Freelance and Business

Photographers and Money. We Should Talk.


One day I want to sit down with my readers, somehow, and have an honest conversation about money, and how we make it and manage it as creatives. I don’t know how it’ll happen – it’s hard enough having honest conversations about things that aren’t so surrounded by fear and shame and a general, “I don’t want to talk about it” feeling. Which is odd, frankly, as it’s one of those subjects that, if spoken about freely, could help so many people. The desire for that conversation is why I wrote VisionMongers, and most recently How to Feed a Starving Artist. It’s also why I wrote this blog post (Chains All the Same). And it’s why I’m writing this one too. But we need to start talking about it. I’m so tired of  people pussy-footing around the subject when so much good can come from not struggling with it all the time.

So until we can all sit down and have that conversation without anyone feeling judged for how much they do or don’t have, what they do or don’t know, or how they do or don’t make the living they want to, here are 3 mistakes I see photographers making with money, and they’re easy to fix.

1. Spending Money on Gear.

Just stop buying so damn much of it. And stop putting it on credit. I know, you’ve heard it before. But if you’re still buying gear in the hopes that the gear will help make you more money, you’re wasting it. Money saved is a better bet than money hoped-for in most cases. Use the gear you have. Reconcile yourself to not being the coolest guy on the block with the coolest gear. Trade that for more freedom to make great photographs with the gear you have. Impress people, if you must, with your images. Save the money. And when a client really, really, needs you to shoot with the new $4500 Zeiss 85/1.4 lens, or $40,000 Phase One system, rent it and bill the client for the cost. Money spent on technology is a poor bet. For many photographers it’s obsolete before you can make a return on it, and by then you’re already jonesin’ for something new, something better, something that – this time! – will really make you some money. Stop the insanity.

2. Not Paying Yourself First.

Save your money. Be aggressive about it. Put it somewhere you can’t touch it. And then make damn sure you’ve got enough to pay the tax man. Put 10% aside, before you do anything else, for you. In savings. And when I say savings, I do not mean savings for new gear. Long term, interest-earning savings. Then put an additional X% aside (ask your accountant how much) for taxes. If you don’t have an accountant, get one. Stop pretending you know more about money than the experts, unless you do, in which case, close this and go make some photographs. But pay yourself first. Don’t wait to save money or pay your taxes with your left-over money. There is never left-over money.

3. Not Selling Your Work.

I know, I know, no one’s buying. Bullshit. You’re not selling. By selling I do not mean you’ve got a BUY NOW link on your site. That’s passive. And I’m willing to bet you’re marketing to photographers. Listen, photographers don’t buy the work of other photographers. It’s rare. You know who buys photographs? Magazines. Companies. Professional offices. Interior designers and architects. Hotels and B&Bs. Hell, people at craft fairs are making more money than most of us, selling $50 prints. You know why? They’re selling. They’re hustling. And they aren’t at home complaining that no one’s buying, while convincing themselves their work is worth too much to let it go for less than $500. I know it’s not easy, but the internet isn’t a panacea. It’s not a substitute for building an audience of real people who want to buy your work. That is the hard work, friends. Finding the audience that wants your work, and then asking them to buy it.

When’s the last time you sat in a restaurant, thought, “My work would look great on these walls,” and then did something about it? When’s the last time you sat in your doctor’s office and thought, “Wow, the work on these walls is dated. I’d love to see mine up there,” and then did something about it? Believing people will just buy your work because it’s amazing won’t get you where you want to go. There’s mediocre crap on walls everywhere, and you know why it’s there? Because someone hustled and talked to someone and offered them something we weren’t offering because we were too busy complaining that the market for stock imagery has collapsed or “no one’s buying.” It’s easy to complain, it’s hard to hustle. Get creative. Connect. And then offer your work (no, I don’t mean for free). If you want to sell prints, make a list (right now) of 10 local businesses you have relationships with (doctor, lawyer, dentist, accountant, favourite restaurant…) and then go talk to them. Ask them: what would it take to get my work on your walls? Be creative. Connect. Be persistent. If what you offer is of value, they’ll thank you.

I know this stuff isn’t easy to talk about. But if we can be as creative as we are with our photography, or the justifications we make to buy the gear we don’t need, then we can be creative about how we approach money. There are a lot of resources out there – great places to learn more about money. Some of them are listed in How to Feed a Starving Artist. Get it. It’s only $10. If you can’t afford it now, wait until Black Friday and it’ll be half price, though you didn’t hear that from me. And if you’re literally on the edge of financial collapse, email me and we’ll see what we can do. I know the publisher and he’d rather you get the book for free than go bankrupt. Or  go to Amazon and find some books, written by another author, if you feel this is just a push for you to buy my book. Or talk to someone who has some and knows more about it than you do. Whatever you do, don’t let the fear, shame, or whatever other frustration, stop you from getting on top of it. Life is too short to live in bondage to debt and financial pressures if there are things you can do to get out from under it and find the freedom to do the work you love.

Until we can have the conversation I’d love to have, I’d like to try something, even knowing it might not work. Leave your questions in the comments below and if there is enough interest I’ll pull them together and record a small audio podcast with my thoughts and perhaps that rather one-sided conversation will be helpful. I came to my wisdom about this stuff the hard way, but I don’t believe in secrets and am happy to share what I’ve learned and continue to learn, if it’ll  get you a little closer to living your dreams.

HowToFeedAStarvingArtist_1961How to Feed a Starving Artist, A Financial Field Guide for Creatives, Solopreneurs, and Other Anarchists is available from Craft & Vision as a PDF for $10 and from Amazon in the Kindle format for the same price.

The book itself isn’t magic, and there’s no shortcuts to this stuff, but there’s a lifetime of experience in this book, both mine and others, and if it stirs you to see things in a new way, or to take action on things you already know you should be doing, or just gives you one new idea that helps stir the embers a little on a business that’s lost its fire, it’ll have done what I hoped for it. You can read – or leave – reviews of the book here.


Apr 3rd


Comments Comments 14
CategoryPosted in: Freelance and Business, VisionMongers

Find an Itch

Since writing VisionMongers, I talk to a lot of photographers every year about business stuff. The frustrations, fears, and struggles are all similar. No one said this would be easy. As I recall, and it’s been a while since I wrote the book, I spent time trying to convince people not to go down this […]

May 2nd


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CategoryPosted in: Freelance and Business, Workshops and Events

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We’ve put together a special VisionMongers event for anyone wanting to become a working photographer, or those currently making the transition, or struggling. Presentations by both my manager, and the author of Living the Dream, Corwin Hiebert, and myself, for those wanting a truly candid and highly actionable discussion about making money with your photography. […]

Jan 13th


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CategoryPosted in: Books, Craft & Vision, e-books, Freelance and Business, VisionMongers

New eBook: Growing The VisionMonger 2

I’m in Kenya right now but before I left my elves hit the publish button on our latest eBook and they’re rolling it out today. Growing The VisionMonger 2, A Kick-Ass Guide For the Photographic Entrepreneur,  is the overdue follow-up to Corwin Hiebert’s first, and equally poetically-titled, Growing The VisionMonger. Anyone that’s been here long […]

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Most of you know I consider my manager and best friend to be a bit of a superhero. Dude just gets it, and gets it done. Without him I’d be floundering. What makes Corwin unique is his ability to understand – and operate on – the difficult bridge between creativity and commerce. While Corwin’s business […]

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