The obvious question for a lot of amateur photographers is ‘How do I make money from photography?’ The answer, unfortunately, is that I don’t know. All I can do is tell you what I’ve done and give you a few ideas. I’m still learning the business after just four years, but my approach has always been to knock on as many doors as possible, whether it’s microstock, exhibitions, competitions, lessons or even talks. Every source of revenue has its part to play, and it’s just a question of working out where to focus your efforts. I make just under half my money from microstock/stock agencies and half from exhibitions, but everybody’s different.
Nick Dale Photography
I loved photography when I was a teenager. I bought (or was given) books on Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Ansel Adams and other great photographers, and I even bought myself an old Chinon CE-4 film SLR. I remember buying two 36-exposure films for it – one colour, one black and white – and using up every single frame in a couple of hours just taking pictures around the house! I took my camera on holiday to Majorca and the United States, developed pictures in a dark room at school and even talked to my mum about becoming a professional photographer. However, my mother said I could always take it up later – so that was that for 30 years! Fortunately, I was given a second chance in January 2013 when a friend of a friend invited me to climb Mount Kenya and go on safari with her and a couple of other people. I’d always wanted to go to Africa, but I’d foolishly been saving it for my honeymoon! As that didn’t seem very likely, I jumped at the chance.
My first digital camera was a Sony DSC-HX200V bridge camera, which means it had a good zoom range (both optical and digital), but not a very large sensor. As a result, it was only around £300 and therefore cheap enough for me to buy without worrying too much. Fortunately or unfortunately, a week in Kenya with people using proper Nikon SLRs gave me camera envy, and I bought a Nikon D800 SLR with a 28-300mm lens as soon as I got home!
And that was how it all started. I took hundreds of pictures in Kenya of the people, the landscape and especially the wildlife. When I got back, I bought an Apple MacBook Pro to work on them, upgraded the editing program to Aperture and then sent them off to various microstock agencies to see if they would help me sell them. It was hard at first, but getting the new camera helped, and I had a cash pile from remortgaging my flat in Notting Hill after another property purchase fell through, so I was able to go on plenty of trips to take more and more pictures.
An important breakthrough came when I sold a couple of prints for £100 each at my local tennis club’s Christmas Fair in November 2014, and another photographer told me about a cheap exhibition space called the Norman Plastow Gallery in Wimbledon Village. I’d always thought it would be very expensive to mount an exhibition, but this place was only £70 for a week, so I booked it as soon as I could! The only problem was that I didn’t have any actual prints to sell, and here I was very fortunate. I’d recently joined the Putney branch of London Independent Photography (or LIP), and there I’d met a very friendly and helpful chap called James, who’d offered to do all my printing for me at very low cost. After buying a few cheap, black, wooden frames from Amazon, I was all set. I invited all my friends to the exhibition in May 2015 – especially a group of tennis players from my club – and I ended up selling seven prints. As I was just starting out, I’d priced the small, medium and large framed prints at £80, £100 and £120 and the unframed ones at only £30, but I still managed to make £550 in total. The gallery hire charge was £200, and there were a few taxis to pay for plus incidental expenses, but the show actually turned a profit – unless you count the thousands of pounds I spent on buying camera equipment and flights to Kenya, Botswana, Antarctica and the Galápagos!
And there’s the rub. It’s relatively easy to generate revenue from photography, but actually making a profit out of it is another matter entirely. As a result, I have nothing but respect for the photographers I meet who have managed to make a career out of it. I’ve been on trips led by Paul Goldstein and Andy Skillen amongst others, and, in a way, that’s where I’d like to end up. Since that first show in Wimbledon Village, I’ve sold nearly 5,000 downloads through microstock agencies, sold 36 prints at solo exhibitions and art fairs, taught five photography students and given two or three talks to various clubs and societies. Overall, I’ve made around £12,000 from my photography – but that wouldn’t even have paid for my trip to Antarctica!
The problem is that everyone has a camera these days – even if it’s just an iPhone – and it’s almost ‘too easy’ to take pictures now that cameras are digital. The world is also a smaller place these days, with the arrival of cheap flights and a general rise in income and wealth. It takes a special talent to make it as a photographer, and part of that talent is being able to make the most of it.
What do I need to do first?
- Buy a camera
If you want to make money out of photography, your first job is to get yourself a decent camera, and that means a digital SLR (or DSLR). The easiest way to earn cash is through so-called microstock agencies – which means selling pictures online in exchange for royalty payments – and they usually require shots to be taken with a camera that has at least 12 megapixels, if not more. You can obviously try to sell holiday snaps from your ‘back catalogue’, but, as I found out to my cost, it ain’t easy. Once you’ve decided to buy a DSLR, the two main brands to choose from are Nikon and Canon. There isn’t much between them these days, and the only reason I chose Nikon is that I didn’t want a camera from a company that made photocopiers! They both make good lenses, but, unfortunately, they have different mounts, so one you go with one or the other you’re locked in. I have various lenses ranging from an 18-35mm wide angle zoom to a 105mm macro lens for close-up work to an 80-400mm mid-range zoom, but I also rent an 800mm lens from Lenses for Hire whenever I go on a major wildlife photography trip.
- Buy a laptop
If you don’t have one already, buying a decent laptop is great for photography. I take mine with me on all my trips, and it means that I can work on my images every evening after I get back from a shoot or a game drive. I should warn you, though, that the so-called RAW files from digital cameras are very large (in the case of my camera over 40MB each!), so I’d recommend getting as fast a processor as possible and as much memory and hard disk space as you can afford. You should also arrange a back-up system: the last thing you need is for your life’s work to disappear thanks to a software glitch! You could use an external hard drive, but I prefer backing up to the cloud just to be on the safe side. I use CrashPlan, which automatically detects any added, edited or deleted files and backs up the changes in real time, but there are other similar products out there.
- Subscribe to Lightroom
Adobe Lightroom Creative Cloud is the choice of professionals and serious amateurs for organising and editing their photographs. It only costs around £8 a month (including Photoshop), and it’s a very powerful tool, as well as being relatively easy to use once you’ve mastered the basics. Digital photographs never come out of the camera looking perfect, so it’s always a good idea to try and improve the contrast, highlight and shadow areas and anything else you need to. If you’re selling through agencies, you’ll also need to add titles, captions and keywords (plus any other fields you’re asked to fill in), and all that is possible with Lightroom. It’s a pain to do for each individual photograph, but you can ‘synchronise’ any changes you make across a number of pictures, and you only need to do it once. If you’ve never used it before, I suggest you to do what I did and watch Anthony Morganti’s series of free YouTube videos on Lightroom. He takes you through all the functionality, and it’s an easy way to learn.
- Start taking pictures
If you’re a wildlife photographer, this is just a euphemism for ‘spend thousands of pounds on trips to long-haul destinations’! However, you don’t have to travel far to take pictures. Whether you’re a landscape, portrait, Nature, fashion, wildlife, wedding or sports photographer, there’s always something photogenic not far from home, and you simply have to have the enthusiasm (and discipline) to be able to get out there and take more and better shots. Quality and quantity are both important. The quality of your images is ultimately what matters, but even a shot that’ll never win a competition might earn you money on a microstock site. I give my shots three stars if they’re good enough for Facebook, four if they’re good enough to be sold via agencies and five if they’re good enough to go on my website.
- Start marketing your work
As a photographer, you have to learn to talk the talk as well as walk the walk. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to cover the basics, which means building a website, printing out business cards and having an active presence on social media. You can’t expect to win a bid for a photo shoot if you’re still using an old Hotmail address! Personally, I have this website powered by SquareSpace plus a Facebook ‘fan page’, a YouTube page, a LinkedIn account and a Twitter feed, all of which are printed on the back of my business cards. I post articles on my blog about photography trips, exhibitions and useful techniques (which also appear on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter), and I tweet and retweet a ‘Shot of the week’ (which gets fed through to my Facebook account as well).
Yes, but how can I make money?
Microstock agencies are online intermediaries that accept work from photographers and then market those images to potential clients such as creative directors of newspapers, magazines and other buyers. The advantage of using them is that it’s ‘making money while you sleep’, in other words, it’s a passive income that you can build over time as you add more and more shots to your portfolio. Some agencies sell a lot of images but with low royalty rates, some the reverse, but here is the list of the ones I’ve used (in descending order of sales):
I should mention that not all agencies will accept you, and not all your shots will be accepted by any agency that does, but you shouldn’t take it personally. I’ve had over £4,000 in microstock sales in the last four years, but my overall acceptance rate is only 41%! Even if your pictures are accepted, of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll sell. I’ve had 5,120 downloads from microstock sites, but only 1,521 individual shots have ever been sold out of a total of 4,389. The rest of them are just sitting there, waiting for a buyer. Every now and then, though, you take a picture that goes viral: I’ve sold my jumping penguin (see above) 705 times!
The basic process is similar across all agencies. You add titles, captions and keywords to all your pictures and then export them as JPEG files to upload to each individual agency via their websites or an FTP service using a program like Filezilla. You then typically add the category, country or other data for each of them and submit them for approval. The agencies then approve the ones they like and reject the ones they don’t. After that, it’s just a question of watching the money rolling in! A useful way of doing that is by downloading an app called Microstockr. All you need to do is to set up your various agencies on the accounts page and then check the dashboard every now and then for any sales you’ve made. It’s very addictive! Sales should come quite soon after each batch is uploaded, but you may have to wait a while for payment. Most agencies have a ‘payment threshold’ of $50 or $100, which means your first payment (usually through PayPal) might take months to arrive. You’ll also need to keep adding more pictures. Buyers tend to sort images according to what’s most recent, so you definitely get diminishing returns from your shots, however good they are.
The other thing to say is that, with dozens of agencies and hundreds or even thousands of images, it gets very confusing. As a result, I’ve created a spreadsheet to keep track of the whole thing. With filenames down the left and agency names across the top, I know if each file has been uploaded (‘u’), submitted (‘s’) or accepted (‘y’) and how many times it’s been sold. I keep a record of the dollar value of all the image downloads on a separate financial spreadsheet. I suggest you do the same.
- Stock agencies
In the good old days, it was much easier to make a living out of stock photography, mainly because the royalty rates were a lot higher. The difference between ‘stock’ and ‘microstock’ is simply the average price level. Stock agencies want to differentiate themselves from microstock agencies (and everything else out there on the web) in order to charge a higher price, so they generally ask for exclusive agreements over one to five years and set a higher standard for acceptance. I use Design Pics, and you can see that they sell my images for hundreds of dollars rather than just a few dollars for the microstock agencies. My general strategy is to offer Design Pics the first pick of my pictures before sending the leftovers to all the microstock agencies. (I’ve also submitted some flower images to flowerphotos and a few marine wildlife shots to SeaPics, but I haven’t seen any sales from them so far.) Due to the long sales and reporting cycle, I didn’t see my first sale from Design Pics until more than a year after I’d signed up, but sales are starting to trickle in now, so it just takes a bit of patience. If you’re looking for a list of stock agencies, I recommend buying a copy of 2017 Photographer’s Market, which is the equivalent of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It has comprehensive coverage of the industry, including helpful articles and a wealth of phone numbers and email addresses for magazines, book publishers, greeting card companies, stock agencies, advertising firms, competitions and more. I suggest buying the Kindle electronic version, and then you can download everything on to your laptop. I did that and then simply emailed every stock agency on the list – Design Pics was the only one to say yes!
If you just want the ego boost of seeing yourself winning a competition, then I suggest you sign up with Pixoto and enter the contests with the lowest number of entrants. It’s a peer-to-peer site, and you can organise your own competitions, so there’s a very good chance of winning something! That’s exactly what I did, and I ended up with the Judge’s Award in four competitions. However, there isn’t much prestige to something like that, and it certainly doesn’t earn you any money. Alternatively, you can scour the 2017 Photographer’s Market for competitions, bearing in mind your chances of winning, the cost of entry, the potential prizes and the subject matter. The UK national press is a good place to start, too, and I recently won £250 in Wex Photographic vouchers in the weekly Sunday Times/Audley Travel Big Shot competition.
Putting on an exhibition may seem like a big deal if you’ve never done it before, but it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. The Norman Plastow Gallery where I started out is cheap, but it’s slightly off the beaten path, and you have to man the exhibition yourself, which is obviously impossible for most full-time employees. You realise pretty soon as a freelance photographer that the most expensive item on your tab is often the opportunity cost of NOT doing what you usually do when you take time off. As a tutor, for instance, I could easily have earned £1,000 during the two weeks of my first exhibition, but them’s the breaks…
If you’re looking for a list of galleries, www.galleries.co.uk is a useful starting point. London is obviously the best place to look, but exhibition spaces there don’t come cheap. I recently looked for galleries to use for an exhibition, and the ones in central London regularly quoted me thousands of pounds for a week! Everything is negotiable, though, so don’t give up.
I started out with 15 prints at my first solo show, but I also printed out a few postcards and greetings cards. You might not make as much money out of them, but at least you’ll get something from punters who can’t afford a print. There are some who say that cards are just a distraction, but it’s so difficult to tell. I’ve had exhibitions with and without cards on sale, and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. However, the main reason for an exhibition is to sell prints, so that should be the focus.
One of the problems you’ll almost certainly have is knowing how to price your work. Choosing your favourite shots is easy enough – although getting a second opinion from a friend is a useful exercise – but how much should you charge? I started off at £80 for an A3 print and ended up three years later at £2,000 for a 53″ x 38″ print, so you’ll just have to suck it and see. Andy Skillen suggested a mark-up of two-and-a-half times your printing and framing costs to make sure your cashflow remained positive, but that’s just a rule of thumb.
- Photo shoots
Proper professional photographers make most of their money from photo shoots, but clients aren’t easy to find. If you’re a wedding photographer, I suppose you can put up flyers at various local venues such as churches and registry offices, but, for the rest of us, it’s just a question of plugging away, taking as many good shots as we can and putting them online so that as many potential clients can see them as possible. It would be a dream to be able to rely on commissions from wealthy clients who called us up whenever they wanted pictures of something. A photographer told me once about a group of directors who asked him for a picture of five hippos in a lake looking at the camera. He sent them all the hippo shots he had, but they weren’t happy. In the end, he told them if they didn’t want to compromise on the picture, then they’d have to send him on an all-expenses-paid trip to Zambia for a week. Which they did! He got the shot within a couple of days and then spent the rest of the trip taking pictures for himself! That sounds like a nice way to make a living, doesn’t it? However, until we’re well established enough with a good enough reputation to get those kinds of jobs, all we can do is keep on snapping and use the networks that we have. I’ve worked for a milliner, a local councillor, a businesswoman and others, but all my photo shoots have come from friends of friends or personal contacts. I’m not very good at networking – and it’s certainly not something I enjoy unless it happens naturally – but it’s very important in this business.
I work as a private tutor as well as a photographer, so I guess it was an obvious fit to offer photography lessons. It’s finding the students that’s the real problem, though. One of my tuition agencies provided me with a couple of clients, while the rest came from connections I made at exhibitions and talks. You never know when you might meet just the right person, so it’s important to keep a few cards in your wallet just in case.
If you don’t mind public speaking, then giving a slideshow and talk on photography is an enjoyable way to earn some pocket money. Camera clubs and other groups won’t generally pay more than £100 (if anything at all!), but it’s also a useful chance to take along a few prints to sell and to hand out business cards. I got started after meeting a very nice woman on an Antarctic cruise, and I’ve now given talks at her branch of the WI, two camera clubs and a local library. If you want to be proactive about it, I’d simply Google camera clubs (or WI branches!) and email all of them to see what happens. As my mum used to say, you have to cast your bread upon the waters…even if it sometimes comes back a soggy mess!
- Photography trips
One final way of making money is to lead photography trips. A lot of photographers do it to supplement their income, and it’s a good way to reduce your travel budget. I recently put together a list of tour operators and emailed them all one afternoon to find out if it could work, and I soon received a call from the founder of Gane & Marshall, asking me to lead a trip to Tanzania! I offered my services for free in exchange for the chance to go on an all-expenses-paid photographic safari. Now all we have to do is find at least five people to come on the trip and make it economic. Fingers crossed!
I hope all that was useful. If you have any more questions, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s not easy becoming a professional photographer, but we can at least take pictures as a hobby while we wait for our big break.
Here’s to clicking and dreaming…