Sorry, Photography Students, But It’s Time to Find Something Else to Do

[Jim Pickerell’s new e-book “Secrets To Building A Successful Photography Career” is available at a discount to Black Star Rising readers. Just enter the coupon code “BlackStarRising” to get $5 off.]

An open letter to photography student Emily Chow:

After reading your story, “To Succeed in Photography, Today’s Students Must Chart Their Own Course,” I have mixed emotions.

Determination in the face of overwhelming obstacles is admirable. But it saddens me that photo schools are preparing students for a hobby, not a career.

A Hobby, Not a Career

You say that photographers are advising you to “Stay out of the business,” but they are “still taking photos” and that gives you some comfort that you too can build a career in photography or photojournalism. Keep in mind that the reason many photographers are still taking photos and still hanging on is that they haven’t been able to identify any better options for making a living. They were trained to do one thing and aren’t prepared to do anything else.

This leaves them with two options. Get new training in a totally different field and then try to get a job in that new career, or try to hang on as long as possible at what they have been doing, hoping they’ll be able to earn enough to support their families before all the jobs disappear or they are ready to retire. Many are choosing to hang on because the other option isn’t easy or a sure thing either.

In the case of young people just starting out, “adapting to change” should mean recognizing that the demand for professionally produced still photos is declining, and then figuring out how you will earn a living doing something other than photography.

I’m assuming that earning a living is your goal, rather than just having a hobby that you enjoy. A lot of people get satisfaction from doing photography part-time and earning a living at some other full-time career. If that’s your aim, you probably should be focusing on plans for that full-time career.

Like It or Not, Things Change

Sure, you can invest time in your photography, too. You’ll be able to sell pictures occasionally and probably earn enough to cover your expenses; just don’t expect much more than that. There’s only a small chance you’ll be able to earn a living from still photography in the future.

There always will be exceptions, of course. There will be a few people who do well, but their numbers will be a lot less in five years than they are today, or than they were 10 or more years ago. As a career, photography is in serious decline.

If you think this can’t happen, think about aerospace engineering and what a big deal it was in the 1960s (I know that was before you were born), and how many of those who devoted their careers to it lost their jobs and wound up doing something else entirely.

Or think about all the photographers who used to make a good living just doing darkroom work. They were in the dark all day with their hands in developer and fixer. Dodging and burning were real skills. Where are they now?

Beyond Camera Work

If you are still determined to be a photographer, then look to video and storytelling more than stills. Develop all the necessary skills including writing, graphics, gathering appropriate sound, editing and story development. Don’t just focus on camera work.

Our society is moving rapidly from a period where the still image was king to a point where virtually all information and entertainment will be on video devices that need motion, sound, narration and a compelling story to communicate information.

The producers who can bring all these elements together and sell, or find funding for, such projects will be the future winners. Everyone else will be technicians — small cogs in the production machine — and earning technician wages.

Get educated on what is happening with iPads and other tablet devices and consider how they are going to impact the kind of visual information that will be needed. Photography is just one aspect of the communication business, and a declining one.

What skills will communicators need in the future? Look at the education business and the use of electronic whiteboards, for example. How will they change the demand for visual materials in education?

A Look at Your Career Options

If you can find one — and they are rare — look for a staff job with a guaranteed salary. Most photographers are self-employed, and that provides very little security.

If your goal is to somehow work with pictures, consider the support services rather than shooting. Be one of those who takes the raw material (photographs) and turns them into a marketable product. Many people supplying support services to photographers earn more than the photographers themselves.

If you are trying to make photography a career, then it is an absolute necessity that you study business and marketing. Most successful photographers spend 80 percent of their time in marketing, business development and operating their business. They are lucky if they spend more than 20 percent of their time behind the camera.

You say your friend is taking photographs for Shop Evanston. How much is he being paid for those pictures? What are his expenses? How many hours does he spend producing those images and what is he earning per hour of actual work? Assuming that Shop Evanston can’t afford to pay any photographer a full-time salary, how easy will it be for him to get other part-time work that enables him to earn enough to support himself?

You will find that even very experienced photographers who have one or two good part-time contracts find it very difficult to string a lot of small projects together so there is no down time between jobs. Down time is the killer. It is possible to make good money on certain jobs for a limited amount of effort. But the down time between jobs eats away all that extra profit.

It is relatively easy to find people who want to use your pictures, so I’m not surprised that some of your friends are shooting headshots for theater and film students, shooting for a student fashion magazine or covering fraternity and sorority events. The question is how much are they being paid for these services? My bet is not very much.

Yes, they are doing it to polish their skills and build a portfolio. But it is a huge leap to go from receiving little or no money for your work to getting paid a reasonable fee for what you do.

Timing Is Everything

The major problem still photographers face is that technology has advanced to the point where virtually everyone can produce acceptable pictures for their needs, without the aid of a professional photographer. That’s why people hire professionals less often and want to pay them less than they did in the past.

I was one of the lucky ones who entered the photography business when the demand for professionally produced still photography was on the rise.

My first major image sale was a Life Magazine cover on the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam. Back in 1963, a Life cover was a big deal (Black Star, incidentally, negotiated that sale.) There is nothing like being fortunate enough to start at the top.

Looking back, I’ve had a successful career. But timing is everything, and this is not the time to launch a still photography career.

Study photography business trends. It’s not just about the technical skills, as important as they are. Check out my e-book “Secrets To Building A Successful Photography Career.” Analyze the statistics and you’ll understand what’s really happening in the photography industry.

One last thing. Don’t show this story to your mom or dad. They may wonder what they’ve been paying for.

73 Responses to “Sorry, Photography Students, But It’s Time to Find Something Else to Do”

  1. Jim, Emily,
    Photography isn't dead, but the old business model is. While you will find many people mourning this disappearing model and trying to figure out what to do next, you will find many more who are problem solving the issues that face us. People become frustrated in the face of change, but it is time for change in our business. Personally I don't see it as all doom and gloom.

    I see:

    The ability of younger photographers to move seamlessly between photography, video and new media, which will allow them to change the old definition of photography and photographer.

    More images being used in more places than any other time in the history of our profession, providing many new opportunities for all of us. These opportunities will only grow as the use of digital devices multiplies and moves into P.O.P and other areas. Consider ways to re-purpose your imagery and to sell it to more outlets. Use this opportunity to build greater brand awareness.

    The market place accepting a greater diversity of visual styles and image quality than ever before. A single style or two of photography does not dominate the marketplace. This gives photographers room to be more creative and offers more people the opportunity to exhibit and sell their work.

    That we are able to create salable images using everything from iPhones to Mark II’s, from prosumer video cameras to high end HD video, giving us larger selection of equipment and creative tools, at more price points, than ever before.

    Video has creating a new revenue stream for many photographers, allowing them to diversify and solidify their businesses as they position themselves for the future. Video is a very large part of the future for those in our field.

    More outlets, gallery and otherwise, for fine art photography than ever before. Work in all genres is being sold. Put together a well edited portfolio and take advantage of the opportunity.

    An explosion of online social networks, blogs, web sites, photographic communities and information resources providing us with the ability or learn new skills, exchange information, reach clients. Social Media and other online outlets offer us a multitude of ways to reach new clients, stay in touch with old ones, and to promote our work and our businesses in a cost effective manner. I am not suggesting you write spend hours a week working with social media, but it should be part of a coordinated marketing and branding presence.

    I see photography changing and old models and definitions dying, but I also see people like Emily who will persevere and move our business in directions that older photographers may not imagine.

    Keep going Emily, change is rarely embraced. Remember many photographers were angry about stock photography while others moved forward and profited, and that is only one small example of the difference between embracing change that is beyond your control for your own benefit. I look forward to seeing what Emily and her generation does with imagery, both still and time based. It is an exciting time.

    Thomas Werner
    Curator, Educator, Lecturer
    Thomas Werner Project on

  2. I'm still wondering why photography seems to be the only industry where current "pros" discourage up and coming new talent from entering the business.

    Move over, gramps.

  3. Thanks for the article, and ... no, it's not the only career field where the "pros" are dicouraging the neewbies to enter the market.

    I was, not later than yesterday, discussinG a similar topic about a totally different field of the productive world with a University professor, and a few hours before I was talking about the photo market with a former travel photographer and how much it has changed.

    There is no written path or answer, but having all the elements to be able to judge and move accordingly is vital, let's stop sticking our heads in the sand.
    Professional photography is not in demand at the moment and probably never will again in the near future.

  4. In all seriousness this article is misinformed and incredibly negative it is a scathing attack on a student who wrote something and published it for free online in a bid to get people to buy your book. I have not read your book but I can't see how someone who has enough time to write a book can be a successful photographer.

    I am 26 years old myself have been freelance for under two years and I would class myself as successful, I am making more than enough money, I am happy and I have varied and repeat clients.

    You paint a very untrue picture of the photographic industry, people will always need still photography, there is just more competition so people need to up their game. If photography is not in demand can you explain how come I have barely had a day off since Christmas working for around ten different clients.???

    I would encourage people to attempt a career in photography but it's not an easy one with very few people truly able to make a decent living. But it's a good one if you have the balls to try it and the determination to follow through.

    This article just seems to be written (very basically) by someone who is talking about an industry they have little or no knowledge of themselves.



  5. Please disregard : Jim Pickerell is looking at the photography market through the distorted eyes of commercial stock photography which has recently been ravaged by crowdsourcing.

    Also, he is apparently plugging his $25 E-book by inducing fear and despair: An old "snake oil" trick.

    Keep you passion and your love of photography and you will find ways to make it work. For you.

  6. This is not a distorted article. The most relevant part of it are the paragraphs under the Beyond Camera Work. I don't think Jim titled this article very well though.

  7. Dear Emily,

    Don't be disheartened. This kind of chat is endemic in our industry - and it is, frankly, guff. It is true that there are continual pressures to find cheaper/easier/faster ways of producing images but we live in a world where there are more images being consumed than ever before. And someone must be taking them. I think the stock photography industry is taking a battering. But that's not the same thing as it being near-impossible to make a living as a photographer.

    I am very lucky, I take pictures for living. People pay me partly because I can capture an image and partly because we work very hard to be professional (and likeable!) in the process.

    Be who you are, believe in your ability and try not to listen to too many distracting voices. If you believe it will happen.

    Just as all those who believe they can no longer earn a living as a photographer will be proven to be right. Negativity has just as much a part to play in this as market forces.

    I am NOT saying that you should just do what photographers have always done - that is no longer economically viable. But if you're determined, ambitious, flexible and willing to fully embrace all the bits of technology that have impacted our industry over the past few years then it can all happen.

    And, most importantly of all, be very VERY careful what you choose to read!!!

    Have a great career. Paul.

  8. Normally, I like this site, but this? This is a soul-sucking article.

    Give us a chance to make our own way. You made yours. This is our world, let us try for our dreams too. Who knows that we might not change the world you know?

  9. The one thing I remember being taught at art college in the mid '70s because it was the constant chant of the photography lecturers is "It's very hard to make a living these days in photography".

    Consequently I didn't even try. Fortunately that only lasted for four years. Then I decided to work in photography. I've done many other things over the years. It is hard to make a living in photography but it is absolutely possible. It's hard to make a living doing anything where there is a lot of competition but that fact alone doesn't make all the competition better than you.

    If you intend to help people it might be an idea to show how to overcome the odds rather than just state them.

  10. Telling aspiring professionals that photography is not a career, then on the same page advertising an ebook you've written about how to become a professional photographer seems a bit... odd.

    I won't be buying it anyway.

    I'd rather hear from people who are working with the industry as it stands now - not listening to people moaning about how bad it is compared to the good old days.

  11. I have to agree with the other replies to this post 100%.

    When you find someone who has been in the business as long as Jim has you can bet he is pretty stuck in his ways and not as easy to embraces change. True, the day of grabbing rolls of film and hanging out in the darkrooms is declining by leaps and bounds and now you simply take your memory card to Wal-Mart and print out your selected shots. But that does not mean photography is dead. True you can pay $500 for a Rebel and lens kit and the average person can set it on auto and look like a pro. But the proof they say is in the pudding. Composition, lighting, the emotion the image presents all will be lost on the untrained.

    As long as there are books, magazines, annuals, printed fliers, weddings, births, advertising, brochures, newspapers, billboards, families, etc there will be a need for the still image and people willing to pay for those images.

    Sure some of the new technology has hampered the old business model for photographers who have been pressing the shutter button since the 60s but it has also opened the door for those open enough to embrace the new changes.

    Can you make a living at photography? Yes. People are doing it all over the world and it is unlikely to change. Is there more competition? Yes. But it only serves to weed out the wanna-bes and forces you to focus more on creating your own unique style. There is nothing like doing something you love and then getting paid for it too.

    Is there any shame in doing student portraits at a local school to pay the bills? No. Is doing head shots for local actors less glamorous than capturing that once in a lifetime shot for the cover of Life less important? Not to the actor with the 8x10 glossy in his hands. It may give you less bragging rights on this site but bragging rights no longer pay the bills the last I saw.

    I say keep following your dreams no matter how many folks tell you its crazy or unattainable. It just makes the rewards all that sweeter. And if everything goes to hell in a hand basket you can look back on the journey and tell yourself you never ever have to say "what if".

  12. Jon
    Take your crappy ebook scam and stick it up your bum.
    This is exactly the kind of negative claptrap that caused me to give up my photography career 17 years ago. And now, I'm back studying for my photography degree, getting paid commissions all over. Sure, as togs we need to think about diversifying but your article also smacks of putting a young lady down because you obviously can't stand the idea of a woman making it as a photographer and potentially better than you at it, too. I've come up against this kind of ridiculous 'you can't possibly know what you're doing in this game what with you being a mere female in an extremely male dominated world' Neanderthal attitude.
    And it makes me even more determined to succeed second time around.
    Photography not in demand is it not?
    A million weddings a year says otherwise.

  13. Just a side note, how many copies of his book "Secrets To Building A Successful Photography Career" can he possibly sell if his advice to new photographers is run away? I have not ready his book nor wish to, but if you was striking out in business fresh and green and saw the title of his book you might want to pick it up (except e-books usually sell for far less than he's asking) but if this post is an example of the advice you'll be given I think he may need to rethink the title of the over priced book or learn a little more about marketing basics before he posts negative things on here.

    Just my thoughts.

  14. Interesting discussion. Having grown up in Jim Pickerell's era of photo marketing and having respected his insights into the field in the past, I do find the article a bit on the harsh side, but also a realistic insight to the changes that have taken place in the photography business.

    The photography business has changed. I counted on my over 15,000 slides to help see me through my retirement. Now I am seriously challenged to adapt to both today's technology and a market dominated by ever larger corporations, making it much harder to establish lasting relationships with individual editors.

    I have found some success in publishing my own Alaska/Yukon photo books and marketing them myself to gift shops across Alaska and elsewhere. And in selling custom notecards at Farmers Markets.

    I still love the work I do and feel that my developed ability to convey a message in my images that increase respect for wildlife and its habitat are values very much needed in today's world. Stock sales however are much more challenging than they were over the past twenty years or so.

    Also, I've learned to live simply.

    Young folks, follow your dreams. Make yourself happy. Make it work for you.

  15. Film is dead, your career is dead, adapt and survive.

  16. Jim: Thank you so much for this post. I think you brought up a lot of points that are worth considering and that aspiring visual journalists should ask themselves before pushing forward.

    What struck me most about your post is that I am actually doing almost all the things you mentioned -- exploring video and audio, looking at digital media and devices. For full disclosure, I am not actually pursuing photography as a major. In fact, photojournalism is not an emphasis offered by the Medill School of Journalism. While I have taken photography courses here and there, there are few classes on campus that emphasize the technical aspects of photography.

    I realize that the term visual journalism is broad and all-encompassing, but the phrase very much describes my pursuits. Not only do I love photography, but I am fascinated by print design, web development, mobile tablet development and as such am certainly expanding on those fronts in addition to photography.

    In that sense, I found myself nodding at every suggestion and critical point you offered. I agree that professional photographers are having trouble adapting and that is why the 'Debbie-Downer' mentality thrives. I agree that only limiting oneself to photography is limiting the chances of having keeping green in the bank. The alternative I am proposing is that current students who are pursuing photography or have interest in photography as a secondary job *are* innovative enough to think about how to advance themselves in the ever-changing digital world. We have the ability to adapt and change because we grew up in this environment and we have the resources, creativity and collaborative space to fix the business model, as Thomas Werner said.

    So yes, your comments are realistic and I really appreciated reading them. I think it's important to learn from professionals in the industry, but I also think it's important, as students and aspiring visual journalists, to think outside the box and push out of the traditional business model. Plus, there are so many photographers in the world out there that are currently showing that business still exists.

    Thomas: Thank you for your comments. It is certainly refreshing and I agree with your points just as I do with Jim's. I think it's important to be realistic, but the Northwestern community and the people I work with have taught me so much about the entrepreneurial spirit and thinking outside the box. I actually design for various publications on campus and am very fascinated by the digital tablet movement as well as online interactive graphics that heavily utilize photography as a form of alternative storytelling. I hop on the opportunity to help peers with new start-up projects and implementing new ideas. But I see photography as an integral part of all of this -- every interest of mine can work seamlessly together and offers a valuable contribution to whatever team I may be working with (at least I'd like to think so).

    Nicholas: Yes, yes, yes to having another side of this multi-faceted discussion! It's wonderful to hear how well you are thriving with your freelance work. It certainly isn't an easy path, but perseverance pays off, huh? I will argue though that it's hard to really keep track of exactly what the photography industry encompasses, now more than ever. And in that sense, I still think that Jim has some valuable points to consider. It's about being realistic, but knowing how to break barriers too.

    Paul, Kelly, Mike and everyone else that commented about stickin' to it -- Thank you for your kind words. I certainly hope this discussion continues because I think there is value in every word.

    But I will say that I am not deterred.

    Helen: I hardly think that Jim's ideas about the photography world have anything to do with gender equality or inequality. I think it's simply his view on the business from his past experiences. I'm glad you are studying for your photography degree and doing so well now!

  17. I think more than not entering the industry ine needs to look at it in a different way.. embrace modern technology and modern media.. and find a new way to sell and promte yourself... selling prints is for last century...

  18. It may be worth checking statistics with your collage - how many students who complete the course actually end up as professional photographers? Sadly it's probably 1 in 50.

  19. There are some pros who still share the knowledge.

    There is still money to be made in photography. The ones who want to share the doom and gloom are doing so because they do not understand the current market. They refuse to adapt and change to the new client.

    Yes, video is coming. The camera manufacturers know this. The old model for doing business has changed, it did not die.

    If you want to make a living, the same old rules apply. Take care of your clients, and get yourself out there.

    People can blame technology, the economy, the new kid or the weather, but the simple facts remain. If you are willing to put in the effort you can survive.

    For the past few years while others have been complaining, our studio has been growing.

  20. He's pretty much right, and yelling about it isn't going to change things. The likelihood of making it as a photographer the past decade has been thin, the past three decades not much better, no matter where you are. Annie leibowitz went financially bust, a lot of the big names of the recent past ended with a box of photos and no money, and health care, unemployment/social security/ tax payments wait for no man, woman, or student. Good luck plays a bigger part in future photographic success than it should, and that's a fact, but once you get success you need to be able to hold onto it.
    I used to shoot cars, for example: technology didn't leave me behind, in the end the car manufacturers did -- they went bust.
    Nothing wrong with my pictures, small comfort though it is, but apparently everything wrong with the cars...

  21. Mr. Pickerell, either educate yourself on the current state of the industry, or stay out of writing about it. Please.

  22. I am so angered to read this article. Any pretense of useful information (and there is some useful info here no doubt - learn your marketing, your business skills, and video and new media to succeed in an evolving market and media environment - Evolve or perish) is overshadowed because it is wrapped in a vomit worthy package of poisonous negativity and insulting condescension. The last section alone seems more about Jim's idealization of years past and self-aggrandizement of his own ego (that line about starting on the top just makes me nauseous) than it is about helping anyone. And he manages to end it all with a summation that simultaneously insults the author of the article he is responding to (The don't tell your parents line...... really!) while calling for emerging professionals to buy his book with all the subtlety of a carnival barker.

  23. @ Emily - I applaud both your original article and your measured response to this one as well as the comments. With an attitude like yours you will go far, as I am sure that regardless of the words of others you will find the positive and helpful in what they say and make it your own while not letting anyone else's beliefs deter you. See it through and you will find your way. I feel that Jim's article has some good points as I mentioned before, but that they are presented so poorly as to obfuscate the benefits others might have gained from them in many ways.

  24. At some point in time earning a living becomes important for a person. I wish it was true that just because you have a passion and a gift for creating great images that you will be adequately compensated for your creations. It’s not!

    If you are in a position not to have to worry about your monthly bank statement, or where you are going to live, or how you’re going to support your family then you have the luxury of pursuing your passion with abandon. Many very talented photographers have this luxury because they have another means of support. They may have a spouse who provides the majority of the family support. They may be independently wealthy. In many cases they have another way of earning a living and their photography is a part-time endeavor. Many of the greatest photographs have been created by part-time photographers.

    A professional photographer, by definition of the word “professional,” earns his or her full support from the images produced. This says noting about the quality of that persons work. The quality of the imagery or talent of the photographer is not measured by whether he or she earns all, or only part, of the money needed to survive, by taking pictures.

    I am writing to those who hope to earn their entire living taking still pictures and trying to help them understand how difficult it is now, and will continue to be. Many will achieve greater personal satisfaction, and often produce greater images, if they pursue their photography as an avocation rather than a business.

  25. Yes Jim, I think there is some confusion about the definition of "Professional" there is no shortage of great photographers out there but only a few photographers who can do like many other professions, make enough money to buy a house, raise a family, take two holidays a year etc etc. just by taking photographs!

  26. Well Mr. Pickerell,

    I earn 100% of my living through photography. I also happen to live in one of the most expensive areas on the planet. I didn't come from a influential family and sadly I am not a kept man. I am simply a business man who happens to make his living with a camera.

    The past three years have been the "best" ever. The large influx of new photographers have opened up so many new opportunities like "workshops" and basic camera classes.

    Good business skills provide all the necessary tools for success.

  27. Stock photography still alive & well...
    Maybe not for as many as pre-2008, but still for thousands who net incomes above average for where they live. My educated guess is that ~500 stock shooters worldwide netted $100K or more stock income in 2010.

  28. Mr. Pickerell, it is painfully obvious that you just don't get it. I'm not going to wast my time trying to explain it to you.
    However, telling people that photography is dead, out of one side of your mouth, while trying to peddle your book on how to make it as a professional, is down right hypocrisy. Not to mention the fact that you don't know enough about the current state of the industry to have anything of worth to say. You appear to try to make your living selling books on how to make it in the industry, yet you alienate your base. That irony is completely lost on you.
    You are a naysaying hypocrite who can't stand that the business is not the same as it was when you started out. Guess what, nothing is the same.

  29. It is one thing to feel negative about your occupation, but another to discourage students from pursuing photography. There are many positive ways to discuss how the occupation has changed and ways to offer some strategies for success. This article starts out with a negative, almost sarcastic headline and continues that tone throughout. I've taught photography for the last few years and encouraged my students to develop many other job skills to accompany their photography skills. That approach is better than damming the profession to death. We live in a time of tremendous change for many professions. But those who adapt and pursue their passions with hard work and a good business model will survive. Others simply complain and pull everyone else down with them. I have chosen to adapt.

  30. According to an old Chinese proverb - Those who know do and those who think they know - teach.
    I repeat the question i asked above - how many photography school students actually become professional photographers? (as in make a living, buy a house, raise a family etc etc. purely by taking photographs). The statistics are quite shocking so I see no harm in someone giving students a dose of reality. They won't hear it from their teachers!

  31. "how many photography school students...make a living...taking photographs. The statistics are quite shocking..."

    When it comes to full time nonreleased editorial stock, no advanced education required, lots of common sense & business sense required.

    Ironically, maybe JP was right without really knowing it, since his advice was directed specifically at full time STUDENTS. Maybe becoming a photography STUDENT is an early negative warning sign. Maybe those who go straight from hobby to profession have a much higher success rate professionally...because it is a true PASSION.

  32. This is truly the most horseshit article I've ever read about photography in my life. Photographers have bitched about the amount of money in the field since the invention of the camera.

    What do you suggest? Everyone stop shooting stills and become a filmmaker? Talk about a flooded, ruined industry - good luck.

  33. try googling photographer in your area. i bet there are 100's if not 1000's. Photography as a profession is relatively unique in that anyone can buy professional equipment and call themselves a pro. but Jim is right... makin a living is different.

    I cant tell you how many people i meet that call themselves a professional photographer and don't know how to shoot or run a business.
    Also, I have found that the most successful photographers have come from money to start.

    For all those up and comers – good luck... but id rather not have the competition in an all ready ridiculously over crowded market.

  34. RE: Bryan Grant.
    "Photography as a profession is relatively unique in that anyone can buy professional equipment and call themselves a pro"

    "Also, I have found that the most successful photographers have come from money to start."

    So, are you saying that only people who come from money are creative?? No, of course not, that would be ridiculous. You're not being ridiculous, are you, Bryan?? Oh, wait, I see, you are saying that since the equipment cost so much, that only people who come from money can make it. No wait, you said just before that that anyone can buy professional equipment.

    Are you catching on to the absolute absurdity of what you just wrote?

  35. What I am saying is that people with money can afford to "make a living" in photography because thats not their only means of income

  36. Mr. Pickerall is right from his point of view. I think we will all need to hone additional skills to make a good living. To the twit who said, "How can he write a book and still do photography?" I've written five in the last three years. They all sell well and they are part of a good plan to diversify what I offer as a photographer and who I offer services to.

    I've also done a few dozen video and web video projects in the same time frame and kept my still photography business afloat.

    If you are smart, can write, can lead, have ideas, are a self starter, etc. You can still make a decent living as a photographer. If you just want to shoot stills I'll have to agree with his basic premise.

    Marketing has always been the secret weapon of all successful photographers. That's not changing.

    To all the "age-ists" who say, "Get out of the way, Grandpa!" You are just as bad as racists and other haters who judge people. There are tons of smart people over 40 who are making good money in their chosen fields and who can change technologies on a dime. Just because you figured out how to push the button on your iPad doesn't make you and f-ing genius.

  37. RE: Bryan Grant

    About your googling statement I tried your advice and I discovered your 100s to 1000s statement a little off. In my area there are 6 (not including me) photographers listed but only one with a studio.

    Sure I live in a small rural area (unlike Denver where you are). Does that mean there's no business in this area? Not at all. We are located on the largest lake in the state and it is surrounded by multi-million dollar homes. There is a market in my area for more photographers not less.

    Don't assume that just because business is tight in your area that it's that way nation wide because that's just not the case.

    Is the economy tough right now? Sure it's that way regardless of what business you're in but it is improving. Do I make enough with my photography to pay all my bills, no but only because I also choose to do other things I enjoy to add to my income. But in the same note could I make enough locally doing strictly still images to pay my bills? Yes, if I decided to give up my other ventures to focus my efforts into photography I sure could.

    Those facts and the original posters condemnation and condescending statements towards the photography student who is willing to go the distance if you read her earlier post on this site is what got my dander up.

    Just because it is tough for you or Jim, does not and will not make it impossible for someone new to make a decent living in this industry. Will it pay all your bills? Yes if you are willing to work for it. I've bought 2 houses in the past 15 years with my camera not including 3 acres of land, a half dozen cars, and food for my family. Do I make a 6 figure income. Not really but I make a decent living and I did not pick up a camera in order to get rich to start with. I started shooting in the mid 70s and still shoot today for the same reason, I love to create art. And apparently my customers love the art I create enough to give me money for it which is an added bonus.

    With the right skills, attitude, marketing, willing to change with the times, and knowledge yes you can make a living. Keep working Emily towards your dreams and goals. The world is going to need more optimistic, artistic people because the market IS there if you look for it.

  38. Jim is right from his own viewpoint. I'm 58, and I have run magazines for photographers since around 1990; before that, I was very successful in advertising and editorial photography for about ten years. That period started when I was 28, and had been a journalist first, then an editorial freelance doing complete features (photography and words) which was relatively new in the UK in the 1970s. I went into a commercial partnership and learned how to make a great deal of money, then left the partnership to do exactly that.

    I can not equate today's climate with my experience then because I'm now 58 not 28 - Jim I think is even older! At 28, all the commissioning art directors and editors were either a similar age or up to 10 years older. People like to hire creative talent just a bit younger than they are, it's like patronage. Some of my clients were a generation older but generally preferred to employ or hire younger. And when I took on my first full-time photographer, sure enough, he was ten years my junior - there to provide a new creative vision, new music, new talk, and learn the hard stuff from me (by then the technician/businessman).

    From my perspective at 58, I really can't see why any art editor/picture editor in their prime (i.e. 25-40)and not yet moved up directorship or management would prefer using me to someone fresh and new in their 20s. I'm not that sexy. Nor is my vision fresh; I may be able to change it, fake new styles, but it does not come from the same untutored originality which made my work look quite new to editors in the 1970s. I can no longer discover photography, and I can no longer discover people, places, light, or things in the same way. Not enough is new to me.

    In contrast, I see - as an editor - a brilliant flow of new work, paid for, original, profitable, creative. I see some of the best coming now from SE Asia, especially Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. I meet young photographers doing so well they can be in the USA for a conference one week, in Japan for a client the next, in Australia for shoot the next.

    Of course I'm disappointed my stock photography is now worth a few dollars not a few thousand every month; when my wife and I were just 22, it was quite amazing to get $500 for a single use of a 35mm Kodachrome when our first house only cost $120 a month mortgage. To 'feel the same' now would need more like a $5000 fee.

    And $5000 fees still exist, and they are probably as common as $500 fees were in 1972. Just because my generation generally isn't getting them means nothing. This is, indeed, much more of an age/experience/pessimism thing than Jim might believe.

  39. The photographers that I've seen that are having a really tough time are the ones who have failed to change with the times. Maybe the suggestion that age plays a part is true. The bottom line is this - in the photography industry (just like other art industries), if you fail to re-invent yourself multiple times throughout your career, you're dead in the water.

  40. Actually that’s not the case in Ireland; the several studios which have gone bust in the last year have only been in business for 3 to 5 years so they began life as up-to-date digital studios.
    It is however interesting to note that they all offered portraits on CD as an alternative to prints. While the old established studios (like me) who have retained control over the quality of the end product are all still in business!
    Re-inventing the wheel does not mean giving the customer what they want because at the end of the day all the customer wants is to pay as little as possible which leads to poor quality and eventually to the demise of the poor photographer!

  41. >>failed to change with the times

    Very simple in stock shooting:
    a. switch from slides to digital
    b. shoot what sells now
    c. contribute to agents selling your subject matter frequently

  42. PS. age not a factor since
    more often, one never contacts
    one's agents or buyers, except
    via email...

  43. A lot of people missed the point of this story...maybe in part by the way it was written. The old ways of just being a shooter are dead. You have to be a storyteller and the camera is only one of several multimedia tools. Dirck Halstead found this out more than a decade ago and started the Platypus workshops to re-tool photographers for what was coming and is now here. Read more at

  44. I'm 22 and I have a staff job at a small town newspaper. I don't expect to stay here very long. I want to freelance eventually, I just don't feel my skill level is quite where it needs to be yet. But I (and photographers like me) will make a living in photography and photographic story telling. I was told not to enter the field just like every other photographer my age. But we did. And now we're here to stay. We want to be the storytellers to our generation the same way you were to yours. Sure, that may look different. The purpose is still the same.

    And, honestly, every young photographer I talk to is sick of hearing old timers saying it's not going to work. The truth is that it is working. And I think those who are making it work will continue to make it work. Young collectives like Luceo are leaving the old timers to eat the dust of their own negativism. I used to get weighed down with this kind of doom and gloom talk. Now I just ignore it and keep shooting. The young photojournalist has a place in the new world order. And it's unfortunate that we can't stand on the shoulders of the majority of out predecessors to find it.

  45. Great article here that is relevant to what Bryan was saying concerning 'making a living'. I have always been suspicious of media star photographers' path to 'stardom/success' and how initial wealth put them on that path.

  46. Fear is a horrible thing to spread. However, the most hilarious part of the article was the end. Nice plug for your book, Jim.

  47. There's not much I can't say that hasn't already been said, but I love the challenge, especially when vets are telling us its too difficult. I'm fighting to break the norm, fighting to snag a piece of the industry, and won't stop, and hearing remarks like Pickerell's just adds fuel to the fire; it makes me want to work harder and dream bigger.

    So, to Mr. Pickerell, I thank you for the inspiration!

    Blest Photography

  48. I think we, photographers, are our own worst enemy. With the insurgency of so many so called "rock star" photographers charging big $$ to convince newbies that all you need is a 50 1.2 and follow their "fast track" guide you too can be a rock star. In 2009 I shot 29 weddings and cleared $24,000 after taxes. I'm still paying off that tax bill. I've been making a living as a vocational photographer full time for 4 years.

  49. So...what your saying is don't get into photography because you can't make any money, but we should buy your book about "The Secrets to building a photography career". So is the number one not do it! I went full time into photography 3 years ago and have a successful business. By successful I mean I make a living off of what I do. Save your money on the book, Emily. Here are the two secrets to being a successful photographer. 1. Work Hard! 2. He is right about the 80% of time spent on the business and 20% behind the camera.

  50. Yes, most people who love photography cannot make it as photographer. It takes certain personality traits to be a businessperson, and a photographer is just like any other entrepreneur in this aspect. Mediocre photographers who are good at business CAN survive as a full-time pro. Truly talented photographers who are also talented businesspeople will thrive. There is no shortage of need for good photography. However, because of technology, the bar of excellence is simply set higher. Clients who are looking for a good deal are not the same as those willing to pay for excellence. Maybe portrait studios are taking a hit because of unsophisticated clients, but in the advertising, editorial world, excellence still holds value.

  51. Very interesting - all of it.

    I'm not a pro photographer but a teacher and one thing I think is becoming endemic in the world today is this notion that 'youth' is best and 'Older' people don't get the modern world.

    There is the notion that young people are more innovative, creative, tech-savvy and energetic. It is bullshit. Just as there are 'old' "gramps" (cheeky b*****d) who are innovative, creative, tech-savvy and hard working, there are young people lazy, bland, clueless and talentless.

    LISTEN to Jim and Emily then do what is right for you.

    I do think JIm has a bit of a cheek advertising his book though.

  52. Still photography will always have a place and a market. There are messages and moments that video can never capture, the still photo is not dying. Just because video is trending we don't all have to run off and change our product. Photography is growing in my mind and there is always room for new talent. Maybe this dinosaur needs to stop taking photos and shoot some videos before he is extinct, but im sticking with stills.

  53. Unfortunately, I agree with Jim. BCvid is my video production business, and clients come to me thirsty for the rich media experience of video. It is, in my opinion, the new frontier.

    That said, I'm writing several scripts and producing short films regularly to develop myself as a writer/director and future proof myself against the over saturation of video production. Good storytelling will NEVER go out of style.

  54. This is very BAD and UNINFORMED advice! I really fear for anyone who has taken it! This is only the experience of someone who themselves have found that they are not able to keep up!

  55. Ben Cornelius says "video is, in my opinion, the new frontier".
    Actually Ben, that's what my old boss was saying in 1982, almost 30 years ago!!!

  56. OMG.. if he wrote his book like he wrote this article it must be very informative for who really want to be "successful photographer".... It is said.

    Personally, before to think about if he is right or wrong in the "idea" of what he wrote, the way he did it is so wrong in my opinion.
    You can not say it like this, it's like saying don't try to be a cook because now everyone eat Fast Food.. Or to writers don't write books anymore because everyone is on internet now, everyone can write a book with there computers... etc. anyway you get the point.

    Charles Darwin said : “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

    So, the world is changing all the time and will continu to change (even after we die yes yes !! It's true..), if you want to success adapt yourself to the world you're living. Giving up is frustrating. Failing is what everyone experienced is there life, it's normal, life is hard, work is hard etc.

    We wont create the Fire again, but that's not mean we have nothing interesting to do or create anymore...

    Damn i have no book or e-book to sell.. : ) Sorry

  57. Just about any player in college, pro and even many in high school can dunk a basketball now days.

    Let's raise the goal - so to speak - not lower it.

  58. There are 3 kinds of people in this world.

    1. Those who make things happen.
    2. Those who watch thing happen.
    3. Those who wonder what happened.

    It isn't hard to see what group this author belongs to. The internet is full of people who love to claim that the world is coming to an end. They preach, "Get out now, while the getting is good".

    The reason that they preach this is also easy to see. They either do not have the skills or the required drive to succeed.

    When they see someone succeed, they claim it is somehow magical. Oh they had money. They had a good family. They lived in a good area. They are just lucky. The excuses go on and on.

    Want to be successful? Get out there and do it.

  59. i'm only 30, been doing photography for 10 years.

    i have extreme natural ability, strong PS skills etc, have been published extensively, belong to a major agency etc. I am married, with a child. have friends who work for magnum etc - ya know, it want reality, go ask them how WELL Magnum is doing these days, i dare ya, GO ON, please.

    the TRUTH is, when not view through the fog of idealistic 18-22 year olds - the industry is contracting massively, to earn a FULL TIME living, a mortgage, support your wife and child is becoming damn near impossible today just from photography alone.

    the public, the editors, the ad agencies, just do not VALUE photography, it has become too easy, too simple, too IPHONISH. when something is perceived to be too easy, it is not valued, it is SUPERMARKET level.

    it is great for 19 year olds to say, move aside gramps etc. but you are blinded by your age, your passion - at your age you do not need much to survive, or be satisfied, you dont need to earn 50k a year to survive and live. photography, as a photographer only. is just in not the industry to achieve security in.

    go do communication design, be a designer, much more security and importantly, it is not devalued, as photography now is.

    there is being positive, then there is reality. positivity doesnt pay the bills though.

  60. here some proof, if proof is what you seek:-

  61. Professional photography

    "Professional photographers in Australia have weathered the twin storms of a declining industry and an economy-wide slowdown, and IBISWorld figures reveal 2011 will not be any better.
    “Nearly half of the industry’s revenue is derived from wedding photography and competition is intense with more than 9000 professionals competing for a share of the nuptial pie," Mr Bryant says.
    Lower costs have forced prices down and professional photographers are feeling the impact of the growing popularity of digital SLR cameras which make it easier for amateur enthusiasts to take professional quality pictures,” he says.
    IBISWorld estimates a decline of 1.2 per cent ($10.25 million) for this sector in 2011."

  62. Sad to say this, but I very much agree with you. Certainly in the editorial, PR and advertising markets, I suspect within the next 10 years we will see very few if any full time professionals. The numbers simply don't add up, and it is head in the sand, pie in the sky to think otherwise.

    Take the farming industry. In the 19th century, this was labour intensive and employed many. Now it doesn't owing to modern combine harvesters and modern technology.
    Similary, the job of picture researcher in stock libraries. 20 years ago, there was much work for such people as the client would specify the pictures they needed and the researcher would then go and search through transparencies. This job is now virtually unheard of owing to the advent of online searches via websites.
    Take ship building. Ships used to be constructed using plate and rivets by a large manual labour force. Not any longer owing to modern welding techniques.

    I could go on, but there would be little point. Many industries now are unrecogniseable owing to changes in technology, and photography is no different.

    The next 20 years? There will be a very limited number of high end photographers left who deal exclusively with the upper end of the market.

    Those that still work in editorial, will almost certainly be staff jobs and will probably have to combine the work with writing also, owing to the falling circulation of paper budgets. PR work will almost certainly be near to nil (not necessarily a good thing for quality I might add) as clients will be trying (badly) to do it for themselves. Similar for weddings and advertising. Only those who can command the highest fees will survive. Given the level of competition, there work will not have just to be excellent, it will have to be "exceptional" and that's with more than just their work, but their customer experience also. Portrait photographers will only be able to survive if 1, their work is excellent, and 2, if they have the budget to offer the "luxury studio experience" almost like a day out. The fad of home portrait photography recently will soon die off due to market saturation.

    Its sad, but if this isn't said, I'm afraid we are setting up alot of people to fail, based on the vague inaccuracies of the popular photographic press and colleges.

  63. So...
    Don't become a photographer?
    BUT buy my book on how to become a photographer?

    Why? So I can spend $20 to hear you tell me that you achieved your dreams but that's not possible for me to. You even mentioned yourself that you started out on top because of luck.

    So you lucky. AND humble. What a great combination. I don't need to wast my money buying your book.

    I'll buy a book from someone who's skilled (vs. lucky) and at least doesn't resent my existance as a photographer because I'm squeezing you out of your lucky wealth.

  64. Congratulations to those who are on the "bright-side" of the story. I totally agree. I photograph models from all over the world: from Russia to Brasil and I can tell you that not only I enjoy it, but photography is alive and well. The internet demand for still pictures is totally huge. Websites use more still imagery than any video or moving content. Photos are still the No. 1 sharing medium for "life's precious moments". Video is: difficult to edit, expensive to edit, time-consuming to show and plain difficult to share. Try sharing even one video with your family. In the time you even try you will have shown a few dozen still pictures. Technology has evolved, humans certainly have not.

  65. Interesting write-up. I can agree that the photography business is so saturated. People who are looking for a photographer for their special event are overwhelmed with choices and they usually end up going with the photographer their friends went with, which they liked the photos. I have friends who just started a wedding studio, and almost all their clients are from referrals. It's tough, but I don't believe it's impossible. I am a photographer too, for my website, but it's something I'm doing on the side because I love taking photos.

  66. I think Jim is beyond talking nonsense , he correctly predicted what was going to happen to the Stock Photography industry and how it has impacted photographers supplying this sector.
    Nobody wants to hear bad news about the career that you are working hard towards , so i can understand the anger from some.
    Yes there will still be work for many , but it is way less than it used to be and with tons of photographers joining the industry every year you are going to have to be great , and hopefully you can sustain the energy this requires.
    I sincerely wish all of you aspirant and established photographers all the best and hope you all can live your dreams but it is going to be tough going.

  67. "Yes there will still be work for many , but it is...less than it used to be"

    This is correct, IMO.
    I would guess conservatively, (500) full time stock shooters worldwide net $100K (US $$)commissions annually -- that is before they deduct their overhead.

  68. I don't live in a big market Chicago. I watched my business evaporate over the last 5 years. I tried shooting weddings just to keep going but even there the prices offered by weekend warriors has pretty much put me out of the price range.

    I am leaving the profession after almost 18 years. I am sad to say that there has not been many fond memories. The last few years have been very difficult on my family.

    I just finished an associated degree in Graphic Design , I am looking for a production designer job.....

    I think anyone attempting to go into this business today is certifiable.
    DO SOMETHING ELSE if you can.

  69. The cheap digital SLR has killed the business. Look on places like Craigslist for these "Photographers" advetising photo shoots for $50. You couldn't shoot enough of them in a week to live but they get to say they're a "Professional Photographer". You click on their websites and the work absolutely SUCKS!!! But, people don't care. They're only going to stick their photos up on Facebook anyway. A professional portrait photographer and wedding photographer used to make money off the prints. Nobody buys prints anymore. All they want to do is put them online. Sad but true.

  70. Pickerell- you are simply right on.
    Our local newspaper- the Picayune has spat out all the experienced staff photographers into a commercial market that virtually no longer exists. Most Weddings are shot by hacks that charge 800-$1000 dollars. A few photographers shoot the "boutique" weddings and charge
    4-8K- but boy do they have to work for that money- three days of events, processing over 2K images and of course they expect a second photographer at the reception- so you are training your competition, not an assistant. Sure there are a few markets that still exist- convention photography- but I am getting $75/hr which is what I charged 15 years ago.
    I gave up on the wedding business when it went digital, avoid video like the plague as now even pro videographers say their business has fallen off to nothing with the advent of iphone and ipad videographers. I do mac computer consulting and teach others how to edit their images. I also teach classes and help the MWACs learn how to take pictures on their own kids- further diluting the already declining Seniors and kiddie portrait business. I never did stock, always thought if someone needs an image pay me to take it...of course I knwo a lot of people who are better organized than me and have done well- in the past. This article is a few years old- as far as I know the stock image market has continued on a rapid decline. Perhaps the pendulum will spring back when it is realized there are few high quality images of people wearing the current fashions...

  71. We now live in a world where you no longer have to study for years to be a photographer. All you need to do is buy a DSLR and it will with a little practice do everything for you. Thats why all the images look the same these days.

    Because of this the market is over saturated with photographers and this drives prices down. How on earth can a pro compete when youngsters are offering to do the job for free. They say you need to adapt to survive and I agree, that means doing something other than photography. It's no longer a proper profession.

    Photography is now a job you do if you cant get anything else. For every client there are 60 photographers. It's over.

  72. Well I was just browsing the internet and stumbled upon this article. Just wanted to share s piece of my life in photography. The world of photography has surely changed over the years. I give props to those with photoshop skills but Im a young 21 year old who works unbelievable hard to just take good photos with little or no editing done. I do have a wonderful canon 5d mark ii that Im so blessed to have and is attached to me where ever I go. I have struggled though with other photographers both in my town and out. I didnt decide for sure until my senior year a week before applications for college were due what exactly I wanted to do with my life. I had always set up my own shoots, worked with my moms cameras and fiddled with old film ones but I felt like I had no other choice. I had never been good at math, science, english, etc. Arts were always my strength and where I spent a majority of my time during school hours. For my graduation I received my camera as I mentioned earlier and was in love as soon as it was placed in my hands. I had done some shoots in the past for seniors, couples and occasional children shoots but never was serious. I went to school in Milwaukee at Pecks School of Art for one year and my love for photography grew deeper. I KNEW it was my calling. The summer after school I decided to return home to living with my family since I could no longer afford the school that had taught me so much about myself and what I was meant to do. Since I no longer had the classes I created my own. Constantly reading about photography, amazing photographers in the past and present and broadening my scope on what photography was to me and different techniques as well as appearances of my photographs I was learning non stop. I am proud to say I have NEVER used anything but Manual on my camera and have taught myself a great deal through trail and error. I got an internship with a photographer in my hometown who taught me even more which I was so very grateful for. Getting to see the business side of it all. Yes, so very much work, but I was even more excited. We attended a conference on lighting one day just to get me a little more education. As we took our afternoon break and many headed to lunch, a group of us ended up eating together at the same place.Only knowing the lady I came with we went around telling stories of photography and everyone's business. Then a lady looked at me. Very puzzled she looked at me, "and...what are you doing here?" she asked. I explained to her my schooling, internship and dreams. She took one look at me and said, "Well I hate to break it to you but you're never going to make it." My heart instantly broke and I once again explained myself how hard I had been working and how driven I was. This was NOT just a hobby. It was my goal, my dream, my determination. What I had been pouring my heart and soul into. I had nothing else. She replied. "Like I said, its not going to happen." My eyes watered and I looked down to continue eating my food. Hiding the hurt this lady brought to me. She didnt even know my name. She had never seen any of my work. She didnt know anything about me besides the 2 minute overview I gave her of myself. When I got home I packed all my photography equipment and prints and stashed them away. I truly had nothing now. Nothing at all. A few weeks later I decided enough was enough. This woman, this stranger, she was my fire. I have worked so hard to build my dream to prove her wrong. I am still no where near my full dream, nor my full potential but I will accomplish everything I dream. On my photography alone I have paid for 3 years of schooling, housing, etc. I do not have a studio or use fancy lighting equipment. I shoot only outdoors and have built a wonderful business. I have clients coming back constantly and referring me. I have done weddings (which I have stepped down from since it is no longer where I feel my strengths), kids, seniors, families, couples, engagements, pets,as well as had my work on the cover of music albums. I have traveled the world with camera in hand and the images I bring home show the amazing things I saw and felt. I have captured photos of animals you only see in books, an ox secured by a rope with a small child's hand at the other end turning back to smile at me. Ive made time stand still as hawaiian dancers breathe fire, sea turtles come to shore for rest or zip lining hundreds of feet above a costa rican rain forest. Ive stopped monkeys gazes from up in trees and laughter of children playing soccer. Seen castles and rivers and buildings you learn of in High school history class. Latest, Ive stopped time as a young girl cradles her baby. Her baby who lives in a tunnel under a bridge in a city clueless to their existence, pain or struggles. I have accomplished amazing things with my photography and its only just begun. I am preparing for a relaunch of my business in coming weeks and my heart is filled with anticipation and excitement for where this next journey will lead. Nameless woman who told me I never would.....I am. I am accomplishing my photographic dreams. We are young but determined and strong hearted. Our love for our art is over flowing. You dont need a degree or loads of money or this or that. Its not a hobby. Its our life. Its what I do every day and it fills me with so much happiness. At my young age of 21 I never thought I could have or would have already done so much. Lived so many places or met so many amazing people. Dont dare to ever put us down ever again. We WILL overcome the obstacles you say are before us. Our dreams will be our realities.

  73. A very sensible article that speaks the truth. Pro photography is fine for those who use it as a hobby business but as a full time, viable business, those day's are over.

    Most studios are run as a hobby business these days by photographers who are not relying on the income that comes from it because they don't need to work anyway. If it wasn't for their studio they would be doing something else to occupy their time.

    College's still run courses in photography in the same way they run courses in needlework, it's for the purpose of a hobby, not a profession.

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