How To Make Money As A Photographer

by John Holbrook

I’ve done a considerable amount of freelance photography for the last several years. Most of the work that I’ve done has been related to the luxury wrist watch industry – though I’ve done a fair amount of work outside the watch industry, watches are my first love. I’ve done everything from catalog and ad photography for watch companies, as well as online watch dealers for their Web stores. Since watch companies tend to sponsor high profile sports and events, I’ve gotten the opportunity to do quite a lot of sports photography too – car races, motorcycle races, yacht races, and air races, among others. If it can be raced, I’ve shot it. I’ve done a couple of celebrity photo shoots here and there. And while it isn’t my strongest suite, I’ve even done a few weddings along the way. It’s all been very satisfying work and also very financially rewarding.

Clearly one doesn’t get as much work as I’ve gotten by not having a degree of talent. But I don’t attribute my success to being a great photographer. The truth is (and I’m not the least bit afraid to admit this), there are much better photographers out there. Unfortunately, it takes much more than talent to make money as a photographer. To be successful, you have to be able to effectively sell yourself. It doesn’t matter if you want to do wedding photography, sports photography, product photography or simply work for the local newspaper – you have to market and sell yourself and your talent. Here are some tips on finding and closing more paid work:

Identify Your Target Market

It’s pretty tough to market yourself if you don’t know whom you are marketing yourself to. So spend some time thinking about the kind work you want to capture. Some people find it easier to be successful by defining a very narrow, specific niche for themselves. Some folks make a darn fine living doing not just sports photography, not just auto racing photography, but specifically, Indy Car racing photography. For others, putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, just doesn’t make good sense. For me, I like the variety of one day doing product photography on a $200,000 mechanical wrist watch and the next day standing on the corkscrew of Laguna Seca capturing shots of a MotoGP race. Either approach can work, but the point is, spend some real time thinking about what you want to do, what you really want to do and then write it down. Once I figured out that I wanted to shoot luxury mechanical wrist watches, then my potential client list was much simpler to put together.

Identify Target Clients Within Your Market

Once you’ve figured out the type of photography you want to do, it’s time to put together a list of potential paying clients with the intention of calling them for work. For me, once I decided that I wanted to work in the luxury wrist watch industry, the list of potential customers practically wrote it self – watch manufacturers, ad agencies, watch retailers, trade journals covering the industry – I just kept writing names of places that I could think of that pay for the type of photography I wanted to do. The clearer you can be about your chosen area, the more obvious the target client list becomes.

The next step is to identify the users of your service within your target clients; having a great and long list of potential client companies won’t help if you don’t know who to talk to inside the company. This part is often challenging because sometimes people you really need to talk to are not only tough to identify, but are also well shielded from “outside contact.”

Often it will require creativity to figure out the name of the person you need to contact as well as polite persistence in reaching that person. It will also require a degree of discipline – the discipline to pull away from playing with the newest update to Photoshop and make the actual calls and send the e-mails it takes to win the business you’re seeking. This is the part of the process which, in my experience, is least compatible with they typical photographer’s personality. It’s the main reason why I’m more successful than others at winning paying work, leaving far more talented folks relegated to the annals of anonymity, with their only paying work requiring them to say “Would you like fries with that?”

Using some good contact management software can go a long way to building in some what I like to call “automatic discipline.” I like to use Microsoft Outlook (just about everyone has this on their computer) to create a database of contacts, note any efforts I’ve made to market to them, note any conversations we’ve had, and most importantly, when I should follow up and contact them again. Once done, I don’t have to think about calling or e-mailing that person again – Outlook just pops up and tells me who I need to contact and why when its time to do so. If you don’t know how to use this functionality within Outlook, there are plenty of inexpensive books and free online resources to help tune up your skills in this regard. Of course, there are 1,000 other contact management tools out there that you can use – just make sure you use something.

Think Like A Business Person

I don’t care who you are or what type of photography you do – the only reason someone will buy your photos or use your services is because they think they will make money doing it. So if you’re trying to present yourself and your portfolio to a contact at a potential client, put some thought into the business questions they’ll be asking as they evaluate you and your work: What is the value of these photos/services to my business? Will this help me maintain and grow my clients? What’s going to be my return on investment (MBA types call this ROI) for this expenditure? What is the value of this expenditure relative to other choices in the marketplace? If you can satisfactorily answer some of these questions in your initial proposal to whomever your end client is, you’ll be head and shoulders above your competition and well on your way to winning the business.

Learn How To Live With Rejection

You’ve probably heard this before, but the point bears repeating: You’ll hear many, many more “no’s” than you will ever hear “yes.” For many photographers, it’s really, really tough to hear things like “we’re not hiring” or “we don’t need you right now” or “you’re not what we’re looking for” or any other of a thousand forms of the word “no.” Worse yet, in many cases you don’t hear anything at all – you leave several voicemails, send several e-mails, and never to even get a courtesy response acknowledging your efforts to make contact. It’s frustrating – believe me, I know. For every job I get, there are at least 10 others I tried for and didn’t get. And for every job I do get, it’s only after being politely persistent over time.

Try not to get too frustrated with the person you’re leaving e-mails and messages with – a little compassion will go a long way. In most cases, they aren’t intentionally ignoring you. It’s just that they have far more demands on their time than hours in the day. It may take a consistent stream of phone calls, voicemails and e-mails to try to catch your target at the right time. At the same time, don’t be apprehensive about making multiple attempts to contact someone. Remember, it’s their job to talk to you – to listen to proposals like yours which could be of tremendous value to whatever organization your target contact represents.

In closing, the reason why you’re reading this article is because I was politely persistent with the editors of this magazine. I came up with a concept which is of core concern to their subscriber base (i.e. their clients), presented my concept in a professional manner and regularly followed up with my target contact until I was given the green light to produce this article. It wasn’t rocket science and neither are any of the tips and techniques I illustrate. But successful sales executives use these same fundamental principles every day. To be a successful photographer, you have to sell yourself like a pro.


15 Responses to “How To Make Money As A Photographer”

  1. It is a great reminder to think like a business person first and a photographer second if you would like to get the types of photography jobs you really want. It is difficult, but you can do it, keep trying. Book mark this article for inspiration and read it daily if you have to!

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  5. amazing you find it i was crawling the web for that ..cheers

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  8. Many thanks. This is just what was needed. A previous poster said it very well
    ‘Being successful is usually a ladder that cannot be climbed with your palms in your pocket’

  9. JB Lance says:

    I have the eye of a great photographer and have worked many paid jobs as both a photographer and videographer over the last decade. I’m willing to work as an apprentice to gain more experience and general knowledge of the art if you could use me in any aspect. Please contact me at 859-621-4876 or I have the work ethic,personality, and talent to be an asset, just give me a chance to prove it to you.

    JB Lance

  10. Laura Meneus says:

    Being Inexperienced Im constantly discovering on-line for reports which will help me. Thank you

  11. mike says:

    I’ve used for making money via SEO/Adsense from the pictures that won’t sell or be approved for stock photography.

  12. JetaB says:

    Thanks, the most honest piece I’ve read to date.

  13. Anderson Labree says:

    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this fantastic blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to new updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group. Chat soon!

  14. Dee Gordon says:

    Hi John, I really enjoyed your article! Like another poster mentioned, what really stands out in the article is your perceived ‘honesty’. I decided to do a Google search on your name to find some samples of watch and auto racing photos that you took, but I couldn’t find any. What I did find under a website called John Holbrook photography dot com, is a wedding photography site, which you didn’t even mention in your article as a main focus. Is that your bread and butter job? I also found a reference to a blog on the Rolex forum site with your name. Do you have a watch forum there?
    Part of my reason for doing a quick Google search is to try and discover how in fact you are marketing yourself online. My findings are that you are not showcasing your high-end watch and auto racing/sports photography at all. I am wondering how you can expect to get much work that way?
    My guess is that nowadays, pretty much anyone who is anybody is going to have a good web presence, and especially in the case of photography, in order to get recognized, because prospective employers will most likely do a check on the web to see what you have done and to try and an see how well known you are in your field. Maybe you can comment on these statements/questions? I’m a photographer who is seeking to expand my Internet presence myself to help my image.

  15. Dee Gordon says:

    John, another reason that someone, who is reading your article, might want to see the quality or examples of the photos that you have taken, is that it would be helpful in assessing how honest you are being in regard to your modesty, especially when you claim to be basically a nothihng special photographer. While it may appeal greatly to the typical aspiring photographer, to think that even they can become successful with the right marketing and self-promption efforts, this may not be too likely. I’m sure you are aware of how marketers love to make such claims when trying to sell to the masses, much like the way ‘work-at-home’ ads tell unemployed people how easy it is to get rich following their ‘system’. You aren’t selling anything, so this is not the first thing that came to my mind, thankfully. But on the other hand, it is so rare that someone who it really that good, decides to be so blatently honest about their abilities. Anyway, your article was excellent and I look forward to reading more in the future.

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