I've worked as a professional photographer for over 35 years. I hold the Master of Photography Degree and the Craftsman of Photography degree from the Professional Photographers of America. I was the National Wedding Photographer of the Year (sponsored by Art Leather and Bride Magazine). I was a runner up in Studio Photography Magazine's Cover Contest, and I have an album of my photographs on permanent display in the Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City, OK.
I had very humble beginnings as a photographer. I purchased a Canon FT 35mm SLR camera, a couple of floodlights, and a white movie screen for a background. I created my portraits in my parent's living room. After a trip to Europe, I had quite a few images. I sold some for stock, I presented some slide shows, and did some party photography.
After an exhibition, a high school friend asked if I would photograph her wedding. I told her I knew nothing about wedding photography (I'm not even sure if I had been to a wedding at that time!), but she said she couldn't afford much and she liked the images I had on exhibit. So I set out to learn what I could.
I bought a few books that were really outdated: they talked about the "new" electric strobe (no more flashbulbs!), and making 8x10 black-and-white proofs with a string stretched diagonally across the easel to prevent the images from being copied. One of my best friends was taking a correspondence course on photography, and he had just received the wedding photography lesson, so I studied that. I borrowed a Kako Super Elite strobe from a former neighbor, and a telephoto lens from a college friend to go along with my wide angle and normal lenses and I photographed the wedding.
Amazingly, the resulting images were pretty good. As the bride showed them to her friends and family, other people started to request wedding photography. I decided I would discontinue my studies as a musician and become a professional photographer. I still had a full time job (I had a wife and child to support), and I used photography to supplement my income. I worked from 7 AM to 3:30 PM as a clerk in a muffler factory. By the time I got home at 4 PM, my driveway was full of people who wanted my photographic service. I photographed and processed film until late into the early morning hours nearly every day. On weekends I might photograph a wedding on Friday night, two or even three weddings on Saturday, and every now and then a wedding on Sundays. I was busy.
A few of my neighbors complained about my home business. Boo-hoo. In Michigan, the Home Occupation Act permits you to operate a business from your home. After 4 years, however, I had to decide on photography as a part time income or a full time job and ended up at the peak of my career with 3 studios in two different cities and I was a silent partner in a third for a short period of time.
A lot of people ask me how they can become a professional photographer. They think it is glamorous, high paid profession with little work and lots of fringe benefits--like photographing naked super models all day...
They have been watching w a a a a a y too much television. A study by the Professional Photographers of America in 2004 revealed that the average studio was a "mom and pop" operation, and the owner earned LESS than $20,000 per year for working on average about 60 hours per week. The owner had about $40,000 invested into his business. The photographer would have been money ahead to invest the $40,000 into a mutual fund or an annuity and get a job working in the camera department at Wal Mart. A college student working as a Management Trainee at a chain burger joint makes more money without ANY investment--and s/he has benefits! And just as an aside, I never photographed anyone naked--super model or otherwise--during my career.
Before Photoshop, digital lighting equipment, auto exposure flash units, flash meters, and digital cameras with auto focus, auto exposure, and built in instant preview, most people were overwhelmed and would never trust an important family event to anything other than a trusted professional photographer. Today, photography has become much more pedestrian. People figure anyone with a camera can photograph their daughter's wedding. Hey, anything can be fixed in Photoshop, right?
Most of my friends and colleagues who are still in the business are not doing well as full time photographic studios. Don't get me wrong, a few are still earning a good income, but nothing like it was 10 years ago. Most are eking out a very small profit or breaking even. Some are losing their butts. I recently visited a long time friend to discuss a financial product with him. He used to have 3 locations and now he was working from a studio attached to his home. The temperature outdoors was 28 degrees...it had to be about 50 degrees in his studio. I asked if the furnace was on the blink, and he replied a little sheepishly, "No, I can only afford to keep it at this temperature. I try to schedule any appointments I have all on one day so I can turn the heat up to 65 degrees."
"But Steve, I went on the Internet, and there are sites there that say a professional photographer earns $150,000!"
Hmmm...was the site trying to sell you a set of books, VHS tapes, CDs or DVDs on how to become a professional photographer? Yeah, that's what I thought. The Internet is a great source of information that can be accessed instantly. The problem with the Internet is that there is no oversight. Anybody can publish whatever they damn well please--true or not. Here's a little tidbit from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
"The average annual salary for photographers was $35,980 in 2010; the middle half of these photographers earned an
average of $29,130 per year. The 25th percentile of photographers in 2010 earned
a salary of $20,710 and the 10th percentile had an average salary of $17,350 per
year. The 75th percentile of photographers had salaries averaging $43,700 per
year and the 90th percentile earned an average of $63,400 per year."
Do you see $150,000 anywhere on there, Bunkie? Of course not. It is rare, especially today. Photography is one of those fields where there are too many applicants chasing too few jobs, so jobs just aren't that easy to find in the photographic field.
Many students believe the BS that the Admissions Office of their Art School or Photography School tells them. Brooks Institute is a great place to learn photography, but it doesn't mean you'll get paid when you graduate. Brooks was busted in a NY Times article "The School That Skipped Ethics Class." It seems the California Bureau for Education had one of their own investigators pose as a prospective student. The Admissions office informed her to expect a starting salary of $50,000 to $150,000--or more--in the her first
year of employment. However, examination of Brooks's own records showed not a single 2003 graduate had even
$50,000 of earning potential. Brooks reported that 45 graduates employed full
time earned an average income of about $26,000. If that's not bad enough, it gets worse: 45 were employed, but Brooks has about 300 students annually. That means that only about 15% of the grads found jobs!
I had a young lady who came to me after graduating from the Ohio Institute of Photography. She told me the school said OIP grads averaged $40,000 in salary. I told her that her school lied to her. She was working on weekends for a very good photographer in Ohio. I told her HE probably didn't earn much more than that as the studio owner! But I told her if she could find that $40K salary first year job she wanted to make sure she called me, because if she could provide proof, I would match it and she would make $80K first year.
She never called me.
I would go to conventions where photographers would brag they were making $100,000 a year from their studio. I would be standing behind that same guy when he tried to check out of the convention hotel and every one of his credit cards were declined. There's an old saying: 9 out of 10 day traders lose money, and the 10th guy lies about how much he made. It pretty much applies to photographers--not in that same ratio, but pretty close. I had years where I made over $100,000, but I had years where I only made $20,000 when Michigan's economy went South in the early 1980's.
I gave business seminars all across America and Canada. I started the presentation with the toll free phone number of my color lab, which was also my business consultant. I told the attendees, "Here's the number of my color lab and consultant--they have my complete permission to share any financial information with you. They can back up my numbers, because they get my financial statement every month." There was NO ONE ELSE that would do this on the platform. What does that tell you?
Okay, that's the bad news. The good news is that money can be made from photography, and you can make it.
Over the coming weeks, I will publish a new post here every SUNDAY (unless I'm away or on vacation). I discuss legal issues, the cost involved in getting a photography business started and what is needed in the way of equipment. I will take questions from readers and if they have broad appeal, I will make those questions a topic here. Maybe you have a topic you would like to write about--if so, let's talk! Do you have a photography site? Maybe we can trade links. You can always contact me. Tell your friends, your neighbors, or any other photography enthusiast you know to tune in.