One of the most popular questions asked throughout the photography blogs that I read and on other discussion sites is “How can I go pro?” or “Can I make a living with my photography?” Everyone seems to have a different answer and the responses vary a lot depending on whether the individual answering is a working pro, and if they are, what industry they work in.

Despite plentiful arguments to the contrary, I do believe that photography can be a viable full-time job. Making it work for you requires flexibility and understanding of the marketplace.

Paul Indigo over at Beyond the Obvious.html writes that the “quality of photography in corporate brochures and magazines is often appalling and the trade press is not much better” and the “reputation for superb photography once held by the UK broadsheets is more than a little tarnished” due to what he calls “a new level of democratisation” wherein everyone is a photographer and putting your entry-level SLR on automatic or program mode gets you salable results most of the time.

Paul’s major evidence for the rise in marketability of what he would describe as sub-par photography is the thriving “microstock” agencies such as iStockPhoto, SmugMug, and so on who sell grandma’s point-and-shoot exposures for $1.00 apiece. In order to understand how microstocks affect your business, however, you have to get into the economics of free trade.

Enter Dan Heller, outspoken stock photographer and armchair industry analyst. Back in March, Dan wrote a thorough op-ed on the effect microstock agencies have on the industry of stock photography (his main source of income) with the conclusion that a myriad of factors outside of price affect the marketability of stock images and that stock agencies are hurting nobody but themselves by offering such inexpensive alternatives to high quality, professional stock photographs.

I’m not going to quote or paraphrase Dan’s lengthy analysis, but I encourage you to take a skim through it for the juicy bits. Though Paul Indigo and Dan Heller operate in slightly different industries and on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean, both make compelling arguments from within their own experience.

At the beginning of this article I said that photographers have to be “flexible.” What I meant by that is not that a photographer should have the ability to cross their legs behind their head, but rather that a photographer should stay open-minded to available revenue sources within the industry as a whole. Within the photography industry there are at least this many distinct specialties that offer opportunities to profit:

  • Stock/travel
  • Studio/portraiture/fashion/glamour
  • How-to/writing/teaching/blogging
  • Photojournalism
  • Commercial/product/food/commissioned
  • Fine art

There are probably more that didn’t come to mind. My point is that the business of photography is like any other business out there: you have to be willing to change with the demands of the marketplace and find new avenues to reach potential customers. If your stock sales falter, you might consider mining your library for fine art prints and showing in local galleries, putting together a book of your best work, and so on.

Although fine art prints has been my primary source of income, sales are variable and it’s hard to predict what any month’s sales are going to be like, especially in the fine art world. Diversification is a great tool to supplement the income of a business and so I have started to do in-the-field workshops to share my experience with others who want to get more serious making photographs.

In addition to actual “shooting workshops,” which consist almost entirely of in-the-field, hands-on photography, I’ll also be teaching an introduction to the digital workflow course at Calypso Imaging in Santa Cruz, one of the top photo labs in the country. Students will have access to their million-dollar lightjet printer, large-format Epson plotters, and will be given three-days of intensive guidance through Adobe Bridge, Lightroom, Photoshop, and more.

I see workshops not only as a way to make money, but also an opportunity to give back to the photographic community in what small way I can. I know that photography can be a hard business to get into, but it does offer a great deal of satisfaction and, yes, profit as well. So don’t give up!