Last Updated on April 28, 2021
Quick Summary ↬ Learn 17 profitable ways for making a living as a photographer. Learn how to recognize opportunities in the photography business, what to avoid and how to wear many hats to take on multiply assignments. Have you ever wondered how to pitch your photography business to models? How to work with VIPs and celebrities? Or maybe you wish to find out how to run a business that offers baby photo shooting?
If you own a decent camera or camcorder, take it with you when you move abroad and keep it charged up & ready to use at all times. Making a good living as a photographer is as difficult as making it as an actor. Why? Too much competition. Yet once you are abroad, if you know enough to pursue the right kind of business, you can make photography pay off. Your earnings in the first few months might not take care of all the bills and living expenses, but they can contribute. Best of all, doors opened by your photographic activities should lead you into other avenues of fun and profit.
One of the big secrets of surviving and prospering abroad is to be able to see opportunities, wear many hats and take on any assignment. While doing one job for a wealthy client you may spot an “unmet need” of that client or of people in general. Photo-journalism, fashion and top model photography are so much fun, I would pay someone else just to be able to do it.
We don’t say you can’t make it as a high-fashion or news photographer, but it’s much harder to start in this field because it’s the top end. That’s where the serious competition is. Everyone would like to shoot celebrities and top models in sexy clothes. Only a few can make a living doing this sort of thing. Even top photographers in the business seldom make their living doing this alone. They must do other types of work including portrait shots, commercial photography (real estate for sale), photos for catalogs and advertising. More money is being made doing the less glamorous work.
Want To Shoot Models?
Working with modeling agencies to do composites (a variety of shots) for would be models and movie stars is one steady source of revenue. You simply go into modeling schools and offer to make up composites for a price well below what others in the business charge. If you don’t know what a composite looks like, you simply ask at the school or agency: “What is the preferred format here locally, could you let me have a few samples?” You can also run free or cheap ads (use keywords on Google!) with a special offer “Make money as a model. We will prepare a professional composite at no charge. You pay only for the photos you like.” How to spread the word cheaply? Make up notices on 3 X 5 cards and put them on high school and college bulletin boards.
You, as a photographer, will get to shoot pictures of a variety of people in a variety of poses. If you don’t get paid in cash, you can do trades. It is a good idea to have the subjects sign a release that you can use or sell any of these shots for your own purposes. That way you can build up your own library. With salesmanship, you should be able to get most of the clients to pay and be able to take home enough prints and composites to sell, to pay some of your bills.
Baby Pics Always An Easy Sale
Make a deal with a supermarket manager to take baby portrait pictures in his store on a certain date for a very cheap price, for example, the equivalent of one US dollar for one print. A supermarket manager can build traffic in his store at no cost to himself by putting up your posters in his window. You make your money on the back end with package deals, like selling “15 prints for $12.”
Or you take pictures of mama and the kids with Santa Claus, printing them out in “Season’s Greeting Card” format. The people you do these shots for become future repeat customers on your mailing list. They know and trust you. They will consider your deals. So? You make them other offers regularly by mail or phone such as:
A video of their home and all possessions, so that in the case of fire damage or theft, they have a record for police and insurance claim purposes. You might offer this service at half price if they provide two neighbors who also take the same service at the same time. You could keep a copy of these videos safe in your own storage facility at a small annual charge.
Photography service for birthday parties, weddings, funerals, and to make video of older people telling interesting family stories for future generations.
More baby pictures on every birthday or holiday.
The key to almost any business is building up a customer list and getting repeat trade and regular payments from the same people.
Places & People Who Will Promote Your Business for Free
You go to kindergartens, social clubs, amateur athletic teams, churches, social organizations, etc. The pitch can be a variation on the supermarket deal: They promote your picture day (or let you have a booth at their annual fund-raiser) and you do a free class photo for the school, or give them ten per cent of gross receipts on Photo-Day for their next project. It is called wheeling and dealing. You figure out what they want and need and give it to them. They supply you with customers.
The Related Sale
It is relatively easy in most places to make a deal with an insurance broker to get a commission of around 20% of gross premiums on fire and theft insurance, car insurance, travel insurance and all other kinds of insurance business that you bring in. If you sell videos for insurance purposes, the next step is to be able to bid for the insurance business itself.
If you shoot weddings, you may be able to sell the newly married couple things that newlyweds need, including furniture, apartments and baby things. More than half of the brides in any country are already pregnant. You can get a list of new mothers-to-be by offering a free portrait photo of any visibly pregnant woman. Then you can help them make the arrangements and purchases of things they will need. You can help them arrange for financing. Even if your customers are low income or no income, they will probably have government help. New mothers need all kinds of expensive items including cribs, sterilizes, baby-sitters, child-restraint car seats, and on and on. If you have a customer list and earn your customer’s trust, it will be very profitable.
Catering Services, Art Gallery & Anything Else People Need
What is good self-promotion? Handing out your card, arranging to be at the right places taking photos. You may offer to take pictures free. With a digital camera, unlike with film, there is no cost. Have a tie-in with caterers so that they recommend you and vice versa to any party givers or art gallery openings. You can give the owner his selection of prints for nothing in return for the right to sell photos to party attendees.
How to do it: You take the picture, get the address and phone number of the subject, and then call him when the photos are ready and invite the subject to come down and have a look at the wonderful candid shots of himself standing with a celebrity. Sometimes you can sell prints on the telephone. You already know what a tightwad I am. Anybody who sells me anything has to be good. So here’s a quick story. I was on a cruise. Ship photographers are always snapping away. Their pics (prints) get posted on a bulletin board, and the customers choose the prints they want. The price may be $10 a print. I noticed that more than three quarters of the prints are unsold and thrown away. OK. So I am quietly reposing in my bargain-price cabin, having decided to be Scrooge McDuck (as usual) spending very little—ZERO on pictures and booze. The phone rings.
“Hello this is Penny Dinkelberry, the ship’s photographer.”
“I just wanted you to know that the candlelight picture I took of you and your wife is absolutely, positively the best portrait shot I ever took on any cruise.”
I was so surprised by the call that I actually got excited and wanted to see it.
“Could I make you up a full size print and bring it over to your cabin?”
Oh oh. “How much will it cost me?”
“Nothing! If you don’t like it, you don’t pay anything.”
That is a wonderful technique—called in salesmanship 101—“risk reversal.” If you don’t like it you don’t pay!
“OK come on over and I’ll take a look.”
Penny comes by, shows me an over-sized portrait, color print on custom rag paper. It looks great. She won’t tell me the price. She has also brought an attractive frame that she lovingly uses on the portrait. It does look great. I am sold.
Once sold, the customer won’t fuss about the price.
“It’s $155 but we have a special on today and so you, as a 3-star cruiser get it for the special price of only $95 and you don’t have to pay. You just sign here and it goes on your bill, plus you get free, these 3 little magnets with the same portrait, so when you get home you have a nice gift for the grand-kids.”
She sold me!
Had I seen an ordinary print on the bulletin board for the usual $10 price, I wouldn’t have looked twice — but her salesmanship and the special price and free gifts won me over. The truth is that I liked her enthusiasm and good salesmanship. The picture was OK, and she made me feel special. There’s the secret of marketing and good salesmanship!
The picture? It is on my bedroom wall still today, many years later. The quality and good memories remain long after the price is forgotten. Well, in my case, I remember the price — but I don’t regret the expense…
You can make a deal so that an art gallery owner splits the profit with you if he calls a customer and effuses “Remember our grand opening? My friend, the famous photographer, Genesis Jones was able to get a fabulous shot of you standing next to the Mayor. Here, talk to him.”
Then you say, “I don’t usually sell my pictures like this, but the shot of you and the Mayor was so special, that Jake, the Art Gallery Owner, insisted I do an extra five prints for you. Would you like me to send them out?”
The reply will be “Sure, but how much will it cost me.”
Still selling effectively, your answer is “I normally charge a minimum of $500 for my shots, but our mutual friend, Mr. Art Gallery Owner has told me to do it for you at cost, so it will be only $59. For five prints, delivered.” The client usually can’t refuse such a good deal and you then close the deal by saying “I’ll send our boy out to deliver the pics personally and pick up the cash in fifteen minutes.” You also end up with a new customer for other services.
I spelled this one out for you but the important thing is to make people think they are getting a very special deal or opportunity, not being “sold” something. You must vary your approach. When you find techniques or scripts that work for you, use them again and again. That is the secret of success. The product is two percent of any sale, marketing is ninety eight per cent.
Being Ready When Opportunity Knocks
If you carry your camera with you at all times, it is possible you’ll get good saleable action-news shots now and then. Timely shots can be sold direct or through agencies to newspapers and magazine syndicates.
A talented photographer girl friend of mine made a living by doing photo-biogs of showbiz celebrities, often being paid by them to put together a portfolio of old and new shots for publicity handouts. Celebrities always have to market themselves. My friend, let’s call her Robin, wrote to various celebrities that she was a freelance photographer and writer. She wanted to do an interview photo-journalism feature story. She took the shots, did the story, and then offered to sell the photos to the subject. Usually they bought. Sometimes she sold the feature, sometimes she didn’t.
In some cases, the famous celebrity subject died or became involved in a major news event soon after the interview. In those cases, she made a bundle on her feature articles because they were syndicated all over the world. Suppose you had done the last interview and photos of Audrey Hepburn before she died, or an interview with O.J. Simpson the day before his wife was murdered. It often happens that just by doing your thing, you fall into situations that have an unexpected big payoff. Simply snapping away or getting live footage at the scene of a robbery, major fire or traffic accident can mean you pick up $25,000 in photo royalties.
For putting bread on the table, suppose you see a sign that a hotel or restaurant will have its Grand Opening in two days. Why not offer to professionally record the event on video or with still shots and to offer public relations services by getting these shots into local papers and magazines. If the owner says no, then you offer to do it “free” in exchange for two meals for me and my girlfriend. If the meals are $25 each, you pick up a trade value of $100 — not so bad for a night out where you may sell photos to the attendees, make contacts, pass out your calling cards and munch on free hors d’ouvr?s plus champagne.
Suppose you see an announcement that your particular town or a town nearby will be organizing and supporting the 1st Annual Vintage Car Rally. Over 600 cars expected to participate. If you have a nose for opportunity, you go to the promoter of this and propose “Make me the Official Photographer of the Coral Beach Vintage Car Festival and I’ll provide you with at least 500 free photos, plus several group shots of all participants. You can use my shots for public relations brochures in coming years, etc.” Obviously, the same technique applies to horse races, dog races, dog shows and any other event that brings owners or collectors of valuable things together.
How do you make money giving away stuff for free? The participants and particularly the prize winners will want to have all the different photos you can produce of their triumphs and the events leading up to them. Almost every participant will get a copy of the group shot. By being the “official” photographer, you can make appointments to have celebrities pose with participants and to have times set aside for shots of different categories of cars and owners.
Owners of vintage cars or high-priced pedigree animals are always wealthy. They will pay top dollar for souvenir photos with their peers. If you go to the trouble of designing and printing a special little folder to hold the photos and commemorate the event, these photos, costing you under a dollar to produce, can be sold for around $10 or more. To the extent that photos of an event are published in the local press and magazines, you will get photo credit. You’ll get paid something and this exposure will possibly lead to other jobs — or at least name recognition!
Coffee Table Photo Books
One friend of mine, while in New Zealand, noticed that in the absence of a standard government issue rural mailbox, many New Zealanders created whimsical designs in the shape of cows, treasure chests, doll houses, etc. An enterprising photographer-entrepreneur, he took color shots of a thousand of these mailboxes, and before even developing his film, sent letters to the box owners notifying them that their particular mailbox had been selected for an artistic coffee table book to be called Quaint & Magical Mailboxes of New Zealand.
The letter explained that most copies would be sold to bookstores, but they could reserve “only one to a customer” copies of a special edition in a gold blocked, leather binding at $100 each, personally signed by the author and inscribed to them. Further, this letter mentioned that there would be awards for the best designs, and
“Confidentially, we can say that your box is one that has been selected for special attention in the category (fill in the blank) and it will be featured as a prize winner on a separate, full color page!” To make a long story short, 900 of these self-published books were sold to the owners of the mailboxes for $90,000 cash taken in, even before publication!
Who’s Who? Type Picture Books
It is not generally known that most Who’s Who books are sold to the individuals whose biographies appear in them. Thus, a Who’s Who in the Plumbing and Heating Industry will have a good sale because most people mentioned in it will buy a book. Any photo publication can also be sold to the people who are in it if they have any money!
You can profit from this by using the mailbox book technique with custom cars, creative pastries at the Cootie County Fair, or any other subject matter that lends itself to being photographed. You might even start calling up local citizens to take their picture and collect their statistics for a photo-biog book to be called Prominent Expats in Jeddah, Arabia, The Five Hundred Best Exotic Dancers in Bangkok, or whatever.
You choose the people to be immortalized in your book — mainly on the basis of whether they will buy a book or not. But to give the book credibility, you should include a few real notables whether they buy it or not — just like Who’s Who does.
Suppose you see an announcement of the First Annual Computer Software Exposition of Moscow, Russia. You go to the promoter and ask him to appoint you as the official photographer of the show. For no charge, you will supply him with at least 500 shots that can be used to promote later shows. Then you take shots of all the hosts at all the booths doing their thing with enthusiastic crowds. You show some photos to the participants and announce that they have been chosen by “the committee” as one of the best exhibits of the show and will be featured in a photo book of the same name in Russian and in English. Would they like to order ten souvenir copies of the book at $100 each? If yes, they go in the book, if no, they are relegated to the cutting room floor.
Why would anyone want a book? For the prestige mainly. They could show the boss and other customers that they were selected as one of the best exhibits.
Usually, your professional life works out better if you specialize in certain areas of endeavour. If you get into photography, you may stumble into taking a video of a surgical operation or autopsy. You may, if you have the stomach for it, get good at this kind of work. With constant marketing of your services, you may find yourself thought of as the expert in this field and your work will be in demand. Practitioners in other countries may even want to rent your videos for teaching or demo purposes.
Or it could be you get into recording the progress on construction sites. In later years, people will need your tapes and photos to know where the cables are buried or if the concrete reinforcing rods were coated with zinc-cypher-dioxin, which is discovered to be toxic.
You might be a plant photographer, or an animal photographer with a specialty in ferns, doves or horses. You may stumble into something. But even if your first job in one specialty leads to other jobs, usually you are going to have to make a conscious decision on specialty subjects and themes that your photography will cover.
Tying In Photography With Your Other Activities
If you have a newsletter on some special subject, ideally your photographic work should be on the same subject matter as whatever topics are covered in your newsletter. It is very tempting to resort to pornography or sex oriented material. There is plenty of this stuff around and it does sell well.
Unfortunately, getting on the wrong side of anti-pornography laws can cause you a major headache. People in this business are always in trouble.
The LGBT Market
To have the greatest possible market, you might want to suppress your desire to censure other people’s choice of subject matter. If you want to maximize your business, don’t be prejudiced. You may be anti-gay, but if someone writes to you asking for photos of young men, then write politely back, saying of course you will supply them, but you want $225 to cover costs of, say, 24 spectacular shots. You will then just have to swallow your pride and pick up a lad, suitable to the customer’s requirement, and get on with the photo session. Don’t send potential business to your competitors by sticking to parochial, narrow minded points of view.
How do you avoid creating pornographic art? You will frequently find that your customers don’t actually want hard porn. What they like more than anything else is a photo of a handsome young lad or girl in slightly revealing, sexy clothes. Pose them in an environment with plenty of action around. A photo of a girl or boy lying naked on a bed in a dreary hotel room is not nearly as entertaining as the same model engaged in some activity like volleyball on a beach, climbing trees and picking fruits and flowers in a Walt Disney jungle setting.
You might land yourself in deep trouble with Customs and the Vice Squad if you take and sell pornographic photos, so please consider producing only artistically erotic, as opposed to pornographic, photos. If the model poses with a little g-string on, or places some object in a discrete position to hide sexual organs, then usually the police won’t complain.
An outside session can be far more appealing to your customers due to the natural colours and action going on around them. Models splashing around in the surf, riding elephants, walking scantily clad along a jungle path, posing near geographical features or soothingly dipping into a jungle stream, make for far more interesting and artistic, non-pornographic material. Suggestive can be more sexy than blatant crotch shots. Let the customers go elsewhere for hard core stuff.
You will find out about the people who do the high risk business. Maybe you can pass on customer requests and pay them COD when and if the stuff goes out to the customer. But generally, any involvement in the porn trade will eventually come back to haunt you. As we said, it is very tempting, but it is too risky for us to advise you to go into this business. The same is true of movies or videos. You may get away with making them for a while, but sooner or later you’ll have trouble with the cops.
With artistic shots, you will also have a good excuse to travel (and bill the customer for it) since you will have to find backdrops of scenic beauty, including uninhabited islands, undisturbed jungles, abandoned jungle huts, beach huts, sunsets, swimming pools, traditional style houses in the country, paddy fields, fields of flowers and whatever you can dream up. All of these are better backdrops than your apartment or a drab bedroom.
You mustn’t forget that the customer doesn’t necessarily want a plain photo of a nude model doing nothing. Look at books of erotic shots for ideas. Don’t be boring when you can be creative. Your best shots may end up in airline magazines or on calendars.
Ensure a continuous stream of orders. Take photos to capture the imagination, to present the beauty of nature, the beauty of the beaches and mountains. Enable the customer to fantasize. The most important sexual organ is not between the legs, it is between the ears — and I don’t mean mouth!
A major word of warning is due at this stage. In Muslim, Buddhist or most Christian countries for that matter, some people are dead serious about their religion. The government may even be a theocracy, where defending the faith is their major reason to be. Do not ever include any objects of a religious nature in your photography unless it is completely separate (not only the photo, but the entire roll of film!) from sexy shots or anything that could be deemed disrespectful. A Buddhist head or other religious object improperly juxtaposed could be considered pornographic.
Sacrilege can be a major crime with the penalties far worse than for producing sexual pornography. Not only is there legislation against sacrilege, it strikes deep at the heart of the local culture. If you abuse religious objects, then you fundamentally fail to appreciate the local way of life. You forfeit any claim to the hospitality of the country.
Bevan, our co-author said: One recommended format that made my photography a successful seller to my pen pals went like this: I would choose a couple of models and take a series of shots “on location,” in an interesting vacation spot with unusual scenery.
I was always trying to portray my models in a way to create a story. For instance: young couple goes out for a walk in the jungle. Next shot: finding a clear pool or small waterfall. Stripping off for a swim. Cavorting in the refreshing waters and finally (pretending to) make love. Walking in the sunset, bedding down in a luxury hotel room. Breakfast in bed. Next Morning: train station with ancient locomotive. Going home with her head and a satisfied smile, peacefully resting on his shoulder.
Setting a scene like this gives much stimulation to the customer, since he probably has no idea what a jungle looks like. You can fill several fantasies at once. He or she will daydream about it for weeks and ask for more. You can let your customers make suggestions and get more of their favorite models.
The world is full of beautiful scenery — both human and natural. There are thousands of spots all over that make extremely good material for photographic sessions. Make use of this wealth of beauty and find something to write about it at the same time. There are many magazines that will pay you for photos of interesting natural wonders and models — especially if there is a short story to accompany the photo. Try to concentrate on:
- Geographical features; waterfalls, mountains, rivers, islands and beaches.
- Human stories; beggars, slums, hill-tribe village life, prostitutes.
- Tourist places to visit
- Off the beaten track
Keep in mind that there is always a hypocritical demand for tantalizing stories about what is currently hot. If sex tours are currently being condemned in Australia, you do picture stories and interviews expressing your indignation over such activities. You interview hookers, tour organizers and customers in the business. You print their views. The prostitutes look forlorn, the customers look evil. Give the foreign newspaper editors a story that conforms to their preconceived stereotypes. Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.
Photographs in these “expose” categories can be turned into money by submitting them to newspapers, women’s magazines, airplane in-flight magazines, tourist guides, Readers Digest, travel agents who publish their own brochures, etc. A short story, or caption, accompanying photos is an obvious requirement. This is an area where writing skills can overlap with photographic skills.
Before you leave your home country, spend a while browsing through all those hundreds of magazines on display at the newsagents. See if any magazine could benefit from your articles and photo reportage. Look at all types of publications including sports magazines, even if you are not personally interested in sports. Write down the editor’s address and make sure you take it with you.
Photographing Weddings & Parties
There are not too many people who own a video camera in the Third World, but everyone loves to see themselves on film. If you get yourself organized, then you will be able to provide a video service for parties, weddings and other special occasions.
Weddings are a very large family occasion and a video of it would be a prized possession. This service is in much demand. There will be plenty of scope for you to conduct business in this area.
How do you get business? Why not make up an announcement on your word processor in English and the local languages. Place it clearly on display in wedding dress shops. Offer the shop owner 20% of whatever you charge the clients for the finished production. Business cards can be produced cheaply. Get 500 cards printed, offering to make every local a star in their own video. Give them to everyone in your neighborhood.
If you happen to own a karaoke system, you can make videos of teenagers singing their favorite pop idol’s tune. Also, lip-synchronization videos are popular. The subject practices singing a tune to a recording and then you put it altogether on tape. Nothing will come to you unless you keep trying different things and only if you constantly promote yourself!