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Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images

If you were a high school basketball player, the absolute star of the team, and told your guidance counselor that your recipe for future success included playing in the NBA, that counselor would probably chuckle, pat you on the head, ask you to reconsider, and mentally calculate how soon they could make it to the loading dock to catch a smoke.

Now, if you happened to be the chief yearbook photographer, with your own website and everything, and told that same counselor you wanted to be a professional photographer, they would readily hand you a stack of pamphlets from various two year programs, maybe suggests a university or two, pat you on the head, push you out the door, and head to the loading dock.

That's how it was when I graduated from high school in 1981, and that's pretty much how it was for all of you who were born about that same time.

I guess everyone knows a photographer, but not too many people know an NBA player. I suppose that's why the photography idea doesn't seem so far fetched. That, or they just haven't run the numbers.

There are at least 360 players in the NBA. Their average salary is over $5 million. You play as little as three years, and you're eligible for a pension.

So, your counselor has a point, probably not the safest or most sound plan, but still, if you have the skill, work hard, avoid injury... it can sure payoff.

Now, what about the freelance photographer path that the counselor didn't seem to mind?

The number of players, what constitutes success, the difference between working for yourself, or a newspaper... none of these things directly translate, so I'll go anecdotal.

I'm from Nebraska. When I graduated from high school, there were about twenty well paying jobs as a newspaper photographer in the entire state. There were probably about another twenty newspaper jobs that paid poverty level wages.

There were no jobs as a full-time wire photographer, though there were about ten people "stringing" on a regular basis for AP and UPI.

The state had one true commercial photographer (with national clients).

There was one photographer who worked with a major magazine.

There were maybe three or four photographers making a living producing work for the art market.

In addition, we had a couple of good teachers at the various universities.

Today, those numbers are roughly the same, if not less.

I started this post in an attempt to answer a question, which is:

Can you work as a photojournalist (or a documentary photographer) today, and retain your copyright?

The short answer is, yes. The long answer is a little more complicated.

Because of the copyright issue, if you eliminate the newspaper jobs listed above, the numbers are even worse.

That's why, whenever (and this happens two or three times a year), a parent of a would-be photography student comes to me asking for advice, I always use the NBA analogy. It kind of puts the whole thing in perspective.

If we use a barebones definition of success (for a freelance photographer), say after paying your bills you normally make $50,000 a year...

The number of successful people working as freelance photographers in America today, is less than the number of guys playing in the NBA.

... and there isn't any pension.

This is an incredibly tough business. As you look through the various award winners, people who's work is selected for the American Photography annual or whatever contest PDN is currently pitching, I guarantee you there's a good percentage that are nowhere near earning a living with a camera, and more than a few are working at Starbucks to make ends meet.

That's where we're at.

We've only got ourselves to blame. We have a product that everyone, everywhere, evidently needs, wants and consumes. Yet we're constantly in the wading pool when it comes to both compensation and respect.

I heard a story just yesterday, and I apologize to the guy for using this real-world example, but to me it sums up the whole problem.

A real estate photographer in California offers forty images, and a customized website, for $225, and the photos are perfectly usable.

You're kidding me right?

How do you make a living doing that?

Right now, the baristas are thinking it doesn't sound bad, so let's run the numbers...

Let's say 10 jobs a week, three hours shooting and driving per shoot, an hour for post production, and uploading to the customized template you've created. There's your forty hour week. You've made $2,250. Sweet.

Fifty weeks a year...$112,500... cha-ching!

Now the other side.

Camera gear... $10,000 sound fair?

Health insurance (your single) $6000 about right?

Laptop, drives, software, at least $4000.

You're going to need some business insurance, with going into all those multimillion dollar homes and whatnot, $3000.

Car, I don't see how you do it for under $8000 (we'll include the insurance with that too).

Fuel, parking, tolls... $100 a week? $5000.

Work space, part of your home, but still, your going to deduct it, what $12,000 for your office?

Your website, internet, electricity, $5000.

Hosting all of those relators' websites... I have no idea, let's say $3000, just to be nice.

Retirement fund, skip it for now.

All said and done, half of what you billed is now gone, but you're still alright. You've made close to $60,000, err, minus 38%, sorry, you're self-employed, closer to 50% for taxes.

Congratulations, you've made $30,000, roughly $15 an hour for your effort. 

Along with that, you've got all the headaches that come with running your own business.

You've got no retirement fund.

Once the real estate has sold, the pictures you've made have no resale or historical value whatsoever.

All of your time is spent churning out more of the same. Any hopes you've had of making images that you love... I'm just not sure that's possible anymore.

You've created a donut factory for yourself and the minute you stop cranking them out, you're out of business.

What fun is there in that? Is that what you really wanted? Isn't there an easier way to make $15 an hour (and I was trying to be really generous with the numbers btw).

In essence, you've destroyed the market for yourself, and everyone else.

I don't think anyone hopes to be the donut king of real estate photography when they grow up. There are of course plenty of photographers out there (me included), that would love to do two or three architecture photography type of jobs a month, for say $2000 a piece. That would be interesting, fun, offer the chance to make some good pictures, and allow us to pursue the type of photography that we're really interested in doing.

Ironically, both the relators and there customers would also be better served with photographs that captured the personality of the property. I mean, let's face it, there's no way you can do that with the volume and the price point of $225 you've established.

So there you have it. That's what has happened not only with real estate photography, but with most of the editorial market today.

We've all worked together to paint ourselves into a corner.

Still, there's hope.

I don't have any idea how Josef Koudelka has managed to make a living over the past forty years. Has he averaged the $15 an hour our real estate photographer has? Probably not, at least not for the first twenty years or so. Now of course, (probably) none of us reading this can afford his prints. 

Koudelka has managed to retain his copyright, he's survived, and he's produced work that will outlive the whole lot of us. I doubt the current economic situation has effected him in the least.

What about Elliott Erwitt? He's made some pretty good wedding photographs in his day. Sure, he was going there as a guest or whatnot, but there's no shame in shooting a wedding for money, and you can still make a frame that has some lasting, universal appeal.

Your work is where you find it. It doesn't have much to do with how you make money, even when you use a camera to earn a living.

The market is set to explode. There's plenty of work to be done, and plenty of people that are willing to pay for it, but we can't make the same mistakes.

We all must be careful to not devalue or underprice our work again. Whether you're marketing your own projects directly to the consumer, or working with a publication. Do not cheapen yourself. It starts with me. It starts with you. If someone is paying you to make pictures for them, double your prices today.

It's also important to remember that anyone can produce useful images. Don't get trapped or conned into being that person. There's nothing useful about Koudelka or Erwitt. Great photography is a luxury. It always has been, it always will be, and it's what you should strive for.

Leave useful and the half-price coupons to the donut makers.


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Kenneth Dickerman

Thanks, Ken. That more than answered the question. And even though I like the occasional donut, point well taken....


Using real numbers for expenses and amortizing the equipment over 4 yrs. or so one would probably make 80-85,000 a yr. But keep looking down your nose while the rest of us earn a living!



Excellent column Ken. Photogs have cut their own throats, or maybe it's just being "artists" rather than business people and you have to be both, which you've been learning. The old saying in negotiating it "you can lower your price, but you usually can't raise it"...and once you get typecast at a price point...

Maybe there's just too many trustafarian photogs who have undercut the market? overzealous photopups who don't realize they are sabotaging the market, by not holding the line or valuing their work properly (due to insecurity? i did that at times)? the business sharks will get away with every ound of flesh they can gnaw off, but you don't have to let yourself be chum.


POUND of flesh. an ound is less ;-)


Great post! Really!!
You are so true. It's our own fault to reduce the price to ridiculous amounts. Photo gear is expensive, time for learning and individual talent. Some people think that it's only push the shutter. It's important to show the real value of our talent, time and knowledge.
Thanks for sharing.


Definitely exaggerating on a few of those expenses... and you work to pay those expenses!, so regardless if you had a a good regular paying job to make 30gs after expenses for food and entertainment sounds GREAT!

Paul O'Mahony (Cork)

What a great post to read at 0629 in Glanmire Cork Ireland. I wake up to the words of a thoughtful person who knows the difference between images.
Of course there's a world of difference between a photographer who can take a good photograph, and one who can take a great one. A difference between an accidental brilliance and the consistent display of well-developed skill.
I'm no photographer. I take snaps. But I love great photographers. I also love photographers who take their skills and philosophy seriously. This is quite different from someone who's main interest is in making money.
I like the way you've brought your thoughts alive through examples and budget. Who does 10 jobs a week, 50 weeks a year? 500 jobs per year? Where do the clients come from? How long can you do that? Who does the business development, the networking, marketing? When is there time for improving your photographic skills and re-inventing your personal style? Anyone who produces that much is bound to spend their time copying the style of others, rather than deepening their photographic character?
To me, that's a schedule for burnout. Surely that sort of photographer isn't here for the long run?

Kenneth, your piece has been tweeted by @petapixel & @jeremycowart. It's going to be widely read. I congratulate you. I'd like to introduce you to another thoughtful photographer @rogeroverall. He works from Glanmire Cork - a documentary photographer whose blog has addressed similar issues. You mention Elliot Erwitt: Roger Overall loves his work too. I imagine you two would have plenty to say to each other. I'm going to tell him about you.
Thanks again for a very good bit of thought-provoking writing: I better go look for your photographs.


This is absolutely an over-exaggeration. I personally know 5 full time successful photographers. They don't have extravagant lifestyles, but they are all doing better than most of my other college graduate friends.

I know 5 photographers and total of zero NBA players. I met someone once who bowled with Dwight Howard. That's as close as I've ever come to an NBA player. And I can even count all the local photographers that I know of.

Maybe there are more NBA players than press photographers (print is on it's deathbed), but if you want to be a band photographer, portrait photographer, and especially wedding photographer, there are markets to enter and money to be made.

This is an article devoid of facts, bent on trying scare young passionate photographers from entering your market and taking your job.

Jim Moore

I totally agree with this - and it came pretty fast to me that many clients have set the price they're willing to pay under the price I am willing to charge - the trick is noticing this from the outset and moving on.

Problem is (and we've all partly been responsible) is that we go along with this for so long to get a foothold (and clients) but down the line if they're not willing to pay what you reckon you're worth is when the problems (and another opening for a cheaper photographer) start.

I'll be honest - I work professionally but I need to supplement my income by doing other things.

Don Vanco

You had a website in 1981? I don't think you did.....

Keith Dannemiller

I agree with most of what you have to say, given that I've lived it in the flesh these last 10 years or so. There is a good helping of logical reasoning in your arguments for what has happened. But I think you shot yourself in the foot with the statement 'If someone is paying you to make pictures for them, double your prices today.' I know what you are saying but, where does that come from? If you are a pro you'll look at your cost of doing business and come up with variable adjustments over time to your fees. And maybe some of those who you might double your rates for will just have to drop into the 'no I can't shoot it for that' bin. A blanket 100% increase across the board is not going to get you any increase in revenue when you consider the number of editors who will scratch you off their list for your price hike. If you crunch the numbers and can live without their input, great. But I think there are more creative ways to keep the clients and add a bit more to your bottom line.

Brian Smith

It's still quite possible to make a Small Fortune in photography...simply start with a Large Fortune...


This is valuable material. Thanks for posting.


Great Steve Martin reference in your title...

Michal Daniel

I would have picked someone else other than Josef Koudelka as a primary example of a successful photojournalist. Because Koudelka was never really a photojournalist - he is a self-propelled and self-assigned documentarian, who only less than a handful of times took an assignment of any kind. And because for the vast majority of his life he lived with only a backpack, camera bag, sleeping bag and nothing else. He slept out in the open for half the year, at friends' pads and the Magnum Paris office for the other half. The Turnley brothers seem a better example, to me.


Photographers do love complaining.

Lots and lots of people have real shit jobs and no real choice but work them.

Sorry it's so hard for you to make a lot of money doing what you love. But unfortunately, this is not a Right that is owed to you.


umm.. yeah. mostly true. sort of.

every year a photographer isn't buying a $10,000 camera. every year a photographer isn't buying an $8000 car. so after the first year this photographer is making $48,000. not terrible! plus, this photographer can always up the rates.

so really this is just a great big exaggeration.

Richard Levine

Well written. Sadly makes a lot of sense.


Nice post. I feel you may have missed a few points. Yes, there are some exaggerations. The equipment should last 3 years. An $8K car might run into some major repair expenses with the amount of mileage this type of business may incur. If in an urban area add more time to get there and back (traffic). If rural add the same (distance). Make sure you have commercial auto insurance if you use your car for your business.

What about advertising and marketing?
How much more will that cost?

Paying off art school loans?
How much more will that cost?

If not art school, how much did it cost in time and expenses to learn your trade? What's your return on that investment?

500 jobs a year?
I'd be surprised.

How will time management work in the real world?
I'd bet 20% of clients are late or will rush your work.
Another 10-20% will cancel at the last minute.
10-20% may be no shows.
All this will serve to waste your time and cause paying work to be shifted in time. The result will be less completed jobs in a year.
What about slow and no payers?
The reality of working on the bottom, people tend to be more demanding and less respectful of your time.

Working in the real world will require lighting (or more post time).
Alien bees or Profoto? Either will cost. As will the time or assistant to use them.

Here's a neat little piece:

"But the bureau's examination of Brooks's records found not one 2003 graduate at any degree level whose reported wages and employment tenure were enough to generate even $50,000 of earning potential.

Indeed, of the 45 graduates reported by Brooks as employed full time, the average income was about $26,000, the report said. The average indebtedness of this group was around $74,000."

Of course when all is said and done, this is still only a production job (donuts), probably not what inspired one into a $75K college debt.


Giving advice to people on how to not "cheapen their brand" and how doing so, helps everyone in the business is noble. However, the analogy of photographer vs. NBA player is quite misguided. First, the NBA is a "juried show." You're selected by the industry for your talent, photography is not. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can get into photography and many of those that are successful are successful for reason much more closely aligned with those in the political arena than those playing on the NBA's courts. Spin and marketing go a long way in this business because for years (as you've so aptly pointed out previously numerous times) the people running the display side of this business don't know shit. Don't know shit about how to run a business and don't know shit about what constitutes a good image. In the past these people were employed at various levels of many of the national magazines (and newspapers) and they took their readers (who also didn't know shit about a good image vs. a bad image) for granted as long as their wears were selling. Now, of course as things are moving to a digital realm (something these dumb asses should have seen coming years ago) they're are losing tremendous marketshare week-over-week, year-to-year. So, now these "dumb asses" who've "been minding the store" all these years in a situation where it's either their asses or our asses. Photographers are the low hanging fruit here. So, to move things along and to keep their jobs the print industry bosses are demanding that photographers "cheapen their brand" or else there will be "no business" for everyone. At least that's how the story is being portrayed.

So, with these "market forces" at work, if you want to be a "successful" (i.e. a money making photographer) go buy any book on business. In there you'll find Mr. Jarecke's donut analogy and a bunch of other advice about how to keep your sanity (probably your house, car, etc.) through improving your "marketing techniques." It's not that you should feel bad making donuts (or shitty images), but "GREAT" about selling them, a whole "LOT" of them! Even if they are truly really really shitty. Besides if you're really good, you CAN make a lot of money selling at any price! "How," you ask. You see if you're really really good with your marketing techniques, you'll outlast or drive out your competition thereby monopolizing "YOUR BRAND." That's how "business" works, just look at your local Walmart as a prime example. Being a "successful" and "good" photographer don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive in this business, but most often time are. Now, with markets virtually drying up, is when things are going to get quite interesting.

Until this business has some sort of jury system (which ain't ever going to happen) to insure only quality "players play" everyone will be subject to individuals that undercut, produce poor quality for less, and market themselves by "any means necessary." If you don't like those rules, you probably won't like this "sport." So, get a basketball and start practicing today. Who knows, maybe within a few years you'll be on one of those elite NBA courts playing. In that arena at least you'll know you been "selected" to play along with everyone else. As you see, that playing field is a lot more "level" than this one, but at least according to Mr. Jarecke's calculations you stand about as good as chance there as here.

Tennis anyone?

does it matter

thanks for the article - how do we get it into the hands of all the various people that hire photographers who think that the craft is nothing more then aiming a point and shoot camera at a subject?
A client recently asked me to shoot some shots at $25.00/shot. Did I need to explain to her that there is no way I can stay in business by doing here a favor? Instead I called my landlord, credit cards, utilities, creditors, the IRS and my insurance company and told them that I would be paying them all less because my client needed a favor. I am a professional with a huge body of work and I still field questions like - will it be less light when you are done? (that is after sending a jpg for composition approval...that says in the subject line...NOT FOR LIGHTING)
I have learned to swallow my pride and assure them that the color and exposure will be correct when I am finished - but frankly...when you hire a professional you have worked with before you should expect a level of quality...unless your an idiot!

Kyle Dreier

Great points but not all photography or photographers or business ventures are the same. There is a place for anyone wanting to be a "photographer". It's a very broad spectrum.

You just has to decide what kind of product you will deliver and to whom you will deliver it ... and at what price.

What is the distinctive between what you do and what your competition does?

Price? Do you want to be a Wal-Mart or a Nordstrom? If you wish to compete on price then you will not last. There is always someone willing to do it for less or even free.

Quality? Is what you do superior to others or your direct competition? Are you able to consistently excellent results ... making your clients uber happy. Wal-Mart or Nordstom?

Service? What's the experience like for your client? Do you provide an enjoyable environment and pleasant accommodations? Are you a pleasure to deal with? Do you provide white glove service? Wal-Mart or Nordstom?

The marketplace ultimately decides the worth or value of what you are delivering. Economics 101. Supply/Demand. The equilibrium is where our prices reside. Just remember, it's not all about price. Other forces are at play ... quality and price.

It's a great time to be a photographer ... profession, amateur, novice, hobbyist, rich, poor, happy, sad ...

- Kyle Dreier


Looks like my link above was cut off, here it is again:

"California Agency Alleges Brooks Institute of Photography "Willfully" Misled Students"


NYT article on Brooks

Cached blog - original is loading slowly

Parting comment:
ROI ("Return on Investment") is the fundamental consideration today. What are you getting back relative to what is put in and other career choices. If you are going to make "donuts" for a living make sure your return is healthy. There are plenty of different types of "donut" making careers.

Andrew Shaw

Great piece Ken - Just came across it via A Photo Editor then immediately recognized your name from all those great pictures from the last 20 years or so. You're absolutely right about the numbers of photographers and the numbers of jobs. I've always thought about making it as a photographer is a little like competing at the olympics-quite a few people fancy the idea but not that many get there.

But fast forward to today. Even after shooting for 20 years I find I'm competing for each and every shoot. Gone are the days where clients called like clockwork. Now there are more photographers than ever. EVERYBODY is a photographer. Clients tell me stories of photographers offering to shoot just to be published and for the byline.

Sure I agree with you the market for pictures is probably going to explode and there will be more opportunities to place pictures than ever. However I'll bet that those photos will be sourced at a such a low price that it will be harder than ever to make living.

Terence Hogben

Guys i am 50 now been shooting as a full time pro for 27 years now and i would like to offer some advice.
Get those retirement plans in play straight away if you get a studio buy it , if possible.
When you have been in the industry for a long time those rose tinted glasses start to fade , just make sure that you have something to show for it.
In my case all the small bread and butter jobs have faded away and it is only the high end jobs that make it worth while.
Excellent article Kenneth.


Terence Hogben

Guys i am primarily a Advertising photographer but my post above still applies.



Why only double your prices, why not triple them, oh wait, how about quadruple!!! That makes even more sense. It's simple math. Yeah, except for the whole supply and demand thing. Maybe you didn't get a chance to take economics in High School.


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Just meet it through a photo editor and then immediately recognize your name from all those great pictures from the past twenty years or so. You're absolutely right number of photographers and a lot of work. I've always thought to make it as a photographer is a bit like to take part in the Olympic Games is very few people like the idea, but not a lot to get there.

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