Photography as a Career: Weighing Costs Versus Benefits

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the median pay for photographers, in 2019, was around $36,280 per year. That translated to a median rate of approximately $17.44 per hour. It’s a tough business to survive and thrive in, with BLS estimating there’ll be 4,800 fewer photographers by 2029 than there are today (a 4% decline in members!).

 

There’s good news in those statistics too, for anyone looking to join the profession. With a 90th percentile annual wage of $79,400 (hourly wage of $38.19), photography is a great profession to embrace for committed shutterbugs and enthusiasts alike.

 

COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS

 

Anyone dedicated to turning their love for photography into a profession must enter the ring with no illusions. The trade provides endless hours of creativity and personal satisfaction to those that understand it. Part of that satisfaction comes from the fact that you get to hear and see the appreciation of your work through the gratitude expressed by your clients. But mainly, it’s from the gratification professional photographers get from producing something creative and expressive.

 

But that satisfaction comes with a price: The cost of plying your profession isn’t cheap! Like any other professional – be it a hairdresser, a graphics artist or a writer, prospective professionals must understand that there are costs associated with being a photographer. Some of them are very transparent, such as the cost of equipment and supplies. However, there may be other costs too – like that of travelling to a job site or having to re-do a shoot (on your own dime - because of technical glitches) – that may make that seemingly “lucrative” profession look less appealing.

 

If you walk into the world of photography with your eyes wide open, however, the benefits of doing something creative, that you dearly love, can often outweigh the costs of making photography your chosen profession.   

 

UNDERSTAND THE COSTS

 

Though immensely satisfying for its practitioners, photography, as a profession, isn’t cheap.  Depending on your specific niche (still photography, nature scenes, scientific or industrial applications, outdoor events), some costs to factor into your equation include:

 

  • Cameras (anywhere between a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars)
  • Lenses (low-end lenses may cost a few hundred dollars, while higher-quality one’s retail for 16k or more)
  • Flashes[5] (these could set you back anywhere between $85 to $250 or more)
  • Filters and Filter Kits (anywhere between $12 and $50 or more. Some may cost in the $100-range)
  • Memory Cards (depending on capacity and brand, these can cost anywhere between $16 and $120 or more, with some priced in the $370-range)

 Depending on what types of assignments you plan to undertake, there might be other costs:

  • Renting a studio
  • If you don’t have your own high-end editing hardware (computers, high-res displays), you’ll need to hire professional editors
  • To keep photo editing simplified, you may choose to buy your own editing software; alternately, you might find it cheaper to subscribe to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) service from Adobe (which can add to your monthly costs)
  • And then, you’ll need to frequently rent appropriate backdrops, props and other back/foreground imagery and visual effects

These are just a sampling of the costs involved. Other financial obligations that professional photographers often face include business financing costs, travel, boarding and lodging, lease financing costs and insurance (travel, professional, equipment and premises damages).  And, of course, don’t forget to factor your taxes – both for your business and your personal income.

 

DOING THE MATH

 

After factoring all these costs, one might think: Well, charging $250 to $300 an hour might make photography as a profession a lucrative proposition. Well, not so fast! Reality check.

 

While you might be out at a job site doing what the client paid you to do, there are other costs that are piling up. That 1-hour session will likely end up with you having to spend more time (potentially 3 to 4 more hours) once you’re done with the client-facing session. Depending on what the job is, and how you’ve organized your workflow, you’ll need to download your work on your work computer, edit it, touch things up and add special effects.

 

In some cases, you might have several iterations of your edited work pass back/forth between clients and other stakeholders – which can add to more work/re-work. So, while you’ll likely bill $250-$300 for one hour, you could potentially be spending 6 to 8 hours earning your hourly rate. Assuming you spend a day “finishing up” your hours’ worth of work, your rate just dropped from $300 per hour to $37.50 ($300 divided by 8-hours) an hour – which is what the BLS 90th percentile annual wage indicates.

 

CUTTING COSTS

 

One way to cut costs is to shop wisely for products, services, equipment and supplies. And shopping wisely involves more than simply Google-searching for “free” advice and “impartial” reviews, to buy the products and services you require.  For most professional and aspiring photographers, that might not be the best way to cut costs. Why?

 

Unfortunately, not every “free” advisory website is really “free”, and not all “impartial” product reviewers are totally impartial in their assessments. Many such sites (not all, we should note!) align themselves with marketers of specific brand photography services, equipment and accessories. The advice and reviews featured on such sites typically favor those products/services, to the detriment of others – even though those others might better suit the needs of a product searcher.  

 

So, how do you ensure you are really receiving fair and impartial advice or recommendations? You must look carefully to see where the advice is coming from, and try and confirm if the reviewer has any conflict of interest, such as participation in an Affiliate program for which he/she sells a product. Understand that, despite offering “free” advice, these site owners do receive payment/commissions from affiliated product manufacturers/marketers.

 

Ask yourself, then: Is this advice in my best interest, and am I truly receiving value for money? So long as you are comfortable with your answer, it’s likely that you’ll be well on the way to your cost-cutting journey.