another magazine with them in so I missed buying this edition. You can’t blame the photographer for spreading them thinly to get a return on their investment, and you can’t blame an editor for wanting to use good images.

Getting in with magazines requires you to be able to write now as well as take excellent photographs, with the odd exception of art or photography magazines which will take your images only. But even then, often now you get a ‘gift’ instead of money – a camera rucksack for publishing your portfolio anyone? Not me, got one, and I can’t bank another rucksack. I could sell it on eBay I suppose but that won’t bring me a return anything like what it costs me to get those images.

What about getting your work noticed in the first place? Exposure, that fateful word…the one that to 99% of outlets means they ain’t going to pay you a dime. Have you tried to get a plumber to work for ‘exposure’? Have you tried to buy your lunch with ‘exposure’? Art industries are the only industries where ‘we’ (and not me actually) accept exposure as an excuse or licence for not paying a fair price, or even any price.

What does that say about how we value our own work? Aren’t we making a rod for our own backs? If I, we, are going to accept $0.25 an image what are we telling people we are worth? If some of us are happy to see our name in lights (or rather print) and have a swanky new camera bag in return for our hard won images what are we saying about the value we place on our images and our industry?

But, and here is the but, what choices do we have? The answer is very little because if we don’t then we don’t get a look in anymore. Unless you are already well known and established then I fear that the days of the full time photographer are sadly numbered, and even the most well known and respected professionals are diversifying and now make as much money (if not more) from teaching other photographers, either one-to-one or on group workshops and holidays as they do from selling the actual images they shoot. The best of the best – National Geographic – has shed staff and freelancers since the buy out by the horrible Murdoch lead group. Most newspapers now buy in images from freelancers and don’t employ their own photographers anymore.

We are bombarded with visual content, and for every images you have to pay for your can find a dozen that are almost as good for free, or for very little. Photography is now becoming a race to the bottom, and an industry that many dream of entering either as students or dream of turning hobbies into their living. Want my advice? Don’t do it.

There was an interview on my local news station the other day with a retired press photographer and he was asked what advice he would give budding photojournalists today. He said; ‘buy a guitar, there’s not money in photography anymore’.

Is there a future for photographers? I guess we wait and see. We continue to try to elevate our work to the highest standard, we continue to push new markets and new directions, we try to get our work noticed by those who still value the craft and the art of photography and we do so with thousands snapping at our heels who are happy with $0.25 an image or working for ‘exposure’ that they hope will lead to bigger things but usually just leads you to more payment free job opportunities or being passed over for the next hopeful.

It’s a cruel world.

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