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Photographers, How Much Do You Make? – A Photo Editor

Every year has been a little better than the previous.

I have a solid base of repeat clients that keep me busy consistently. I probably have, on average, 10-15 in studio days a month. Client work rates range from $3000 – $6000 a day.

I also fill in with sessions/testing. After I pay my teams, I take home about $500 per shoot session (an hour and a half of shooting). That amount includes shoot time, processing, and retouch. Last year $75k on session testing.

I have a rep but get most of my own work currently.

Most of my clients are in New York and the Midwest, and they range from very large corporations to smaller fashion brands. I have a few overseas clients who ship me the product, and I produce the shoot through to deliverable image.

I have built my business on my own and only recently got an agent, so I have long terms relationships with just about every client I have. I seem to work for companies that need someone who can do multiple hats. I do more than just shoot for them…creative direction, shoot planning, casting, etc.

I hired a ton of freelance team members. Last year I paid out $45k to freelancers. My overhead is studio rent, studio supplies, travel, internet, cell – monthly, probably a total of $3000.

I work every day at least at the computer on processing and retouching. Shoot days are about 120 a year.

Shoot days are 8-10 hours, depending on the client. Usage is usually just super standard because I shoot a lot in the fashion industry, where after the season, the imaging is no longer used. So it’s 1yr, social, web, print lookbook, etc.

My best client is a big national retailer at $4k day, plus $2k for both travel days. All expenses covered. Multi-day shoots regularly.

I do not shoot videos.

Typically I’ve derived almost all of my income from editorial photography (mostly multi-day features). By 2019 I was getting more commercial work, which amounted to about 30% of my total income. In 2021 editorial was down to 10% and has now disappeared entirely, replaced by a rouge’s gallery of commercial projects.

Historically my profit margin is about 50%. My fixed overhead is low and includes a home office, insurance, software, marketing, etc. Keeping the lights on costs me $20ka year at most. In addition, I usually spend $5k a year on tests and personal projects. In recent years I’ve spent much less on physical portfolios and promotions and much more on portfolio reviews.

In 2019 I spent 83 days on set or on assignment. In 2021 it was 22, and 2022 was similar. In some ways, I think it’s a lot more exhausting to not work much because I’m in a relentless cycle of marketing. The client-direct work I’ve done has been great. I’ve worked with well-staffed teams with decent budgets, though generally, they are getting really broad rights for fees that are somewhat lower than I saw on A Photo Editor.

The agency work I’ve done has been hit-and-miss. In 2022 we bid on a lot of shoots, but we hardly landed any of them. Some of the smaller agencies have been really frustrating, and we got ghosted a lot at various stages in the process. That’s somewhat understandable if we’re just submitting a PDF, but in two cases, we’d get some verbal indication that the shoot would go forward but then never got a signed estimate or any explanation of what happened.

My business fell off a cliff during the pandemic, and I’m still trying to figure out how to get the ship right. Editorial work dried up overnight in 2020 after years of being very busy in that arena. My existing commercial clients also changed direction during the pandemic, so that work went away. It’s frustrating because, pre-pandemic, I was really gathering momentum in the commercial/advertising world. The $60k I made in 2020 was almost entirely in January and February of that year before the lockdown hit.

I’ve done a lot of soul-searching, trying to find the cause. I think it was a hard time to transition into the commercial world because I’m neither an established option nor a new face. I don’t know what happened with the editorial, where I was very established. Of course, I’m worried that my work is a problem or a million other factors. At the same time, I’ve heard of a lot of other photographers in the industry having similar struggles. It’s why I wanted to share my story, which is significantly different than the rosy pictures presented recently.

Despite all this, I remain optimistic. I’ve had a lot of meetings lately, and the response to my work has been enthusiastic. I hope that translates into work and that I can make ends meet until it does.

Pre-pandemic editorial shoots would bring in $1000-1500 a day between the day rate, owned equipment rental, digital processing, and high-res fees. The shoot days were very long, often 12 hours or more, and there was a lot of pre-production and editing work that wasn’t really compensated for, but I loved it. I worked a lot, and I could make ends meet, even if I wasn’t getting rich.

Post-pandemic, it seems like editorial budgets are completely untenable (sub $800 all-in for shoots that require equipment or travel), and a lot of the coordination and production is falling on the photographer. Contracts have gotten even worse. I’m not sure how anyone could make a career doing editorial as more than an occasional lark these days. I haven’t chased editorial work as hard for that reason, though I still wish they’d call me.

My best-paying shoot was 5 days at $10ka day. It was a project fee that included some expenses, though they were minimal. It was a buyout for broadcast, so the fee was somewhat low from that perspective, though the actual use was limited. The project had a lot of creative freedom with a great team, and it was a huge payday from my perspective.

I’ve had a very low-budget editorial shoot ($500 all-in range) that not only paid barely anything but paid me through an invoicing portal that took a lot of time after the fact to set up. The portal then had a technical problem, and it took months of back-and-forth with the IT until they finally paid me 13 months later.

One of the (few) great things about the pandemic was shooting a lot of videos for myself and getting much more confident as a DP and editor. Previously I’d directed videos but brought on the crew for a lot of it. That said, video is mostly an add-on for me and not yet a big part of my business.

In 2021 I am still making about 50% of my total income from steady food and beverage clients, about 40% from commercial or editorial lifestyle/people, and 10% from image licensing and art sales. I started working with an agent last year.

Most of my clients are international or bi-coastal known brands or publications (large athletic apparel brands, consumer beverage, home goods), and a few are smaller startups.

Advertising is my largest overhead. I commit to a print book each year and a few smaller items, show LeBook through my agent (1k), enter photo competitions (around $300), and pour a decent amount of money back into testing, personal and editorial work. This is often shot on film, so I end up spending about $500-1000 per shot. I see this as an essential creative outlet and the best form of self-promotion. Another big overhead for me is the ongoing need to apply for an artist visa every 3 years, which is around $6k each time.

In 2021 I shot roughly 8-12 days a month, and in 2022 it was 1 or 2 days per month.

Recently my income has changed drastically. Last year marked two huge changes and energy shifts for me:
1. I signed with my rep, which meant a drop in my revenue and some low or mid-range clients with smaller budgets disappearing.
2. I had a baby. As a freelancer, it’s near impossible to plan with no paid maternity leave. While I imagined I would be back in full swing, it’s taken much longer to figure out that balance without childcare. I ended up juggling full-time parenting and fitting my business around that where I could (which wasn’t much!). We really need to change the rhetoric around parenthood in this country so that it isn’t viewed as a career setback.

Another source of income for me is one-off workshops and print sales. These aren’t huge money earners, but they are creatively fulfilling and give me space to hone in on my style and personal vision.

Average shoot is 1 day up to 10 hours and day rate including licensing for around 10 images for digital, averages out at 2k-5k.

The best-paying shoots have been a 1-day shoot for a beverage client for 1 image for OOH advertising (billboard) for 1 year at 9k, and a 1-day editorial shoot for a lifestyle book at 12k. Both were before I was signed with a rep.

The worst paying was a food shoot for an editorial client, web use only at $650 per day.

Videos are around 5-10% of my income. This is split across stills shoots that also require a motion component such as gifs or straight-up directing and bringing on a team with a DP, 1st AC, gaffer, etc.

I hid the fact I was pregnant from my clients because I was so worried I’d be deemed not good enough or up to the job physically, but I wish I could go back and change that. We’re in an industry that celebrates individuality and self-expression, and this conversation on the support of families needs to be had loudly until the narrative and policies change.

I shoot a lot of portraits and other more corporate things, but the main thrust of my business is lifestyle shoots for large advertising clients. Lifestyle is 70%. I have a recurring catalog client that is about 15-20%. Editorials are about 5%. Corporate is about 10%

Before covid, my clients were almost entirely big national: financial institutions, health insurance companies, retailers, etc. Since covid, it has been dramatically more local and overall much smaller brands.

I have always kept overhead to a minimum with just a home office and no staff, and I do almost everything myself. I own a small amount of equipment and rent when I need more.

I shoot 30-50 days/year.

Pre-Covid, I worked a relatively small number of days at a high rate. I bid against other national photographers. In the last few years, there have been a lot of smaller jobs. Still a comparable amount of overall income but more days at lower rates and a larger variety of clients.

An average shoot for me is 1-2 days, 5k/ day rate, which is just my rate, then another 5-10k for usage on the library. Usually, the usage is in perpetuity. Sometimes there isn’t an additional add-on for usage, and it is included in my daily rate.

Best paying series of shoots was for a large bank. I shot 9 days over the course of 3 months. For those initial shots and one year of usage, I made 90k. The following year, I re-upped the license for 70k. All expenses were billed separately.

The worst paying shoot was my first shoot after the pandemic, I shot a 12 hour day, without an assistant or any crew support, for $2500. Perpetual usage was included in that.

I shot very little video. This is probably the thing that has surprised me the most in my career. When I was assisting and just starting to shoot, I was under the impression that if I didn’t master the video, I would have left in the dust. I have only shot video for a client one time. I have worked as a director/photographer several times; in those instances, I work with a DP, and I don’t shoot any video. Even that arrangement has been less frequent than I initially thought it would be. I am always trying to do more videos and get better at working with a video crew, but for the most part, if someone is hiring me, it’s to shoot stills.

Be flexible about what “success” looks like in your career. Is success making a lot of money? Is it making work that is inspiring to you? Be ready to be wrong about what a successful career looks like.

Also, keep your overhead low. I have been able to last some pretty lean times because I live the way inside of my means. If you have a good year, buy yourself a new pair of sneakers and save the rest.