The Business Savvy Photographer: Longevity in Photography

I just want to make a living being a professional photographer.

Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Save some money, buy a camera and maybe a couple of lenses. Perhaps even splurge on a tripod and some kind of fancy flash. So far so good. Now what? Sure you can go out with all that great gear draped around your neck and start photographing everything you see. Or maybe you are interested in making images of still objects, or being a fashion photographer, or an editorial portrait photographer, fulfilling assignments for all the major publications around the globe? These are just a few of the available options you have in your pursuit of a fulfilling, lifelong, career in photography. But this is the fun part; this is why we all decided to become professional photographers. However, creating beautiful images alone won’t a career make. In order to achieve that rewarding longevity we all seek, you will need to balance the provocative, compelling art form that photography is with the often-overlooked business side needed for success. Occasionally strip away the beautiful imagery, the wonderful gear we all love, the new software that will make our jobs easier and look at it in the simplest of business terms.

What – Who – How

What do you do? AKA Products and Services.
Who do you do that for? AKA Target Market.
How much value can you attach to it? AKA Net Worth or Profit & Loss.

Unfortunately there is always a bit of soul searching needed when one begins a life long venture such as this. Which might actually be one of the hardest things you will do. So be it, no one said this journey would be easy. However, it needn’t be painstakingly hard either.

Let’s begin with the first question. You will want to define what it is you do. Not just “I’m a photographer.” We are all photographers. You want to find the niche market within the entire industry that you love the most. That choice, or those choices, will become your products and services. You can photograph anything else you want when you are not working in that genre but you will want to stay focused on that single subject that will make up your core portfolio.

Do you shoot weddings? OK, what kind of weddings? Traditional? Journalistic? Perhaps a combination of both. Where do you do this? Local banquet halls or do you shoot high end, luxurious destination weddings on private estates in the Hamptons? Do you want to shoot advertising? Will you photograph products, high tech, fashion, portraits or food? These are all fairly specific sub cultures of the advertising industry and the photographer will be selected by their specialty. If you don’t yet know what your favorite subject is head to the magazine rack of your local bookstore and peruse the pages that grab your attention. See which photographs stop you from turning the page. This little exercise is a good indication of what you like about photography. Defining what you do is the only way to know the answer to the next question.

Who is your client?

Let’s say you are a still life photographer. What would be your dream job? Think about the phone ringing and the person on the other end of the line saying something like this, “We saw your self promotional campaign and love your work and we would like you to shoot our next ______________ project?”

This is one way to identify your target market. These are the people you want to see your advertising and develop your business relationships. Then nurture those relationships so they become lifelong clients and possibly, over some time, even friends. One of my photographer friends recently told me that one of his better clients was responsible for well over a million dollars in billings throughout his career. All we need are five or six of those types of clients, then add in the other miscellaneous opportunities we create for ourselves and presto, we are working professionals, able to service our clients, pay our bills and even go on a vacation with loved ones. What a wonderful world it is!! But Wait! All this sounds great but you won’t be able to get there without understanding the final question.


Often known as “How much do I charge?”

The first thing you will want to do is to stop thinking about pricing your work for now. Sure you will have to have prices so people will know what to budget. The question you need to ask yourself is “what is the value you are giving your client”, and this little task is much easier said than done. We all struggle with placing a value on our work, but never more than when we are starting out and everyone will have to decide for him or herself, what is that value. But there is more to it than that, photography is a funny business. The same image can sell for many different amounts depending on the usage. Some of the different markets are advertising, potentially the top dog, then corporate marketing, publishing, editorial and finally personal, although event (weddings etc.) and family portraits can add up quickly. Regardless of what we like to shoot, we are usually happiest behind the camera or in front of our computers editing our latest project. Unfortunately in order to have the time and luxury to do just that you will need to understand how to attach a value to your products and services.

A former student told me a story about someone who purchased a print for their home then wanted to buy another much larger print to hang in a public building. When the client received the invoice for the “different usage”, which was quite a bit higher, his head started to spin around. It took the student some time to get the client to understand that his usage and the public building usage were completely different and this is how photography gets valued. I believe he eventually came around, but it was a long hard road of education for the client.

The upcoming months will contain more detailed information on various subjects such as advertising and marketing, negotiations, taxes and copyright. As well as how to create a business plan maintain a balance sheet, what profit margins need to be and how to calculate the many jobs we must shoot to reach our individual goals.

There is no magic bullet or special fix that will guarantee success and longevity over any one person’s career. However, you can increase your odds tremendously by following some basic business principles. The single most important thing to remember at all times is that your photography business is actually a business. It’s not a hobby, not that there is anything wrong with having a very expensive, time-consuming hobby. But, if this is how you want to feed yourself and your family, pay your mortgage and someday retire to that fabulous summer home on the banks of the Chesapeake, you need to let the left side of your brain do some thinking and try to keep the creative, right side, out of it.

About the Author

Jack has been in the photography field since the 1980’s where he owned and operated a film processing and custom print lab. He quickly opened a portrait studio within the same location and branched out shooting weddings and events. By 1990 he was shooting editorial assignments for local, regional and national magazines. This experience and exposure helped him break into commercial advertising shooting, mostly still life at the time, for clients such as Stride Right Footwear, Pastene Foods, Payless Shoes, and countless high tech companies making their foray into the digital world. By 2000 he started a project photographing the local artists of the Fort Point Channel area. Portraits of graphic designers and photographers fueled his desire to get back into shooting people. This work help open some doors to shoot some fashion projects during the 2000’s. While at the same time he was exploring all there was to know about the future of digital photography at the time. In 2008 Jack received a call from Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts to be one the their instructors teaching a variety of courses from studio portraiture and fashion to photo markets and business. He is currently splitting his time between corporate marketing and fashion photography and teaching.

Check out his work at:

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    • Informative, basic article....however Mr. Foley's work appears to be stuck in the '80's....Longevity? Hmmmm. 

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    • Thank's for the great article. I am a professional musician for about 15 years and started as a hobby photographer in 2009. I did not plan a professional career as a photographer, but through my musical work and the contacts I already hot a few photo gigs.

      It is really interesting to compare the life of a photographer to the life of a musican. Many things are true for a musician too.

      "The upcoming months will contain more detailed information on various subjects such as advertising and marketing, negotiations, taxes and copyright. As well as how to create a business plan maintain a balance sheet, what profit margins need to be and how to calculate the many jobs we must shoot to reach our individual goals."

      I am looking forward to read more of your articles.

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    • "The first in a series of articles..." - not "serious".

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