(Last Updated On: October 10, 2019)

We all know the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. How about a thousand dollars? Whether you focus on fine art photography, commercial or both, there are scores of industries that require photography services. Understanding how these different industries work with photographers is critical to break into the field and better leverage your ability to make money with your craft.

It’s not easy to establish yourself as a freelance photographer, and there is stiff competition, so be prepared with a business plan before you start or expand your business. This article breaks down six different types of photography businesses, the chain of command for deriving business, and some of the rights you may give up and maintain throughout the process.

1. 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.

2. Stock Photography 

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.

3. 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 portrait and wedding 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 with whom you’re interested in working. 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.

travel photographer

Travel photographer Andy Donohoe suggests building your travel costs into your freelance rates to ensure you are reimbursed for them. Photos courtesy of the artist.

6. Travel Photography

“The first thing that you should know is that this is a very long road,” says travel photographer Andy Donohoe. “I started my career in travel photography about eight years ago, and I’d say I have about another five ahead of me before I consistently get commissions that require travel.” It’s important to note how the travel industry works for creative freelancers. Rather than being reimbursed for travel expenses – incidentals like airfare, accommodations, and meals – most travel photographers in this sector pay these expenses up front and build those costs into their freelance rates. Rarely are self-funded travel projects absent of some element of financial risk.  “Nearly all of the work that I have done abroad was self-funded. There aren’t a lot of opportunities out there that imply travel, although they do exist,” says Donohoe. “There are, however, lots of opportunities to travel, shoot and later sell that work. I take on commercial gigs and save what I can to fund the work that allows me to explore a different location.” 

Taking on freelance photography work in other sectors, like portrait, commercial or fashion can lead to a full-time position at a creative agency where there may be more assignments that require travel. Use your technical and marketing skills to get potential clients and collaborators. Another idea is to work hands-on as an assistant for another successful fashion or travel photographer who can teach you the business side, like the value of an agent or producer and the balancing between commercial and personal projects. This can make it easier to find projects as a travel photographer to get your foot in the door.

How do you make money with your photography business? What tips do you have for getting clients and pricing your work? Tell us in the comments!

Nicole Martinez
Nicole Martinez

Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

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