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How to Earn Money From Photography (Avoid Underpayment)

Last updated: September 21, 2023 - 9 min read
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A lot of people want to earn money from photography. But if you’re shooting professionally, you may be struggling to make an income.

You might be new to the photography industry and struggling to increase your prices. Or you may be more established but making less than you should.

Whichever the case may be, you’re underpaid.

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Making less than you need is a fast track to going out of business.

Let’s take a look at how to avoid this.

Black and white photo of a camera

The High Cost of Being Underpaid

The demand for imagery has never been higher. This has created a lot of opportunity for photographers. However, it has also lowered the barrier to entry into the industry.

In the past, most photographers went to school, and the cost of gear and film was very expensive. Many photographers are now self-taught, and there are great cameras at every price point. Not only do we not use expensive film, we rarely even need to print our images.

Most people also have a smartphone with a camera built right in. Anyone can take a good image anywhere, at any time.

This is all revolutionary and definitely has its advantages.

But technology is a double-edged sword. The downside of all this is that the market has become saturated. Many photographers lack business skills and don’t know how much to charge.

And much of the world thinks that photographers don’t do much more than press a button on a big, fancy camera.

This has dramatically decreased the value of photography and made it much more of a commodity.

The major problem with this is that a photography business is costly to run. Equipment, upgrades in gear, insurance, software, studio space—the list is lengthy. When you have such expenses, you can’t continue to charge low prices and make a profit. It doesn’t take long for your photography business to become unsustainable.

Either you work so much that you burn out while making minimum wage, or you close down shop and go back to your day job.

This is the real cost of not charging enough.

Photo of a film

Know Your Cost of Doing Business

Before you can set your prices and understand what is fair to charge, you need to know your COB (Cost of Doing Business).

This is where you make a list of all the expenses of running your business. It includes not only your monthly expenses, like your Adobe subscription, but also your annual costs averaged out.

When you add this all up, you have the number that you need to make just to be at zero. Everything above that is your profit.

This exercise may be an eye-opener for you. You’ll quickly understand why you won’t get very far charging $200 per photo shoot.

Not only do you need to know your COB, but you also need to know the sum of your personal expenses. These can include housing, transportation, food, etc.

You need to be able to cover your business and your living expenses with your photography, or you’re at a loss.

If you shoot part-time and don’t rely on your income from photography, you may not be too concerned with pricing. You just love the fact that you have opportunities to shoot.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t help your peers who are struggling to make a living. This undervalues what photography is actually worth to a consumer.

Photo of three men sitting at a table

Assess the Benefits

None of this means that there won’t be times when you can charge less or even work for free.

However, you have to assess the benefit to you, and what you’re getting in exchange.

A lot of photographers lower their price or work for free because their clients promised exposure. Rarely does this exposure amount to anything.

The exposure can be vague and hard to quantify. You must know how to evaluate exposure opportunities. You must know exactly what you’re getting in exchange, and the value should be similar.

If you’re getting a bottle of olive oil to shoot for a brand’s olive oil product, that bottle may only be worth $20 or $30. That is hardly a fair exchange.

Exposure needs to convert, so make sure that what you get is spelled out for you and that it’s worth your time.

Photo of a photographer with a camera on a tripod

Make Payment Easy

Being a successful photographer means having the business skills to make you money. It means thinking outside of the box and finding ways to make it easy for people to pay you.

This is where photographers can adopt strategies from other types of businesses. An example of this is offering payment plans. This could work for brides or families who want high-quality portraits taken but are a bit short of cash.

As a commercial photographer, this can mean asking for deposits and requesting full payment only upon delivery of files. Take advantage of payment processing software that makes it easy for clients to pay with a click of a mouse.

Just make sure that you have all these details spelled out in a contract or terms and conditions. This ensures there is no misunderstanding on either side.

Even if you’re photographing friends, make sure to get their signature before proceeding.

You’re running a business, so make sure you treat your photography like any other business out there.

Photo of a man holding a camera

Include Stock Rights

“Stock Rights” is a great way to get more bang for your buck, especially if you’re shooting commercially.

This is an agreement with a client to shoot for a lower price in exchange for their permission to submit the images to stock sites.

For example, if you do a food shoot for a restaurant at a budget price, you can make it clear to the owner that the images will also be sold as stock. This means the photos will not be exclusive to the client.

The reason commissioned photography costs so much more than stock is because it’s created for a client’s brand. These images will not be found everywhere and used by competitors.

A photographer is well within their right to license any images to other third parties if a client has not paid for universal rights. However, this would burn bridges. Most photographers avoid doing this, at least for a certain number of years. Or at least until after the images are no longer being used.

As far as copyright goes, you are always the legal owner of your photographs unless you sell your copyright or otherwise hand it over. Technically, you can do what you want with your images.

However, if you license images with recognizable people in them without their permission, you can open yourself up to a lawsuit, even if you own the copyright. The same goes for any images that include buildings without a property release.

This means you have to get your portraiture subjects to sign a model release and get a property release signed by an appropriate person.

There are some premium stock agencies (like Offset) that license images for a reasonable price. Photographers that get accepted by them can make better profits than those who submit to microstock agencies like Shutterstock.

Negotiating an agreement between you and your client that includes stock rights can be a great way to maximize your profits.

Wedding photo of a couple

Be Able to Say No

What really sets the photographers who make it from the ones that don’t are business skills and the willingness to charge fair prices.

This means saying no to a lot of opportunities that come your way. Rather than working yourself into the ground, you need to spend your time and energy going after the 5% of clients that are willing to pay a fair amount.

Isn’t it better to make $5000 from one photo shoot than $500 from ten photoshoots?

If walking away from work means that you have to get a part-time job or find another way to bring in some income, then be willing to do that. It can make the difference between success and failure.

Photo of a film camera

Don’t Let Fear Be Your Guide

The reluctance to charge more for photography services often comes down to fear.

Fear you won’t get the job. Fear you won’t pay the bills. Fear that you will lose your business and be out on the street.

While fear is definitely a powerful force, succumbing to that fear will get you the opposite of what you want. You think you’ll go out of business if you charge higher prices. In fact, you’ll go out of business if you won’t charge enough.

So many photographers are not succeeding because they are afraid to ask for more money.

It’s terrifying to turn down work that pays you too little when you have no idea how you’ll pay the mortgage on the first of the month. It’s not easy, and it takes strength to take only the opportunities that fit your pricing.

However, it’s a strategy that helps you win the long game.

How to Make More Money With Photography

The solution to this problem is actually simple.

Charge more for your services.

Up your pricing. Take on only the clients that will pay what you require. Make it the goal to work less for more money.

You may find that there is a break between the transition from one type of client to another. In that case, find another way to bring in money while you double down on your marketing efforts.

The most successful photographers are not always the most talented. Successful photographers see themselves as a businessperson first and artist second. This is the truth about how to earn money from photography.

Photo of hands holding euro bills


One of the biggest challenges the photographic community has to face is the devaluation of photography.

However, visual imagery is extremely important to every kind of company or organization you can think of. Not to mention private individuals. Imagine the world of advertising or a wedding day without pictures!

Only when photographers start charging what they’re worth can the value of photography be respected and business be sustained.

Check out our Organic Marketing for Photographers e-book for all of our photography business secrets!

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