Choosing a Genre


What it Takes to be a Professional Photographer


Lesson Info

Choosing a Genre

And one of them is, how much does a pro photographer make? They see my Instagram feed and might think I make... I'm not going to quote numbers here for myself, but on average, a pro photographer doesn't make as much as they might think. Like this is from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the average amount a photographer in the United States makes. Which, $34,000, you know... So that's not that much money, considering most people with a college degree can make $50, as the mean or average that somebody with a college degree makes. The average person in the United States makes $36,000 a year. Just complete average of all different career paths. So, average there. This is 2016, where I found these statistics, and that's just for the United States. It might be different if you're tuning in live, or wherever you live, in a different country in the world, it might be totally different. The top 10% of photographers out there are making like $76,000 or above. So, that's the...

top 10% of all photographers in the United States. And, I know some photographers who are making way more than that, like, millions, but that's a tiny, tiny fraction of a percent of photographers. So just, reality check here. For those of you who may be in this room, you're already pro photographers, or those of you out there on the internet, trying to... Thinking about, "This is what I want to do for a living," I just want to, you know, make sure you know what you're getting into here. Also, during the class, if you have questions here, in the class, let me know. Obviously Drew, you'll be handling the internet. But, let's go back. So the bottom 10%, $20,000 a year. These are all from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the 2016 year. This goes up and down each year. This is all available for free online, which is fascinating, actually, to go in and look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and see exactly what the breakdown is, and they have a whole lot more information below these top numbers at the top of the webpage. But, for comparison, let's say you're just... You work at Starbucks and you're not the manager at Starbucks, you're just, you know, the barista at Starbucks. You can make 20 grand in a year, easy, because their average employee makes $10 an hour. Here in Seattle, I think the minimum wage is higher than that, so they make more. Just to give you, you know, an idea, because this is, I don't know. Whenever people ask me about my job that aren't in the industry, I like to say that, "Photography is one of the hardest ways to make a living." Maybe, I would say, farming is probably a harder way, physically at least, to make a living. There's not many other ways out there that are probably as challenging to make a living. I equate being a pro photographer to being a professional athlete. Think of how many NBA players there are, or how many baseball players, or whatever athlete they're in, to be in that professional athlete status. is a very difficult thing to achieve, and I think to become a photographer that's at the top of their craft, and make a living doing that, that is incredibly difficult. So that's why you're all here. We're going to talk about all kinds of different aspects of that. I think, for me especially, it's super labor-intensive, as an adventure-sports photographer, so there's a physical aspect of it and not just the marketing, or trying to get the job, or doing the job. I have to be able to actually be out there with the athletes, rock climbing, swimming out and wave surfing at Pipeline or wherever, so that's another aspect that's part of this whole equation. To answer that question, I would say, "It depends on what you want to do." How much do you need to make to live? It depends on where you live. If you live in New York City, that's a much bigger overhead than living where I live in New Mexico. If you live in Hawaii as a surf photographer, that's a huge overhead. So how much do you actually need to pay your bills? Do you have kids? Do you have a family? What do you want to photograph, and how... Is it possible to be a pro at that easily, or, it's never going to be easy, but, for me, I started out in the adventure-sports world shooting rock climbing and mountaineering. 20 years ago, when I started out, there were literally 25 people worldwide doing what I was trying to do. That's a really small pool, and that's one of the reasons, I think, I was able to make it. If you're trying to be a top-end celebrity portrait photographer, or a portrait photographer, well, there's billions of portrait photographers. Well, not billions maybe, but millions of portrait photographers out there, so you're competing against a lot more people, so it depends on what you want to photograph. It also depends on how motivated you are. Just like for the pro athlete when they're 12 years old, or dreaming of being a pro NBA player, how bad do they want it? How hard are they going to work? How hard are they going to train? And for the photographer trying to make it in this business, how many hours a week or a day are you going to work? I think the first 10 years of my career I worked 18 hours a day, every single day. I didn't have days off. It was all or nothing, and I didn't really have a backup plan, even though I was a physicist before that. I wasn't going back to physics. It was like, this is it. This is what I love to do, and I'm going to make it happen one way or the other. So, your motivation and how you think about approaching this is a huge part of making it a reality. Here's a quote, and this is a pretty long quote, so I'll read it. This is from David Alan Harvey, a National Geographic photographer, photojournalist, epically amazing photographer, super cool guy. "Today, with everyone being able to make technically perfect "photographs with a cell phone, you need to be an author. "It is all about authorship, authorship, and authorship. "Many young photographers come to me and tell me their "motivation for being a photographer is to travel the world, "or make a name for themselves. "Wrong answers, in my opinion. "Those are collateral incidentals, or perhaps even the "disadvantages of of being a photographer. "Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings, "and something almost literary to contribute "to the discussion, today's photographer will be "lost in the sea of mediocrity." So I think, you know... It's all about you putting your mark on your images so somebody can see that image and know that you shot it, and that takes a long time time to pull off. That takes a lot of expertise and skill. It's very hard to do. David, definitely one of those photographers who's made his mark, and you can recognize his images easily. But I think the thing you saw that's in the middle here, about young photographers coming to him, they see your Instagram feed, they see this, they see that, and they see that you've been all over the world, well, that's great and all, but they don't see how you travel and what happens when you're traveling is not like being on vacation. They have this idea that, oh, you cruise around, you're traveling, you occasionally take a few pictures, and that's it. They don't realize that those are 15 hour days, lugging like 400 pounds of gear all over the place with other people, and trying to make the magic happen in the middle of the day, or wherever. And the collateral incidental part is interesting as well because, for me, I love to travel, but when I think about taking a vacation, I want to stay at home and do nothing. Because I'm traveling all the rest of the time, seeing amazing stuff sometimes, but it's a totally different context when you're out there working, and, as we'll talk about later, hard work is the key element to make it all work. But, I just thought I'd share this quote, because David's got some pretty great advice there, especially in these days, where it's really hard to stand out from the crowd. So what does authorship mean? I'll just explain it to you. You've got to have a unique view. You've got to have something to say. You've got to have some passion about whatever you're photographing. Whether it's babies, or rock climbers hanging off a cliff, or whatever it is. And if you have that passion, you're going to work harder. If you have that insight into a subject, that will be your in for that subject. You're an expert in that subject. You'll have a much more thoughtful way of crafting the image. And if you have a unique way of using lighting, or whatever your technique is, that can really help you stand out from the crowd, that's only going to help your chances. These are things that, if you're just starting out, you're not necessarily going to have that right off the bat, so don't worry about that too much, but that's something to think about. Like, what are you trying to say with your images? What is your whole point of becoming a photographer? I think these days it's you're a photographer and... What's that "and"? What's the second thing? You're a photographer and an athlete. You're a photographer and a celebrity. A photographer and a whatever the other "and" is. Like, why do you want to be a photographer, and what do you want to say? And be crystal clear about that, because that will help form your marketing that can help get you jobs. That's why we're talking about this.

Class Description

Working as a pro photographer takes commitment, passion and tons of hard work. Many think pro photographers are on an extended vacation and happen to take a few photos while traveling the globe non-stop. While many photographers do travel quite a bit, and some go to exotic locations, the reality is quite different than the perception. In this 90-minute class we will discuss what it takes to be a pro photographer including how to perfect your craft, dial in your marketing, build a following and how to find clients that will hire you. By the end of this class you should have a level-headed, realistic view of what a photography career might entail.