Photography is becoming an increasingly lucrative industry, especially for those photographers that possess a little business acumen. There are scores of industries that require photography services, and understanding how those industries work is vital to creating a successful photography business. Whether you’re into fashion, fine art or stock photography, understanding the business model most dominant in each vertical will allow you to better leverage your ability to make money with your craft. In this article, we’ll review how each sector works, the chain of command for deriving business, and some of the rights you give up and maintain throughout the process.

Commercial Photography

Being a commercial photographer means you are taking photos to be used for commercial purposes, that is, photos that will be used to sell a product. There is an endless number of opportunities to make money with commercial photography. For example, a real estate agent might hire you to photograph one of his properties, an advertising agency might contract you to shoot a product for a new campaign, or a company might call on you to help them create some key photographs for their new brochure or other corporate identity materials, such as business cards, menus, advertisements, sales materials, and more.

Whatever the project might be, in general, commercial photography will be a business-to-business transaction. You won’t necessarily work with an agency, rather, you will deal directly with the business representative that’s commissioning you for services. In some cases, however, photographers do work with agencies, which build up a network of clients and then do the work of finding and recruiting photographers for their various projects. That’s particularly true the more specialized the work is. – for example, photographers who frequently work with advertising agencies will probably work exclusively through their agents, since the agent will streamline the process for the advertiser, eliminating the trouble of having to properly vet a photographer and find the right match for the project at hand. In that case, the photographer would be paid for the project, less some predetermined commission to be retained by the agency.

A good way to go about finding work is to keep your online portfolio updated and to actively network with other photographers (for referrals), and of course, potential clients at local industry events and online.

Stock Photography

Photography Business
By Chris Reed – USA, Washington, D.C. The U.S. Capitol Building,the National Mall, and Northwest Washington in autumn sunrise light as seen from the Library of Congress

While many think the days of making big money selling stock photography have long since passed, it’s still a fairly easy way to get a photography business underway. Stock photography involves taking generic images of people or products that can be used for commercial purposes. While these images should definitely be polished and professional, they don’t generally require much staging – which is why so many photographers turn to stock photography to make extra cash. Of course, the more unique an image, the more valuable it will be, but you can get started with relatively simple, straightforward images.

So how does selling your stock photography work? While it’s certainly possible to sell stock photography through your own channels, most photographers work with a licensing agency, such as Getty Images, Shutterstock, or Dreamstime, which basically serve as a licensing agent, but on a mass scale – representing millions of images from thousands of photographers.

When you license work through such services, you generally still own the copyright, but depending on your arrangement, you may not be permitted to license it in other venues. That means that while you’re not necessarily giving up your copyright in the image, you are permitting the licensing agency to be the exclusive distributor of that image. For example, let’s say you allow Getty Images to sell a stock photo of a palm tree. Getty will host the image on its site, and charge users for the right to use that image. Generally speaking, the licensing agency takes a substantial percentage, with the balance going to the photographer.

Portrait and Wedding Photography

Is taking pictures of people your thing? Portrait and wedding photographers are often engaged to commemorate special occasions or people in a person’s life. It’s a highly specialized area of photography that is extremely tied to relationship building since most photographers often contract directly with the individuals involved. There’s rarely an agency acting as a middleman when it comes to wedding and portrait photography since it’s such a personalized experience.

The key to getting a steady stream of wedding and portrait photography is to keep an active presence online and in social media forums, and to encourage word-of-mouth advertising – happy clients can often be your best marketing tool. The advent of Pinterest and Instagram has made finding clients much easier since those images are often shared freely on the internet. Many photographers also list their services on specialized websites like The Knot, The Bump, and other specialty wedding blogs.

Fashion Photography

This is another area of photography that offers endless opportunities for the fashion-conscious photographer. The fashion industry is a highly photographed, wildly documented world. From lower-end catalogs to high-end brand campaigns, fashion editorials, and street style looks, there’s no shortage of ways to make money photographing fashion’s greatest moments.

Most fashion photographers will work directly with agencies, who represent them before the various types of decision makers in the fashion world. For example, your agent may land you an ad campaign for Salvatore Ferragamo, or perhaps he’ll get you a contract to photograph a spread for W magazine. For photographers working on the lower end of the industry, you might deal directly with a company instead. For example, a small boutique may call on you to take images of their outfits for a catalog, brochure or social media campaign.

It may seem hard to believe, but photographers are also increasingly being hired directly by fashion bloggers. While some use the opportunity to build a fashion photography portfolio, others will find the business quite lucrative, since the most influential bloggers are reputed to earn millions of dollars per year.

Fine Art

Photography business
For the Revolution By Steve Schlackman at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery

There appears to be no shortage of avenues through which fine art photographers can sell their work to the masses these days. From startups like Artsy and Artspace, to sales platforms like Etsy, it’s easier than ever to sell your photography online.

Likewise, the traditional approach to selling fine art photography still works, too. Generally speaking, a photographer will be under contract with a gallery, who has the exclusive right to sell their photographic works to their pool of collectors. In some cases, a gallery may represent a photographer and his entire oeuvre, or they may choose to buy a single image to offer for sale in their gallery.

As a photographer interesting in selling your fine art prints, your best bet is to first find a gallery that’s interested in working with you. Your gallery is going to the primary vehicle driving sales of your work. While the sales happening on startups like Artsy and Artspace are though gallery representatives, it’s possible to sell your work online through websites like Artplode, Artspring and Altpick. As an another option, you could always turn to Etsy, but that may devalue your work.

Editorial Photography

We briefly mentioned that fashion photographers can sell their work to magazines crafting fashion spreads, but photographers in any medium have an opportunity to cash in on editorial work.

Editorial work often consists of going on assignment for newspapers, magazines, and other journalistic enterprises. Generally speaking, photographers will work directly with publishers, editors, and journalists, who will ask the photographer to turn over a certain type or number of images related to a particular subject. For example, an alternative weekly might hire a photographer to cover a nearby music festival or a newspaper may hire an international photographer to photograph incidents occurring abroad. These opportunities aren’t necessarily tied to current events – plenty of photographers are hired to shoot fashion spreads, interior design staging, nature or elegant foodscapes.

The key to generating this type of work is to reach out to those publications you’re interested in working with. Often times, a pitch or query letter to an editor, attached with some clips or a particular project you’d like to work on, will lead to a one-time offer. If editors enjoy working with you, they’re likely to call you for regular assignments.

How do you make money with your photography?

1 COMMENT

  1. Dear Nicole,

    With all due respect, your section on Stock Photography is extremely naive with little information about the real world of creating stock images. First of all you mention that the agencies take a “substantial percentage” which is true. So substantial there is no longer any reason to produce work for them. In the case of Getty, with their Rights Managed collection you’re lucky to get 30%. Back in 70, 80, 90 that used to be 60%. If you go with their Royalty Free collection you’re lucky to get 20% and for sales that are sometimes as low as $1.00US. You also mention that stock photos don’t “generally require much staging”. That is so untrue. It was the people who staged stock like crazy that used to make serous money. Few are doing it anymore since it costs al to of money to hire models, get people to the right locations, rent props, etc. etc. etc. With stock today there is no longer any money in it so there are very few producing anything. If you don’t stage you get even fewer sales and at lower prices. Stock photography as a way to become a successful photographer is completely dead. Believe me, I did it for nearly 40 years and quit when the prices fell through the floor. What I used to get as much as $300.00 for people are now selling for $1.00. Just thought I would add some reality to this discussion.

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