I’ve read a ton of “How to Make Money with Photography” articles over the years and none of them match my own experience of making money with photography, in fact, some of them are just misleading. Making money with Photography in the UK is not easy.
However, photography has been good to me, I’ve made a decent living from making pictures for a decade now, so this article is based on real experience. It may not be what you want to hear, but it is accurate and the methods I used worked for me.
In a nutshell, my experience involved leaving a comfortable corporate job to set up a photography and video company with my partner. I studied photography for my degree and worked professionally as a video maker in the music industry during the 1990s. In this article, we will look at how I created a profitable business from scratch and at some of the missteps I made along the way.
Table of Contents
Making Money with Photography
Almost all photographers dream of being paid to take photographs. This article deals with my experience of making money with photography in the UK over a ten year period leading up to 2020.
Who am I to Talk about Professional Photography?
I’ve had an unconventional career.
I’m 67 years on this planet. We don’t use the word “old” around here.. I gained a degree in Photography, Film and Television from London College of Printing back in the 1980’s. I made videos of rock bands for ten years and DJ’d on the London club scene for far too many years after that but I became bored of the lifestyle and decided to study computers. Fast forward another twenty years, and I left a well-paid job as a senior consultant at IBM to do something I am passionate about. Photography.
There have been times in my life when I didn’t take photographs much and times when I did little else, but it’s been a thread running through my life ever since I was given a Kodak Brownie for my seventh birthday. I can remember the smell of that camera today, just as I can remember the smell of the LIFE magazines I used to read in the school library, marvelling at the gorgeous monochrome photography.
When I left IBM, I was spending a lot of time taking photographs, selling a reasonable amount of prints and doing well in camera club competitions, all of which encouraged me to believe I could make it as a professional. In hindsight, that was slender evidence to take such a giant leap, the fact I succeeded had more to do with tenacity, skills and business sense than talent alone. Ten years later, the year I left the UK for Spain, I was running a profitable photography and video business. This is how I did it.
A Competitive Profession
Have you any idea how many people study photography at degree level in the UK? There are 206 courses, each of them pumping out around twenty students a year. That’s over 4000 new photographers every year. I doubt there are that many profitable photographers in the whole of Europe.
Add to that figure the people doing the traditional photographer’s assistant role and you have some idea of how tough it is to get started in photography, taking photographs and getting paid for it.
How I Turned Professional
I studied the market and my own strengths (and weaknesses) and concluded that I would be best suited to product photography where you need strong technical skills as well as a good eye. I was never remotely interested in portraiture, weddings or events, so decided to promote myself as a commercial photographer.
This turned out to be an important decision. I hear a lot of people advising photographers at the beginning of their career to specialise and I never hear them talk about the degree of speciality they mean. Turns out not shooting people was enough to give me an identity and it left me room to breathe.
It took me three years to develop a customer base that paid the bills and enabled me to do work I am proud of. That was three years of hustling and shooting for little reward.
To Specialise or not to Specialise?
A word of caution. Many people these days become so fixated on their career that they forget they have to live with it. I’m serious, when thinking about specialising, be careful what you wish for. Do your research and do a proper viability study. Also look up the earnings of the photographers you think are doing well in your area. (Company’s House in the UK). You’ll be surprised.
I’ve never consciously specialised in my life and I have to say that the idea of devoting a lifetime to a super-specialised niche of photography appeals not a jot. In fact, it would drive me mad.
That being said, the days of every small town having a single generalist photography studio are over. Nowadays everyone is a photographer, and the reality is that to make it as a professional, you need to stand out in a very crowded market. This is why so many people specialise. I would say standing out is more important. Specialising is just another way of creating a tag that you can be associated with in people’s minds, for example, Chris the Wine Photographer.
Is there a place for Generalists?
Do the maths. How many sessions will you need to book a week to break even? Look at the known specialities and ask yourself honestly if you can generate enough photography to work out of that niche. The answer is surely “No”.
Now remembering that my intention was to specialise in commercial photography, let’s look at some of the niches that were available. But first, what is a commercial photographer?
What is a Commercial Photographer?
Commercial photographers specialise in helping companies sell products and services. As simple as that. The only reason companies hire photographers is because they believe it will help them increase their profit more than it will cost them. If you’re not doing that you’re not a commercial photographer and that is why there is no room in my list of viable niches for wedding photographers, fashion photographers (too specialised) and sports photographers amongst others.
All of these types are highly skilled, all are very competitive but I’m not talking about those niches as I have next to no experience of them (I’ve done fashion shoots and sports. I’ve never shot a wedding).
I’ll give my niches a mark out of ten reflecting viability, based on my own experience. See if you agree?
- Wine & Spirits – 5 ( Difficult technically, day rates acceptable)
- Headshots – 5 ( Likely to be competitive, day rates low, getting lower)
- Landscape – 1 ( Print sales today are worse than they were ten years ago, Education and Workshops are well paid)
- Flowers and Gardens – 2 ( Great to shoot, not that many customers, small budgets)
- Street Photography – 2 ( Workshops and Books are the only way to make money at this. I only include this niche because it is almost ubiquitous. Everyone is a street photographer nowadays.)
- Events – 4 ( Terrible pay, utterly soul destroying)
- Cars – 7 ( Great to shoot, very competitive niche, strong technical skills required)
- 360° Photography – 5 ( Technically demanding, morphing into VR)
- Food – 6 ( Great to shoot, appalling pay)
- Products – 6 ( Technically demanding, well paid)
- Architecture and Interiors – 6 ( Technical, but a reliable source of work at the brochure and lifestyle end)
- Estate Agents – 2 ( Estate Agents pay the most dismal rates)
- Drone Photography – 4 ( Surveys are reasonably well paid)
So these marks are subjective, and some of the niches are ultra-competitive with high levels of expertise ( Jewellery, Cars, Drink) and some are ultra-competitive with virtually no competent competition (Events…). The point is that you will need to operate in more than one of these areas if you want to make a living. The only constant is that to succeed, you need to be better than the best in the niche, locally at first and later nationally as your reputation grows.
I elected to pursue several niches, none of which involved portraiture, although I did find myself commissioned to take portraits on several occasions.
For the record, the areas I worked in most frequently were:
- Product Photography ( Catalogues and Brochures, E-Commerce)
- Architecture & Interiors ( Air BnB were a very good client for a number of years in the UK and Spain),
- Wine & Spirits (I shot the prestigious Tanners catalogue and Christmas brochure for two years before I came to Spain, it’s difficult photography because of the reflections and I became very good at it).
- Flowers & Gardens ( I shot roses for David Austin Roses catalogue and brochures for a few years before Covid, very satisfying to shoot).
- Food (I worked for several agencies over the years and shot food quickly for very little money)
Photography in all of these areas is being squeezed by the arrival of new photographers willing to work for less money, agencies that sit between the photographer and client, creaming off the profit, AI creating images for pennies, and in the UK at least, a badly run economy exerting pressure on small businesses. This is not pessimism; these are facts. To make a living, photographers are going to have to change, to find areas where we can offer more value than AI.
How I Generated My Market
To grow a market, you need a profile, and to do that you need visibility. I’ve had great press, photographs published in the UK nationals and in the local press, in specialist Architecture magazines, books and journals and so on, all very nice to have, but no new work ever materialised as a direct result of press.
The most successful way I generated a market was to raise my local profile. When I moved from Birmingham to Shropshire, I did this by studying the local market and differentiating myself from everyone else in it. There were already good photographers in the area, so I needed to raise my profile to at least their level.
Be aware of the quality of the competition’s work, don’t worry about the detail, look at what value they are delivering to the client and ask yourself if you can do better. When I say “quality”, I mean look and feel, do they make you want to buy the item, eat the food, drink the drink? If you can’t improve on the status quo, it really doesn’t matter much about your profile; you won’t last.
Create a Bigger Splash
The first thing I did when I arrived in Shropshire in 2014 was to work out where I could make an impact for very little cost. I looked at what other photographers had done and realised I had to do something different. I needed to raise my marketing game.
I was fascinated by 360° Photography at that time and there was a local shop, Rosie’s Emporium that put on a Christmas Market for Shropshire based businesses. Rosie has real visual flair and the shop looked amazing. I made a virtual tour, shooting in six separate rooms and the results were outstanding. Check it out here – Rosie’s Emporium Virtual Tour
The impact on social media over the first week after publishing was as impressive as the pictures.
- Facebook – original post 6,000 impressions, 1,000 engagements incl. 101 Shares
- Twitter – 2,500 impressions, 4.5% engagement incl. 11 Retweets
This was enough to put me on the map locally; some of the businesses whose products were featured in the virtual tour hired me for product shoots, and I went on to promote the Funky Frankwell project, for which we raised money by crowdfunding. My partner Vivianne Howard and I created the website and all the photography and video.
So from one free piece of work that I controlled, I built a clear promotional plan that escalated quite fast. The virtual tour put my company Helter Skelter Studios on the map and very quickly generated real work in Shropshire. The Funky Frankwell project also attracted BBC Radio Shropshire where I did a live interview with Jim Hawkins about Virtual Reality with an audience of 74,000 listeners.
The lesson here is that people need a hook to hang your name on. I became the “Virtual Tour Guy” but from there I was quickly able to expand into other more lucrative areas. Once your work becomes well known, you’re up and running.
Some other surprising things I discovered…
Keep your prices profitable. Don’t be tempted to undercut the competition, instead, offer more value. It is better to do one shoot a month and make some money than it is to do four and break even. If the client can’t afford to pay you enough for your time, travel, equipment etc. then they don’t understand the economics of the business and will not prove to be a good client.
A more detailed look at the minutiae of succeeding in the business of photography.
Do I Need a Studio?
Probably not. Good PR, Appalling business. I invested a lot of money in studio space in Birmingham and Shrewsbury and I can’t say it was a good investment. I worked out of my house for the last three years I was in the UK, and during Covid that made the difference between losing money and making a profit. Unless you have income to cover the cost, reliable, month-after-month income, don’t do it would be my advice, unless you are a portrait photographer, and even then, think very carefully.
Do I Need Kit?
You need a camera, of course you do. But consider this. I invested a lot of money in kit and only about 30% of it became a reliable source of income. Unless you want to hire your kit out, don’t buy, hire. It’s easy to get into the mindset of –
“If I create the most brilliant image with this new kit I’ll benefit from the awestruck customer’s word of mouth”
It’s a total fallacy. The bottom line is if you really need a specialist lens to deliver a commission, rent it and add it to your bill as an expense. Save your money; you’ll still get favourable word of mouth.
Cameras and Lenses are expensive and get updated much more quickly than they fall apart. Unless you are using it regularly or hiring kit out, you’re wasting your money assembling a huge collection.
“We Love the Drama”
A lesson I learned early was that people employ photographers for the strangest reasons. They are quite logical to them, but maybe not so much to the person being hired. The lesson was this – listen to your client. They may not use the language of photography, but it makes sense to them. And you need to deliver against those expectations.
In Birmingham I was hired by Oscar winning makeup artist Veronica MacAleer, to shoot fashion shots because she loved the drama in my landscape work. I was hired to shoot widgets in a Shrewsbury industrial estate because they wanted the final pictures to be dramatic, “like Game of Thrones”. It wasn’t a widget portfolio or a fashion portfolio that got me these jobs, I had neither and still don’t, it was the drama of my landscape photography!
Why You Should Never Work for Free
When all is said and done, to attract paying clients you need real people to start talking about you, even at a local level. This is step one. Step two is to get Agents and Art buyers talking about you. You will be asked to do a lot of work for “exposure”, but I never, ever work for free, unless it’s the rare occasion when I need to create portfolio shots and then I approach the customer, not the other way around. My experience is that if you work once for a customer for no money, they will not suddenly start paying you out of the kindness of their hearts.
I backed up all this activity with very regular social media posts and a newsletter. I hate cold calling so I didn’t engage with it, but I wrote to hundreds of businessses, looking for leads.
From opening the studio in Birmingham to getting the first commission took around three weeks, from there to regular profit, another three years.
Other Sources of Income
There are other ways of making money from photography. While the market for photographs is shrinking, the market for photography-related activities is still huge. Workshops, Courses, YouTube, Content Creation, and Education are all very lucrative, and many photographers these days are much better known for their YouTube profiles than for their actual photography. This is not a bad thing; it’s about adjusting to where the money is.
Follow your Passion
If you’re passionate about your photography you will find a way to succeed. There is no magic formula, but hard graft, business sense, hustle and talent will get you through eventually.
For me, my passion for photography remains undimmed. A big part of my success has been a readiness to learn new skills. I’m passionate about learning, and after ten years of professional photography, I’m getting ready to give something back in terms of education. In 2023, I have already created some very popular resources for photographers in the form of the free Ultimate Guide series of articles on this website.
Now, I’m really excited about launching an online course, which has been nearly twelve months in development and will be live in September, and after that, a program of Landscape Photography workshops to run in Andalucia in 2024.
I would like to offer a limited number of free passes for the course so that I can get some feedback before launch day. I will, therefore send a voucher and joining instructions to the first ten people to subscribe to my mailing list below. You’ll also be the first to get details of the workshop schedule for 2024.
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