Can you be a full-time photographer any more?

Can you be a full-time photographer any more?

It’s a conversation I have often. Someone will ask me if there’s room in the market for yet another full-time photographer. After all – everyone has a camera these days. Do we really need professional photographers? And what are the prospects for being a full-time photographer?

Even the industry itself has a perception that various people are ruining it for the professionals. Uncle Bob, the enthusiastic wedding guest who wants to go pro. The stay at home ‘momtographer’ who specialises in children and pets. Both of these stereotypes get looked down on by many in the industry.

Now, these are trying times for everyone. Who knows what will come out of the other side of this pandemic that we’re currently in. But that’s the same for almost every part of the business world right now. Very few industries are going to grow as a result of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic which could pose a problem for a full-time photographer.

But lets look at some historical data to see what the state of the industry has been up until now.

There has been growth

According to IBISWorld, the UK photography industry has grown, on average, 2.1% between 2014 and 2019. Now that’s not the best statistic you could see, but it does show that the industry is growing rather than shrinking. Splento suggest that the profitability of the sector is 11.2% which is pretty high! In the US over 70% of photography businesses are profitable.

Much of the UK industry is tied to the marriage rate because, unsurprisingly, wedding photography is one of the largest specialist fields within the photographic industry. In the UK marriage rates have been steadily declining since 1972, however, the last few years have seen a slight upward trend. What’s more important is that people are waiting longer to get married which means that they usually have more money to spend.

Your Perfect Wedding Photographer did a survey for the year 2019-2020 that discovered on average photographers were capturing an average of 28 weddings a year, with an average spend of £1590 per wedding. In case you’re struggling with the maths (like I was) that’s just over £46k a year – not a bad average! Of course, you need to take some expenses away from that total. But even if you spend £500 expenses on every £1500 wedding it leaves you with just under the equivalent of an average UK salary (which is just over £30k). And it doesn’t take into account other kinds of photographic income that they’re likely to have (say newborns or stock photography).

Importantly from my point of view, we’re seeing quite good equality in this survey, with 44% women and 56% men responding. That’s a big improvement from when I got started writing about photography. Most surveys showed that women were not participating in the industry as fully as they could have been.

There are problems, but also positives for full-time photographers

It’s getting more and more competitive, and it will continue to get more competitive as people lose their jobs in the current crisis and try to turn their passions into income. There will always be worries that other people are coming into the industry with a lack of experience and are undercutting everyone.

But what’s reassuring is that many people I talk to say that their customers mostly come from personal recommendations. So if you do a good job then your customers are likely to send their friends your way too.

And this isn’t just true for the social field of photography (weddings, portraits, etc.), it’s true across the board. I worked for just over a year as a full time product photographer and a large portion of my time was spent embedded in a large clothes brand’s head office in Regent Street, London. To this day, almost a decade later, I still get contacted by people who I used to work with asking if I’m available to take on jobs.

Photography isn’t generally a short-term money maker. You have to be prepared to play the long game. I have interviewed plenty of photographers in the past who have said that their long-term marketing strategy was entirely based on referral marketing and the way that peoples lives naturally expand. One photographer, who had been in business for several decades, said that he had several clients who he had photographed when they were young children who had gone on to hire him for weddings, maternity shoots, newborn images, and family portraits. Personal relationships are important in photography. Even in commercial photography.

This is a great time to point out that I think every photographer should diversify their income. It is crucial to building a fall-back income for hard times. In this article for DPS I wrote about how you can create a portfolio income strategy for your photography business, leading to more financial stability.

Where should a new photographer start?

I will basically always say that new photographers should learn their craft before getting into the industry (and I love photography degrees, but they’re not essential by any means). However, if you can earn alongside your learning then I really can’t see anything wrong with that (although many people do).

I think that the best advice I would give to a new photographer who is making a business plan for the first time, would be to explore all your options. Unless you have a real passion for a popular field, investigate where there might be gaps in the market and if you might be able to fill them with a photography business.

My own experience is that this approach pays off. I now make almost all of my income from writing about photography. I made this shift for several reasons, but part of the reason was that photography was becoming more and more accessible, both financially and technically. More people buying cameras means that more people are looking to learn about photography. So people who can teach about photography, like myself, are more in demand than ever. Also, I really love teaching (it’s my ambition to be a university lecturer).

Do you have to be a full-time photographer?

No. I don’t think so. I don’t think that there should be shame or stigma attached to “just” being part-time in our industry. Women, in particular, are more likely to seek a part-time business because of caring responsibilities (which are still disproportionately performed by women in our society) and that should be a choice that is for an individual to make. Being part-time doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a photographer any more than being a full-time photographer means that you’ve “made it.”

And it’s not just caring responsibilities. For instance, my business right now is as big as I want it to be. I am a full-time student researching a PhD in History of Art, so I work in my business approximately two days a week on average. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t take my business full time, because I have signed a contract with my university saying that I will dedicate full-time hours to my studies. In addition, I have a “passion job” for several hours a month. I am a qualified trainer/assessor with the Royal Society of Lifesaving and I teach and assess lifeguards. Now, as well as being teaching experience (which is good for my CV) it’s a nice bit of reliable income each month. And if everything went wrong, I could fairly easily use it (and my experience) to jump into a full-time job almost straight away. I’m a big believer of everyone having a fall-back plan.

part-time vs full-time photographer infographic

Should you go for it?

I will always say yes. Working in the photography industry has been a net positive to my life. It is a joy to work with my passion and I’d rather be doing this than working in an office or a shoe shop or something.

But I am also quite risk-averse. So I like the idea of building up your income alongside whatever you’re doing now, and gradually scaling back your other activities. And you can start building up the base of your photographic income today, with something easy like stock photography that utilises the images you have already shot.

The important thing is to review your business regularly, even if it is small, and make sure you are focussing on the most profitable areas. If you keep reviewing your business, trying new things, and focus on the things that work, then you’ll be able to scale your business to a size you want pretty rapidly.

Remember that there are nearly 18,000 people employed in the photographic industry in the UK across 8,400 businesses. I like those numbers, and I think that there is room for you to give it a go. Let me know your plans, I’d love to hear how you’re going to approach your business and if you want to be a full-time photographer.

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