Is Photography a Viable Career Choice?

by Jeff McLain


At RMSP, we talk to a lot of prospective students and their parents, and the most common question is: “Can you make a living doing this?” And the answer is YES. But the truth goes deeper than this, and the deeper you go, the better the news gets. But, first, let’s get real for a sec.

Can you make a living as a landscape photographer? Well, I know if my son came to me and wanted to pursue that route, I would advise him to have a back-up income source. Full stop. Landscape is a difficult way to go — not much different than if he came to me expressing that he wants to become a rock star. Being a landscape photographer that can pay a mortgage, own a car, and pay the bills is a much harder road to go down than some of the other myriad avenues that the imaging field has to offer. Is it impossible? No, but not as easy or as regular as other avenues in photography or the imaging field.

Yes, I wrote, “Imaging Field.” Because this isn’t simply about still photography, but rather the imaging field, which encompasses many opportunities that you’ll read about here. If you come to photography with a narrow outlook on what a "photographer" is and can be, that will limit your opportunities. But, if you approach photography as a foundation to other positions, your opportunities triple.

Photography is an art, a science, and a trade. And most people think of photography as a solo enterprise, but the truth is there are several specialties in the field that have sizable teams of people involved. These teams are made up of other people skilled in the image-making field and are also worthwhile endeavors to consider in your quest to work in this field.


In reality, the need for quality imagery has increased over time as more businesses see their website as the heart of their branding, as well as their social media accounts like Instagram and Facebook. A large quantity of quality images are in demand now more than ever, and there are many ways to build a profitable business in the photographic industry.

First, let’s break this down by general economic opportunities: The Portrait Wedding Industry, The Commercial Advertising Industry, Editorial Photography, and the Video and Filmmaking Industry. In each of these photographic fields, photographers usually start and run their own entrepreneurial businesses — even if just as a means to freelance for varying clients. The clients can be very different from one another, ranging from regular people to magazines to huge corporations. Our goal is to help you navigate any of these lucrative fields with confidence. (Check out our Professional Intensive program for more info.)

Read on for information about each field and a huge list of adjacent career paths, too!

Wedding & Portrait Photography

Indeed, you can make a living as a solo entrepreneur in photography. If we examine the trends, the wedding industry alone is a growing field. In 2013, it was a $53 billion industry, servicing 2.5 million weddings. Then we see in 2018, an article in Fast Company notes the industry was up around $72 billion. And according to IBISWorld, it is up to $74 billion as of 2019. Suffice to say, it is not an industry that is hurting for revenue. And when you Google “cost of the average wedding” you’ll see that the numbers vary between $25,000 and $35,000 – with outliers below and way above these targets. This is good news for someone who is interested in entering the wedding photography market!


Typically, because wedding photographers enjoy photographing people, they can bolster their income with family portraits, senior portraits, engagement sessions, maternity shoots, boudoir sessions and newborn photos along the way! There are a ton of opportunities to shoot in this field and once you start networking, these opportunities can lead into headshots and business portraits, too.

Portrait and wedding photographers must become skilled with their cameras, manual controls, on-camera flash and possibly also off-camera flash — as well as software to edit large volumes of images efficiently. They direct their subjects and must be congenial people who know how to get the best out of people who often don’t like being in front of a camera.

This field also now leans toward storytelling with imagery, with wedding photographers shooting more like documentary photographers and portrait sessions looking more like lifestyle shoots. This is just one of many reasons that the “genres” within this field are numerous, as there are many types of styles that people look for when they want to hire a photographer. This is good news! If you can create work that is consistently strong over and over so that people know what to expect by hiring you, if you promote yourself and prioritize word-of-mouth marketing, you can create a thriving business entirely built of “consumer” clients.


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Commercial Advertising Photography

We’ll go ahead and lump the mom-and-pop businesses, catalog behemoths and ad agencies all together into this category because they are all serving generally the same goal: to get you to buy something. And they drive this message with quality images — which is where a commercial photographer comes into play.


Commercial photographers are unique in that they look to use photography and light and design together to tell the story of a product or service. They may be tasked to photograph based upon a very specific artistic vision laid out by an art director at an ad agency — or they may be on their own to create images for a boutique shop in their hometown. They may be photographing items destined for a printed brochure or catalog for wholesale or retail sales — or they may be photographing specifically for a website. Many commercial photographers are creating images that may live in many of these categories, as well as work on social media feeds like Instagram and Facebook ads.

Commercial photographers must become adept with cameras, lighting, and computer software for both capture and design, and they must understand business and image licensing in order to best serve their clients and deliver the best possible imagery. This field contains a bit more risk than the portrait/wedding industry, in that it can be more volatile, ebbing and flowing with the market. But, it also commands some of the highest dollars per-job than any other photographic specialty. This is because of what is called “Usage.”

An image that is seen for a few seconds in a local brochure commands a much smaller usage fee than an image that is on billboards in every city in the U.S. And images that are destined to be seen forever in magazines, billboards, on the internet and every other conceivable media type, can command very large fees. This is because the more eyes that see the image, the more value the imagery has to the company.

Because of this, commercial photographers learn to quantify the images they produce based upon the cost of the production itself, and the intended usage of the images — these things together can make the commercial advertising field extremely lucrative. I, personally, have worked with photographers earning half a million dollars a year in this field, easily.

The top echelon of this field is considered one of the most competitive. Photographers looking to enter this arena must become experts in their craft and be incredibly consistent in the quality and quantity of images they produce. They also have whole teams of people working with them — of which I’m going to discuss further below — because those teams offer opportunities to photography school graduates looking to enter the market.


FUN FACT: All of the images in this article depict real scenarios of students learning and practicing new skills during our 8-month Professional Intensive program.

Additionally, for those who aren’t interested in the big-scale commercial shoots, there are a growing number of small- and medium-sized businesses that need consistent, quality images to populate their websites in order to sell their products or services, as well as fill out their social media feeds with a consistent visual look to drive sales. Most small- and medium-sized businesses today place their websites and social media channels at the core of their business models — it is, after all, the first contact potential customers have with a business — and having a lot of quality imagery representing a brand is something for which they are willing to pay good money.

Beyond just the images themselves, many brands also seek video content, further increasing sales potential for an image-creator. And there are an increasing number of businesses without the time to manage their own social media feeds, which is another offering in which a photographer can specialize. There are an increasing number of photographers recognizing this need and offering social media management to their offerings, combining on-brand imagery with targeted copy, and backed up by a variety of analytics to assess the engagement with the audience. This is yet another avenue for a photographer to explore with their freelance business.

Editorial Photography

Editorial photography comprises newspapers/online news, magazine stories, and books. This market is much easier for entry-level photographers to enter and it has a three-pronged benefit: You get published, you get paid, your published work acts as a marketing engine for you in the long run.


There is nothing like the feeling of seeing your own work published in a magazine that has a circulation of a million people. And it feels good to receive a check for said work. And it’s extremely helpful to take "tear sheets" from these magazines (some folks literally rip the image out of the magazine, some photograph it or scan it) and put them in your portfolio to show as your published work. This gives you clout. It shows prospective buyers that other people have hired you and you have proof.

The editorial market typically pays less than the commercial field, but when people talk about gaining “exposure” — this is true exposure. Your image and by-line get seen in the magazine, you get some money, and you can take copies of the publication as proof you’ve been hired to do this work! It is a way to gain prestige in the field as you ascend toward more lucrative commercial projects, in time. It is where many commercial photographers have paid their dues, or “cut their teeth” in the photographic industry.

Editorial work often involves being incredibly flexible. An editorial photographer thrives on showing up on-location, often sight-unseen, and creating engaging images on-the-fly. They must be expert with camera and lighting, and often have to direct their subjects (if it’s portrait-based) and create images that satisfy that publication’s needs, which are driven by the visual look of the publication, as well as the story that needs to be told. But editorial has a ton of genres — just step into your local bookstore and peruse the magazines. You’ll see images for every conceivable topic: beauty, animals, guns, planes, boats, houses, decorating, food, sewing, quilting, surfing, camping, photography, cocktails... the list goes on!

Beyond magazines, there are myriad news organizations that require imagery constantly. No matter where you live, there are needs for images of newsworthy events. I once knew a photographer who was a firefighter and he realized that on his off-days he could listen to the police scanner, and he could be the first one on-the-scene of accidents and police-related events getting images before anyone else. He became what is called a “stringer” for the local paper, submitting images to them with brief captions and getting published regularly. Similarly, there are people who love celebrities and are into pop culture. Those folks are uniquely suited to work for news organizations that are interested in images of celebrities.

Both genres require a photographer to become fluid with their camera and be quick-on-the-draw. They must recognize a potential shot before it happens in real time, get their camera up to their face and dialed in before the action happens, and then capture it! It’s an exciting field and keeps you on your toes! And then there are book projects, which are like magazines in that they not only pay money, but you end up with a handful of the printed pieces for your own marketing. Book projects also run the gamut of topic from Animals to Zymurgy — the sky is the limit. Usually these projects are either driven by a writer who has an idea and wants to collaborate with a photographer — or the photographer wants to create a book and finds a writer to flesh out the words — or the photographer is a writer, too.

The editorial market is HUGE and the best advice I have in exploring that option is to stick to subjects that you love. You’ll be more successful shooting things you are keenly interested in from the start.

Videography & Filmmaking

Think of your favorite television shows, movies, concerts and sporting events that you’ve watched on TV. Now, think of your favorite YouTube videos or perhaps YouTubers you subscribe to. Now, consider the video you see on your Instagram or Facebook feed. You may even see moving images on screens installed at your bus stop, a gas station, or while you are waiting for your luggage at the airport!

Everywhere we turn now, video is being used and the opportunities in THIS imaging field are growing faster than the average. According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics Occupational Outlook, opportunities in video will grow 11% between 2018 and 2028.


Photography literally means to write with light and video cameras are no exception. The filmmaking and video fields have their foundation in photography because they are also working with apertures, shutters, ISO, light (and lighting!) to tell their stories. Many famous movie directors started out in photography, such as Stanley Kubrick, Man Ray, Spike Jonze, and Gordon Parks. Additionally, there are many directors who also direct the photography (D.P.) for their own films such as Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Lynch, and Robert Rodriguez.

Certainly, there are indie-filmmaking and independent videographer opportunities to those who can invest in the necessary equipment and have the knowledge needed to succeed with this direction. But, there are also many jobs that surround the video industry that offer opportunity for the fresh graduates of photography school. Many start out as production assistants and then level-up to camera assistants on their way to their career goal of Director of Photography or Director. Many enjoy being a freelance Camera Operator only. And, there are tangential positions, such as SteadiCam Operator, Crane or Jib Operator, Video Playback Operator, Digital Imaging Technician — and for those who are keenly interested in the lighting end of productions: Key Grip, Grip, Best Boy, and Gaffer positions offer opportunities in lighting the scene.

At the television broadcast level, there are many positions for Camera Operator for sports networks or other television shows, live or scripted. I have operated the sideline camera at football games and it is a lot of fun! Additionally, anyone with a video-capable DSLR and a basic microphone could conceivably start their own YouTube channel, which, if it grows large enough, could provide a full-time living for you via YouTube advertising revenue— and some folks have found huge success with this format!

The opportunities you open yourself up to when you learn photography are much larger than you may, at first, realize. And not all positions are “The Photographer,” and many of them are extremely engaging, lucrative, and keep you on-set and in the thick of the visual action. This allows you to work and pay for your life while building your portfolio for the next steps in your career. Plus, being on “set” and in the action, no matter what the role, is a lot of fun!


ADDITIONAL PHOTO-RELATED JOBS

Now, to take this much further, below is a list of various "tangential" job descriptions in the commercial imaging and video fields to consider. It all starts with the foundation of photography. Let’s read about the variety of roles available to you in the commercial field:


Photo Assistant — A PA aids the photographer in every aspect of lighting, grip, camera and production assistance, including hauling gear, arranging transport, light catering duties, organization, and cleaning/maintenance. (Some sets have anywhere between one and four photo assistants, depending on the complexity of the shoot.) This is typically the entry-level job for most photographers who have graduated photography school and want to get in on the ground floor of the field.

Merchandise Coordinator — A Merch Coordinator is essentially a "mover." They are often on-set to manage the actual product, whether it’s a lamp or a couch or a table or a television entertainment set-up. They are there to unbox the items, build them, set them up for the shoot — and then take them apart and store them away after. They often work hard in the morning and then at the end of the day and sporadic moments in between. I’ve known a number of people who are photographically trained, who got a job as a merch coordinator for an advertising firm, got to know a variety of photographers, and then moved laterally to becoming photo assistants in their own trajectory towards someday becoming the photographer. It’s a foot in the door.

Digital Technician — A “Digitech” manages and organizes the workflow of the digital photographs as they are captured and afterward to ensure the most organized and efficient delivery to the end user. They also manage the computer systems, ensuring connectivity, and provide some digital retouching and graphic layout tasks, as needed. Typically, there is only one of these on-set. They use programs such as Capture One Pro and Lightroom, as well as Photoshop and other utilities to help back-up the photographs throughout the day.

Digital Retoucher — A Digital Retoucher uses Adobe Photoshop to enhance, blend, composite, and retouch digital images. This can be done remotely, or in some cases, on-set just after images are captured, depending on the preference of the photographer or client. There is usually only one retoucher on-set, but some larger firms employ many people at once doing this work. A retoucher must be expert in Adobe Photoshop, and it never hurts to be good with Adobe InDesign, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Lightroom and Capture One Pro.

Stylist — A Stylist is someone who helps to create the physical image in front of the camera. They arrange things in a way that is pleasing or engaging to the camera. They come if a variety of "types." A Prop Stylist manages physical props for everything from the decoration of a home interior, to what plates are to be used for a food photography project. A Food Stylist is responsible for knowing how to cook a variety of different types of food and make these look great in front of a camera. A Soft Goods Stylist is responsible for styling anything soft like window treatments, towels, sheets, beds and furnishings. Sometimes, they play double-duty as Wardrobe Stylists, who handle all the sizing, arranging and coordination of garments for models used on-set. Hair Stylists are cosmetologists who can style hair in a variety of ways, per the look of the shoot. Often, they play double-duty as Make-Up Artists, who are responsible for the application and artistry of makeup on models/talent. Then, there are Set Stylists who are tasked with dressing a set to look a specific way. Typically, a Set Stylist is also a Prop Stylist when it involves the decoration of an interior scene. But, not all Prop Stylists are Set Stylists. In the film industry, the Set Stylist is often referred to as the Art Department. The main thing to consider with stylists is that often they come with their own assistant, too. So, if one is interested in this field, you could start as an assistant to a stylist to see what it is all about.

Producer — A Producer on a still-photography set is responsible for combining the overall vision of the photographer with the needs of the client and coordinating everything to make it possible. This could involve everything from location scouting, permits, model releases, catering, gear rental, hiring the crew, transportation and lodging, coordinating of product/merchandise, coordination and hiring of models/talent and every little detail to make sure that the shoot goes smoothly. Producers often employ one or many Production Assistants, who are tasked with most of the "go-for" jobs. And that is a great way to get your foot in the door, too.


ADDITIONAL VIDEO-RELATED JOBS

As far as the Video/Film industry is concerned, the list of possible jobs can be quite exhaustive! Next time you watch a major motion picture, watch the credits roll by and notice how many people are involved in a film! I’ll touch on a handful of them here, focusing mostly on ones that are photographically related, technical and/or artistic in nature, and where fresh graduates can often find opportunity. Not all video sets are the same; some are very small productions, some very large.

Of course you know the famous cue: “Lights! Camera! Action!” But, in reality, a proper video set contains, at minimum: lights, camera, sound — and the crew to run it all. Then, it’s a matter of determining what is needed for a particular project. Talent? Special Effects? Huge crew? Many locations? Drone? As they say, the devil is in the details.


Here is a list of the "photographic" or "photo-adjacent" roles on a larger video set:

Production Assistant — A PA is the on-set "go-for" for all the departments to utilize and task with whatever they need. “Run that apple box over there,” “Make a pot of coffee,” “Help us move these cases to that truck,” … things like that. It is a foot in the door. From there, many PAs will be seen working hard on-set and they’ll network with the "department" they are most interested in. Then, when there is a need, they might get an opportunity to work in another role on-set, thus sparking new avenues in their career. It’s where many people start out.

1st Assistant Camera — The 1st AC is also known as The Focus Puller. They work closely with the Camera Operator and Director of Photography and they use a small handheld wireless controller with a screen to "focus" the camera while it is rolling. They have many important, technical responsibilities and often you work into this position from lower on the ladder.

2nd Assistant Camera — This person’s role typically involves assisting the 1st AC with everything involving the camera and its operation. Batteries, lenses, care/maintenance, transport, moving, rigging and, if it’s a film camera: loading of film. The 2nd AC also operates the clapper board, digital and analog, to assist with syncing of audio for the sound mixer.

Steadicam Operator — There are many camera operators who have their own Steadicam rig, which is a fancy gimbal that is counterweighted against the camera to provide fluid, smooth camera movement. They practice using this equipment and they are experts in the operation of their rig.

Specialty Camera — There is a whole host of brand-specific camera rigs that allow for remote-control use of a camera while it is on the end of a crane arm or zipping down a wire cable over a scene. There are various operators who must manage and control this technology for specific shots.

Director of Photography (DP) — The DP has extensive knowledge of camera systems, film and digital, as well as lenses. They also understand light quality, color, and intensity of the various light fixtures available to them to be able to light a scene to give it the look that the director wants. They have incredible knowledge of the photographic end of filmmaking and many move into that position after paying their dues in Assistant Camera roles. They work very closely with the Director, Gaffer, and Key Grip.

Director — The Director oversees everyone and everything on-set. It is often said, “It is the director’s film.” And this is true. Everyone is there to follow the direction of the Director. Directors often play double-duty as DP, and in some cases, they may have also written the screeenplay. James Cameron often directs the films he writes, such as The Terminator, Avatar, The Abyss, and Titanic, just to name a few. The Director usually has one or two Assistants working for them.

Key Grip — The Key Grip oversees all the light and grip stands. Everything involving rigging of lighting, lighting tools, and their supplemental items is the charge of the Key Grip and his team. The Key Grip’s main point-person is called the Best Boy Grip. The Best Boy Grip manages other Grips. Getting in with the grips can be a good way to learn about the technical aspects of lighting scenes. On large film sets, they don’t touch anything electrical. They place the stands and rigging per the Director, DP, and Gaffer’s directions. On smaller indie sets, the Grip and Gaffer are often the same person.

Gaffer — The Gaffer is an electrician. They understand volts, amps, and watts and payloads and how many generators are needed for a given lighting setup. They oversee safety because they have some of the most dangerous elements on-set. The Gaffer’s main point-person is also called Best Boy, (Best Boy Electric) and they oversee other lighting technicians to rig and adjust the lighting to the DP’s direction. They don’t touch light stands. Typically, entry level jobs here require you to have electrical knowledge and/or training. Smaller indie-sets may not require this.

Digital Imaging Technician — The DIT is someone who has a deep understanding of color correction, LUTs, camera systems, software backup systems, and video editing in general. They are tasked with off-loading digital footage, which is often very flat and unappealing, and adding contrast and color to create "looks" that the Director and DP require. They also have to back up all the footage and audio and organize it in a way that Post Production will understand. They hold the keys to the castle, so to speak, and because of this they have a high-pressure job to make sure to not lose, truncate or mix up footage and assets. They are the liaison between production and post-production. There are no entry-level requirements to be a DIT, but often this person needs a capable computer, monitors, waveform scopes and other peripheral equipment — along with knowledge of the tech. Many come from a video-editing background.

Video Editor — The Video Editor is part of the Post Production department (known as Post). They ingest and organize all the video and audio and special effects assets and arrange/adjust these to tell the final story. They often work directly with the Director to tell the story. They must have deep knowledge and mastery of software or hardware programs such as Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer or Davinci Resolve, to name a few. Many specialize in one or a couple of software programs and make their career out of that specialization. Video editing jobs can be found at the entry level as well, and it’s a great way for fresh graduates to gain tons of experience. The process of editing can also inform shooters about which camera movements work and which ones don’t — making you a better shooter through editing experience.

Motion Design — Most of the moving graphics you see at the beginning of a movie are created with a variety of software programs that allow for animation. MoGraph Artists, as they are known, specialize in animation of these elements, using programs like Adobe After Effects, Cinema 4D, Maya, and others, depending on what the goal is. This field is growing and there is always more to learn as different software and hardware improves and changes the requirements of the field regularly.

Visual Effects Artists — Tangential to MoGraph Artists, there are other specialty computer artists who create more-complex animations. These artists use compositing to put people who were filmed in a studio into new scenes altogether (think Gollum from Lord of the Rings, as an example). They use some of the highest technology to achieve other-worldly effects and must blend this technical knowledge with lighting design knowledge to seamlessly blend their imagery into new scenes. They use a whole host of software like Adobe After Effects, Cinema 4D, Maya, Nuke, Blender, and Fusion. These artists also need someone to manage the overall project and to make sure the proper assets are being captured on-set, and that person is the Visual Effects Supervisor. There are a whole host of specialty positions in this field as well, as you’d see watching movies with intense visual effects. Often these media production artists work for a separate company that offer this service to the movie production house — and there are usually a variety of entry-level opportunities for people who have been practicing with this software and want to dive in further.

Stylists — The film/video industry also employs a variety of stylists and they often come under a different title in the credits. The Production Designer is often the person who works with Set Decorators and Set Builders to create the set for a movie or video project and they have a variety of people under them helping them with the construction and decoration of those scenes.

Set Photographer — Film sets also hire still photographers to capture behind-the-scenes from the production as well as public relations media for the film.

The video and film world has a ton of people involved, and I’ve narrowed the list just to specialties that involve a foundation in photography, art, or design, in some manner. As I’m sure you can see now, there are many opportunities that stem from the photography into the larger Imaging Field.


Whichever avenue you choose to pursue in this ever-expanding field, we hope to be of assistance to you as you work toward your goals.

If you choose to pursue any of these roles, that usually will mean you are setting out on an entrepreneurial path to start your own freelancing business and work independently for various clients. This can be a very daunting task, and the time it takes to become successful can be sped up significantly through a program like our Professional Intensive. Reach out if you have any questions about it or whether it might be the right choice to speed up your career.

And lastly, go do! This field is incredible and when you love photography enough, it’s worth all the hard work it takes to do what you love full-time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff McLain

Jeff McLain is a photographer, videographer, and digital retoucher. After his photography education, Jeff got his start as a freelance photo assistant in San Francisco working on editorial, catalog and advertising shoots. His skills in Photoshop and computing allowed him to help photographers bridge the gap between the film days and all-digital workflows, and he stood at the forefront of the advent of the career of the "Digital Technician."

Jeff soon moved into shooting, and then moved laterally to video capture. His background as a multi-instrumental musician has also benefited his understanding of sound design and audio capture, which can be a technically challenging aspect of film-making.

He worked for many years as a digital technician for Pier 1 Imports, Pottery Barn, Logitech, and Crate & Barrel. As a photographer, he has shot for Williams Sonoma, Mountain Living Magazine, Keen Shoes, Mountain Hardwear, Red Envelope, Robert Mondavi Wines, Mountain Living Magazine, and Cottage Journal Magazine... among others.

He has been a freelancer for over 18 years and takes a 'real-world' approach to his perspective of the photographic industry and the skills needed in today's market. Locally, he and his wife operate a videography business.

Jeff is a 2001 graduate of Hallmark Institute of Photography and holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Montana. When not working on still or video projects, Jeff spends time with his wife, son, dog and cat in Missoula, Montana. He plays bluegrass dobro, banjo, guitar and harmonica to unwind.

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