Professional Photography Dreams vs Professional Photography Reality


Photography is one of the rare hobbies that many people can earn their investment back on and actually make money.  For example, if you snowboard, it's very unlikely that you'll ever make back the investment in gear, lift tickets and travel from that hobby, where in photography there's a chance you can.  Many hobby photographers are now starting to recoup their photographic investment by turning pro, but the reality of doing so is often something that's left only as a dream.  For the sake of this article, we'll break down one of the more popular avenues of professional photography, wedding photographers.

The Dream

dream on

Photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³

  • Working for yourself
  • Making a lot of money for a day's work
  • Traveling
  • Working only selective days
  • Shooting, which is what we love doing anyway

The Reality

Gears gears cogs bits n pieces

Photo by Elsie esq.

  • The daily grind is hard
  • Working by yourself can be lonely
  • One day of shooting often means up to 40 hours of associated work
  • Medical insurance, equipment and liability insurance is expensive
  • Weekends are all but gone
  • Shooting stops being fun and turns into a job
  • Marketing costs skyrocket

Again, this article is focusing on wedding photographers, but the concepts can be applied to many other types of photography.

Most of us dream of being able to quit our day job and shoot full time, but few actually put into consideration what that all will entail.

Let's talk about money first off.  An initial investment in photography gear is needed, and if you're shooting weddings, you really should have two bodies, two flashes and you'll need a handful of lenses.  Going middle of the road, let's assume you spend between $3-4,000 buying new bodies and used lenses.  You'll need to incorporate your business, or at the least make it an LLC.  Depending on your location in the world, this can cost a few hundred or a few thousand in forms and lawyer fees.  Next is insurance, on your equipment, medical insurance and photographer insurance.  The last is perhaps one of the most important yet overlooked aspects of starting out shooting professionally.  The Professional Photographers Association has a great guideline on insurance and why you need it.  If you don't know, read it.  One of the aspects it helps protect you against is the inability to shoot an event due to sickness, or other circumstances.

Some more expenses can also include lawyers fees to draft contracts, logo design, business card & letterhead design, website development and traditional marketing techniques including magazine ads, billboards and printing samples for trade show events.   Just starting out can quickly put you $5-10k in the hole, but for a new business, that really isn't so bad.

Many people think that wedding photographers make a lot of money per event, which is true, until they actually break down what is involved.  For the sake of this article, lets assume you charge $2,000 for a wedding and offer roughly 10 hours of coverage, which includes the bride and groom getting ready all the way through the end of the reception.  Your arrival time is to be 10am and you will not stay past 8pm.   Quick math says that's $200 per hour!  But wait, that's not exactly true.  Lets assume we don't factor in any of the hardware, insurance, branding or marketing expense, and break down what the true hourly salary is.

The soon-to-be bride and groom contacted you via email, you replied back and forth a few times, total time of 30 minutes.  You set a date to meet, review your work, go over costs, expectations and have them sign contracts – an hour.  Various phone calls and email correspondences over the months leading up to the wedding – one hour.  Assuming the wedding is local, we won't count travel time in since you'd have to travel to a traditional job anyway.  Shooting the wedding and reception –  10 hours.  Post-production, which I understand varies greatly for everyone, but for arguments sake lets say it's 5 hours.  Organize and upload all the photos to an online proofing website for the bride and groom – 30 minutes.  Order prints and assemble book for the bride and groom, in addition to taking print orders from other family and friends – 2 hours.

Real time invested for one, 10-hour event: 21 hours, or roughly $95 per hour.  Again, that's not taking into consideration investment expenses, cost of operation (taxes, accountant, insurance, gas, etc.), that's just gross income.

What this doesn't account for is the time spent on the phone, replying to emails and meeting potential clients who never hire you.  Additionally, savvy photographers will drop a custom photo greeting card in the mail around the one-year anniversary to congratulate the bride and groom and usually offer a discount on new photos, or to inquire about any new children they may have.  This is all done in the hopes of getting more work, but doesn't always pan out.

While the pay is very high per hour, there are a lot of hours put in that most people never see.  Likewise, it can be a somewhat lonely job since most wedding photographers work by themselves.  Weekends are shot and since most weddings book six to eighteen months in advance, if you want to go on vacation you'll have to schedule yourself out pretty far.

The reality of being a professional photographer is that it's a lot of work and a hard grind that requires a lot of self discipline and constant self-motivation.  Staying on top of current trends, ensuring your equipment is all functioning properly and always marketing yourself will make your business flourish, but you'll have to put the time in.

About Author

is a professional photographer. See his site at Mike Panic Photography.

A very insightful article into the reality, i.e. like every other job out there it’s going to be hardwork. And this is exactly why it will continue to be my hobby/passion rather then my sole source of income.

While all of the above is true, its true of any job. All careers are hard work if you are to be successful at them. On the other hand, you have the pride in the evident quality of your work, and the satisfaction of knowing that your work will be appreciated again and again for many years to come. At te end of the day that is priceless!

This is a great post for all photography fun. I also have the inspiration to work on photography but it needs a skill and talent to shoot the best style and design. I a wedding situation, photography is the best way to invest more , because this is the only way you can remember what happened on the time you were married. An initial investment in photography gear is needed, and if you’re shooting weddings, you really should have two bodies, two flashes and you’ll need a handful of lenses. Thanks for the wonderful post!

Good article! Danny is correct that it’s true of any business. However, many people don’t understand the expenses and time needed for just one wedding, let alone everything else that comes with running a business.

While every word of the article is true, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to earn your living doing something you love. I’ve run my office for almost 30 years, and while some people will eat your heart out and never really appreciate the love and effort you put into your work, the majority do and respect you for it. I say fight the battles because a lifetime of doing something you love everyday is worth it. Last note; I know it’s getting harder now, but this industry has fed my family very well and allowed me to live a lifestyle that most folks consider a dream.

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