When you do a google search for how much a photographer makes, the answer varies wildly from $24K to $200K per year, begging the question — is there such a thing as the ‘average photographer?’
I, the writer of this article, personally know photographers making less than $24k a year and don’t know any making $200k — with the exception of YouTube sensations a la Peter McKinnon. The answer to this question of photographer’s salaries is different today than it was five, ten and definitely fifteen years ago. There are essentially two routes to make a living in photography today: traditional or modern.
The traditional route: being an employee
If you want a career in photography — working for somebody else where you can put in a consistent 40-hour workweek — there are viable options. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, the annual median pay for photographers in the United States was $38,950 in 2021. Salaries for photography jobs like this vary based on three main factors: field, location, expertise and education.
If you’re looking for a traditional career in photography, you’re going to want to find your niche and stick to it. We’ve all been to photographers’ websites and been confused as to whether they shoot newborns or cars. Your niche could either be a particular type of photography you want to focus on, like portraits or fashion, or a method of photography like drone or macro. When I was in college, my photography professor told us about a colleague that made a living shooting from a dog’s point of view — low and wide. I think it takes a little more than that today, but it goes to show you that there are plenty of niches; you just have to find yours.
Adorama says that some of the highest paying photographer jobs are in fashion, sports and product photography. There is an unlimited number of niches you can focus on, but any route you take will still require you to develop your unique style along the way. Check out this article to learn more about turning commercial photography into a career.
Location, location, location
Indeed did an article breaking down the average hourly salaries for photographers based on State. Maine and Vermont made the top of the list at over $40/hr. If you want a high-end runway fashion photography career, you have to be where it’s happening. Similarly, if you want to teach on a campus — well — you better live close.
Experience and education: What do you know, and how well do you know it?
While teaching positions still require degrees and many job postings ask for it, according to ZipRecruiter, the national average for photography teaching positions is $48,349 annually. While a degree may help you land a teaching job, a killer portfolio will always supersede. Casey Neistat didn’t shoot a Samsung commercial because he has a degree. He has an incredible history of work, a huge fan base and the skill and knowledge required to get the job done.
The modern route: be a brand
This is where it can really get interesting — and lucrative. While the traditional nine-to-five job might appeal to some, it’s a cage to others. The modern route to a successful and lucrative career in photography is a self-employed route. It’s easy to make an argument for this route; you set your own price, hours, ethics, etc., but you also incur all of the hassles of equipment costs, bookings and generally running a business. Similar to the traditional route, you’ll want to find an area of focus for your photography. This is the route of the future. You’ll be able to gain paying jobs within your chosen field of photography, but it doesn’t end there. Like the traditional route, this is based on three factors: brand, content and presence.
Brand: building for longevity
A brand is more than just a name; it’s a vibe, a feeling, a culture. That might sound poetic and silly, but it’s true. Nike isn’t just shoes; it represents dedication and perseverance to its wearers. As a photographer, you are your brand. You want your name to come to mind when people think of photography in your niche. Become an influencer in your chosen field. The internet is big, and there is room for you to be influential regardless of your niche. The most successful influencers stick to a structured model that is a blend of quality content that provides value to the end user and their flavor and style. Giving is the model of success, and when it’s done honestly, it pays. When you do things for the right reasons to help others, you win. Figure out what you stand for and make consistent content around that.
We touched on this in the previous section, and this factor can be simple: make valuable content for your audience. Oftentimes, we get caught up in this. How do you have time to make content while running a business? The Gary Vee model: document vs. create. People want to see a genuine you. Simply document yourself via pictures, videos and written word while you do what you do best.
Presence: Where you at?
Where you are matters. This modern route may be a shorter section of the article, but it’s usually a more daunting task in practicality. Presence equals awareness, and more platforms often mean more profit. There are so many social media platforms that sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. A good rule of thumb is to start with the platforms native to your field. With photography, Instagram is an obvious first step, and avenues like Pinterest, Youtube and TikTok follow. You don’t want to leave out things like podcasts, Twitter or online courses where you can really pass on significant value to others. According to mint.intuit, YouTube is currently paying $3-$5 per 1000 views. When you start reaching high numbers, that can really pay off, especially as supplemental income. Check out this article to learn more about building your Youtube presence.
Time to cash out
There’s money to be made with photography no matter how you pursue it. Each route offers pros and cons and will appeal to different goals and mindsets. These routes aren’t mutually exclusive either. You can create multiple income streams with your photography passion. For a little more inspiration on turning your passion into a profession, check out this article. We’ve only scratched the surface of becoming a professional photographer, so keep researching and doing what you love. After you’re successful at building your brand, there are even more opportunities to create income with sponsorships, affiliate marketing, online courses, etc. The internet world is ever-evolving, and we haven’t even touched on web 3.0. Integrity and providing value always wins. Keep creating.