One of the age-old questions in photography, especially for beginners, is when your work can start making money? How does one even find the clients?
Having started photography at 16, I was always curious about how exactly one goes about making a living with this wonderful yet mysterious art. Some years down the road, this is nowhere near as cloudy. Still, there is always that one job that makes you question if you really even should be charging for this. Better yet, some genres are very shady on when you should be paid. For example: should test shoots with models be paid? If yes, when? If no why? There are a lot of questions; this article will aim to answer most of the common ones. Should you have more, feel free to leave them in the comments! I’ll get to as many as I can.
Is your work even worth anything?
For as long as art existed, there was a demand for it. However, art is not a product that has clear-cut value. If a banana taped to a wall costs thousands, why does my iconic (to me) photo of a cup costs nothing? This, of course, begs the question of how much your photography is even worth. Generally, when starting out, the best idea to find out is how much your local market can bear. Given that the audience for this is so diverse, I will avoid giving exact numbers. In the city where I am now, a headshot session averages about $100, whereas two hours from here, it’s already $250.
An interesting strategy to try out is to think of the average price for that job. Then to add (or subtract) 10% of that amount depending on your skill level. If you price your work too cheap, you will get many cheap (read annoying) clients.
Main genres where beginners make money
Next, I will discuss the main genres in which the money question comes up. Many beginners make their first money in an event, wedding, portrait, or headshot photography.
Generally, all event photography should be paid for. If you shot two or more events and the “client” was happy with the pictures, there is no reason you shouldn’t be charging from now on. Event photography is perhaps where a lot of photographers start their careers. Not to slag off any event photographers, but generally, it has a very low entry point. Having a good eye, basic ability to identify/control light, and good people skills should lead you to make money in event photography. In short, unless it is you who ask to photograph the event, it should be paid.
Wedding photography is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it pays a lot of money, but on the other hand, it’s quite a lot of responsibility. In my humble opinion, you should not photograph weddings until you have some experience. Most people get married only once (maybe twice) in their lives, and it’s a significant, often long-awaited event. If wedding photography is your thing, there are a lot of opportunities to become a second shooter. While getting the experience shooting a wedding, there is also a chance to learn how a wedding photographer works by watching the lead photographer. Second shooter gigs don’t earn anywhere near as much as the wedding photographer. However, if you have experience being a second shooter on a few weddings and have to build a connection with a wedding photographer, you can ask for money. Here are two good approaches for starting as a second shooter:
- Have a portfolio of event photos and ask for payment right away or
- Figure out an agreement to come for free to gather experience.
Bear in mind that most wedding photographers will not be too happy to go with option number two. This is why the first option is more effective; it shows you have done event work and know your way around. You are not being the “annoying guy flashing everyone in the face.”
A portrait sitting is the total opposite of the previous two genres. Not only do you get the subject’s undivided attention, but you also have more latitude to be creative. The beauty of portrait sessions is in how undefinable they are: anything from a shot of your sibling across a table to a US president counts. The reality is that most people at some point need a portrait and are willing to pay for it.
That said, to earn money as a portrait photographer, you must have a good portfolio of work. Most will agree to a sitting; however, they won’t be happy to pay just yet. In photography, portfolio building never stops, but you can combine paid work and portfolio-building after a certain point. With that in mind, it’s important is to understand that portraiture is something is grows. You’ll get little money as you start and until your portfolio is amazing.
A genre within portraiture that is a lot more profitable and arguably in demand is headshot photography. Not only every single business needs that, but also nearly everyone with a LinkedIn account. Sure, you can use a photo with you being drunk out with the lads, but consider how much more professional you’ll look with a headshot in a suit. Headshot photography is demanding in terms of lighting, posing, and directing.
Practicing before asking for money is the best way forward. Unlike other genres, headshot photography depends on the kit you have: lights, softboxes, backgrounds, grip, and other things you need for a successful headshot session. However, you can have relatively little variety with headshots, meaning that after a few test shoots, you can blast nearby businesses with a marketing email offering your professional headshot services.
The genres I described in this article are only some of the ones where you can make money as a beginner photographer. Often earning your first paycheck comes down to who you know and how good you are. The first one is a little more important. I recall getting a job to replace a much more seasoned pro who allegedly fell out of favor with the client. The twist was that I got the introduction to that client almost by accident. Almost like a chain of fortunate events.
Being a “people” person, having an open mind to whatever comes your way, and approaching the job with great enthusiasm and spirit will lead to more bookings. Everyone likes a photographer who is nice to work with. Most of my current jobs come from that being nice and open attitude. I’ll leave you with this sentence: An inexperienced angel will get many more bookings than an experienced jerk.