Why Photographers Can’t Make a Living

This weekend, I received two emails from an individual interested in purchasing rights to one of my images. The first read as follows:


I’m a photographer, too. I had an idea to use an image of a hissing goose on a T-shirt. Instead of shooting it myself, I did the lazy thing . . . a Google search for the image and found yours. It would be perfect.

Would you sell royalty free rights to use it? Price?

Anonymous Photographer


Then, just thirteen minutes later, another email from the same photographer.


Apologies. Please disregard the previous email. I found one for $19 on Shutterstock.com.



When as photographers, we don’t value the work of one another, how can we expect anyone who doesn’t spend thousands of dollars on equipment and travel expenses and countless hours in the field to get it? I don’t blame the guy for purchasing a $19 royalty free image – my price would have been significantly higher, and as a consumer I’m often tempted by lower prices too. I blame people who don’t value their own work and sell it for pennies, making it nearly impossible for professional photographers who make a living off of their craft to command a fair and reasonable price for the images they create. I also blame society for creating a culture where quality photography isn’t valued and respected. This photographer wasn’t an idiot – he knew that $19 was a dirt cheap bargain and there was no way I was going to offer my image for so little, otherwise he would have waited for my response back to him. And, after looking at his website, I’d be willing to bet that there is no way that he’d give away any of HIS images for the royalty free price of $19!

If you are a photographer – amateur or pro – do all of us a favor and don’t give away your images for nothing. By doing so, you devalue the work of photographers as a whole and make it nearly impossible for full time professionals to make a living, those photographers who depend on selling images to put food on the table and a roof overhead. I’m not saying you should charge your daughter to photograph her new baby, or that you shouldn’t donate your services to an animal rescue group or grassroots conservation project in your hometown if the cause means something to you. I’m just asking you to THINK! If a client can afford to pay, they should, and if a client stands to make ANY money off of the image you are providing, such as the Anonymous Photographer above wanting to sell t-shirts, they you should be getting a fair price for your work. Don’t be fooled into handing over an image for exposure or the honor of being published. Being a victim and allowing someone to steal your work is not honorable, and by selling your photographs at minuscule prices, you are only reinforcing that our work isn’t worth much and making it easier for companies whose pockets are much deeper than ours to continue taking advantage of us.

17 thoughts on “Why Photographers Can’t Make a Living

  1. I just logged into Twitter to find a Tweet asking me for a donation to some orangutan cause I have never heard of. Not a direct message, not any explanation, just a “give us something for free” request from a completely random person. Is it just me, or is some respect called for when asking for donations?

    1. I received the same tweet and immediately dismissed it for the same reasons you noted. Seriously, would it have been too much effort to write a simple, personal email message to me?

      Great post, Kari. I hope it is widely read, understood and that the principles therein are put into place by every person who reads it.

  2. Totally agreed, Kari. As a consumer, it is only natural to seek a lower price if budget is a concern. But as distributors (photographers), we would be foolish to give work away for only a few dollars because we are not Wal-Mart. Microstock agencies are Wal-Mart and they win but all the distributors are idiots for supplying them. This creates a perception that all photography is worthless so potential clients start to reduce their photography budgets or have no budget at all nowadays as a result. When clients say they have no budget, that doesn’t mean they are too broke to pay. It just means they expect to find cheap photos and budget accordingly then allocate funds elsewhere.

  3. It’s a tough situation, getting into photography isn’t as difficult as it used to be which means there are a lot of new and inexperienced photographers trying to make some money off it. (I would probably even include my wife and I in that category). Because we don’t have a lot of resources to draw a huge clientele with expensive advertising, we use one of the only advantages we have, price. I feel we offer a good product, and it would be nice if we had the volume of customers necessary to charge higher prices, but to break in, price is the only way we can get a foot in the door. I appreciate the amount of work it takes to make great images, but with digital the cost to enter into the market (I’m talking portraits really, not necessarily the types of stuff that shutterstock sells) can be as little as a used dslr and the computer you already have. Hopefully savvy consumers will still be willing to pay more money for the quality that comes from experience, but there has to be some people out there who are willing to take a gamble on someone new to save some money. I know this whole diatribe is contrary to your blog post, but what it really boils down to is supply and demand. Prices are going to keep dropping the more and more photographers (or hopeful photographers) join the market.Sorry for being such a contrarian, but I hope to be able to grow my business some day to the point where have an established base of customers who choose us despite our prices that hare higher than the newbies we used to be.

    1. Jason, I’d be careful with that philosophy. As an example, a lot of wedding photographers have started the way you suggest, but never broke out of it. If you begin low, you’ll collect a certain clientele…cluttering your portfolio with a specific “look”, in turn attracting more clientele desiring the same low cost solution. After 10 years you’ll be spinning your wheels with the same prices and clientele as before. Then, if you try to boost your prices you’ll lose your original clientele and won’t have the portfolio and backing to attract the high-end clientele. Though it might be a struggle to begin, valuing yourself and work properly will pay off in the long-run.

  4. Excellent post Kari.

    This was always a consideration of mine as I first started selling, or make that attempting to sell my images. I didn’t want to undervalue my work, and even as an ametuer I wasn’t willing to cut the throats of the people making a living with their camera. Sure I can blow my prints out at “Walmart” prices, but I have more respect for my work and the work of others.

  5. I think it’s a bit harsh for some to call contributors to microstock agencies “idiots”, as someone did above. There is a place for microstock – the problem are the photographers who give microstock their BEST work for sale at those Walmart prices.

    I sell on macro AND micro stock. When I take a day to do a shoot for any reason, at the end of the day I mentally categorize my shots into two sides; the “good snapshot” side and the “photographs”. Silly naming I know, but it works for me. I do not toss, delete, or dismiss the snapshots that I take – there is an entire range of microstock buyers out there who actually do need pics of a Squirrel or Bird feeder or a pile of crayons. There are people who would never, ever, buy from a macro agency. For these snapshop photos, I do a 2 minute tweak, upload them to microstock and sell them for “whatever”. The money shots that I take my time on when taking and later editing as I need, go to macro stocks, where of course you have a completely different level of client and client budget. So I don’t see a problem with macro and micro coexisting… IF everyone looked at their contributions to these things the way I do.

    However, here comes the issue: There is a percentage of photographers out there who actually do spend a considerable amount of their time and talent setting up shoots JUST to contribute those photos to microstock only, and no higher quality outlet. They put everything they have into a shot, a shot that was once very much macro quality, and upload those to these discount micro sites and sell those for only a few dollars in commission. Example: I once did a town square Christmas shot that only took me minutes to produce. It looks nice. But not nice enough as a pro image for me to sell on my site or through macro. I have still made around $350 over time selling this image on microstock. However, I personally know someone who spent half a day setting up a similar scene, used their best camera, took an assistant, and they produced an A+ image – one that could easily sell on any macro site for top dollar. Yet, they uploaded their image on microstock, and have probably made less than half of what I did for my image, but spent so much time and money to take it.

    It is this segment of the photographer community that I think have “brought the industry down”, by giving away their BEST work to micro, when in fact their “good enough” work should be the very best they offer those services, leaving their best to macro and other higher-end outlets (if that makes sense to anyone?).

    I don’t blame microstock for ruining the industry. And I don’t blame photographers who give their “good but not necessarily pro images” to them – again, there IS a market for that level of photo. I blame that small but measured percentage of photographers who give their very best work only to microstocks. It’s a self-policing industry for the most part though – we cannot force people to reserve their highest quality work for the highest quality pay.

  6. Kari
    While I was at the Pro-Am in Texas we had the same discussion and Larry Ditto had the same experience with a auto dealership that wanted photos of the area for the showroom. Larry gave him a quote and the the guy came back saying he could get the cheaper of on of the cheap sites

  7. Excellent post and right to the point, Karl. Thanks for sharing and reminding us!

    There are a few photographers out there that can make a great living from what they do but they have the luxury to say “NO” to ridiculously low prices for our services. All the rest of us has to learn do just the same. While it might be hard at first, it will pay off for sure in the long run.

    thanks again,

  8. Great article Kari, and I agree totally with the sentiment. Unfortunately, there are lots of people who could not care less about what they sell their “work” for. They are not professionals, they earn their living doing something else, and all they want is the name recognition, like that’s really worth something with ten million digital “photographers” out there today. The world of professional nature photography has, and will continue to change, although I’m not sure for the better.

  9. “When as photographers, we don’t value the work of one another”

    First of all we have to value the work of our own. We have someone saying that price is the only commodity he has to offer. What about quality, imagination and marketing savvy?

  10. Been preaching that story for several years when I realized that our services/talents was a commodity off the shelf. I’m a designer or was until the diabolical wall street and mortgage lenders corrupted the system for all of us. Retired now but years ago after going through the exercise of trying to explain to what is happening, no one heeded my message and the sinking continues until it got to this point of purchasing a logo for $150. And there are numerous designers with co-op type web sites doing logos by the droves selling them for peanuts and think they are doing the right thing. The industry as a whole has been ruined by this type of uneducated and stupid actions. They just fall into the “well I have to make a living”. Well you get what you deserve and the action will eventually show up on your doorsteps. A sad situation when graphics people are still typecast as “starving artist”. And its no wonder why.

  11. Kari, you have an interesting blog, and you have raised a thought provoking conundrum, but I am afraid that “train has left the station” with the advent of digital photography. There are millions of photogs worldwide posting on various photo websites such as Facebook, Flickr, Photo.net, Smugmug, 500px, etc. as well as selling their work on various stock photo companies. Unlike some professional photographers who have made their “name” while the only game in town was “film” photography, and can command high prices for their art work, most of us struggling to get our work published, noticed, sold, etc., have no other choice but to rely on the mass electronic distribution sites. I have been taking underwater photos since 1998, and moved into topside nature and wildlife photography in 2000, yet there are pros who started much later and have already achieved “professional” status. And, every day, new photogs enter the marketplace. There is so much supply of acceptable quality images that reduces the cost. What’s the old saying, “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

  12. I am not a professional photographer; I am an amateur nature photographer. I do sell some work and I charge going prices for anything I sell but I also donate a lot of work. I’m somewhat irritated by the assumption that I donate my work for the thrill of being published or to get my foot in the door for future sales. I donate a lot of my work to the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Georgia River Network, Chattahoochee National Recreation Area, Nature Conservancy, Atlanta Audubon Society and others. Preservation of the places they protect is very important to me. I can make much more of a difference for those organizations by donating photographs than I can by donating money. Their work is important to me, why should I not donate a skill that I have to help them in that work? I don’t have the kind of money to donate at a level that would make the same impact as my pictures. Yes, they have budgets and they have salaried people and I suppose that they could pay me for my work (and sometimes they do) but I’m sorry, I’m just not as interested in the plight of impoverished photographers as I am in preserving these places. I do not make my living with my camera, but I fight to protect the places that I love and I use my camera to do it, if that means that another photographer can’t sell a picture to an organization that I’ve already donated one to, I do not for one minute feel sorry about that. I would say that those who value pictures only in the dollars they can make from them rather than from the difference they can make with them, they are the ones who devalue photography.

    And another thing, many professional nature photographers make some of their living teaching amateurs like me how to make compelling photographs in the first place, why is their commercial venture not considered an undercutting of the value of Nature Photography ( by reducing the scarcity of quality images) when someone using the skills they paid a pro to teach them and then donating their images to an organization fighting to save a resource they care about is?

  13. I appreciate a place to vent, as a “working photographer”. I’ve taken on two other jobs to support what was once a career. I still love what I do as an image maker, but it’s not realistic for anyone to consider making a “profession” out of photography.

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